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updated: 2/27/2013 1:32 PM

Vernon Hills' Silk Asian Tavern weaves Oriental cuisines seamlessly

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  • In the background, chef/owner Cliff Ostrowski prepares fruit sushi rolls for dessert; his eel sushi rolls are in the foreground.

       In the background, chef/owner Cliff Ostrowski prepares fruit sushi rolls for dessert; his eel sushi rolls are in the foreground.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Silk Asian Tavern brings a bit of big-city sophistication to Vernon Hills.

       Silk Asian Tavern brings a bit of big-city sophistication to Vernon Hills.
    photos by Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Unagi Maki at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

       Unagi Maki at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Thai green curry hot pot hits the spot at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

       Thai green curry hot pot hits the spot at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Unagi Maki at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

       Unagi Maki at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Fruit sushi is available for dessert at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

       Fruit sushi is available for dessert at Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Fish greet diners walking into Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

       Fish greet diners walking into Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.
    photos by Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
By Carolyn Walkup
Daily Herald Correspondent

Fans of Asian cuisine can take an armchair trip to the Orient while visiting Silk Asian Tavern in Vernon Hills.

New co-owners and executive chefs Cliff Ostrowski and Bo Wungwattana, both of whom have impressive credentials, last fall redesigned and reconcepted the restaurant at 4 E. Phillip Road in the building that formerly housed Silk Mandarin. Ostrowski most recently was executive chef and food and beverage director for China Grill Chicago and the Hard Rock Hotel. Wungwattana worked as executive chef at Chicago's Japonais.

"We felt there was a need to bring a downtown experience to a suburban restaurant," said Ostrowski, who has family in Vernon Hills. He and his partner also thought the location, surrounded by affluent communities, is very good.

Influences on the extensive all-day menu hail from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea. With a lot of "small bites" and half-portion entrees available, it's possible to touch on all of these countries in one visit.

The first section, "Dim Sum, Small Bites and Starters," lists small and regular portions of both predictable (crispy vegetable egg rolls, fried pork pot stickers) and less-common preparations (honeycomb tripe and beef, lobster toast with coconut curry sauce).

We opted for the Vietnamese shrimp spring roll -- a soft, translucent rice flour wrapper containing some nicely sized shrimp, Thai basil, cucumber, mint and rice noodles. The refreshing flavors and the accompanying sweet chili dipping sauce were as good as the rolls I've enjoyed at Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco.

Staying with cold foods to whet our palates, we jumped to the sushi menu and ordered two maki rolls, each cut into four pieces in the small portion. Again, this section ranged from the ordinary (spicy tuna, California roll) to the adventurous (spicy octopus, special unagi).

The Special Unagi (eel), featuring panko-crusted shrimp, avocado, red and wasabi tobiko and sweet unagi sauce, was one of the best of the many dishes we sampled. The crispy tempura-style shrimp added crunch to the multiplicity of flavors in each bite.

We also tried the ever-popular California roll, containing avocado and kami -- a "crab stick" made from a combination of fin fish, cucumber and smelt roe. Finding the small chunks of cucumber to be partially frozen, we told our server, who voluntarily took it off our bill. Our theory was that the shipment, received that morning, had sat outside too long somewhere along the way in below-freezing temperatures.

Next up were two choices from the robatayaki section, defined on the menu as marinated meats and vegetables, skewered and cooked over a Japanese grill. Priced between $3 and $5 per skewer, each portion contained four small cubes and a garnish, such as seaweed salad or micro greens.

The seven-spice beef tataki was cooked properly medium-rare, nicely seasoned and complemented by a wasabi ponzu sauce. However, the four tuna tataki cubes were cooked inconsistently, with those on the ends well-done and those in the middle the more preferred medium-rare. Perhaps they should be grilled off the skewer for more even cooking.

A vegetarian in our group asked our personable server if she could get a side of firm tofu, along with a regular menu side of tangy eggplant. Her request was honored with no problem, and the large plate of rectangular-shaped crisp tofu was one of the hits of our shared meal, especially when enjoyed alongside the tangy house-made sweet-and-sour sauce.

Big fans of Thai food, we ordered the green curry hot pot with shrimp, green peas, green pepper, Thai basil, baby corn, bamboo shoots and sweet coconut green curry sauce in the small portion. The curry arrived in a small cast iron pot over a contained flame, along with a generous portion of white rice. We were wowed by this presentation, as well as by the delicious flavors, which were spicy but not overpowering.

We also tried bibimbap, a classic Korean dish listed under Chef's Specialties, so that we could experience a different flavor profile from the other dishes. This version contained pickled vegetables, including a bit of spicy kimchee, chopped beef mixed with steamed rice and Korean chili paste and was topped with a fried egg. This dish is an acquired taste, since the chili paste emerged as the dominant flavor that stifled the more subtle ones. Diners who don't like spicy food should be cautioned away from the bibimbap.

To cool our palates, we ordered a dessert listed as Fruit Sushi, not knowing quite what to expect. This light, slightly sweet and beautifully presented creation was the perfect ending to our meal. A twist on the popular Thai sticky rice with mango, this colorful dessert, clearly meant for sharing, featured sliced mango, pineapple and dollops of cilantro pesto artfully arranged over a log of sushi rice on a pool of strawberry and mango purée.

Desserts vary seasonally but may include a chocolate lava cake with ginger caramel sauce and other less Western desserts such as litchi nuts and fried sesame sweet rice balls.

Asian cuisine lovers who have advanced beyond their neighborhood or chain Chinese take out restaurant would do well to follow an imaginary suburban Silk Road to Silk Asian Tavern. The restaurant also offers a stir-fry buffet on Saturdays, catering and delivery for a $25 minimum order within a five-mile radius.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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