2900 W. Belmont
First-time owner Michael Cain, an 18-year restaurant veteran with an unglamorous resume that most recently included the Wabash Tap, has created a quirky, unaffected corner bistro, KUMA'S CORNER, in what was a grubby and unwelcoming Harley bar. Cain recruited servers with a Reader ad that read, "Too many tattoos or piercings for Lettuce? I want you!" Aggressive body art notwithstanding, owner and staff are the most welcoming and friendly crew I've encountered in a long time. And under chef Janice Mancusi (formerly of La Bodega), the food is no sideshow. Cold cantaloupe soup with a basil-vanilla infusion, a recent special, was refreshing and would make a perfect dessert. The weekend-only Kobe-style beef burger is a steal at $15. The beef is rich and meltingly tender, but order it cooked beyond medium rare and you risk destroying the wagyu experience. Cain uses the meat left over from the weekend to make "Kobe beef" sliders on Mondays and Tuesdays; steaks, chops, and salads round out the menu. Brunch specials include a frittata big enough for three that positively heaves with applewood-smoked bacon, sausage, onions, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella. Kuma's late-night menu includes dishes like Hector Nachos Camacho and the Irish Heart Attack--fried potatoes covered with cheese, bacon, and sour cream. The restaurant is named after Cain's Akita--kuma means "bear" in Japanese--but as a youngster Cain himself acquired the nickname after he threw a martial-arts opponent to the mat in one swift ursine move. Ask to see his bear tattoos. For now it's BYOB. --Peter Tyksinski
Fan Si Pan
1618 W. Chicago
Whether this drab stretch of Chicago Avenue is ready for Vietnamese spring rolls served up in a fetching origami package is an open question, but Fan Si Pan chef-owner Susan Furst has faith. Furst, who cooked under Michael Foley at Printer's Row and Mark Baker at the Four Seasons, merges her fine-dining pedigree with a background in packaged goods (her family owns the Terrapin Ridge line of award-winning mustards and squeeze-bottle sauces) to create a fresh spring roll and banh mi (Vietnamese sub) shop so cute and bright that it's like the block's first color TV. It's a tiny space with four tables plus a window nook, and in addition to making the shop's colorful hanging lamps, Furst makes her own sauces, pickles the daikon for the sandwiches, and juices honeydew for the refreshing honeydew limeade. Not everything's homemade--sandwich bread, pate, and ham come from the Uptown banh mi restaurant Ba Le. Among the spring rolls--which come in both traditional and wrapless "deconstructed" varieties--the beef stands out, made with caramelized strips of meat and bits of fresh mango. Of the banh mi--chicken, beef, veggie, and Vietnamese ham and paté--the chicken disappoints to a degree. Though the all-white meat is ostensibly steamed with Kaffir lime, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic, these flavors are barely imparted. I didn't try the others, but a friend reports that the ham-and-pate rendition perfectly balances the savory, thinly sliced and spread meats with a crisp layer of daikon, carrot, jalapeno, and cilantro. Fried batter-dipped green beans replace french fries as the must-order naughty side. The name? It's a mountain in Vietnam and tripped off Furst's tongue better than "Susie's Spring Roll." --Peter Tyksinski
710 N. Wells
The conceit at Meztiso is a zipping-up of the Atlantic. Chef Jona Silva, formerly a manager at Chilpancingo, blends Spanish and traditional Mexican fare on a menu featuring both tapas and entrees. Big plates include carne asada with a mild tomatillo-cilantro sauce, leeks, and sliced radish, and two roast quail served with a sauce of dried chiles and honey. Tapas options include a single fresh corn tortilla folded and drizzled with mole and queso fresco; the mussels lightly fried with manchego and bread crumbs, overbreaded and bland, were one of the few disappointments of the evening. There's also a second, smaller selection of appetizers, including seviche, oysters, a traditional Yucateca soup made with braised chicken and lime, and guacamole prepared tableside to taste. Tables are set simply, with white and deep yellow tablecloths; clay red walls and thick white pillar candles glowing in a cluster on a suspended platform add to the overall feel of rustic elegance--as classy as you'd expect in River North but simultaneously quite down-to-earth. The food presentation was less inspired: the quesadillas looked lonely and plain on their wide white plates, and their sauce arrived in the kind of plastic cup you'd expect when ordering a side of blue cheese for your wings at a sports bar. But everything's reasonably priced and fresh; you can even watch the corn tortillas being made in the back of the main dining room. The staff is friendly and happy to answer questions about the menu or wine list, which focuses on moderately priced Latin wines. You can also choose from six mescals and seven tequilas; a small selection of intriguing cocktails includes the refreshing Paloma, made with tequila, grapefruit soda, and fresh lime and garnished with a salt-rubbed lime wedge, and the more challenging Oaxaqueño, a blend of mescal, prickly pear, and lime juice that has an aftertaste disturbingly reminiscent of barbecue sauce. --Susannah Felts
Other Recent Openings
brioso, 4603 N. Lincoln, 773-989-9000. Contemporary Mexican in the Lincoln Square spot formerly occupied by Toucan.
col-ubas steak house, 5665 N. Clark, 773-506-1579. Colombian and Cuban cuisine in Edgewater.
Lovitt, 1466 N. Ashland; Mod, 1520 N. Damen; Zza Zzo, 551 N. Ogden.