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What's New: Loud Tapas, Southern Cooking From Oprah's Chef, and Another Gastropub on the Park

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Exposure Tapas Supper Club

1315 S. Wabash

312-662-1082

Round about 10 PM on a recent Friday, Exposure Tapas Supper Club became my idea of a bad time. The boisterous people at the next table were shouting just for the fun of it, the talented jazz combo was much too loud, the previously attentive waiter was MIA, and when the check finally arrived, it was incorrect and almost impossible to read in the dim light. But the experience was more enjoyable before the white-tablecloth dining room got crowded and noisy, even if the decor--a mix of huge ceiling-hugging chandeliers, plywood panels, exposed brick, and tufted red velvet--is rather bizarre. As the name suggests, the changing menu from executive chef David Wennerlyn (Cafe Absinthe) focuses on small plates (most $4-$14), though there are also seven entrees ($24-$39). Oysters and clams from the raw bar were everything they should've been, but at $19 a lobster cocktail featuring half a small tail and a small claw atop greens and "gingered vegetables" (mostly diced carrot) seemed overpriced. My favorite cold dish was charred beef tenderloin carpaccio paired with a salad of fresh baby artichokes drizzled with truffle oil and balsamic syrup. Winning warm choices included bacon-wrapped dates with a spicy red-pepper sauce (a Spanish classic), rustic braised oxtail gnocchi, and au gratin potatoes with Gorgonzola. Seared sea scallops with asparagus-thyme-orange salad and crispy beet-ribbon-topped mashed potatoes would have been terrific had the scallops not been egregiously salty. Black-bottom creme brulee ($5) solved an age-old dessert-lover's dilemma by bringing together an incredibly fudgy brownie and a silky custard with a crackly caramelized-sugar crust. Wines by the glass and many-flavored mojitos (skip the bitter blood orange) are among the beverages. A music club is in the works for downstairs. --Anne Spiselman

Table Fifty-Two

52 W. Elm

312-573-4000

Yes, he's the Big O's personal chef, but besides that I knew next to nothing about Art Smith before sitting down at Table fifty-two. Then came a slap on the back, and five minutes later, I knew everything--the charity, the Obama fund-raiser, the cookbooks. The way Smith works the room I would have expected a line of Oprah groupies out the door, but for now this is a neighborhood place, a spot where Gold Coast old folks can pretend to keep it real on down-home comfort food without suffering the indignity of spending economically. Or, as my companion put it, "It's like Southern Charm Night at your parents' country club." Smith's menu visits other parts of the globe--there's a multigrain risotto with soybeans and bok choy, a chicken breast with coconut-ginger-chile sauce--and a wood-fired oven burns for pizza and a fish of the day. But the key ingredients are seasonal and southern, beginning with a dense moist goat cheese-chive buttermilk biscuit that renders everything to follow a disappointment. A crab cake with fennel slaw was fat with excellent sweet crab, but the fried-green-tomato napoleon (with bacon, goat cheese, and greens) was fried too hard, and limp hand-cut french fries with grated manchego weren't fried hard enough. A dinosaur-size ancho-crusted Berkshire pork chop was cooked perfectly medium rare, but the flesh wasn't much more flavorful than conventional pig. Similarly, the wood-fired Tasmanian ocean trout--which is supposed to be a step up from salmon--was texturally undistinguished chicken of the sea. The room is small (as are the menu and wine list) and convivially done in Country Kitchen yellow, the only atmospheric anomaly being the waitstaff's brown pajamas--a cross between Shaolin monk and sharecropper. Breakfast and lunch are coming. --Mike Sula

Tavern at the Park

130 E. Randolph

312-552-0070

Intrigued by reports that Tavern at the Park afforded "breathtaking views" of Millennium Park, we were surprised to find that few tables in the main dining areas offered any kind of views at all, though there are seats upstairs that provide a slivery peek at the park. The more comfortable downstairs area is dark and clubby, with leather banquettes and low light. Executive chef John Hogan (Keefer's, Kiki's Bistro, Le Perroquet, L'Escargot) draws on French culinary tradition in dishes like the meaty, fork-tender beef short ribs in demi-glace, though his approach is wildly eclectic: there's pasta, the obligatory high-end beef sliders, and some odd but tasty options like a cheese fondue with chicken chunks and, for dessert, a fried banana split we enjoyed very much. Fortunately we like salt, but even for us some dishes contained tongue-numbing quantities of sodium--more likely due to a rogue sous chef with a runaway shaker than to Hogan's recipes. A number of wines are available by the glass, most for under $10. This is a genuinely friendly place, with hosts and servers making a sincere and coordinated effort to pamper and ensure that dining here is a pleasant experience. --David Hammond

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rob Warner.

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