What do you next when you're a hoppin' breakfast-and-lunch spot in hot Ukrainian Village? Dinner, of course. Jam chef and co-owner Jeffrey Mauro (Charlie Trotter's, North Pond, La Pomme Rouge, Powerhouse) is now whipping up Hawaiian walu sashimi, pan-roasted Amish chicken breast, and an appealing prix fixe menu in the open kitchen of this little gray-and-white storefront, which feels like a stylish New York find with its mirror-lined walls, retro Lucite-and-chrome chairs, stone-black tables, and woven red placemats. At least it did on our uncrowded visit—after the XX and Dave Brubeck replaced Frank Sinatra in the background. But prices are lower than they'd be in the Big Apple—$25 for the four-course prix fixe, $8-$18 a la carte—and it's BYOB, which helps to mitigate the annoying no-reservations and cash-only policies.
The food was sophisticated and mostly flavorful, though we all agreed the kitchen should lighten up on the salt. The prix fixe began with silky asparagus soup poured tableside over roasted garlic puree, asparagus ribbons, citrus segments and zest, and a crisp prosciutto chip for a complex tart-salty-garlicky contrast. A trio of tortellini on English pea puree oozed liquefied foie gras when eaten. Choosing between the moist Pacific escolar under a foamy pecan emulsion and the tender, rosy duck breast with braised red cabbage was difficult, mainly because the fish came with feather-light pineapple gnocchi and the duck with a delicate confit-filled pierogi. Happily, you can have both for an extra $12.
Besides the soup, a la carte openers were limited to the Hawaiian walu (another name for escolar), like an Asian-accented ceviche flanked by fennel-seed lavash, and a full-bodied country pork terrine set off by vermouth gelee and a lively salad of pickled green apple and fennel. The sole vegetarian entree, a composed beet trio (red, finely diced golden, and puree) with quinoa and wilted greens plus a dash of aged goat cheese, would have been more satisfying as an appetizer. The less-than-tender beef tenderloin was downright disappointing; it came with less-than-crisp fries and two dips, ketchup and a less-than-garlicky aioli, together billed as "smoked tomato aioli."
The three desserts turned out to be deconstructions of breakfast favorites, and though subtle cinnamon raisin bread panna cotta deserved high marks for inventiveness, my favorite was the dainty coffee-glazed cake doughnuts with an espresso cup of gianduja, a graham cracker tuile, and milk jam. If you want actual coffee (Metropolis) with that, it'll cost $3. You also can order anything from the daytime menu. —Anne Spiselman
A fire closed Lakeview's Bolat African Cuisine for many months, but late last year it reopened with a bright new look and a new menu of gussied-up African food like a seductive concoction of thick west-African fufu, a paste made of root vegetables, topped with a plug of spinach simmered with stockfish (a centuries-old form of dried unsalted seafood) and a griddled scallop. Appetizers, on the other hand, were forgettable: blackened grilled plantain was dry as dust, and tsire-suya, steak dusted with a spiced coating made from ground peanuts was so dry as to be almost inedible. There are also classic carryovers from the previous menu: jollof rice; egusi, a mucilaginous broth of ground seeds; and delectable curry goat, chewy chunks of meat in rice flecked with spices and explosively flavorful onions and sweet pepper. Berber rack of lamb, the most expensive item, is a terrific value at $24: eight perfectly prepared chops, pink inside and crusty outside, lightly dressed with a complex sauce of chiles, cumin, and cardamom that balances the richness of the lamb. Bissap sorbet, made of hibiscus flower, was light and fruity, pleasant during or after dinner. In addition to sweet-and-sour plum wine and African beers like Star, there are now mixed drinks, including a Dark and Stormy with house-made ginger beer. In another show of ambition, signs promise food from sub-Saharan Africa, and the plan is to change the menu every few months to feature traditional foods from all over the continent, with a new one on the way in the next couple weeks. —David Hammond
I was charmed by the original Cafe Marbella, a far-northwest-side spot with a handwritten specials list and desserts like brazo de Gitano, "Gypsy's arm," a frosted Spanish jelly roll lovingly trotted out on a silver platter. And I'm still somewhat charmed by its new Gladstone Park incarnation in a former Mexican restaurant—and especially by owner, server, and maitre d' Enrique Segni, who announced with our order of rabbit, "Here's your hassenpfeffer." But the latest specials list—half-scratched by mid-evening—had more misses than hits, among them the bony rabbit and a supersalty dish of sliced scallops with lima beans. I loved the warm spinach salad with onion, toasted almonds, and raisins, and we all enjoyed the classics—garlicky potato salad, lush brandy-sauced bacon-wrapped dates, and a plain tortilla española (one of three in an omnibus appetizer including dried tomato and mushroom-and-spinach omelets). After those we sat, then sat some more, and while the seafood paella (with octopus, shrimp, whitefish, and frozen peas) was OK, it was hardly worth the wait. But a little chocolate sponge cake and a stiff cortado sent us off on a high note. It's BYO with no corkage fee and on Sundays there's a "dim-sum-style" tapas brunch. —Kate Schmidt