When Kurt Serpin says he's cooking Ottoman cuisine, he doesn't mean the extravagant feasts of the sultans, but he is talking about the traditional Turkish cuisine that evolved from the sultans' expansive palace kitchens. The menu at Cafe Orchid, his compact Lakeview restaurant, is diverse, covering the expected mezes (hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, falafel), kebabs, and grilled seafood dishes (Serpin is from the Turkish city of Mersin, on the Mediterranean), but also a nice selection of less common items, like the tiny wontonlike pre-Ottoman meat dumplings known as manti, which arrive in a deep bowl of yogurt-tomato sauce. Serpin says it takes him and his wife, Iho Batnasan, eight hours to stuff enough of them for 25 orders.
He's also doing alabalik, rainbow trout cooked with mozzarella cheese; balik sarma, or grilled grape-leaf-wrapped sardines; and mercimek koftesi, spicy, cold lentil fingers that are a vegetarian approximation of cig kofte, the raw meatballs served at nearby Nazarlik. No processed gyros cone spins in this place: Serpin, who's cooked at A La Turka and the late Cafe Istanbul, stacks the meat on the Autodoner himself and shaves it for doner kebab or iskender, a luscious, comforting dish of shaved lamb, veal, and house-baked bread, all smothered in butter, yogurt, and tomato sauce. —Mike Sula
At TAC Quick, young Andy Aroonrasameruang and his likable staff make it easier than anywhere else I know of for non-Thais to eat Thai food the way it's eaten in Thailand. Aside from the regular menu there's a clearly translated Thai menu available by request with almost 40 items you're not likely to encounter elsewhere if you don't know the language—like a salad of shrimp, cashews, and fish maw, sort of a fishy pork rind that soaks up the flavor of the sauce like a crouton. Some dishes are surprisingly rich and luscious for Thai cuisine, like minced chicken sweetened with thick soy sauce, garnished with crispy fried basil leaves, and served over quartered preserved duck eggs. TAC, which stands for Thai Authentic Cuisine, doesn't do breakfast, but they serve an omelet topped with pieces of chicken breast and doused with green curry that I'd love to wake up to. And pad thai—in many places the worst kind of bland, oversweetened mush—takes on new life when it's folded into an omelet. Aroonrasameruang pushes some excellent things on his specials boards too, including a tender grilled pork neck that approaches the narcotic succulence of the best barbecue. He also does a wild-boar curry with green Thai eggplant and meaty chunks of swine rimmed with thick rinds of gorgeous fat. It would take a good week of dedicated eating just to work through all the interesting things on the menu, but I was lucky enough to attend a special dinner organized by a pal of Aroonrasameruang's at which the chef prepared a few items not yet put to paper, including a tamarind curry with water spinach and pork loin that he makes for staff meals and a deep-fried mud fish with a gape wide enough to encompass a puppy. These things aren't always available, but you might get lucky if you ask. —MikeSula
At dark, dreamy Tango Sur, an Argentinean steak house, one eats beef and not much else. And why would you want anything else? The top-notch steaks are ridiculously inexpensive for their quality and size. My perfectly grilled strip steak, for instance, cost $20; I nibbled on it at breakfast for three days after. My companion's strip steak was stuffed with cheese and spinach and served with a ladleful of chimichurri sauce, a smoky- smooth combination that had us nodding our heads in appreciation. We took three-fourths of it home. Our meal ended with chaja, a yellow cake made with vanilla and coconut, and an immense chunk of flan topped with dulce de leche, both excellent if a bit difficult to wolf down after the meat fest. —Chip Dudley
Eating under the glare of a larger-than-life-size Humphrey Bogart portrait doesn't sound romantic, but the mural at Rick's Cafe Casablanca works somehow. The rest of the small room is as smooth and dark as Bogie, but friendlier. Few plates here are more than $20, but everything looks and tastes opulent. Filet mignon con poivre was savory and artful, and the sauces are a real treat, their richness matched to portion size. Lamb was lean and flavorful, a chicken fricassee and fresh linguine with seafood were mouthwatering, and appetizers like moules marinieres and soupe d'oignon were worth stretching out a meal for—don't come here if you aren't ready to wait for good food. It's BYO, and there's a liquor store across the street, under the Sheridan Red Line stop. —Ann Sterzinger
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.