An arousing aroma intermittently haunts Ukrainian Village's Ruxbin, though I was never able to identify it, even after working my way through most of the concise menu. At one point I was certain it was coconut vapor rising from the heaping bowls of mussels and togarashi-sprinkled frites that regularly descend into the dining room from the loft kitchen—but I was assured there's nothing remotely tropical in that garlicky white-wine broth. Whatever that irresistible smell is, it's almost too much for the snug room to contain. I have the feeling that in time we'll be saying the same thing about the team behind the place—it has an ineffable but definitely likable quality that makes it seem like a way station en route to bigger things.
Chef Edward Kim—who trained at the LA Cordon Bleu and externed at Thomas Keller's Per Se—and his front-of-the-house partners Vicki Kim (sister) and Jenny Kim (unrelated), engaged the salvage design team Alter Ego Form (Simone's, the Boiler Room) to construct an interesting but ultimately distracting environment from seat-belt-strap banquettes, repurposed church pews, a photography-light-table-fixture looming overhead, and a darkroom door leading into a water closet papered with rock-show flyers. If that all sounds capricious or immaterial, the ceiling is covered with cookbook pages, and Kim's favorite tomes are mounted on the walls like museum pieces—just in case you can't tell where he's coming from by what arrives on the plate.
I'm still not sure I can. K-Town Empanadas are the most obvious expression of his professed French-Asian-Latin inclinations: large, flaky pastries drizzled in chimichurri creme fraiche and full of stretchy Oaxacan cheese and mild kimchi. It's a winning combination that sells the unsung versatility of spicy fermented cabbage. But apart from a grilled chile-cheese elote, obnoxiously priced at $4, most of the other dishes are more difficult to place.
The menu's three multi-ingredient salads—apple, plum, and arugula; fried eggplant, cucumber, and yogurt; jicama, grapefruit, and cornbread—are uncomplicated, well balanced, and bracingly fresh, but none of them is particularly memorable. Kim's hits, however, are unforgettable. His crispy, moist pan-seared trout fillet was the most perfect one I'll probably ever meet, dabbed with basil puree and plated alongside asparagus and nutty bulgur tabouleh seeded with sweet dates. A creamy lychee panna cotta topped with toasted coconut, neither too sweet nor too tangy, also served to highlight the quaintness of the only other dessert option, good ol' flourless chocolate cake. Missteps such as mashed avocado bruschetta, spiked respectably with anchovy, pickled onions, and tomato but resting on too-thick bread, or rare sliced hanger steak splayed on sweet cauliflower puree whipped to smoothie consistency (I needed a straw, not a fork), would be easier to forget on a menu offering more than just a few hints at Kim's potential. That's a menu I'd really like to work my way through. —Mike Sula
Here's gentrification at its best: an old-man bar rehabbed into a friendly, unassuming little gastropub. The delicious duck-fat fries at The Portage were much crunchier than the ones made famous by a certain north-side hot dog joint, so no infringement suits are necessary. The bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese were fine, as was a bubbling starter portion of mac 'n' cheese. A salad of roasted organic beets with goat cheese and Marcona almonds was summer on a plate.
The kitchen could perhaps have been a bit quicker with our entrees, but all was forgiven when they arrived. The grilled pork chop in white-wine sauce—served with mashed sweet potatoes and creamed spinach good enough to remind us of why spinach was ever creamed in the first place—was totally satisfying, every simple element on the plate in harmony with the rest. A special of plump seared scallops on a bed of edamame in blueberry vinaigrette was likewise superb.
Desserts, though not entirely necessary, were very good, with a flourless chocolate cake narrowly edging out a slice of hot apple pie with house-made lemon-ginger ice cream. Inside the space is cozy and pleasantly spare, but the back courtyard has been refitted as a spacious patio fenced in with handsome blond wood. It's one of the nicer local al fresco settings I can think of. Service was friendly and knowledgeable. —Cliff Doerksen
Donatella Majore's late, lamented Cucina di Donatella in Rogers Park had both fans and foes, and the same is likely to be true of Donatella Mediterranean Bistro, which she opened in Evanston in late May with chef-partner Paolo di Costanzo. The postage-stamp storefront, with marble tables, mod metal-and-plastic chairs, Italian-themed art on yellow walls, and Murano-glass light fixtures, feels more like a coffeehouse than a restaurant, and it's noisy even when only half full, making the sidewalk cafe an attractive option. The laid-back, leisurely service adds to the casual vibe, and the hands-on way Majore works the room will please some patrons but put off others.
Given the setting—and for what you get—prices are surprisingly high. Our puny $13 portion of the much-touted lasagna (a signature from the previous restaurant)threatened to push me into the detractor camp. The sort of pasta home cooks prepared by the party tray in the 50s, it was a blob on a plate, with no discernible layers, an ooze of meat sauce, and loads of crumbled cheese. But equally homey lamb tagliata turned out to be a better entree and, at $19.50, better value. Grilled rare as ordered, the reasonably tender boneless leg meat with barely there red-wine sauce came with heavily sauteed spinach, rapini, and too-pale roasted potato chunks.
Openers were similarly artless. Grilled seafood—beautifully cooked sea scallops, overdone shrimp, slightly chewy squid—was simply served with a wedge of lemon and a little spiky arugula. Efforts to dress up an incongruously Asian-seasoned tuna tartare, a $16 cold plate, consisted of sticking thin radish slices around the shaped disk, putting a halved cherry tomato stuffed with two olives in the center, and ringing it with wedges of "pizza crostini" that tasted like stale, salty pita. Most of the listed desserts were unavailable, but the vulcan cake—a warm chocolate mini-Bundt cake with orange-Cointreau ice cream and chocolate sauce—at least surpassed the sour tiramisu.
Mushroom-truffle pasta and fish kebabs are among the other dinner entrees, while lunch choices include salads and the three Ps: panini, pasta, and pizza by the slice. Weekend breakfast is an eclectic lineup ranging from a German pancake to Tunisian-style brik, phyllo stuffed with cheese, egg, and tuna. It's BYO with no corkage fee. —Anne Spiselman