The physical rehaul of the Eckhart Park public library branch impressed everybody when Branch 27 opened last spring. That was in contrast with chef Bob Zrenner's opening menu of American bistro standards, which Reader reviewer Martha Bayne found "safely unremarkable in both content and execution." But in early December Zrenner decamped (ending up at Jerry Kleiner's 33 Club), and owners Howard Natinsky (Fat Cat, Five Star Bar) and Cary Michael (ex-Rockit Bar and Grill) executed a shrewd play in replacing him with John Manion, who's been a ronin chef since his terrific Wicker Park nuevo Latino restaurant Mas closed in 2007. His last assignment—to deliver a kick in the ample ass of the faltering Goose Island Brewpub—was an interesting experiment. I loved the direction he took it, challenging its nacho-and-chicken-wing-loving constituency with local sourcing and a snout-to-tail ethos that at one point put a sweetbread BLT on the menu. I was less impressed with the execution than the concept, but nonetheless Manion left the brewpub in better shape than he found it.
In Branch 27 he seems to have landed at a venue where he can really commit to the kind of cooking that was promised at Goose Island. Here Manion's not coddling anybody—roasting goat legs, compounding butter with bone marrow, and daring diners to look whole grilled sardines right in the eye. He offsets the funk of those humble fish—now superstars of the sustainable-seafood movement—with a sweet, tart escabeche and peppery arugula. He fries chickens livers hard like Harold's, but fluffy inside, plating them with garlic aioli and some much-needed shrubbery, and he pretties up a clovey, tensile boudin blanc with shreds of yellow squash and green apple.
And then there are some extraordinarily winning dishes: rabbit leg, braised and shredded with pickled carrots over grilled corn bread; a light, not-as-assertive-as-most cioppino, sweetly scented with Pernod and fennel and swimming with an aquarium's worth of salt cod, sturgeon, mussels, crab, scallops, and head-on shrimp. His cast-iron Dutch oven cassoulet brings together a wildly divergent but irresistible meaty quartet of pork belly, duck confit, herbaceous lamb meatballs, and smoky merguez sausage; don't order it solo.
Not everything works: a delicate scallop crudo was obliterated in the crossfire of blood orange vinaigrette, guanciale, and green olives. And like many of his peers, Manion hasn't reconciled the clean, beefy flavor of grass-finished hamburger with its arid lack of fat. Surprisingly, the charcuterie plate was the biggest disappointment, featuring a ham as dry as a bone. But in less than two months, Manion's taken Branch 27 a lot further than he took Goose Island in half a year. If this is the place where he decides to settle in, I'm willing to bet he'll take it further still. —Mike Sula
This Evanston space has seen its share of stars—from Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz in the days of Trio to Dale Levitski in the Trio Atelier era—but since it morphed into Quince in 2006, the respectable talents of neither chef Mark Hannon nor the short-lived Pete Balodimas managed to make this high-end spot in the dowdy old Homestead Hotel a destination again.
Things have changed dramatically in the past few months, though. Executive chef Andy Motto, who took over the reins last fall, lives up to his impressive pedigree (Le Français, Les Nomades, the French Laundry, Tru, Charlie Trotter's, Le Lan, Old Town Brasserie), and he's ably assisted by sous chef Benjamin Benbow (who worked alongside Motto at the last two) and wine director Scott Quint.
Dishes like a starter of liquid cauliflower encased in squid-ink ravioli and topped with apple compote and a tiny squib of smoked salmon combine what might seem like ill-compatible elements in a way that's completely transporting and refreshingly gimmick-free. (Your implement for this? A spoon.) Motto's interest in southeast Asian flavors is showcased in offerings like crispy pork rolls in a serrano vinaigrette dotted with thinly sliced chiles and French breakfast radishes. A halibut fillet served over barley in a heavenly coconut-lemongrass broth and topped with crunchy shallots was mind-blowing—one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.
Little touches—like the scallion-walnut rolls included in the bread service, or the finger-size chard-and-Parmesan-stuffed cannelloni served with a combo of sliced duck breast and duck thigh confit—make a big impact. The only thing we found less than transcendent was a dessert of deconstructed pumpkin mousse, little orbs surrounded by swoops of blood orange sauce and puddles of banana foam, all studded with odd matchsticks of curried brioche sticks: the mousse itself was so good I would have preferred a simple ramekin of it. That was ameliorated, however, by a pairing with a stellar dessert wine, Australia's Noble One. Complimentary thimble-size red velvet cupcakes finished the meal. —Kate Schmidt
I have oceanic reserves of nostalgia for this once-grotty neighborhood stalwart, so I was nervous when it underwent a major face-lift and expansion under new ownership last October. The bright new spit-shined Salam—complete with massive full-color portraits of Middle Eastern monuments and mannerly female waitstaff—is certainly more presentable than it used to be. But the open kitchen's move into a neighboring abandoned Quizno's (whose red neon toasted slogan remains suspended from the ceiling) means the rough, chummy banter between cooks and customers has been silenced. Somehow that makes it harder to forgive occasional consistency problems, like spun-dry shawarma or falafel that have clearly spent too much time outside the fryer.
All items on the once-minimal menu remain—shawarma and kebab entrees (downsizable to sandwiches), variations on chickpeas such as fatah and mossabaha, and an organ trio of liver, heart, and kidney sauteed with onions and lemon—and still arrive as nearly insurmountable heaps of food, accompanied by bright pink radishes and preceded by a teaser of superbriny olives. There's still fresh-brewed mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange-carrot juice, and rotating specials including grape leaves, zucchini, massef (a soup traditionally accompanied by lamb and rice), and a Sunday wild card that ranges from string beans to Cornish hen. But the menu's expanded along with the space and now features more Arabic dishes, including spinach pies, house-made labneh, and a few of the tomato-onion sautees known as kalaya. But the ominous addition of generic fast-food items—chicken wings, gyros, burgers, rotisserie chicken, and fries—makes my heart hurt. —Mike Sula
Kelly and Laura Cheng's gentle updating of Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, their parents' venerable but dingy 23-year-old Hong Kong-style barbecue restaurant on Argyle Street, had been under way for some time when they shut their doors last fall and reopened around the corner in this vastly expanded space. At certain hours the new joint makes you wonder how they ever accommodated so many devotees at the first one, and two months in, the family still seems to be catching up to the crowds. But fundamentally, much about the place remains the same, including the front window's insouciantly presented panoply of hanging barbecued ducks, chicken, cuttlefish, and pork slabs alongside tubs of glistening offal. A slightly revised but still extensive menu is supplemented by a seemingly permanent group of specials such as lotus root with house-cured bacon and lamb stew casserole. And certain innovations—like the dramatic Peking duck dinner that for $32 feeds three or four—seem destined to join the pantheon of old favorites like panfried noodles and delicate, gingery steamed Dover sole. Sun Wah's ultimate appeal has always been in its excellent value—even a $5.75 small order of Singapore noodles is lunch and dinner—and despite a slight increase in prices across the board, it boasts a consistency and variety that never fail to inspire overordering. —Mike Sula
In the Neighborhood: 14 More West Town Options
1156 W. Grand | 312-563-5555
JAPANESE, THAI | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO
When I visited the food wasn't quite there: the paltry three shrimps in the shrimp tempura appetizer, for example, were lost in a huge pile of vegetables that had the heft of beer batter. On the other hand, the Vietnamese-tinged yom mua nam tok was a hit, tender chunks of spiced beef dusted with crushed roasted rice for a nice crunch and surrounded by fresh cucumbers, chiles, scallions, and a vibrant lime dressing. The sushi, though, was strictly average—both the soft-shell crab maki and the special Red Dragon roll (spicy shrimp and cucumber wrapped with avocado and tuna) were so loosely rolled they nearly fell apart at the touch. Still, Butterfly Sushi seems to have been a hit with the neighborhood: there's a second location at 1421 W. Chicago (312-492-9955). —Peter Margasak