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In the Neighborhood

Randolph Row and Fulton Market

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Avec

615 W. Randolph | 312-377-2002

$$$

MEDITERRANEAN, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 1, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

At first, sitting on a bench between strangers in this cedar-lined, saunalike room makes me feel a little apprehensive, like I'm wrapped in naught but a sweaty towel. But as the wine flows and the evening grows long, everyone's gabbing like pals, offering around bits of robust cheese or chorizo-stuffed dates and dredging juices off empty plates with warm rustic bread. Chef Koren Grieveson's Mediterranean "peasant" food is paired with an ever intriguing and ever changing selection of uncommon wines and cheeses, many of which are as unforgettable as the Spanish sheep's-milk torta del casar, a powerful molten gob of delicious funk that may forever remain my benchmark for strong queso (if only because I couldn't seem to wash the smell from my fingers). The chefs make excellent and varied use of the wood-burning oven, firing up everything from focaccia to roast chicken, hanger steak, and skate wing. And it never ceases to amaze me how combining just two or three seasonal ingredients can be, in the right hands, a kind of alchemy. Avec is currently closed after a fire but is shooting for a mid-September reopening. —Mike Sula

Blackbird

619 W. Randolph | 312-715-0708

$$$$

american CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | closed sunday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30

This sterile white-and-steel space would make a lab rat feel at home. But for fine dining with a rotation of top-notch seasonal ingredients, served by a crack cadre of skilled food-service ninjas who would die for your smallest whim, Blackbird's still at the top of its game. Don't do what I did last time, succumbing to my basest instincts and ordering course after course featuring a cured pork product. By the time I'd finished my endive salad with poached egg and pancetta, seared diver scallops with guanciale, and braised pork belly, my alimentary canal felt like the Bonneville Salt Flats, and my plan to finish with the bacon ice cream was foiled. You owe it to yourself—and to executive chef Mike Sheerin—to try, say, sauteed skatewing with peach molasses, eggplant confit, and chamomile or stuffed bobwhite quail with black cumin sausage, charred avocado, and house-made giardiniera. Challenges in the area of wine selection are sometimes met by the guidance of your Joseph Abboud-clad waiter, sometimes not. —Mike Sula

Carnivale

702 W. Fulton | 312-850-5005

$$$

LATIN AMERICAN, SOUTH AMERICAN, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

When, early one weekend evening, we arrived at this theatrical offering from Jerry Kleiner (Marché, Red Light), we were led across the nearly empty dining room to a small, cold catacomb near the rear service bar. "Are you familiar with mojitos?" our server asked. "Are you familiar with horchata?" Pardon me, but we're familiar with a number of things, overweening waiters among them. We started with the ceviche tasting, small portions of five marinated fish options; our favorites were the scallop, flavored with coconut curry and basil oil, and the crab, glazed in habanero jelly and served in a tomato, mango, and horseradish sauce. The main courses we tried were homey: rum-glazed pork shoulder served with smoky Puerto Rican rice and beans, a ginormous slab of filet mignon served with Peruvian potatoes and a roasted garlic mojo, an extracreamy four-cheese mac 'n' cheese offered as a side dish, but hearty enough to serve as an entree. By the time we finished, three hours after arriving, the main dining room was packed to the rafters, festive Latin music blaring above the din. There's live salsa on Wednesdays. —Kathie Bergquist

De Cero

814 W. Randolph | 312-455-8114

$$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | LUNCH: tuesDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

De Cero means means "from scratch," and the food here—fresh coastal Mexican cuisine—is made with attention to detail. Plates of soft-shell tacos with fillings like ahi tuna and mango-habanero salsa and shredded chicken fly from the exposed kitchen at a dizzying pace. They're unsauced, but the trio of homemade salsas—verde, picante, and a chunky mix of pickled jalapeños and vegetables ($6.25)—complement them well. Entrees include grilled chicken mole, shrimp fajitas, grilled ahi tuna, carne asada, and a 12-ounce pork chop. The margaritas and daiquiris blended with herbs (combinations include strawberry and mint, raspberry and basil, and peach and chamomile) are refreshing and not too sweet, but they don't come close to the superlative house margarita with fresh-squeezed lime juice and homemade sour mix. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Dragonfly Mandarin

832 W. Randolph | 312-455-1400

$$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, FRIDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 11

A Chinese restaurant cum nightclub, Dragonfly plays high-decibel techno music and has an upstairs bar, the Fly Bar, devoted to hip-hop and house after 10 PM. Under chef Qing Lin, the menu offers an extensive array of traditional Chinese fare with a touch of Japanese influence. The ponzu crab—lightly fried bite-size pieces of soft-shell crab—is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and the teriyaki-glazed calamari comes on a bed of greens with a light coating of ginger dressing. Koo-teigh are similar to gyoza: panfried dumplings stuffed with ground chicken and vegetables. A dish called Treasures of the Sea is just as straightforward: tender sea scallops and prawns wok-seared in a garlic-and-ginger sauce. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Jaipur

847 W. Randolph | 312-526-3655

$$

INDIAN/PAKISTANI | LUNCH: MONDAY-friDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

If you want to have the Devon Avenue Indian experience right on Randolph Row—and are willing to pay $3 to $4 more per entree for it—head to Jaipur. Everything from the red-heavy decor to the medium-size menu is traditional at this newcomer, the antithesis of hip Veerasway across the street. Our meal began with free papadum, and from the limited appetizer lineup we enjoyed crisp pea-and-potato-stuffed samosas and aloo papdi chaat, a typical snack of chickpeas, potatoes, onions, and flour crisps sauced with spiced yogurt, tamarind, and mint chutney. But except for deftly seasoned saag paneer, spinach laced with cubes of firm cheese, our main courses were nothing to shout about. Tandoori chicken, served on a platter of sizzling onions and green peppers, paired a dry breast with a moister leg. The lamb in the vindaloo was well trimmed and reasonably tender, but the tomatoey sauce, while intricately spiced, seemed toned down for Western tastes. Shrimp masala, billed as "jumbo prawns, halved," turned out to be whole, tail-on, average-size shrimp, cooked a little too long and bathed in a creamy tomato sauce. Top-notch naan, puffy and hot from the tandoor, was the biggest hit. —Anne Spiselman

La Mediterranee

941 W. Randolph | 312-243-1818

$$$

MEDITERRANEAN | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

It seems inconceivable that anyone who's actually trying to succeed would open this lame a restaurant anywhere, let alone on Randolph row. I had an $18 prix fixe meal of penne arrabiata, a very salty pork chop, and overcooked, greasy roasted potatoes—utterly unremarkable hotel food. My date had grilled scallops with julienned vegetables that particularly screamed Hilton Garden Suites dining room and an order of spaghetti carbonara that he said was about on par with what his mother, an unenthusiastic cook, would make in the 70s. Our waiter was very nice—and seemed to know we were weirded out. —Martha Bayne

Moto

945 W. Fulton | 312-491-0058

$$$$$

GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY

Chef Homaro Cantu's Fulton Market restaurant is a surprisingly subdued showcase, one small, dimly lit dining room and bar. But perhaps that makes sense: the food supplies the bells and whistles. On my last visit we tried the ten-course menu and were by turns excited, amused, befuddled, annoyed, impressed, and delighted. Consider, for instance, "blue cod and popcorn": lightly seared fish served over a popcorn puree, topped with coconut powder, accessorized with noodles made from gelled passion fruit, and finished with an electric green dollop of shiso syrup. It's a riot of strong flavors, but though each is fun on its own, there's no alchemy to them combined. Other dishes were more successful, putting Cantu's trademarked (literally) technical shenanigans to work in the service of food that actually tastes good. A square of ahi tuna served on a "chill grill" (a small stainless-steel grill run through the very busy liquid nitrogen station) was "cooked" by the cold metal, effecting an intriguing surface transformation. "BBQ pork with the fixin's" was a small serving of savory braised Kurobuta pork cheeks over barbecue sauce served with a trompe l'oeil "charcoal briquet," in truth a chewy white crouton painted with squid ink and mustard. A dessert dubbed "chili-cheese nachos" was a masterful example of the kitchen's ability to mess with your preconceptions of "dinner" and "dessert": candied tortilla chips topped with gelled kiwi-mint "salsa," a lemon-cheesecake crema, and "cheese" made by grating mango sorbet into a liquid nitrogen bath. Is it pretentious? Sometimes. But on balance Moto's a full-immersion experience that anyone interested in this lunatic fringe of contemporary cooking would be a fool not to try at least once. —Martha Bayne

Nia

803 W. Randolph | 312-226-3110

$$

MEDITERRANEAN, SMALL PLATES, TAPAS/SPANISH | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: friday & saturday till midnight, TUESDAY-thursDAY TILL 11

Antonia Asimis, daughter of a seasoned Randolph Street restaurant purveyor, might have aimed a sawed-off shotgun at the Mediterranean when planning her small plates place—the menu is all over the map. There's even a nod to the more familiar environs of Halsted Street: flaming cheese. This unfocused approach was gnawing at me as my group dithered over the menu. But we enjoyed our meal, some of the highlights of which were broiled baby octopus with arugula and limoncello, lamb and feta meatballs, and a grilled sausage sampler that included a surprisingly light morcilla and a terrific orange-scented loukaniko. Most of these items were very tasty, and the amarena cherry tiramisu with imported ricotta set a new standard for me. Overall the restaurant is doing a fine job exploiting whatever familial advantages Asimis may have in sourcing quality ingredients. —Mike Sula

Otom

951 W. Fulton | 312-491-5804

$$$

American contemporary/regional | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | closed sunday, monday | open late: Tuesday-saturday till 11

Now under executive chef Thomas Elliott Bowman, Otom continues to offer comfort food with Homaro Cantu-inspired tweaks. The lounge menu features flatbreads, fried chicken, boneless buffalo wings, and a falafel "waffle," plus a house burger with fried green tomatoes, pancetta, and fontina served on a pretzel bun. Seasonal starters include prosciutto and melon soup, a caprese gnocchi with heirloom tomates, and green-tea-smoked octopus with cherry tomatoes, fennel, and squash. Main courses are eclectic, ranging from a fish of the day and a "forager plate" for vegetarians to a Greek-style flatiron steak, a southwestern-style smoked pork tenderloin with poblanos, and an Asian-style duck breast with somen noodles. "Cast Iron Sides" include trofie mac 'n' cheese with sweet corn and cheddar. —Kate Schmidt

Pasha

802 W. Randolph | 312-243-4442

$$

TAPAS/SPANISH | lunch, DINNER: seven days | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, FRIDAY TILL 2:30

Formerly on Clark, Pasha was moved south to Randolph, where its owners hoped to open a club, but licensing challenges drove them to make it a hybrid club-restaurant, with an emphasis on the former. In short, the food here seems to be an afterthought. The kitchen churns out the greatest hits of the tapas genre—garlic potatoes, garlic shrimp, garlic octopus, etc—and though everything was capably prepared, it all had an uninspiring, by-the-numbers feel when it wasn't outright repetitive (Oh, there's that red sauce again!). On the upside, the tostones, which aren't exactly standard for a tapas menu, were spectacular, beautifully crisped and unexpectedly moist with flavor. Both the white and red sangria were pleasantly mild, one slightly peachy, the other (we were told) tinged with rosemary, providing a little fuel for people who plan to cut the rug. On Saturday nights the music is provided by the Bandoleros, who have an ownership stake in the place. With a sizable stage and dance floor and a genuinely friendly front-of-the-house team, Pasha seems designed to attract customers who want to dance and maybe have something to eat while they're there. —David Hammond

The Publican

837 W. Fulton | 312-733-9555

$$$

AMERICAN, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, BAR/LOUNGE  | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30

Just how much pig can one city eat? It's not an unreasonable question to ask these days, when you can get belly in your ramen and headcheese in your ravioli and one of the hottest restaurants in town is a shrine to pork, oysters, and beer. On a busy night diners can wait upwards of an hour to knock elbows with their neighbors at communal tables, attended to by (mostly) solicitous servers who deliver platters of creamy La Quercia ham, oddments of offal, and peasant classics like cassoulet and boudin blanc in occasionally haphazard fashion. But on balance the food, under executive chef Paul Kahan and chef de cuisine Brian Huston, is pretty great. The menu changes daily but stays relentlessly on its snout-to-tail message. Rillettes were a rich jam of concentrated pork fat and flavor; dense, savory short ribs were brought into balance with a light, cheery dressing of watermelon and cherry tomatoes. Frites topped with a poached organic egg would've made a decadent breakfast. A briny Penn Cove oyster, one of six varieties on the menu that day, was silkenly sublime. And the pork rinds—gussied up bar bites—were revelatory, lighter than air yet still chewy, hit with an invigorating splash of malt vinegar. But the best of several meals I took at the Publican came on a Sunday, when a four-course prix fixe meal served family style was available for $45 per person. That night the room was quiet and relaxed and the menu sanely, gracefully balanced: a bright, clean salad of persimmon, avocado, grapefruit, and bitter treviso, a plate of delicate roasted pompano, and a simple platter piled with rich, tender pork shoulder, roast chicken, a coarse, addictive cotechino sausage spiked with nutmeg, and a bit of braised lamb's tongue. These days the a la carte menu's been reinstated on Sunday nights, but the restaurant hosts a prix fixe beer dinner monthly. —Martha Bayne

Red Light

820 W. Randolph | 312-733-8880

$$$

Asian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; dinner: seven days | Open Late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

A giant red neon flame on the roof marks the entrance to an ultramodern room where a see-and-be-seen crowd shouts over a loud, eclectic mix of music. Chef Jackie Shen heads a kitchen serving "fun, not funny, food" like her signature chocolate bag. The menu has an East-meets-West theme, mixing traditional Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes with things like diver scallops with coconut sauce and polenta and stuffed dumplings. The upstairs party room can accommodate 40. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Veerasway

844 W. Randolph | 312-491-0844

$$

INDIAN/PAKISTANI, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: Sunday, tuesday-Saturday | closed monday

Angela Hepler Lee, co-owner of Sushi Wabi and De Cero, has expanded her multiethnic Randolph Street miniempire with Veerasway, an airy storefront specializing in a mix of traditional Indian and Indo-American cuisine. Lots of light wood, curry-yellow and lentil-brown walls, and hanging glass lanterns set a modern tone, along with mood-mellowing cocktails (you'll need 'em—it's noisy) such as the Bengali Tiger (vanilla-bean-infused vodka, green and black cardamom, tamarind-date puree, ghost peppers, and pineapple) that go well with the free papadam chips and three accompanying dips. Appetizers "from the streets" include vegetarian samosas and stuffed banana peppers—basically spicy Indian chiles rellenos, filled with lentils and paneer, fried in chickpea batter, and served with coriander chutney. My favorite dish was a salad, or actually two salads: shredded green papaya laced with toasted peanuts and grape tomatoes side by side with ripe mango slices tossed with puffed rice, chopped tomato, and a few golden raisins, both in tamarind-lime dressing. The contrast of flavors and textures was terrific. One of the traditional meat and vegetarian choices I tried, moist chicken tikka in a complex tomato cream sauce, was solid if unexceptional, but it surpassed the surprisingly dull Indo-American coconut scallops, an overcooked trio in individual pools of coconut milk. Decent naan and a milk-shake-thick coconut-mango lassi rounded out the meal; moist spiced chocolate cake with chile-dusted cashew brittle and coconut sorbet ended it on a high note. —Anne Spiselman

Vivo

838 W. Randolph | 312-733-3379

$$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, THURSDAY TILL 11

In 1991 this Italian restaurant was a pioneer on the West Randolph strip. Competition in the area has grown much fiercer since those early days, but Vivo is holding its own and keeping the interest of an often flighty crowd. The menu is approachable and uncomplicated, even somewhat reasonably priced for the neighborhood. There are starters like carpaccio and antipasto, plus several salads. Pasta dishes range from simple tomato and basil spaghetti to a more elegant spinach and ricotta ravioli, and in addition to daily specials, there are several veal and fish dishes, all simply prepared to enhance their natural flavors. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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