West Loop's Proxi May Be The Best New Restaurant Of 2017
By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 5, 2017 3:36PM
The fish collar at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
It's only October, so it may seem audacious for me to be giving away "best of the year" accolades. But Proxi is so good (and, frankly, 2017 has been so mediocre) that I have absolutely no problem making the claim. Created by the team behind Sepia, Proxi is firing on all cylinders, with food, service and atmosphere near perfect - and they've been doing it that way since just about opening day.
Unlike many of my reviews, where I visit a restaurant once or maybe twice, money allowing, I've actually been to Proxi four times. Why? Because every food geek in Chicago is going there over and over and over again, so all my friends are there. Plus, it's so insanely easy to get to from the Loop that it's become a go-to after work spot for everyone who wants decent food after work. All that is to say that I've gotten a huge sample size, have tried the entire menu and still love the place.
Dining room at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
Chef Andrew Zimmerman has been winning over hearts and taste buds at Sepia for years. He's got a Michelin star and turns out consistently excellent cuisine. But the very nature of Sepia, which is a very slightly stodgy restaurant with an audience that skews a little older and a very business-friendly atmosphere, means that while he can absolutely create innovative cuisine, it's rare to see him go out on a limb or play with crazy flavors.
That's why Proxi feels like Zimmerman is finally getting to cook what he wants to cook. The bright asian, middle eastern and latin flavors, inspired by the street foods of the world, could be incoherent fusion-y muck in the hands of a lesser talent. But Zimmerman brings this mishmash to life, creating food that, frankly, it feels like the stuff he wants to eat and share with you.
Fried radishes at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
A perfect example: a fried fish collar with a Thai-inspired garlic-chili sauce. If I saw this on the menu at another restaurant, I'd knowingly roll my eyes—ugh, how 2007. But in the hands of Zimmerman, this is the platonic ideal of fried fish, perfectly crispy and so good you'll be ripping bits off and chewing the bones. I actually loved it so much that, on one visit, I ordered a second because I couldn't stop eating.
One of the reasons the food at Proxi is so good is that "ethnic" or "fusion" doesn't mean gunky or overcomplicated, covered in too many disparate elements or sweet sauces. Fried radishes (and who has ever had a fried radish?!) are served with a lightly seasoned nori butter, which gives them a Japanese flair but nothing to be offended by. A tender Indonesian pork jerky, which, served on sticks, might be an annoying gimmicky dish, could be best bar snack I've had in months. Except it's not, because the actual best snack I've tasted all year is the tempura elotes, a combination of asian and mexican flavors that leads to a starter that's somehow both crispy and melt-in-your-mouth, the sweetness of the corn combining with a hint of spicy chili and crisp tempura batter. The cooks in this kitchen know how to work a fryer.
Shaved zucchini salad at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
Salads aren't an afterthought. A shaved mess of zuchini is laced with mint, full of feta and utterly refreshing, while a salad of snap peas and carrots (sadly out of season now) is topped with sesame and yuzu for a bright, complex take on possibly the most childhood-like veggie combination on the planet.
Tempura Elotes at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
I could keep going. Grilled whole fish is perfectly cooked, served flat and dripping with a spicy chili gunk inspired by "Zarandeado" style fish. Thai beef salad with wagyu sirloin is like every bad beef salad you've ordered from Thai takeout, except actually great. I haven't yet tried the big bone-in ribeye topped with my favorite sauce, bagna cauda, but it's entirely possible that after writing this review, I'll be compelled to go back tonight.
G&T at Proxi. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
I love the food at Proxi so much I haven't talked about the space. It's a huge restaurant, with a giant street-facing bar and a big open kitchen stretching across the restaurant. Somehow, the design manages to combine the energy of a hip after work spot from River North with the classyness of a supper club, which means that you can visit for a drink, a happy hour, or a fancy date. The one thing it isn't is quiet, but the food doesn't really suit itself to a truly intimate experience. The drink program, with wines by superstar Sepia somm Arthur Hon, is mostly excellent, though the cocktails were a bit too sweet—the mark of a mixer trying (and occasionally failing) to pair drinks with these strong flavors. The big standout hit is the Spanish-style gin and tonic menu, and Proxi is one of the only places in the city to get an authentic take on this drink, served in a huge goblet and filled with fruits, herbs or spices (depending on the version you order).
I have to stop, because I'm just getting too hungry to continue. Go to Proxi. Just do it. Have the fish collar. I'll be there before you finish it.
Proxi is at 565 W. Randolph Street.