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Imperial Lamian Brings Superb Chinese Cuisine To River North

By Anthony Todd in Food on Mar 25, 2016 2:41PM

Soup dumplings at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
Imperial Lamian is the first American outpost of a restaurant group based in Indonesia. During its pre-opening press (and during it’s insufferable waiter monologues; more on that later) it traded heavily on its “authenticity.” But authenticity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think “River North” and “upscale Chinese.” Could this place possibly be good?

Luckily, the answer is absolutely, positively yes.

Let’s back up a second. While there are many aspects of food and drink (gin, bourbon, failing to grow heirloom tomatoes) about which your friendly critic does claim expertise, a particular national cuisine isn’t one of them. I’ve never been one of those writers to spend their lives making a study of a particular region of southern India, or trot out my experience with making perfect mole at dinner parties. No dig on those who do, it’s just not my jam. So when I went to Imperial Lamian, I needed some backup.

So I phoned a friend who lived for some years in China. This friend isn’t Chinese, but at least she’d be able to tell me if what I was eating bore a passing resemblance to what people might be eating halfway across the world. And it turns out that Imperial Lamian passes muster. Here’s what I learned.

The bar at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

No matter how hard you try, cocktail programs just aren’t really Chinese. But who cares?

Because of a combination of low alcohol tolerance and a different distilling and brewing culture, spirits like whiskey and gin haven’t made the same headway in China that they have in, say Japan. So this trendy cocktail list, filled with Asian touches like sake and yuzu, has nothing to do with China. But I give Imperial Lamian serious points for not falling into the typical Asian restaurant trap of providing only yucky-sweet drinks. Snobby drinkers aren’t going to like the inclusion of things like Jim Beam Apple and Absolut Peppar on the list, but get over yourself and drink the tasty drinks already.

Soup Dumplings aren’t eaten the way I thought they would be.

Soup dumplings (or Xiaolongbao) are a hard-to-find bit of Chinese cuisine that has a cult following. I’d never had one, but envisioned them kind of like a liquid-filled truffle that you pop into your mouth whole. Well, not unless you want to burn yourself and make a mess.

After crunching our way through a dish of slightly spicy, delightfully crispy whitebait ($9 and a great drinking snack), we got our first dish of soup dumplings ($7-10). Our server, and then my friend (I’m slow) carefully showed me how to pierce the dumpling at the bottom, let the soup drain out, and then eat the dumpling. I now understand why people rave about these things. I could have easily eaten four orders, and plan to get the entire selection, from spicy Szechuan to crab, when I return.

Turnip at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Dim Sum isn’t just bao.

For some reason, in my head, dim sum had become synonymous with things wrapped in dough. In fact, I complained to our waiter when none appeared on the table after I ordered something off this section of the menu. Nope, explained my companion, it’s really just a small plate. I’m glad I’ve been schooled, because one of the best things I ate all night was in this section of the menu. Seared turnip (actually a turnip cake with a soft texture), cooked with egg and bean sprout, tasted like I never imagined turnip could taste—as savory as beef stew, with the texture of a soft-cooked egg ($10). And apparently it was exactly like what is served in China.

The main dining room at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

At Imperial Lamian, sit next to the kitchen.

Imperial Lamian is a loud, bustling, beautiful space, with tables crowded together in the bar and intimate booths facing outward into the main dining room. But the real action is at the five or six booths that sit alongside the glassed-in kitchen. You can watch the epic bun-steamer in action, watch chefs stuffing dumplings or tossing food in woks and, most awesomely, watch the noodle chef pulling Lamian.

Lamian at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Holy goodness, that Lamian.

Lamian is the Chinese version of ramen, and Imperial Lamian is trying to jump on board this trend as hard as it can (it debuted with the hashtag #lamianisthenewramen). I don’t care if it’s the new ramen or not; it’s incredibly tasty. The noodles are pulled right in front of you (my friend slightly criticized their pulling technique, but whatever) and options range from beef brisket to mixed mushroom. We went for the mined pork with wood ear mushroom, black garlic and shiitake, and it was a splendiferous savory delight. Slurping up those fresh, springy noodles and smelling that slight hint of truffle oil was the high point of my night, and for $14, a pretty great entrée bargain.

Garlic chicken at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Maybe skip the wok dishes?

I tried two of the entrée-sized wok dishes—hot garlic chicken and scallops with mixed peppers and shallots. Both were entirely adequate, and if I’d gotten them late at night from a delivery place, I’d be totally fine with them. But they don’t fit the total awesomeness of the rest of the menu, and anyway, you’re gonna want to order more soup dumplings and dim sum.

I ate the best thing I’ve had all year.

Ok, so I buried the lede. But the single best thing I have put in my mouth so far in 2016 was a sweet egg dessert bao that came to our table by accident (it was actually ordered by the table next to us). It starts out hot and creamy, and then dissolves into your mouth into a combination of egg custard and sugar that coats your tongue and leaves your brain demanding more. Order it.

Golden Mapo Tofu at Imperial Lamian. Photo by Kailley Lindman.

Not everything at this bumpin' Chinese spot is quite right yet. The golden mapo tofu, which came in individually fried chunks and tasted like absolutely nothing, isn’t worth ordering, and the hosts were a bit insufferable when we tried to get seated. The service staff spouts a waiter monologue worthy of a Vegas theme restaurant (“Forget everything you’ve ever thought about Chinese food” was the beginning, after which I had to tune out to preserve my sanity). It’s as loud as you’d expect a trendy River North spot to be. And food snobs will gleefully inform you that you can get it all in Chinatown for half the price.

Go anyway.

Imperial Lamian is at 6 W. Hubbard St.