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Bia for Mia $$
It's a ballsy move to open up an Italian place along a stretch of Grand that includes Bari, D'Amato's, La Scarola, and Bella Notte—even if you are Mel Markon, restaurateur de sass circa 1995, and you mitigate the seriousness of the endeavor by calling it an "Italian fun pub." But if the crowds flock—and they do, young and old alike—there's got to be a reason, right? The answer is a mixed bag. There's a solid beer list, potent cocktails, and about 50 wines, almost all of which are $30 and below. The menu pendulums between gimmicky (a "Sardinia sushi," shrimp and basil rolled in prosciutto and served with chopsticks), straightforward (an unpretentious if salty spicy linguine with plum tomatoes and garlic), and successful (a perfectly cooked sea bass). Fresh grilled sardines were too charred and smoky on one visit, but a nearby table was overheard praising them, having come back for seconds in the same week. A spaghetti burger featured toasty strands of pasta atop a thinnish patty and too-large pretzel bun, and a famed—in previous iterations—length-cut fried zucchini had a fortified matzo breading and a creamy tomato-and-mascarpone dipping sauce, but too little salt to bring out the flavor. A spicy pancetta pizza, though, was thin, crunchy, and generously cheesy, and a slightly overcooked pork chop with grilled peaches was crispy and sweet. A shot or two of quality grappa from the bar may make the best end to a meal. —Izidora Angel 1147 W. Grand, 312-226-0312. Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days. Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, other nights till 11.
Coalfire | $$
Coalfire—Chicago's first east-coast-style coal-oven pizzeria—opened in 2007 to a flood of buzz and business, catching owners J. Spillane (a longtime bartender at the Matchbox) and Bill Carroll off guard. Was the frenzy warranted? It is, after all, just pizza (almost literally—besides the pies, the menu offers calzones and a few salads). But as pizza goes, it's pretty great. The thin, blistered crust is sooty and crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy toward the center of the pan, with a dense, toasty flavor. The sauce, applied sparingly, is fresh and slightly sweet; toppings include buttery prosciutto, hot Calabrese salami with fennel, and a terrific spicy Italian sausage. The margherita, with ovals of melting mozzarella each topped by a sole basil leaf, was a bit bland, but the white pizza was tangy and complex, thanks to a last-minute substitution of goat cheese when the kitchen ran out of ricotta. And while in pizza, to each his own, I agreed with my friend who, four pies in, declared the simplest to be the best: sauce, cheese, one topping, perfection. —Martha Bayne 1321 W. Grand, 312- 226-2625, coalfirechicago.com. Lunch, Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Monday. Open Late: Friday & Saturday till 11.
Frontier | $$$
Dinners of specially ordered pigs, lambs, goats, and wild boars smoked over cherrywood, applewood, and oak are signature events at this lodgy alpine-styled Noble Square spot, where chef Brian Jupiter has been smoking about four or five of them every weekend, and there are plans to expand the smokehouse further. Then there's Jupiter's regular menu, which features barbecued rabbit with blackberry sauce, venison-black bean chili, pulled boar sandwiches, and braised elk shepherd's pie—it's easily the most game-focused collection of dishes in town. And though the chef admits his partners Mark Domitrovich and Dan McCarthy (who also own the Pony and Lottie's) were going for a dude-centric customer base, he says he's selling the wild animals to equal numbers of men and women. But Frontier's not all about wild critters. I've eaten some of the finer oysters in the city here. There's a burger formed from Slagel Farms chuck that Rob Levitt grinds for Jupiter down the street at the Butcher & Larder. His gnocchi tossed with cremini mushrooms in sage butter rivals those in many Italian spots around town, and his simple hot-sauce-marinated deep-fried lollipop chicken wings also raise the bar. His juicy redfish—grilled with its scales left on to lock in flavor—was inspired by a recent visit to the Warehouse District's Cochon, in his hometown of New Orleans. Add to this a 40-foot with 16 ice taps and a specialty cocktail program, and you've got a place worth braving the frat-boy crowd and flat-screens for. —Mike Sula 1072 N. Milwaukee, 773-772-4322, thefrontierchicago.com. Dinner: seven days. Saturday & Sunday brunch. Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2.
Leopold | $$
After Andersonville's Dutch-inspired Vincent, West Town's Leopold is the second restaurant to open in the last half year representing a semiobscure northern European cuisine. But as a server hastily explained one night in this crowded sliver of a storefront, the concept is only "kind of Belgian." But while chef Jeffrey Hedin's concise menu does throw a few curveballs, it also includes primary touchstones of that country's cuisine: mussels, fries, rabbit, varied applications of mustard, and of course brussels sprouts. Belgians are apparently fond of rabbit, and they'd likely be impressed by Hedin's liver and loin terrine fattened up with pork belly and given a tart counterpoint with a pickled baby-carrot salad. A pudgy soft pretzel baked across the street at La Farine Bakery was cold and stale on the evening after the snowpocalypse, but on a subsequent visit was served soft, hot, and fresh. Less identifiably Belgian dishes vary in consistency just as much. A steak tartare also from Slagel beasts is a departure: big chunks of lush, raw strip, slicked with egg yolk and served alongside some bracing roughage in frisee dressed with mustard vinaigrette. After all that, a simple, crispy, minimally and expertly cooked waffle with maple gelato and bourbon butter sauce and a luxurious scoop of Black Dog malt gelato is an obvious but winning way to end a meal here. It makes me wonder what could be if Leopold fully committed to the country it's inspired by. —Mike Sula 1450 W. Chicago, 312-348-1028, leopoldchicago.com. Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Monday. Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1; Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday till 11.
Seadog Sushi Bar | $$
This West Town outfit housed in a cozily narrow space split into two rooms delivers the standard sushi-bar lineup with appreciable execution. Pan-fried gyoza arrived flaky and crisp in a rich sauce that helped mask an unassuming vegetable and shrimp filling. The carpaccio appetizer—a special the night we were there—delivered a cleaner taste and a more delicate balance, with four quarter-inch slices of hamachi sitting under a sliver of jalapeno and a pinch of garlic, fried shallot, drizzled with olive oil and lime juice. The surprise stunner on the plate was a small salad—a deliciously simple mix of greens tossed in a light ginger dressing. If it's this classic Japanese taste you're after, stick to the nigiri and sushi. The fatty hamachi and namesake (fresh salmon) come as fresh as we're able to enjoy here in Chicago. The maki is similarly plain, with just the right amount of rice to carry but not overwhelm the ingredients. Avocado maki was plump with slices of the perfectly ripe fruit, and spicy tuna maki packed large chunks of fish in a surprisingly spicy sauce. The Seadog Tower stacked thinly sliced rolls like a pyramid, combining asparagus tempura, smoked salmon, white fish, and cheese for a creamy, saturated taste further confused by the ginger-yogurt dipping sauce. Mango, daikon, strawberry, and soft-shell crab achieved similar results in the Tango roll, which was served drowning in a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce. —Emily Withrow 1500 W. Division, 773-235-8100, seadogsushibar.com. Dinner: seven days. Open late: Tuesday-Saturday till midnight, Sunday-Monday till 11.