Antico | Wicker Park/Bucktown | $$$
Tucked into what used to be an antique store just off Armitage in Bucktown, the aptly named Antico is by all appearances a typical neighborhood restaurant. Yet the unassuming facade masks a crack staff and kitchen under the direction of server Trinna Schramm, a former expediter at Alinea, and chef-owner Brad Schlieder, a veteran of A Tavola. Cuttlefish fritti—thick ribbons of fish lightly battered and served with an explosive fried lemon wedge—beat any calamari I'd ever had, and an octopus special, served over a bed of arugula and flat-leaf parsley, had its sharpness undercut by a light, sweet dressing. Sauteed mushrooms served over polenta were a knockout, rich and buttery. House-made sausages were equally good, with nodules of fennel, complemented in sweet-and-savory fashion by braised red cabbage tanged with mustard and a mostarda of dried apricot. Risotto Milanese had a light, citrusy flavor balanced by Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the spaghetti con vogole had clams almost as fresh as the pasta. Yet, as at A Tavola, the stars were the gnocchi, served three ways on any given night; we opted for the brown butter and sage, crispy fried leaves of the herb providing a light crunch to pasta that melted in the mouth. During the day, Antico functions as a cafe, with pastries and fresh coffee roasted on the premises. In fact, locals kept straggling in for a cup to go throughout our dinner. There's a garden patio out back. —Ted Cox 1946 N. Leavitt, 773-489-4895, anticochicago.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.
Bangers & Lace | Wicker Park/Bucktown | $
A sausage-and-beer joint from the people behind Bar Deville, Nightwood, and Duchamp, Bangers & Lace evokes a traditional hunting lodge, complete with a deer head on the wall. It's a classy place, though, with lace curtains on the tall windows and 32 taps topped by beautiful wooden handles. Much has been made of B & L's cicerone, or beer sommelier, Ria Neri, and as long as stuff like Ommegang's Three Philosophers and Left Hand's Widdershins keeps pouring, I'm not inclined to criticize the lineup. Not surprisingly, the menu focuses on encased meats, and they're top-notch. Our hands-down favorite was the breakfast sliders—bangers on English muffins with eggs, creamed spinach, Gruyere, and hollandaise. There's patio seating in front and on the side. Reservations not accepted. —Julia Thiel 1670 W. Division, 773-252-6499, bangersandlacechicago.com. Dinner: daily. Sat & Sun brunch. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.
Bistronomic | Gold Coast/Mag Mile/Streeterville | $$$
The menu at Bistronomic, from former One SixtyBlue/Cafe des Architectes toque Martial Noguier, is worlds away from the haute cuisine Noguier was creating in his previous positions, a collection of charcuterie and cheese, Amish chicken breast, seared scallops, whitefish, tuna tartare, and meat and potatoes. But the clever few that stand out immediately—beginning with a creamy, sweet cauliflower veloute enriched with shavings of Wisconsin's venerated Gruyere-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve—signal that Noguier isn't phoning it in. Same goes for the grilled cheese du jour—in my case a surprisingly light, cool blue on brioche with hazelnuts and apple. "Martial's mother's" pâté is the textural opposite of his chicken-liver mousse—superfatty, fluffy, rich, and spreadable like whipped cream. Even leaden-sounding dishes like a finely textured braised lamb shoulder in a deep dish of saffroned couscous are almost buoyant. Noguier's new spot ought to serve its neighborhood well. There's sidewalk seating in front. —Mike Sula 840 N. Wabash, 312-944-8400, bistronomic.net. Dinner: daily.
GT Fish & Oyster | River North | $$$
A smart abstraction of the panregional seafood shack, GT is candlelit and carefully appointed with wood paneling hung with shark's teeth and framed oil paintings of tall ships in distress, and though it's perpetually mobbed by a spirited crowd taking its time at having a good time, there's plenty of room to breathe. For former Trotter's chef de cuisine and current Boka exec Giuseppe Tentori—who supplies the G and the T—it's a significant step away from fine dining, but not an overstep. The complex, even challenging dishes familiar to his fans are balanced by smart updates of domestic and international classics, ranging from clam chowder and crab cakes to squid paella and miso-glazed cod. He doesn't mess so much with the most hallowed of these—a modestly sized $22 lobster roll, which abounds with sweet chunks of shellfish in a buttery roll next to buttermilk-battered frazzled onion, nested like a disassembled Awesome Blossom. But even most of the familiar dishes have tactical improvements. Deep-fried brandade nuggets yield to an almost fluffy interior of steaming salt cod and potato sitting atop bracing fennel-orange salad. And a glistening red puck of tuna poke—as luxurious as formed fish butter and freshened with translucent sliced cucumber, drops of mango puree, and pickled mango shavings—barely resembles the old warhorse. Even unadorned sea creatures are accompanied by careful accents: terrifically fresh and skillfully shucked raw oysters in three varieties from each coast come with cocktail sauce emulsified with sweet apple. For the most part the more ambitious dishes are every bit as appealing as the simpler ones. And you have to admire the sheer cojones of putting out something as visually challenging as the pitch-black squid-ink gnocchi and fiddlehead ferns, a primordial-looking bowl of pasta and greenery I'd throw down in front of anyone with even the slightest taste for confrontation. This willingness to create a menu that blends near-provocation with beautiful simplicity extends to the dessert menu by Boka pastry chef Kady Yon, whose key lime pie is a sweet-and-sour Molotov cocktail in a jar containing lime curd layered under crumbled gingersnaps and meringue. There's sidewalk seating, and lunch starts June 13. —Mike Sula 531 N. Wells, 312-929-3501, gtfishandoyster.wordpress.com. Dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 1, other nights till midnight.
Letizia's Fiore | Logan Square | $
Already tending to Letizia's Natural Bakery and the neighboring Enoteca Roma Ristorante in Wicker Park, Italian-born Letizia Sorano expands her mini-empire with this Logan Square bakery and coffee shop offering an array of natural muffins, cookies, doughnuts, and brownies. In addition to baked goods galore, Letizia's offers a full espresso bar with small breakfast and lunch menus. Piadina, a flatbread sandwich from Romagna, make an appearance on both menus, and is a good bet for a quick bite for around five bucks. There's patio seating, and expanded dinner hours and a wine bar are slated to start later this month. —Kevin Warwick 2456 N. California, 773-342-4400, superyummy.com. 6 AM-7 PM daily.
Red Flame | Lincoln Park | $$
Red Flame's claim to fame is a two-step cooking process where they first grill the dough, then add the toppings and put the pizza under a flame—but gimmicks are more palatable when they produce something good, and Red Flame's pizzas are excellent overall. The menu is divided into "redflame" (with red sauce), "whiteflame" (white sauce), "crazyflame" (the sauce is on top!), and "sweetflame" (dessert pies); aside from pizzas there are a couple sandwiches, a few salads, and appetizers that all sounded too similar to the pizzas be to appealing (baked mozzarella with diablo sauce, for example). The crust is thin, chewy, and slightly charred around the edges, without the soggy center often associated with traditional Italian pizza. —Julia Thiel 2417 N. Clybourn, 312-462-0486, redflamepizza.com. Lunch: Sat-Sun; Dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Open late: Fri-Sat till midnight, Tue-Thu till 11.
Sable Kitchen & Bar | River North | $$$
What makes for a destination restaurant? I kept turning this question over in my mind during a good but not great three-hour meal at Sable, the bar and restaurant in the Kimpton Group's Hotel Palomar in River North. Chef Heather Terhune has headed two other Kimpton kitchens: she ran the Atwood Cafe, in the Hotel Burnham, for ten years, and before that 312 Chicago, at the Allegro, and if I were a guest at the Palomar I'd be thrilled to find the chic but cozy Sable lurking just off the lobby. The menu, designed for sharing, runs the gamut of haute comfort food: pork belly BLTs, bacon-wrapped dates, short-rib sliders with a root beer glaze, chicken and dumplings. Fried smelt, an appetizer, were plump and addictive, dipped in a crispy batter shot with lemon zest. And two creative vegetable concoctions delivered as well: a crispy red lentil cake, which was nutty, surprisingly light and fluffy, and topped with a fresh fistful of zucchini, and the "corn brulee," a creamy corn pudding surface-torched to a crackling crisp—though frankly that one might have been more at home on the savory end of the dessert menu. But it's the drinks—which a sunny, professional server made sure to keep coming—that are really tremendous. Overseen by Violet Hour vet Mike Ryan, the cocktail program gives classic cocktails a workout with concoctions like the War of the Roses, a perfect balance of Pimm's, St-Germain, Tanqueray, mint, and house-made grapefruit bitters. The pisco sour was possibly the best I've ever tried, just sweet enough and bracingly strong, topped with a stiff cap of egg white. Even the Bridal Shower proved to be a stiff, refreshing cooler of Campari, vodka, rhubarb syrup, and plenty of fizz. The cocktails could be what make Sable a destination. —Martha Bayne 505 N. State, 312-755-9704, sablechicago.com. Lunch: Mon-Sat; Dinner: daily. Sun brunch. Open late: Mon-Sat till 1:30.
Three Aces | University Village/Little Italy | $$
On a recent Friday night at Three Aces, small plate after small plate of rich Italian soul food arrived at my table at an unhurried pace. It would've been a delicious meal at any Taylor Street restaurant. But a restaurant Three Aces is not. The latest from chef Matt Troost, formerly of Fianco, it bills itself as a bar with a kitchen. The bar piece comes across loud and clear, due to the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and blaring sound system. My friend and I were, uncomfortably, the only people eating during our visit and we had to half-mime, half-shout our order. If you can get past those inconveniences, you'll encounter a formidable kitchen. After finishing some grilled greens and crusty bread soaked in an anchovy slurry, followed by toothy pappardelle pasta with a sort of cheesy Bolognese sauce, I realized that this wasn't at all the Italianized pub fare I'd expected. Nothing is dumbed down, but neither are chef Matt Troost's seasonal dishes unnecessarily weird or fussy. Oozing arancini nestled in an oxtail ragu struck just the right balance between familiar and funk. The more conventional bar food is just as good as the rest of the menu. Three Aces' grass-fed burger is better than most—they've managed to find a meat mixture that stays juicy. The large patio with picnic table seating is open from 11:30 AM to 11 PM daily. —Kristina Meyer Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Sat till 3, other nights till 2.