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Browntrout | North Center | $$$
The most unfortunate name, Browntrout (see urbandictionary.com), in fact commemorates a simply prepared rod-and-reel-caught fish that sustained chef Sean Sanders and his wife while they honeymooned in remote New Zealand. Sanders, a Bin 36 vet, doesn't have that particular species on his menu, but his signature golden trout is done "New Zealand style," a crispy crushed-walnut armor protecting the luscious fillet, pan-seared in brown butter and served with fresh peas and mint. It's an incredibly satisfying piece of fish, and emblematic of nearly everything I've sampled on Sanders's simple and easily navigable menu, which you can expect to change with some frequency. Simple salads, like one of superfresh pea shoots and pea leaves gilded with an outstanding house-made ricotta, were as refreshing as morels and ramps with French breakfast cheese, and potato gaufrettes were rich and intense. Sanders's preference for simplicity doesn't rule out unorthodox presentations. The menu features a "pasta of the moment," which on one visit was a light, feathery pappardelle rolled upon itself with meatballs made of beef and pork and served with wild mushrooms—more like a messy dumpling than a plate of noodles, but very tasty. —Mike Sula 4111 N. Lincoln, 773-472-4111, browntroutchicago.com. Dinner: Sun-Mon, Wed-Sat. Sun brunch. Open late: Fri & Sat till 11.
Chalkboard | North Center | $$$
Walking into the airy, elegant Chalkboard space, it's hard to believe it was formerly the gloomy Tournesol. But classy as the room is, the menu is decidedly friendly, offering dressed-up versions of classic American comfort food. Daily specials are listed on the restaurant's namesake, a giant chalkboard, but often also on a paper menu that includes chatty asides from chef-owner Gilbert Langlois. Comfort-food constants include fried chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes and greens. The menu changes frequently, but seasonal vegetables featured prominently at my last visit: the chips in the fish-and-chips were made from sunchokes, a pile of Swiss chard accompanied a pink seared duck breast, and tortellini were stuffed with roasted celeriac. On Saturdays and Sundays there's high tea from 2 to 4 PM. —Kathie Bergquist 4343 N. Lincoln, 773-477-7144, chalkboardrestaurant.com. Dinner: Sun-Mon, Wed-Sat. Sun brunch.
Girl & the Goat | West Loop | $$$
Stephanie Izard never had anything to prove to Chicago. Long before she conquered Top Chef, she was mistress of her domain at Bucktown's Scylla. Still, during the interminable two-year wait between her Season Four win and the opening of Girl & the Goat, she rode the rapids of a relentless if entertaining hype stream punctuated by tweets, blog posts, and innumerable public events, which only served to heighten the anxiety: would Steph really pull it off? But the second you spin through the revolving doors of her Randolph Row restaurant, you're blasted with a besotting roasty meatgust issuing from the wood oven at the back of the room. And there in the rear, backlit by kitchen light and open flame, is the Top Chef herself, sweating in front of the exposed line and expediting orders. The only indication she's anything more than a hardworking chef is the occasional snapshot break with grinning fans. The menu of rustic, shareable small plates, broken down into vegetable, fish, and meat categories, is strongly seasonal. Unorthodox but not off-putting combinations are Izard's thing: shaved root vegetables and blueberries in anchovy-buttermilk dressing, smoked goat pizza with sour cherries. She's particularly fond of mammalian garnishes on fish dishes; on one visit, a hiramasa crudo sprinkled with crispy lardons and drizzled with Peruvian chile aioli was one of the most delicate things I put in my mouth. Most everything else was simply and appealingly arranged: snails and goat meatballs with romesco and bagna cauda nestled in a crock, shisito pepper roulette (one in ten will burn your face off) played out in a bowl, drizzled with creamy Parmesan-miso sauce. Committed restaurant-goers are by now comfortable with the whole beast, but Izard's efforts with the fifth quarter are truly original—the already notorious roasted pig face, slabs of luscious head meat stacked like pancakes with a fried egg on top and potato stix, being the exception. Though it's won most of the attention, the braised beef tongue with masa, salsa verde, and rough sauteed greens deserves more—like a Vietnamese banh mi, it's a beautiful orchestration of taste, texture, and temperature. The offal changes quite a bit: one night a dollop of deceptively light smoked, whipped fatback with biscuits and boubon-soaked onions appeared.Similarly, big goat rib roast and roasted veal legs come and go, and so does the changing bread service—which will cost you. This is one of those rare instances where the hoopla is entirely justified. —Mike Sula 809 W. Randolph, 312-492-6262, girlandthegoat.com. Dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 11:45.
Green Zebra | west town | $$$
It's been seven years since chef Shawn McClain transformed a dilapidated East Village storefront known to me and my neighbors as the "pigeon palace" into a sleek haven for vegetarian dining, but I'm still impressed with the number he did on the space, all cool earth tones, warm low lights, and bursts of greenery. The seasonally changing menu is currently featuring dishes such as hearts of palm and somen noodles with papaya, edamame, and ginger-soy dressing and heirloom yellow hominy succotash with fava beans and caramelized cipollinis. After-dinner options include French-press coffee and exotic teas—for example, one that according to the menu was once harvested by monkeys. In honor of its anniversary, Green Zebra is offering seven dishes and cocktails for $7 through Thursday, April 28. —Martha Bayne 1460 W. Chicago, 312-243-7100, greenzebrachicago.com. Dinner: daily. Sun brunch.
Lula Cafe | Logan Square | $$$
At this point I've taken dozens of people to Lula Cafe, and I don't say this lightly: it may be the best neighborhood restaurant in Chicago. One side of the menu is dedicated to cheap, surprising, delicious sandwiches and entrees almost exclusively in the $8-$13 range, like the Moroccan tagine, a great roast turkey sandwich, and the Tineka sandwich—spicy peanut butter with veggies and Indonesian sweet soy sauce." Then there's a more expensive menu, as if the owners just thought, "What the hell, this'll be fun too." These items change constantly but have included a scallops appetizer that makes vegetarians very sad to be vegetarians, a roast leg of lamb with sherry-braised mission figs and cippolini onions, and an ocean trout served with brandade-stuffed peppers. I brought a friend who's a professional chef in New York, and he stuck around for hours to order nearly everything on the menu. And then we came back the next night. There's a prix fixe farm dinner every Monday. —Ira Glass 2537 N. Kedzie, 773-489-9554, lulacafe.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sun-Mon, Wed-Sat. Sat & Sun brunch. Open Late: Fri & Sat till 11.
Markethouse | River North | $$$$
The header on the menu of the Doubletree Hotel's Markethouse promises a marriage of "heartland basics with new cooking styles and ingredients, so you'll find surprising twists to otherwise well-known dishes." I assume that refers to eyeball grabbers like the goat cheese nougat with apple and beet salad, the pistachio brittle with squash soup, or the pickled Asian pear with diver scallops. In execution, I'm not sure those represent anything more radical than creative applications of classic techniques, but chef Scott Walton's steering of the seasonal/local bandwagon ought to pack in the hotel guests, if not necessarily locals, who have an increasing number of similarly driven chefs to follow. One surprising twist not detailed on the menu is the caul fat wrapped around the meat loaf. It works—and it shows that Walton should be taken seriously. So do dishes like juicy honey-cayenne rotisserie chicken with fingerlings topped by sweet candied lemon and the white cheddar mac 'n' cheese gratin, made with al dente penne, larded with bacon bits, and topped with a crown of browned melted cheese. —Mike Sula 611 N. Fairbanks Ct., 312-224-2200, markethousechicago.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.
Nightwood | Pilsen| $$$
It's a testament to the Lula talent trust of Jason Hammel, Amalea Tshilds, and chef Jason Vincent, in tandem with designer Kevin Heisner, that Nightwood is a lot more than just Lula south. Heisner's sleek design, simultaneously spare and luxe, sets the tone, from the clean cubism of the outdoor patio to the surprisingly comfortable modern squiggles of the chairs. The main dining room is both warm and airy, its dark walnut and iron tones set off by light-colored ceiling beams and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. Behind it, a long counter runs the length of the open kitchen, where the kitchen crew, clad in casual gray T-shirts, tends the wood-fired grill that anchors the ever-changing menu. The simple yet sophisticated seasonal food mirrors the elegant surroundings. I went with a party of five, so we managed to eat our way through half of that night's handwritten list. Some standouts included delicate grilled Wisconsin trout, half a juicy roast chicken complemented by peppery mustard greens, devastating pork belly, and a duck potpie whose rich flavors were teased out with a restrained, confident hand. There's a roster of creative house cocktails and craft beers, though Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Wisconsin, lager") also makes the cut. The extensive wine list is weighted toward sustainable and/or biodynamic small producers and, like the menu and the restaurant design, demonstrates an abundance of taste, consideration, and savvy planning. —Martha Bayne 2119 S. Halsted, 312-526-3385, nightwoodrestaurant.com. Dinner: Mon-Sat. Sun brunch. Open late: Mon-Sat till 11.
Vie | West Suburbs | $$$$
Located in Western Springs (well within the known universe, 30 minutes from the Loop), Vie is a restaurant on a kind of a mission, and part of that mission is educational (the menu has a glossary). One theme of this instruction is that there's great food grown nearby and you should eat it whenever you can. After working at places like Blackbird (an influence reflected in Vie's elegant black-white-silver interior design), chef Paul Virant struck out on his own, getting the very first liquor license in his hometown. Virant and his staff "put by" a larder of vegetables and herbs for use during the winter and early spring, and pickles play a supporting role in many presentations, providing a pleasantly tart counterpoint to rich meats and cheeses. My marinated quail was studded with pickled garlic and onions, and the bird was cooked as little as possible to keep it moist and juicy. Brined pork—center cut, wood-grilled and splayed into rich slabs—was luscious, carrying a phyllo purse of subtle house-made choucroute. Lamb was done three ways: slow-cooked leg, roasted loin, and a crepinette pressed through an antique sausage maker passed down by Virant's grandmother. Preserved strawberries with ice cream were fabulous: deep red and much sweeter and more dense than many fresh-picked berries. Beginning this spring, Virant will be doing double duty at Vie and the forthcoming Perennial Virant in Lincoln Park. —David Hammond 4471 Lawn, Western Springs, 708-246-2082, vierestaurant.com. Dinner: Mon-Sat. Closed Sun.