Sky Full of Bacon

Han 202: Attention, Guys With Hot Dates

The five course meal at Han 202, a new Chinese place in Bridgeport from the owners of Evanston’s former Restaurant Guan, costs an amazingly low $20 per person (plus whatever you BYOB), and at the end of it, a summit of the foodwriting intelligentsia was discussing how much we would be willing to pay for it and what we would think of it at different prices. At $28 (currently the magic price point for many restaurant entrees, since it’s just shy of breaking the $3X barrier), it would seem fairly priced. At $35 or $40, we might start to become critical about which parts of the meal were on and which were off: some things were really well balanced in their flavors, others were almost candy sweet; some were exquisitely plated, some seemed kind of like ordinary Chinese food.

All of which is to say, this may be an arty five course meal, but it isn’t Alinea, or even Schwa, in its level of accomplishment (or caliber of ingredients). Still, at the insanely low $20 or even a perfectly reasonable $30, this is a meal which delivers an impressive amount of fine dining experience for the bucks, in an atmosphere which feels hip and nice but is still pretty casual. If you’re a twentysomething guy looking for a nice place to take a hot date and feel like you took her somewhere fancy which you can’t really afford, there’s probably no better choice for you in town at the moment.

The meal started with an amuse-bouche of mushroom topped with a styrofoam-crunchy radish-like vegetable (which the waitress said was called bacha, though so far I’ve been unable to find any vegetable with a name like that).  [EDIT: Rene G at LTHForum identified it as bac ha, taro stem.] The textural contrast and presentation were a fitting statement of intent for the meal to follow— mainly, that this isn’t going to be the usual throw it all together in a wok delivery Chinese; that some of the precision and delicacy of Japanese food is coming.

You choose four of your five courses (the one dessert is a given).  The first course is a salad, and at least two of them are extremely pleasing in their simplicity: a mix of lettuce with wakame seaweed (and, in this season of strawberry bounty, topped with a slice of one) which is an inspired salad, mixing the ultrafamiliar with the gently exotic; and silky beef over a bed of sliced green apples:

The next course is miso, and is relatively dispensable (might as well get the spicy version with a dollop of real crab meat; we mostly ordered it to see if it really would be crab and not surimi, which happily it was).  But the course that followed, appetizers, was to my mind the clear highpoint, with three of four dishes standouts.  The simplest, but in many ways the one that impressed me the most precisely because it did so much so delicately with so little, was this creme brulee-soft tofu speared— oh, sign me up for that job— with tiny sprouts.

Another that impressed me was a substantial chunk of seared tuna with a lime accent to the soy-or-whatever sauce it was sitting in.  Mine was a level down from that— they called it walnut shrimp, after tasting its unsubtle blast of orange extract I dubbed it “Shrimp in Tang sauce”— but like the mayonnaise shrimp at Lao Sze Chuan, it was oddly likable in a white trash kind of way.

The main course that followed seemed pedestrian by comparison, like conventional Chinese food, different meats all cooked the same way in a wok, with the same vegetables out of the big foodservice bag of broccoli/green and red pepper/baby corn.  It was pretty good Chinese, the sauces were bright and light, little grease, but hey, I could say the same about P.F. Chang’s, basically.  All in all this course seemed the least novel, the least paradigm-shattering, and the one dish that was different from the others, a small rack of lamb, was prepared well but marred by a gloppy-sweet sauce.  Dessert, apparently, was winged out of commercial mochi and Italian cookies when they ran out of other stuff, my expectations for dessert in an Asian restaurant are always low and this… definitely beat a stale almond cookie.  The dried cherries at least demonstrated that they thought about it for more than two seconds.

I’d love someday to see someone open a truly deluxe Chinese restaurant, like you hear they have in places like Vancouver, but until that happens, I’m happy to have a Chinese restaurant run by people who seem aware of things happening in the broader food scene and ambitious enough to try to offer a fine dining-like experience at barely above cheeseburger prices.  The price surely can’t last and the BYOB may be temporary too (there is a bar, left over from the previous Italian inhabitant according to Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist), so Han 202 is definitely one to try sooner, rather than later.  Like our new Indonesian entrant, with enough support it might be the harbinger of even more interesting and accomplished things to come.

Han 202
605 W. 31st

Check out Michael Nagrant’s rave, which put Han 202 on the foodie radar, and Mike Sula adds some details in this week’s Reader, even though they totally missed the chance to make a Han Sula pun in the headline.

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