Affordable Eclectic Eats, Ambitious Chinese Surf and Turf, and a Modern Cucina | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Affordable Eclectic Eats, Ambitious Chinese Surf and Turf, and a Modern Cucina

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Treat

1616 N. Kedzie

773-772-1201

Tamiz Haiderali, the chef at the new Humboldt Park place TREAT, has bounced around the restaurant scene for years, including a stint as a server at Lula, but says he's been taken aback by the early success of his first venture as owner: "I think I underestimated the need for a restaurant in this neighborhood." Formerly Mama Kitty's, and before that "some sort of chicken shack," the cozy and cheery restaurant has only been open seven weeks, but it's quickly become a destination for affordable, creative cooking. The menu's an eclectic mix--some tweaked American basics, a few veggie and vegan options, and a handful of classic Indian dishes. The last may be the weak link in an otherwise solid kitchen: chicken tikka masala was nicely spiced but kind of dry and a recent special of sag paneer was unbalanced, served with a heaping portion of rice and heavy on the cheese. Though the accompanying candy-colored papaddums went a long way toward winning us over, ultimately I had to agree with my friend: "If I really wanted sag paneer, why would I come here?" But an entree of pan-seared salmon was perfectly cooked, just a skosh on the far side of rare; served with wilted spinach, sweet teardrop tomatoes, a yogurt-mint sauce, and herb oil, the whole plate was as clean and refreshing as summer rain. A roasted wild mushroom appetizer was a crisp, tidy phyllo packet of 'shrooms and chevre on a bed of arugula and oven-roasted tomatoes dressed with a balsamic reduction; fennel gratin, another appetizer, wedded mild slices of fennel to a surprisingly complex, satisfying cream sauce. The soup of the day--watercress vichyssoise--cracked me up, its crouton raft with a leafy watercress sail floating on the deep bowl of ultrasmooth, mild puree. Treat is BYO (there's a liquor store a block west on North), and only a few menu items break the $10 barrier. The kitchen may not be in the same league as Lula's yet, but the reasonable tabs and sunny, welcoming vibe go a long way toward making it a real competitor. Brunch service is slated to start in August. --Martha Bayne

Mulan

2017 S. Wells

312-842-8282

With a pedigree like Kee Chan's (he's the chef-owner of Heat), you'd expect at least a few things at MULAN, his Chinatown surf-and-turf "experience," to punch you in the face with flavor. Hidden just beyond the east gate of the Chinatown mall on the second floor, the clubby, overdesigned aerie is staffed by well-meaning blackshirts. Cluelessness may not be their fault. Early on a Wednesday evening the room was nearly empty but for a waiter trotting between our table and the open kitchen schooling himself on menu changes. At least he was honest, admitting he'd been telling customers that black pork (i.e., the highly prized Japanese Kurobuta) is wild rather than carefully cultivated from black-skinned Berkshire pigs. But the menu says it's both wild and Kurobuta. The kitchen's obviously working out some puzzles as well: a lovingly constructed tuna sashimi appetizer was drowned in a mud slide of pureed avocado, ravioli stuffed with dry crabmeat were pointlessly drizzled with a creamy leek sauce, and a corn soup with fried oyster croutons came with the cream separated from the corn. Elk steaks with panko-breaded scallops in a sweet miso sauce were chewy but had no game. The chef is trying to make use of some of the unusual sea creatures commonly found in the neighborhood: dried deep-fried sea horses top the duck breast, more decorative than edible. An abalone steak braised in foie gras sauce seemed like a good way to bid farewell to the banned bird liver, but it came on a raft of cold bok choy, tasting of salty cow liver and looking like a dissected vulva. At a market price of $65, this botched execution was a real insult to the prized shellfish. All of this promised to add up to a pretty annoying experience until, perhaps sensing trouble, the host comped a couple of desserts that saved the day. Whoever put together the coconut milk and lemongrass panna cotta with cherry sake "soup" and the green tea cheesecake with wasabi syrup and warmed bananas rolled in panko is at least trying to live up to Kee Chan's promises of innovation. --Mike Sula

Fiorentinos' Cucina Italiana

2901 N. Ashland

773-244-3026

Too bad Olive Garden has already snagged the tagline "When you're here, you're family"--at FIORENTINO'S CUCINA ITALIANA it would actually apply. Signora Fiorentino rushed to greet us when we walked in, stopped by frequently, and saw us to the door at the end of our meal. Sicilian, she's dreamed up a menu that tends toward seafood and dishes that show a restrained hand when it comes to sauce and spices. Calamari were fresh though bland, but mussels were perfect, probably the best I've had in Chicago, bursting with flavor and served with a creamy pesto capellini. Stuffed gnocchi, not traditional but in every way marvelous, were soft and lush, delicately filled with ricotta and gently splashed with marinara. Spiedini alla griglia, one of several savory "signature dishes," is a beef fillet wrapped around prosciutto, provolone, and herbs--very tasty, though the stuffing is somewhat overwhelmed by the robust meat. Tiramisu, that old standard, is here extraordinarily light and delicate, also reflecting the kitchen's gentle touch. Amusingly, the cannoli, Palermo's carnival treat, is here reinterpreted as a mound of slivered cocoa and ricotta studded with pastry triangles. A liquor license is in the works, but Fiorentino's is BYO for now. --David Hammond

OTHER RECENT OPENINGS

Flatwater, 321 N. Clark, 312-644-0283

Flourish, 1138 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-327-3830

CLOSED

Ann Sather, 5207 N. Clark

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