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Restaurants: New Too, April 3, 2008

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New Too

Cafe Marbella3446 W. Peterson | 773-588-9292

$$Tapas/Spanish | Lunch: sunday, Tuesday-friday; Dinner: seven days | BYO

A modest storefront on a commercial strip in Peterson Park might seem unlikely as a destination restaurant, but if I had a car I'd make the trek to Cafe Marbella a habit. Where so many tapas joints are packed and teeth-rattlingly loud, this is a quiet neighborhood place where dining is peaceful and the food is in many cases outstanding. The ambitious menu—33 tapas and 14 entrees—covers all the standards (sopa de ajo, patatas brava, paella, tortilla Española), but I was impressed by some of the departures, such as a rich, sweet corn bisque from the handwritten specials list. A warm spinach salad was also delicious, the perfect accompaniment to melted goat cheese with tomato and basil, served on garlicky toasts. I'd be willing to take the Peterson bus to have the creamy, even-more-garlicky patatas alioli and lamb with rosemary again. And that would allow me to try the many other dishes that look tempting, like bacon-wrapped figs in brandy cream sauce. Once you've cleared your plates, the owner and server bear silver platters to your table to show off the house-made desserts. I couldn't resist the "Gypsy's Arm," chocolate-drizzled rum-soaked sponge cake with a cream filling studded with strawberries and pineapple. The espresso here is excellent. —Kate Schmidt

La Cocina de Frida5403 N. Clark | 773-271-1907

$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: seven days | saturday & sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

At La Cocina de Frida, an unabashed shrine to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, it might prove just a little challenging to enjoy dinner beneath multiple visages of one of the scariest/prettiest artists of the 20th century. The food, however, will not challenge; not bad, it's fine, in a middling kind of way. Complimentary salsa, served warm, is tasty though unlikely to satisfy heat-seeking chile heads. The restaurant boasts that it uses olive oil, not lard, in the refried beans, which is an odd if heart-healthy choice that doesn't appreciably enhance the flavor of the frijoles. Tamales are quite moist and flavorful, and at $2 a pop, you could make a meal of them. If you're not a fiend for authenticity, you might enjoy the enchiladas stuffed with carnitas or vegetables, slathered in a somewhat piquant and reasonably complex mole negro, or the pork chops in thinly fruity mole manchamanteles. Prices are reasonable, with many entrees around $14 and bottles of wine for $16. —David Hammond

Con Sabor Cubano2739 W. Lawrence | 773-728-2226

$Cuban | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days; Dinner: Friday-sunday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

Good schools, safe streets, public transportation, a decent Cuban sandwich shop—all essential quality-of-life issues for a happy neighborhood. Lately, in a few spots, enterprising Cubanos are starting to recognize the importance of the last, and the Perez boys—Rey, Rey Jr., Michael, Oswaldo, Armando, and cousin Miguel—have staked their claim in Lincoln Square. They're pressing the sandwiches on D'Amato's bread, filling them with thick slices of Virginia ham or marinated steak or roast pork, and serving up hot and sweet cafes con leche and hot shots of cafe cortado. What's not to like? Well, some of pressed sandwiches come out a little dry, and I'm tempted to guess that maybe there's too much meat in them. The ropa vieja is a thick schmear of soft beef that's short on texture, but it's a guilty pleasure nevertheless. There's a limited selection of breakfast items like eggs and pastries, and savory little bites like croquetas, tamales, empanadas, and papas rellenas. Finally, it's a place to take out, not eat in, as a faint effluvium from the live poultry shop next door seems to seep through the shared wall. But despite its flaws, Con Sabor Cubano makes the neighborhood just a bit more desirable. —Mike Sula

The Libertine Gastropub & Lounge1615 N. Clybourn | 312-654-1782

$$Bar/Lounge, American Contemporary/Regional| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

The Libertine may be named for John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, but it conjures Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or so it seemed comparing the almost empty bi-level club's quasi-Victorian decor and contemporary menu with the increasingly loud rock music and goth skulls and gargoyles over the bar. The friendly barkeep's remark that the restaurant's goal was to be more of a gastropub than its previous incarnation, the School House Pub & Eatery, didn't explain the ambience, but it was supported by close to 20 boutique brews and steep menu prices. Chef Tony Galzin's cooking justified the tab but deserved a nicer setting, judging by a sophisticated charcuterie plate of house-made veal and rabbit terrines plus rich pork belly rillettes. A rectangle of pork belly confit paired with featherlight gnocchi laced with fresh green favas, wild boar bacon, and shaved pecorino could pass muster at a much fancier spot. Galzin doesn't ignore bar food like airy "crabpuppies" (hush puppies with bits of crab and corn) and miniburgers, either. My favorite was pissaladiere featuring the house's puffy pizza crust topped by caramelized onions, white anchovies, oven-roasted tomatoes, and green olives. —Anne Spiselman

Natalino's1523 W. Chicago | 312-997-3700

$$$$Italian | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Monday-Thursday till 1

The first thing you notice is the sign: tall and flashy, it's wildly out of scale with the surrounding block, save the equally gaudy lights of the Five Star bar down the street. There's a similar disconnect inside this old-school Italian-American joint: the dark, spacious bar and dining room—all man-friendly leather and taupe—seem to have beamed down directly from some well-appointed suburb. Which makes sense—owner Michael Genovise and chef Martine Perdomo come direct from Park Ridge's Piano Piano. But despite the swanky stock decor (which includes a mystifying array of posters for movies like She's the One and Madonna's Truth or Dare), the food is a cut above the norm. An appetizer of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around fluffy ricotta was surprisingly light and fresh; my plate of "Chicken Joey" was equally satisfying: three tender, lemon-drenched cuts of grilled chicken breast over a garlicky tangle of rapini, white beans, and coarsely chopped tomatoes. The vast selection of pastas includes a toothsome bowl of eight-finger cavatelli in vodka cream sauce and "Rigatoni Johnny," baked with ricotta, spinach, and pine nuts. A linguine special with shrimp and scallops wasn't exactly what the server described (where'd that asparagus come from?) but was fresh and well seasoned nonetheless. On the down side, the "Martini Salad" suffered from underripe mangos, and the most interesting bottle on the wine list was out of stock. Though I live in the neighborhood, I'm probably never going to be a regular—but the next time my parents come to visit, you may find us in a comfy corner booth. —Martha Bayne

Nia803 W. Randolph | 312-226-3110

$$Mediterranean, Small Plates, Tapas/Spanish | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-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 new small plates place: the menu is all over the map. There's the unlikely European axis represented in gnocchi sauced with Cabrales and cognac, multiregional cheese and charcuterie selections, and no less than 14 different a la carte "dipping sauces" if, say, your prawns "sauteed with the Spirit of Cyprus" aren't complicated enough. This unfocused approach was gnawing at me as my group dithered over the menu. But either we were lucky in our choices or chef Greg Cannon is more versatile than his onetime involvement in the mediocre south-side Basque tapas joint Haro would indicate. On our visit he whipped up a difficult-to-share orange-sauced crab-stuffed piquillo paired with a lobster-stuffed deviled egg, a plate of nicely gamy lamb-and-feta meatballs, tender baby octopus in limoncello sauce, 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. One down note: while the shrimp, octopus, and scallops in the Valencian pasta paella fideua were gorgeously fresh and perfectly cooked, the pasta was so undercooked and overtoasted as to be inedible. But overall Cannon seems like he's doing a fine job exploiting whatever familial advantages Asimis may have in sourcing quality ingredients. —Mike Sula

NXXT Restaurant & Bar2700 W. Chicago | 773-489-6998

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Friday till 2, other nights till 11

A slickly designed new Humboldt Park barstaurant down the street from the power corner occupied by Feed and the Continental, Nxxt is clearly aiming to capitalize on the neighborhood's nightlife boom. So in the name of research, we headed into the belly of the beast late one Saturday night—only to find the boom a bit of a bust. Though a private party was bumpin' in the downstairs lounge, the dining room and bar were essentially empty, and after sampling some of the menu, I can't say that's terribly surprising. Bourbon-braised short ribs were a gloppy, stringy mass atop a mealy corn-bread raft; crawfish cakes were full of, well, filler, and the accompanying hush puppies were deep-fried to a black crisp. Relative to the noticeably weathered endive in my friend's salad, a plate of arugula, fennel, and beets was reasonably fresh, but the dressing was greasy and bland, as though based on Wesson oil rather than EVOO. And the baked mac 'n' cheese? Sigh. On the plus side, the airy space is actually quite inviting—and the curvy red leather bar stools are really comfy. Just don't look for much more than liquid sustenance. —Martha Bayne

Rockstar dogs801 N. Ashland | 312-421-2364

$american | lunch, dinner: seven days | open late: thursday-saturday till 4, monday-wednesday till 2, sunday till 11 | reservations not accepted| cash only

Nightclub impresario Dion Antic's hot dog stand is like a middle-aged rich guy with size issues, stuffing his jeans with toilet paper and trading in his sedan for a crotch rocket—all talk, no cock. It inhabits a short, narrow, angry red corridor decorated with a pair of wall-mounted guitars and a bunch of framed black-and-whites of rock stars in their native habitats. There's a useless stripper pole set up by the front door, and temporary tattoos or guitar picks are given out with each order, meant to convince the impaired that they're getting something of value for the overpriced wieners. Rockstar is using Vienna natural casing beef franks—a fine product, and each order comes with fries and a can of soda. But are they worth $6 or $7? Hell no. They're just hot dogs. Granted the toppings, named for various artists and groups, are somewhat above par—Merkt's cheese on the J. Timberlake, nicely charred jalapenos on the bacon-wrapped Los Lobos. But you can't put lipstick on a pig (unless you're Doug Sohn of Hot Doug's, to which RD will invite inevitable misguided comparisons). —Mike Sula

Tallulah4539 N. Lincoln | 773-942-7585

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

Chef Troy Graves, formerly of Meritage, throws his lot in with the tenants of Lincoln Square's burgeoning restaurant row in the spot where She She withered away. It's a dark, loud, cramped space with a long sidewall mirror and a wide view of the Old Town School that does little to relieve the claustrophobia. This might be ameliorated in warmer weather when the back patio is accessible, and so might the wintry heaviness of the menu, which reflects Graves's East-West influences. I like some of the bold-for-this-neighborhood inclusions: skate wing with oxtails, pork belly, and a calves' liver and sweetbread duo that I immediately gravitated to. But the problem with this dish in particular is that it's too much of a good thing: two disproportionately enormous hunks of medium-rare organ with chunks of chewy sweetbreads and barely cooked-through fingerling potatoes in a rich port sauce, it's merciless even for the most committed offal enthusiast. Ample dishes like braised short ribs and Brie-mashed potatoes or roasted parsnip soup with snails and boar bacon come in fathomlessly deep square bowls that don't manipulate the sense of scale so much as make the food difficult to access. A chocolate-peanut butter pot de creme was more clumsy richness—a huge vat of cocoa-flavored Skippiness. But that pork belly, plopped atop gingery-sweet but not unaggressive kimchi, was really good, and so were the spicy lobster deviled eggs, their richness offset with a sprinkle of crunchy roe. Both give me hope for other attractive-looking dishes like crab-and-andouille fritters, harissa prawns with mint couscous, and rabbit confit pappardelle. I almost want to blame my unhappiness on something else, like the server who in lieu of recommendations offered the lame, age-old "everything is good" cop-out. Or I might just be sick of winter—I'll certainly give Tallulah another look when the season changes. —Mike Sula

Union Pizzeria 1245 Chicago, Evanston | 847-475-2400

$$Pizza, Italian, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days| Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-Thursday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

Evanstonians are packing into this urbane new restaurant from Campagnola chef Steve Schwartz, but though the room was filled on the Sunday night we visited, we had a surprisingly relaxing meal on one of the leather couches in the window. Behind the bar is a large domed wood-burning oven used to turn out Schwartz's "neo-Neopolitan" pies, the traditional preparation tweaked with the addition of olive oil to the crust. A flatbreadlike pizza with lamb sausage, eggplant, and Gaeta olives was damn near irresistible, but just as enticing were the small plates. We tried the roasted golden beets, chickpeas with rosemary and lemon, green beans with potato and mint, and a standout calamari salad with fennel, celery, lemon, and cilantro. Hot dishes include bacala, shrimp DeJonghe, and house-made sausage, and there's a daily entree special. The global wine list includes 50 bottles under $50, and there's an extensive beer list. Service is unharried despite the throngs and exceedingly friendly—our waitress sat down on the couch across from us to tell us about her favorite dishes (she recommends the potato-and-goat-cheese pizza with sage). —Kate Schmidt

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