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Food Issue 2008: Best New Chicago Restaurants - Honorable Mention

Eleven more notable new restaurants

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Honorable Mention

Big Jones5347 N. Clark | 773-275-5725

$$$american contemporary/regional, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch: monday-friday; dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch

Paul Fehribach, former chef at Schubas' Harmony Grill, has taken the space long home to trapped-in-amber Augie's diner and turned it into an airy, minimalist dining room distinguished by floor-to-ceiling windows and wrought-iron chandeliers. Like those chandeliers, the menu gives a little wave to the French Quarter. The cocktail list is full of daiquiris, hurricanes, and nicely balanced Sazeracs—including one with absinthe—and the menu includes crawfish croquettes, etouffee, and a rich and smoky gumbo with chicken and andouille. But these items share the page with inland delicacies like baby back ribs, not to mention the complimentary starter, currently a homemade cheddar cracker with five-pepper jelly. I didn't try the sandwiches but I wish I had: at a neighboring table the fried green tomato BLT on Sally Lunn and a sizable Tallgrass beef burger with fontina and green aioli were provoking groans of happiness. And the fresh, clean flavors of a simple house salad got my friend to sit up and take notice. All in all Big Jones seems to be striving to fuse the accoutrements of upscale dining with the down-home soul of country cooking. When it doesn't work there can be a disconnect. But when it does, the results are stellar, both sophisticated and bone-deep satisfying. —Martha Bayne

Blue 13416 W. Ontario | 312-787-1400

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Tuesday-Saturday till midnight

Tattoos! On the wall! Oh my stars! The rock 'n' roll trappings of Blue 13, from former Zealous sous chef Chris Curren, aren't any more original than those at Graham Elliot or even Rockstar Dogs—the framed flash looks suspiciously similar to the wallpaper in the men's room at Kuma's. (Replace the skin art with skin diseases and maybe you'll scare me.) But even if badass fine dining already seems so last month, I wouldn't write off this little spot, housed in the former Tony Rocco's River North. In the earlier dinner hours the vibe is dialed down, putting the focus on the food, and the kitchen's ratio of hits to misses is not discouraging, starting on my last visit with "fish and chips," a glass of ahi tuna tartare, taro chips, and wasabi foam—finally there's a way to enjoy foam. On the other hand, butter-poached lobster on polenta cake was overcooked, so gummy you could blow a bubble with it. And back and forth it goes: a plank of pan-seared walleye balanced on four enormous and beautiful roasted-corn-and-manchego agnolotti would have been perfect if the pasta were cooked just a bit more (usually it's the opposite problem). A structurally frustrating pylon of icy blood orange semifreddo toppled over repeatedly, but a perfectly simple fudge brownie with coffee ice cream balanced the scale. I have to reserve highest praise for Curren's signature "steak and eggs on acid"—beef tenderloin layered over pierogi and topped with a quail egg. A smear of wasabi between the steak and dumplings was a simple but inspired riff on horseradish that took this far beyond the realm of mere meat and potatoes—and made me think Curren just might rock harder than he pretends to. —Mike Sula

The Bristol2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Thursday till midnight, Monday-Wednesday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

If we truly lived in a town that cared to eat well, restaurants like chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol would be distributed evenly instead of concentrating in overcrowded, gentrified ghettos like Bucktown or Lincoln Square. The seasonal menu at this new arrival promises interesting variety at accessible prices, including of late 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 snack portion 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, but at the same time he occasionally shows too much restraint. A supper-club-style relish plate special with potted salmon and beer cheese featured beets with a sprinkling of grated bottarga, the delicious, famously funky cured roe of a mullet. But it was applied with such moderation that if I'd never eaten it before I'd think it was nothing more than some ungarnished purple root vegetable. Similarly, the gaminess inherent in a grilled goat trio—chops, belly, and rib—was so disguised by a sweet, sticky hoisin sauce that I could have been eating lamb. 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. The Bristol's not yet a one-of-a-kind destination, but it shows potential as the kind of neighborhood beer hall everyone deserves to have within walking distance. —Mike Sula

Duchamp2118 N. Damen | 773-235-6434

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday till 11

"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," declared Marcel Duchamp. So he'd have to scoff at Michael Taus, whose chummy Bucktown spot Duchamp is aesthetically delectable in a couple ways. Unlike the chef's pricier Zealous, most main courses here run between $15 and $20, and for that kind of money they're a lot more satisfying than might be expected. We approached a crispy fried skate wing "fish-and-chips" with tartar sauce with some unease, but the dense pieces of fish held up well to the oil under the bread-crumb batter. "Return to Thailand Bouillabaisse" (enough with the quote marks already) was a luxuriant coconut curry with mussels, shrimp, and a gorgeous piece of sea bass. The least successful of the large plates we tried was a hunk of braised pork shoulder, luscious and tender but so big it rejected the penetration of the puttanesca that sauced it. Small plates were a little more expensive, relatively speaking, but mostly gratifying: a white pizza with sweet lobster offset by some beefy trumpet mushrooms; an off-menu tempura rock shrimp toast afloat in a thick, rich lobster bisque; smoked salmon tartare blinis like little turbans ornamented with dollops of creme fraiche; duck rillettes set atop swabs of cauliflower puree. Utilitarian desserts—creme brulee, lemon tart—were outclassed by a duo of mini chocolate cupcakes and chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. There are a few questionable decorative choices—clear Plexiglas dining room chairs and bar stools that resemble torture devices might've made the ol' Dadaist happy—but the broad communal tables don't seem to foster a rushed, chaotic environment (see Avec, Urban Belly). This is a comfortable, enjoyable spot the neighborhood's lucky to have. —Mike Sula

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