leave your inhibitions at the door
“Ouch!” That was me, reacting to the pain of just having been taken for a touron*. The waitress at Sunda had just delivered our bottle of Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that upon seeing the label, I immediately recognized it as one of my go-to wines during Michigan summers. And why? Because it’s very good yet CHEAP. This is wine I drink on Friday nights at the pool, or buy in bulk at the supermarket for summer dinner parties because it’s INEXPENSIVE. I’ve never paid more than $14 for it, and it’s often on sale for about $10. Yet after looking over Sunda’s high-priced wine list, I had just selected what I thought was probably a special bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, since Sunda was charging **$52** for it. Yes, you read correctly, $52!!! I swear I could read the waitperson’s mind as she opened the screw cap, and she was thinking, “suckaaa.”
Not that Sunda is the only one—I saw wine markups frequently around touron*-heavy downtown Chicago. On two different bar menus I saw Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand going for $16 a glass. It retails in the supermarket at $18, folks. Sunda was also selling a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio for $60, which retails for $20 at Meijer Thrifty Acres. What kills me is these aren’t even thoughtfully selected small-production wines from interesting regions—these are standard supermarket variety wines sold by the gazillions by massive distributors. So I’m a bit disappointed in general with the city of Chicago’s mishandling of the precious grape. There is no excuse to charge more than a 100% markup for wine in a restaurant—sorry, but absolutely no excuse, Chicago.
But anyway, back to the food at Sunda. It ranged from good to great. And it was interesting and delicious enough to keep us wanting to order more. And more. And more.
The restaurant’s atmosphere in fun, vibrant, and stylish. The best way to describe it—and I know the people at Sunda would probably cringe at this—is as a moderately more upscale P.F. Changs. (And the food is probably what P.F. Changs wish it could be.) It was hip-happenin’ on a Saturday night, and I understand it is (or was) a “celebrity hangout.” I have no idea about that—and don’t really care, sounds like a PR stunt anyway—but UNLIKE THE WINE I found the food to be of good value and the atmosphere fun, just as it should be on a weekend night.
In the totally addictive category: wok-fired shishito peppers, like jalapenos but longer, thinner, and barely spicy, with crackling, blistery skins and seasoned only with a dash of soy sauce. I ordered them after the smell of them wafted over to us from another table, and once we dove into the bowl we couldn’t stop. I think the bowl was only $7, and we ate all 30 or 40 of those tasty peppers.
The crispy Brussels sprout salad with nuoc cham was tasty, loved the hand roll with baked snow crab, enjoyed a modern take on a Thai green papaya salad, and gobbled down Sunda’s modern interpretation of lumpia, a generous portion served with bibb lettuce leaves for wrapping and two clear sauces. The shaking beef—the most expensive dish we ordered at $28—was fine, but seemed somewhat trendy/pedestrian to me. (I suppose the name should’ve given us a clue.) Also loved the dessert we shared: a martini glass filled with shaved ice and crushed raspberries, topped with a cocoanut sesame cream. The tangy, fruity ice was the perfect foil to the heavy cream topping.
After that 7th shared dish, we waddled out of Sunda fat and happy, like plump little Buddha statues.
As long as the kitchen at Sunda maintains its quality, and takes care to not go heavy on the oil and soy sauce, it should stay well above P.F. Chang territory. So go to Sunda and eat a lot, but skip the wine unless you want to feel like a sucka.
*Touron = tourist + moron. A term I picked up living in San Francisco. As in, “You wouldn’t believe how many tourons we saw today walking around Union Square that were clearly freezing to death, because they had left their hotels wearing shorts in San Francisco in July!” And the fact is, we’re all tourons at one point or another when we’re out of our element.