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Omnivorous: What's New

A badass with the wasabi, seafood a la Nayarit, and tamales from a masa master


Tattoos! On the wall! Oh my stars! The superficial 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 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

Don't be put off by the name: the only poisonous seafood at El Veneno Mariscos is the dried pufferfish among the marine paraphernalia decorating the walls and ceiling of the small storefront that used to be Punta Cana—and, before that, Rudy's Taste. The newcomer has already found a following, judging by the Mexican-gringo mix of families, couples, and groups crowding the laminate tables (set with metal buckets of paper napkins) for fish and shellfish estilo Nayarit—that is, in the style of the Maryland-size state on Mexico's west coast. Crunchy whole tortillas with fiery salsa, also typical of the region, and complimentary marlin ceviche tostadas got our meal off to a great start. After that, my favorite cold choice was la Copa Veneno ($13.99), a giant seafood cocktail of light tomato sauce chock-full of shrimp, octopus, oysters, and other goodies, crowned by avocado. It was one of the best I've had, though I'd recommend a smaller cocktail if you plan to eat anything else. We were very happy with two house specialties designed for sharing: chapuzon del mar ($20), a platter of tender octopus, oysters, and shrimp with sweet slivered red onions in a piquant russet-colored sauce, and a half order of charola de langostino ($12.99), slightly tough but tasty shell-on langostinos bathed in butter and spices. Of the platillos, a crispy whole fried huachinango estilo Nayarit featured red snapper topped with saucy shrimp and onions, good french fries, rice, and salad on the side—quite a meal for $14.99. Other options range from first-rate fish tacos ($2.99) to a whole stuffed lobster for two ($38) to a blow-out dinner for six ($95). My only regret: several items were not available, among them a Nayarit fish stew called zarandeado and camarones momias ("mummy shrimp," stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon). Skip dessert and BYO booze; service can be chaotic. —Anne Spiselman

Carlos Reyna's Tamalli is, like an earlier incarnation of Reyna's Maiz, now in Humboldt Park, a tiny, cash-only room with a small but flexible menu that includes many corn-based antojitos, or "little snacks." The half-dozen signature tamales (three of which are also available at Maiz) are nothing like the rustic street versions hawked from itinerant street carts and coolers but rather composed and carefully plated peacocks of the form. You won't pay street prices for them either, though nothing on the menu is going to break the bank. Nor will anything leave you mouth breathing in an overfed stupor. I'm particularly keen on the chorizo-and-banana-leaf tamal: aromatic sausage and smooth, delicate masa bedecked with fresh greenery, tomato, queso, and crema. The tamal nejo is a build-your-own flattened foundation of masa with a choice of 18 different meats and vegetables, and the sweet, cinnamon-scented, fresh elote tamal could double as dessert—just hold the salsa verde. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and enchiladas round out the menu, and there's a selection of 14 hot and cold bebidas, including prickly pear, cucumber, and jamaica (hibiscus flower) and an atole (masa porridge) of the day. As at Maiz, Reynas annotates his menu with a encyclopedia's worth of data on the historical origins and importance of each bite. —Mike Sula

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