Food & Drink » Restaurant Reviews

Eight chef-driven restaurants

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Restaurant listings are culled from the Reader Restaurant Finder, an online database of more than 4,200 Chicago-area restaurants. Restaurants are reviewed by staff, contributors, and (where noted) individual Reader Restaurant Raters. Though reviewers try to reflect the Raters' input, reviews should be considered one person's opinion; the Raters' collective opinions are best expressed in the numbers.

The Bristol 2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555

$$$ American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1 midnight

The seasonal menu at chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol promises interesting variety at accessible prices, including items such as a broiled eel sandwich, a perfect pairing of grilled mackerel and romaine in the Caesar, and "Scotch olives," a mutation of a Scotch egg (a boiled egg encased in sausage and deep-fried) and Italian olives all'Ascolana (fat green olives stuffed with pork and veal and deep-fried). The Bristol's consists of smaller fruit somewhat overwhelmed by their envelope of crispy pork sausage—but I'd be helpless not to order it again. Challenges are even more evident on the daily chalkboard menu, where snout-to-tail items beyond pork belly or the increasingly common headcheese put the Bristol (along with places like Mado and the Publican) in the growing class of restaurants catering to the public's curiosity about the fifth quarter and other uncommon proteins. It's indicative of Pandel's guts that he's unafraid to leave the foot on a roasted half chicken. If these dishes still sound fearsome, there's plenty here to feed the timid—duck-fat fries, grilled seafood, a burger, a steak—and the beer list is deep and fascinating, with lots of large-format bottles and unusual choices. —Mike Sula

Eve 840 N. Wabash | 312-266-3383

$$ American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

When it opened early last spring I thought of Tallulah—Troy Graves's comeback from Meritage—as a relative bright spot on Lincoln Square's increasingly mediocre restaurant row. Now with Eve it seems he's bring­ing the same relief to the Viagra Triangle. The food reflects the chef's predilections for serious meat (short ribs, suckling pig, foie gras) as well as his generosity in portioning. A grilled lobster sausage sprawled across the plate atop cold chanterelles and hot bacon dice, garnished with a large branch of thyme someone forgot to string with Christmas lights. For all Graves's intriguing combinations—mussels in ice wine, foie gras with grilled blood orange and snap pea salad, pomegranate-glazed prawns with toasted chestnut panna cotta—he has a tendency to sabotage himself. Still, there's enough to like here to consider Eve a relatively progressive provocation to the neighborhood's Axis of Mediocrity. —Mike Sula

Lockwood 17 E. Monroe | 312-726-7500

$$$$$ American Contemporary/Regional | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

With so many tony hotel dining rooms biting the dust, you've got to hand it to the Palmer House Hilton for giving Lockwood a chance. The pressure is on executive chef Phillip Foss (Le Cirque) to provide the wow factor. He gives it a shot with a seven-course "signature tasting" ($145 with wine pairings) packed with luxury ingredients. Highlights when I dined were a "Russian sampler" of layered smoked sturgeon and yellow beets coated with vodka creme fraiche and crowned by osetra caviar; tender sliced squab paired with "not faux gras" (i.e., the real thing) and accented by bitter chocolate sauce; and a rectangle of Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson, a raw cow's milk cheese served with mashed persimmons, truffle honey, and brioche. Salty red-wine sauce was all that marred prime beef tenderloin blanketed with black truffles, and while the brownie in "Bertha's famous brownie revisited"—named for Bertha Palmer—was dry, the accompanying chocolate ice cream and mousse were lovely. —Anne Spiselman

L2O 2300 N. Lincoln Park West | 773-868-0002

$$$$$ American Contemporary/Regional, Seafood | Dinner: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

High-profile restaurants opened in an unceasing succession last year, but none was as keenly anticipated as Laurent Gras' dreamy undersea sanctum L2O. The impeccably pedigreed Gras—who worked under the titanic Alain Ducasse in Paris before making his name in New York and San Francisco—executed an encompassing vision (documented on an absorbing blog, l2o.typepad.com), orchestrating everything down to the most minuscule element to provide a thoroughly transporting dining event. Architecturally, this Lettuce Entertain You project evokes a twilit submarine fantasy world where the creatures at the top of the food chain are rewarded with the finest little fishies, many shipped at great expense from where they're pulled from Japanese waters (see your check) and all prepared using an integrated battery of classic techniques and modern innovations. One could go on and on listing the ways L2O has advanced the cause of eating in Chicago. There's the in-house bread (and butter) program, featuring a half dozen varieties, the ultimate achievement among them the buttery, light anchovy brioche I'd devour even if they were attached to fishhook and line. There's the 26-year-old sommelier prodigy Chantelle Pabros, whose unguarded passion for her selections is breathtaking (ask her about the sakes). There's the flawlessly professional service that's simultaneously relaxed and relaxing. And then there are the chef's creations. Whether you order the four-course prix fixe menu ($110) or the dozen-course tasting menu ($165), the progression begins with raw courses and moves on to warm and cooked ones in increasingly dramatic presentations. (There are also "singular" items available a la carte.) I tried the tasting menu, and in general I preferred the early raw courses and amuses, usually exceedingly fresh pieces of fish judiciously accented with brilliant but not overpowering flavors: for example, a touch of the Basque chile powder Espelette with a crab ceviche, or a bite of tuna tartare and a slice of cured foie gras kissed with a bit of chocolate and tomato gelee. Not that I wasn't awed by the later courses. Among the most enjoyable: a textural duel between madeira-marinated morels and a fat diver scallop and a halibut fillet with a side of a rich, cheesy aligot drizzled by the server with a zesty tomato-Chablis bouillon. Like that halibut, many courses are finished tableside on wheeled gueridons, the delicate broths and sauces applied with a flourish—just some of the many gestures calculated to maximize the intimacy of this most rare of experiences, one that continues to haunt me. —Mike Sula

Mado 1647 N. Milwaukee | 773-342-2340

$$$ Mediterranean | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

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, in the space formerly housing Barcello's, 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's listed modestly on the menu but it'll be the last thing I forget about this place. This neighborhood has already rejected one great restaurant built on this model in John Bubala's late Baccala—I hope Wicker Park gets it this time. On Sunday, June 21, at 6 PM the Levitts are teaming up with Sepia chef Andrew Zimmerman on a family-style dinner featuring nose-to-tail lamb ($65). —Mike Sula

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 the hottest new restaurant in town is a shrine to pork, oysters and beer. The latest venture from the dream team of chef Paul Kahan, sommelier Eduard Seitan, the Publican finally opened in October to deafening buzz. 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 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. The extensive beer list is lovingly curated, full of Belgian rarities and international cult faves. The place can get fiercely loud. And are those little enclosed booths along the east wall meant to evoke a row of pigsties? The best of several meals I took at the Publican came on a Sunday, when the menu's given the boot in favor of a four-course prix fixe meal ($45 per person, served family style). That night the room was quiet and relaxed and the menu sanely, gracefully balanced. —Martha Bayne

Takashi 1952 N. Damen | 773-772-6170

$$$ American Contemporary/Regional, Japanese, French | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

I wonder what the Polish immigrants who probably once inhabited the compact Bucktown cottage at 1952 N. Damen would make of its transformations into Takashi, chef Takashi Yagihashi's French-Asian synthesis. Dimly lit and battleship gray, the restaurant is cozy without being cramped, and a trip to the restroom provides a startlingly intimate look into the kitchen—you might stop short at the sight of the chef hard at work (golly, he's not just a Beard Award winner, he's . . . he's human!). There were a number of irresistible keywords on the menu, things I'd probably order anywhere—duck fat, pork belly, sweetbreads—and a few I might instinctively avoid in a pricey place like this. But even a trio of small, cold tofu squares carried the potential for surprise and delight, dressed with seaweed, eggplant "caviar," and raw okra and smoky marinated shimeji and enoki mushrooms. Another surprise, a konbu-marinated fluke sashimi appetizer garnished with a thread of saffron and a garlic chip, stirred up some controversy in my group, but I thought it worked just fine. There were no surprises where the well-prepared duck-fat-fried chicken or crispy, juicy veal sweetbreads were concerned, but their respective foils—spicy, slightly pickled cabbage slaw and cream-kissed green peppercorn sauce—made all the difference in the world. A wild striped bass with more tiny shimeji mushrooms was bathed in a savory broth, and pork belly with steamed buns, mizuna, pickled daikon, and a dollop of mustard reminded me of one the greatest sandwiches I've ever had, at a now defunct Chinatown restaurant. We did encounter a few less successful dishes: a roasted duck breast and leg confit needed some crisping, and there was an ugly collision of sours in a sheep's-yogurt panna cotta with a yuzu gelee overcoat. With a handful of expensive disappointments like that, I wouldn't call this place a terrific value, but that doesn't mean it isn't terrific. Sunday lunch begins June 21. —Mike Sula

Vie 4471 Lawn, Western Springs | 708-246-2082

$$$ American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Located in Western Springs (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. One Sunday a month is set aside for family meals, with more affordable options and a kids' menu. —David Hammond

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