My Chinese dining experience—and by dining I mean nothing fancier than shoving down egg rolls—is a limited one. I grew up in a New England town that had one ill-placed Chinese restaurant among 17 pizza parlors, and the entirety of my youth saw about six dinners of sweet and sour chicken. The 10 years I've spent in Chicago have seen about as much: two tasty trips to Chinatown, a few greasy pity-party takeout meals in Andersonville, and the habitual discussion with Steamer about the very scary metal-screen-covered Chinese place next to our neighborhood theater.
My largely underwhelming experience—and tendency to equate Chinese food with long-since-passed post-collegiate depression—had left me only minimally curious about Friendship Chinese Restaurant, a slightly upscale BYOB a short walk from the Logan Square apartments I'd been occupying for the last four years.
Steamer, on the other hand, loves Chinese, so in a somewhat pathetically rare unselfish moment, I picked Friendship as our Saturday night dinner destination. We swung by Provenance Food & Wine on the way, conveniently happening upon its weekly 3-to-6 p.m. Saturday wine tastings. They usually have four to five reds and whites on the table, and Steamer and I try to go each week, partially for the free booze, but mostly because after consuming a good 200 'surprise' bottles (but the label looked so pretty!), we realized it's pretty darn smart to buy something we know we'll like.
That week, our favorite was a Graziano Chenin Blanc, priced a little higher than we tend to spend for our BYOB excursions. Joe, the ever-helpful co-owner, offered us two suggestions: that delish Chenin Blanc, which he thought would go well with the spice, or something he had drank at his last Friendship meal—champagne, perfect for cutting through fatty offerings like duck without killing the flavor. After a somewhat painful debate, we went with the Chenin Blanc.
What followed was bliss. If you like fresh, flavorful dishes in gaping portions; hip environs; well-priced meals (in our case, $44); or really fantastic wine glasses, make Friendship your next date spot. I'm kicking myself for all the nights that we spent at El Cid instead of here.
A wall of Buddha heads, a bevy of pendant lighting, wooden floors and sleek wooden wall paneling certainly impress, as does the restaurant's exterior, a look-at-me red pagoda entrance that gives no hint of the modern interior.
Pleasantly enough, the restaurant knows it's BYOB: We were immediately greeted, our bottle taken and put in an ice bucket, and two giant, giant glasses put before us. I want those glasses. They were all I could focus on—until the appetizer arrived.
Steamer had ordered wok-tossed calamari with pineapple and five spices. The long pieces of squid were done tempura-style, and the dish was the most attractive pile of calamari I have yet to encounter; julienne red, yellow and jalapeno peppers added streaks of color to the spicy dish, which we ate down to the last few strips of pepper, with crisp sips of Graziano that allowed the spice—and heat—to linger.
That was the easy pick; selecting the entree was less simple. The menu is a bit tricky in that the dishes don't come with lengthy explainers, leaving us to point and shoot a bit. We settled on the slightly vague Spicy Scallop with Shrimp and Garlic Tofu with Eggplant.
The dishes hit the table joined by a big silver bowl of rice, and Friendship continued to awe. The seafood dish cost $14, and the number and size of the giant scallops and shrimp made it worth every penny. After finally restraining myself from devouring Steamer's share of meaty scallops, we swapped dishes. The tofu and eggplant were nearly indistinguishable from each other, the medium-size pieces cloaked in a very thick brown sauce. I have no idea what was in that sauce against goodness, and Joe's earlier Champagne recommendation came back to haunt me: the rich, rich dish tasted a-OK with the wine we had brought, but oooh, how that bubbly could have cut through the heaviness.
That's what I plan on bringing next time, and I'm hoping that's soon—and on a Tuesday, when all entrees are just $8.95. Pity-parties be gone!
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.