Everyone’s heard the term “hidden gem” at some point, but what about its counterpart? The right-in-front-of-your-face restaurant that’s so played out you’ve forgotten it exists. That’s the case with Sunda, a very high-key, pricey Asian-fusion spot in River North that’s been around since 2009, and you only remember when someone’s office holiday party is held here. Sure, if you look closely this place is a little worn around the edges, but the great food still makes coming here a good time.
When we first reviewed Sunda in 2014, this expensive sushi-focused restaurant was incredibly popular, and Infatuation Chicago was just a bouncing-baby review site. But a lot has changed since then: River North isn’t the hottest neighborhood anymore, our parking meters are now controlled by Russia, and the city has way more upscale sushi spots. But one thing is the same - Sunda’s delicious food.
The long menu has everything from steamed buns to pho to sushi, with the last one being our favorite thing to focus on when we’re here - especially the over-the-top rolls. One of the best is the Red Dragon, made with shrimp tempura, unagi, avocado, and topped with spicy tuna and tempura crispies. Another fun option is the creamy lobster with truffle foie aioli that’s draped with pieces of wagyu sashimi. It’s the kind of delicious abomination that makes you afraid Jiro from Jiro Dreams Of Sushi will crawl out of the TV like Samara from The Ring and take it away from you.
But sushi isn’t all you should order here, you want at least one other dish on the table to break things up. The crispy brussels sprouts salad tossed with a spicy shrimp nuoc cham vinaigrette is always a good choice, along with a very tasty small plate of fried shrimp with candied walnuts and honey aioli, or even the fantastic bowl of short rib pho. The food continues to be great, despite the fact that the space feels past its prime.
Much like a Wisconsin Dells indoor water park, this place feels neglected even though it’s very expensive and always crowded with tourists. There are dated orange upholstered seats in the main dining room and paper towels littering the bathroom floor. And you never know if you’re going to get a server on top of their game or one who’s sloppy - and we mean that literally, as in spilling soy sauce and splashing drinks. At least they’re always nice and friendly.
If you walked into Sunda right now, it’s likely to be filled primarily with out-of-towners who read an old copy of Time Out, or your friends who moved to Schaumburg. And sure it’s pricey, and occasionally the service can be rough, but this spot is undeniably enjoyable. Unless, of course, you’re here for an office holiday party. But that’s why you should plan a separate trip on your own.
If you’ve forgotten about Sunda, you might not remember this iconic salad. It’s still on the menu and it’s still great. Shaved and fried brussels sprouts, shallots, cabbage, and chilis are tossed with a diced-shrimp nuoc cham vinaigrette. Order this.
The two tunas in question are the spicy diced yellowtail inside the roll and the escolar draped over the top, along with fried shallots and pickled jalapeno. We like this version of a spicy tuna roll.
A very large roll filled with shrimp tempura and topped with spicy tuna, unagi, tempura crunchies, and unagi sauce. It’s good but not mind-blowing, and your enjoyment of it will depend on how you feel about spending $24 on one roll.
The roll is filled with creamy lobster salad and topped with wagyu sashimi and foie truffle aioli. It’s pretty decadent, so the $28 price tag doesn’t feel that obscene.
Another roll filled with creamy lobster, only this one is wrapped in soy paper (a crackly, thin wrapper made of soybeans) instead of nori and rice. It’s also topped with bacon, tempura crispies, and sweet chili sauce. It’s tasty, just know that after a while the paper gets soggy.
There is a section of the menu called “signature nigiri,” and that’s where you’ll find this buttery piece of fish. It’s sliced escolar wrapped around rice, and topped with a truffle shaving and potato chip. It’s really good, and at $12 per piece, it’s also expensive.
You can get these little bao sandwiches with pork belly, fried chicken, or duck, and the duck is our favorite. It’s four scallion bao buns filled with crispy duck breast and hoisin and at $18 it’s a good option for a more substantial appetizer.
We really like this perfectly cooked piece of cod served with eggplant. The miso glaze makes everything a little sweet, and there are chives to balance it all out.