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Farm to Table


11 E. Walton | 312-646-1400



The journey up from the echoing, marble-clad lobby of the Elysian to its two third-floor restaurants, Ria and the more casual Balsan, is probably meant to emulate the passage of a Greek hero gone to his reward, but on my first trip, I felt more like an overwhelmed mausoleum salesman taking a lunch break from the sales floor. Balsan actually looks more solemn than the comfy-looking lounge leading into its fine-dining neighbor. But the long, stark, monochromatically glitzy main dining room turns out to offer a tightly curated yet laid-back and consistently imaginative dinner menu geared toward sharing. Chef Jason McLeod has spent most of his career in hotel dining, but his chef de cuisine, Danny Grant, spent a good bit of his at North Pond, and a good deal of what's happening at Balsan reflects that restaurant's familiar emphasis on the seasonal and the house-made. The easy informal air is set by the raw bar and mostly house-made charcuterie selection. The latter is hardly a distinguishing feature on paper anymore, but it's among the best I've tried in town. Slabs of squab and black trumpet mushroom terrine, a buttery foie gras torchon sprinkled with sea-salt grit, and luscious duck rillettes were beautifully presented with cheeses served at precisely the right temperature, pickled vegetables, and other well-chosen accents. Another now-familiar feature, a wood-fired oven, turns out pizzas like a burrata margherita and a tarte flambée whose Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese-bacon-onion funk is softened by creme fraiche with superthin crusts jacketed by a superstratum of ethereal crispiness. It would be easy for a group to pick over an assortment of small plates like a veal heart salad—slices of cold roast beef amid a forest of frisee, pear, and Manchego—and diver scallops strewn across a body of curried apple puree. A couple of these are early contenders for my favorite bites of the year, like the soft-boiled hen egg, meant to be mashed up with sauteed wild mushrooms, potato puree, and a crispy potato tuile, and the seared-off section of meaty testa cake amalgamated with bread crumbs and plated with prunes and garlic chips. These shareable smaller dishes extend to a short list of sides including a satisfying crock of two-bean cassoulet and probably the ultimate french fry in recent memory—fried in beef tallow, with a delicate, crispy exoskeleton barely protecting the thin, fluffy insides. The Elysian's two restaurants were initially supposed to be launched by Charlie Trotter, and while I'm sure he'd have complemented the hotel's opulence with jackbooted precision, I can't imagine he'd have been able to pull off something as fun and unfussy as McLeod has in Balsan. —Mike Sula

Bonsoiree Cafe & Delicacies

2728 W. Armitage | 773-486-7511



This smart BYOB spot started life as a casual deli and cafe, but hit its stride after introducing multicourse prix fixe dinners. The eclectically influenced contemporary American menu showcases clean, streamlined, seasonal flavors; tasting menus are now available in five, seven, and thirteen courses. On Saturdays the restaurant offers a prix fixe "underground dinner"; to get an invite, sign up on the mailing list at bon-soiree.com. On "No Menu Sundays," where the offerings are determined by what's best at the farmers' markets, a four-course tasting menu is $48, a seven-course $75. —Martha Bayne


4111 N. Lincoln | 773-472-4111



The most unfortunate name, Browntrout (see urbandictionary.com), in fact commemorates a simply prepared rod-and-reel-caught fish that sustained chef Sean Sanders and his wife while they honeymooned in remote New Zealand. Sanders, a Bin 36 vet, doesn't have that particular species on his menu, but his signature golden trout is done "New Zealand style," a crispy crushed-walnut armor protecting the luscious fillet, pan-seared in brown butter and served with fresh peas and mint. It's an incredibly satisfying piece of fish, and emblematic of nearly everything I've sampled on Sanders's simple and easily navigable menu, which you can expect to change with some frequency. A seemingly bottomless ramekin of light and fluffy brandade studded with sweet corn could have used a bit of salt, but for $5 it's hard to complain. Simple salads, like one of superfresh pea shoots and pea leaves gilded with an outstanding house-made ricotta, were as refreshing as morels and ramps with French breakfast cheese and potato gaufrettes were rich and intense. Sanders's preference for simplicity doesn't rule out unorthodox presentations. The menu features a "pasta of the moment," which on one visit was a light, feathery pappardelle rolled upon itself with meatballs made of beef and pork and served with wild mushrooms—more like a messy dumpling than a plate of noodles, but very tasty. Silky sliced Amish chicken thigh with smoked pistachio mousse on polenta was among the most memorable poultry dishes I've tried recently, and grilled lamb sirloin sat atop an unforgettable celery root risotto, a saucy mound of starch also available as a $5 side. Sanders has set grand goals for being green; to that end the restaurant features house-filtered tap and sparkling water, battery-powered votives, a rooftop garden, and a logo in which three leaping trout form a recycling symbol. We're at a point in time where these notions, like claims about the locality and seasonality of one's menu, are so common among new restaurants that a place like Browntrout runs the risk of getting lost in the stream. But it would be a shame to let that happen. —Mike Sula

David Burke's Primehouse

616 N. Rush | 312-660-6000



At David Burke's Primehouse there's plenty of sizzle to go with the steak, including an in-house dry-aging room tiled with Himalayan salt and a proprietary sire bull named Prime 207L. But I was impressed despite myself. All meals begin with addictive cheese popovers baked in individual copper pots; fine starters include Kobe beef sashimi drizzled with truffle oil and pristine oysters. For the main course steak is clearly the way to go: my dining companion's filet mignon, a lightly aged bone-in beauty, had a distinctive beefy tang, and my bone-in rib eye, dry aged for 28 days, had me composing a mental thank you note to Prime 207L. There are a number of sauces available, including a bearnaise, a lush truffle sauce, and a house-made steak sauce—all of which gild the lily. On select Wednesdays (7/14, 7/28, 8/11, 8/25, 9/15) the restaurant presents "Al Greshko," an alfresco market-to-table prix fixe dinner of "at least four courses" by chef Rick Gresh; it's $75 including eco-friendly wine pairings. —Gary Wiviott


111 W. Huron | 312-202-9900



I'm a sucker for unexpected amenities, so when our server at Elate noticed we were wearing dark clothing and switched our napkins from white to black, I was hooked. And the offer of free sparkling or still water (from the house's Natura filtration system), with bottles of each left on the table, sealed the deal at this restaurant in the eco-friendly Hotel Felix. The noise was a bother, but we ignored it as we tried to decode the one-page menu's categories: raw, pizzas, charcuterie, fruits and veggies, plates, and small and large plates. What we learned by sampling at least one dish from all the categories except oysters is that executive chef Randal Jacobs (DeLaCosta), who ventures to the Green City Market every Wednesday and Saturday, favors deconstructions and fruit in his savory creations. These predilections emerge in dishes like a market pizza; a duck confit salad with peaches and feta; and a spinach salad skewer with "molten" egg, chicharron, and truffle cream. Current plates also include steamed mussels with chorizo, a Jidori free-range chicken breast with Thai yellow curry and cashews, and a citrus gazpacho with grilled tomatillo, rhubarb, and avocado. The single-page global, vintageless wine list includes wines by the glass. —Anne Spiselman


2925 N. Halsted | 773-528-7200



Mark Bittman, the New York Times's minimalist, would approve of Erwin, the namesake restaurant of chef Erwin Drechsler, a market-to-table pioneer. The emphasis is on seasonal food prepared simply, to bring out the freshness of the ingredients. Appealing appetizers might include an onion tart with Danish blue cheese and walnuts and a spicy crab cake with carrot-daikon salad. Roasted beets paired nicely with a thin crisp of ricotta salata and a red onion marmalade; toasted hazelnuts added texture. Entrees that make the most of that wood grill (you can smell the smoke from down the street) include flank steak, a pork chop with green tomato jam, and a hamburger, served with a heap of fries and house-made pickles and worth every bit of its $13 price. Desserts keep up the homey simplicity—current offerings include cherry pie served with vanilla ice cream and strawberry-rhubarb crisp. There's a three-course prix fixe dinner for $18 every night of the week. —Kate Schmidt


1647 N. Milwaukee | 773-342-2340



By the time you read about what I ate at Allison and Rob Levitt's minimalist Wicker Park restaurant, you may have to wait until next year to try some of it. That's because much of the menu at Mado reads like a shopping list for the week's Green City Market. Preparations are simple, with all due reverence given to the superior quality of the ingredients, raised by an A-list of regional agrarian rock stars. The porchetta, a riff on the central Italian boneless roast pig, was presented as a slab of luscious pork with amalgamated crispy bits, dressed with a light salsa verde and some arugula. Raw sunchokes, sliced into small coins and tossed with lemon and parsley, were every bit as memorable—and so uncomplicated it's a wonder you don't see this dish everywhere. Trout with walnuts was deftly grilled over wood to yield perfectly lush pink flesh under delicate crispy skin. Desserts were also excellent in their restraint, particularly a rhubarb fool, layers of lightly tart fruit and lightly sweet whipped cream. Don't overlook the fragile, buttery shortbread, which crumbles at a touch—it'll be the last thing I forget about this place. —Mike Sula


611 N. Fairbanks | 312-224-2200



The header on the menu of the Doubletree Hotel's Markethouse promises a marriage of "heartland basics with new cooking styles and ingredients, so you'll find surprising twists to otherwise well-known dishes." I assume that refers to eyeball grabbers like goat-cheese nougat with apple and beet salad, the pistachio brittle with baby beets, or the pickled Asian pear with diver scallops. In execution, I'm not sure those represent anything more radical than creative applications of classic techniques, but chef Scott Walton's steering of the seasonal/local bandwagon ought to pack in the hotel guests, if not necessarily locals, who have an increasing number of similarly driven chefs to follow. One surprising twist not detailed on the menu is the caul fat wrapped around the meat loaf. This is a technique often used in making sausage and other meat preparations to keep them moist and juicy. It works—and it shows that Walton should be taken seriously. So do dishes like juicy honey-cayenne rotisserie chicken with fingerlings topped by sweet candied lemon and the white cheddar mac 'n' cheese gratin, made with al dente penne, larded with bacon bits, and topped with a crown of browned melted cheese. Markethouse's sprawling dining room, with giant windows looking out onto Fairbanks, serves three squares, including a breakfast buffet, as well as a late-night bar menu. Even with every chef on the planet going seasonal, it should be fun to watch what Walton comes up with—like the current Sunday-night three-course prix fixe featuring ingredients from farmers' markets and the restaurant's rooftop garden. It's $20. —Mike Sula

North Pond

2610 N. Cannon | 773-477-5845



At North Pond, along with the menu diners are given the mantra of the modern sustainability-minded restaurant: the ingredients, whenever possible, are locally sourced and organic and you will love them; the chef has close partnerships with area farmers and you will benefit. Chef Bruce Sherman isn't shy about his principles, and it's hard to eat here and conclude that he's wrong: the quality of his ingredients is evident, and the cooking is surprisingly adventurous. Current appetizers include foie gras with shallots and soft-shell crab with Vidalia onion jam, candied rhubarb brown butter, and braised pork belly. Entrees range from a rabbit with snap peas to pork with cherries to sauteed wild striped bass with tomato-arugula-Parmesan risotto, squid a la plancha, and ink syrup. Even Sunday brunch has surprises: where else are smoked trout mousse or rabbit bratwurst sausage options at such a meal? —Nicholas Day


1800 N. Lincoln | 312-981-7070



Situated in a primo piece of real estate facing the Green City Market, whose purveyors provide many of the restaurant's ingredients, Perennial is for the most part a solid homecoming for executive chef Ryan Poli (formerly of Butter). There's a rustic and seasonal simplicity that's occasionally sideswiped by some untamed flourishes: a sweet peekytoe crab salad was all but destroyed by a bitterly acid avocado mousse, and the short-rib cannelloni that accompanied some otherwise beautiful seared sea scallops was a textural nightmare of overmanipulated manky meatstuff. Overall, though, Poli is working excellent ingredients into appealing, often colorful creations like halibut with sweet corn, fingerling potatoes, house-made Iberico bacon, and a lobster infusion or seared sea scallops with English pea puree, carrots, pickled green garlic, and lavender salad. On my last visit the simplest dishes were the most impressive: a lamb duo of chops and spicy braised loin with eggplant chutney, a lush foie gras torchon on the charcuterie plate, and a watermelon-tomato-olive-oil salad that should be devastating at high tomato season. This is one of the most boring restaurant neighborhoods in the city, so Perennial ought to be valued by locals as well as hotel guests. —Mike Sula

Uncommon Ground on Devon

1401 W. Devon | 773-465-9801



It's on flat Devon Avenue in the old Speakeasy space, but somehow the Edgewater outpost of the Wrigleyville hangout Uncommon Ground has an Alpine feel—must be the fireplaces, upscale-rustic decor, and leather easy chairs. As at the original, the seasonal menu emphasizes locally produced, family farmed, and organic products including house-infused vodkas. (Order a "TreeTini," made with the pear vodka, and the restaurant pledges to plant a tree.) It's also the site of the city's first certified organic rooftop garden. The menu's eclectic and surprisingly carnivore-centric given the crunchy mantras: large plates include grilled Dietzler Farm steak with chimichurri, a lamb duo of lamb sausage and house-cured lamb bacon hash, Gunthorp Farm chicken and pork chops. Breakfast and brunch feature standards like huevos and a breakfast tostada but also strawberry-ricotta pancakes, a summer hash with serrano ham, and a breakfast melt with peppercorn bacon served on Red Hen black bread. There's live entertainment most nights of the week, and every Friday from 4 to 8 PM the Devon location hosts a farmers' market with live bluegrass. —Kate Schmidt


4471 Lawn, Western Springs | 708-246-2082


contemporary american/regional | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

Located in the west suburbs (well within the known universe, 30 minutes from the Loop), Vie is a restaurant on a kind of a mission, and part of that mission is educational (the menu has a glossary). One theme of this instruction is that there's great food grown nearby and you should eat it whenever you can (but don't feel bad about enjoying food flown in). After working at places like Blackbird (an influence reflected in Vie's elegant black-white-silver interior design), chef Paul Virant struck out on his own, getting the very first liquor license in his hometown. Virant and his staff "put by" a larder of vegetables and herbs for use during the winter and early spring, and pickles play a supporting role in many presentations, providing a pleasantly tart counterpoint to rich meats and cheeses. My marinated quail was studded with pickled garlic and onions, and the bird was cooked as little as possible to keep it moist and juicy. Brined pork—center cut, wood-grilled and splayed into rich slabs—was luscious, carrying a phyllo purse of subtle house-made choucroute. Lamb was done three ways: slow-cooked leg, roasted loin, and a crepinette pressed through an antique sausage maker passed down by Virant's grandmother. Preserved strawberries with ice cream were fabulous: deep red and much sweeter and more dense than many fresh-picked berries. Current offerings include roasted Gunthorp Farm rabbit ballotine with crispy spaetzle, mushroom ragout, Nichols Farm snow peas, and a rabbit jus and a 28-day-aged Dietzler Farm beef combination of wood-grilled rib eye, house-made garlic sausage, and slow-roasted bone marrow with Vidalia onion puree, roasted Nichols Farm broccoli, and braised carrots. —David Hammond


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