3517 N. Clark
There are probably a lot of reasons for Chicago's current small-plate craze, but as anyone who's ever ordered off the appetizer menu can tell you, a lot of little portions often just make for a more interesting meal. Plus, if you don't like what you've ordered you're not stuck chewing through $25 of it. Prior to a recent renovation, MOXIE was already producing well-regarded small-plate fare; the place was low-key yet polished and upscale without being expensive, an oasis on a Wrigleyville strip dominated by burgers, fries, and tap beer. It reopened August 5, with a new menu from chef Christopher Swan, and so far its reputation appears secure. The new look is soothing and chic: limestone walls, dark paneled wood with chocolate accents, mosaic tile behind the open kitchen, and low-slung seating in various hues of beige. What was once a limited tapas list has now been expanded to include 30 or so small plates that range in price from $6 to $12. Of the six dishes my girlfriend and I sampled, five were superb. Lobster Rangoon, a delicious, deconstructed take on the Thai classic, featured huge chunks of lobster mixed with cream cheese and Grand Marnier, then placed on a bed of roasted red pepper, which itself floated on a red pepper coulis. The lobster was spectacular, moist and flavorful and not at all diminished by the other ingredients. The chip of wonton that stuck out of the side of the dish was a playful reminder of the dish's provenance and also proved useful for scooping. Skewered flank steak, nicely scored with grill marks, was rubbed with ancho pepper and served with lime wedges and a cool cilantro cream sauce that balanced the mild peppery flavor of the meat. Crab cakes (ever so slightly overcooked) came with corn, green onion, and pepper; crispy shrimp was lightly fried in garlic oil; and a Caribbean salad combined mixed greens, toasted pecans, mango, and jicama. The only misfire--though quite a large one--was the bruschetta, a hunk of untoasted, unoiled bread topped with tomato and goat cheese that sat in my mouth like a wet sponge. Therein, however, lies the beauty of the small plate. --Chip Dudley
Emilio's Tapas Lincoln Park
444 W. Fullerton
Before Arco de Cuchilleros or Cafe Iberico, there was Emilio's Tapas Bar and Restaurant in Hillside. Chef Emilio Gervilla put lots of love into the food, and this neighborhood joint, which opened in 1988, quickly became a landmark on the west-suburban culinary map, serving Spanish "little platters" to many who'd never seen them before. (In those days, if you said you were going to a tapas place, most people would look confused and ask, "Topless?") But that was then. Now, the menu at EMILIO'S TAPAS LINCOLN PARK is pretty much identical to the one still in use at the seminal suburban location, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. Patatas con aioli is a stunningly creamy and garlicky potato salad, a beautifully uncomplicated blend of soft and sharp, bland starch and biting garlic. But the setas al porto, advertised as "wild mushrooms in Port," were nothing more than portobello and shiitake; calling such domesticated fungi wild is tantamount to serving "krab" and calling it crab, plus the sauce had a bland, burned flavor. The queso de cabra con nueces, however, was exceptional: lush goat cheese studded with caramelized pecans and served with a poached pear, grapes, and greens. This simple dish marries tangy with sweet and bitter, and really complements a glass of sangria. We also liked the vieiras salteadas salsa azafran, sauteed scallops smacking of the ocean and served in a light, bright tomato saffron sauce with roasted pine nuts. Looking like little abstract paintings, the caprichos de pato, or duck ravioli, were framed with shredded greens; the rich paste inside offered notes of tarragon but only a vague hint of duck. If you can't decide between meat or seafood, the paella a la Valenciana features all of the above: lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, pork, and chicken baked in saffron rice. Clean and uncluttered, it's a very capable rendition of the Spanish classic. Though Chef Gervilla's caring hand no longer seems evident in many dishes, he still deserves everlasting gratitude for helping bring tapas to town. --David Hammond
615 W. Randolph
A year and a half after its launch, Blackbird's celebrated satellite Avec still packs people into the narrow space between its blond-oak walls for simple, intensely flavored Mediterranean "peasant" food. At first, sitting on a bench between strangers in this vaguely saunalike atmosphere makes me a little apprehensive, like I'm wrapped in naught but a sweaty towel. But as the wine flows and the evening grows long, everyone's gabbing like pals, offering around bits of robust cheese or chorizo-stuffed dates, and dredging juices off empty plates with warm rustic bread. Chef Koren Grieveson's labor-intensive, house-cured salume--once the subject of so much critical rapture--was discontinued in February because, as a waitress told me, "she didn't have time to play with her dog anymore," and the invigorating rosemary-infused grappa I once loved has been poured down the drain, apparently because I was in a distinct minority. But there remains an ever-intriguing selection of uncommon wines and cheeses, many of which are as unforgettable as the Spanish sheep's-milk torta del casar, a powerful molten gob of delicious funk that may forever remain my benchmark for strong queso (if only because I can't seem to wash the smell from my fingers). The chefs make excellent and varied use of the wood-burning oven, firing up everything from focaccia to roast chicken, escargot, and sturgeon. And it never ceases to amaze me how combining just two or three seasonal ingredients--say, baby asparagus, smoked mozzarella, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette--can be, in the right hands, a kind of alchemy. --Mike Sula
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.