5413 N. Clark
Ole Ole, a new nuevo Latino spot run by former Winner's Sports Bar owner Gina Pavone, is a welcome addition to Andersonville. But if you're seriously into music or wine you may have a few hurdles to get over before you can relax. On a recent visit my friend and I heard "Bamboleo" by the Gipsy Kings three times, and though there were only two wines offered by the glass, our server wasn't sure what they were. Beyond that, however, we had a lovely experience. The pan-Latin menu draws from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Spain, among other places; wisely, chef Edil Reyes makes no attempt at strict authenticity, and the creative, aggressively spiced fusions consistently impressed us. Red snapper seviche was superfresh, chockablock with tender fish chunks, tomato, avocado, and onion. The picadillo empanada was accompanied by two chimichurri sauces with a zesty bite. The chile de arbol glaze on a grilled pork tenderloin also packed a punch; delicate sauteed tilapia was rather decadently covered with hunks of lobster and crabmeat. Flan was nicely accented by a blood orange sauce, and the extravagant mango bomba--a thin layer of pistachio cake topped with fresh strawberries, covered with a silky mango mousse, and surrounded by a guava puree--ended the meal on a dazzling high note. Most of the entrees are under $20, a great value for what you get. --Peter Margasak
695 N. Milwaukee
I'm always dubious about places that try to combine fine dining with a nightclub atmosphere. But Avenue M, a new steak house from the owners of such clubs as Transit and Circus, is much more than a see-and-be-seen spot. Certainly the interior is stunning, with modernist wood accents, sleek rectangular light fixtures, and an upstairs lounge that overlooks the dim bar area. It doesn't outclass the menu, though, which under chef Daniel Kelly (formerly of D. Kelly) artfully balances steak house standards with French, Italian, and Asian influences. Huge green-lipped New Zealand mussels were plump and tender in a broth with white wine and cream, and while my friend pooh-poohed a sprinkling of sea salt on the tuna sashimi as inauthentic, I liked how it contrasted with the sweet fish. House-made pasta with morels and a veal ragu was meltingly rich, but the term ragu is misleading--it looked like half a shank had been plopped on my plate. Instead of a monster 32-ounce porterhouse or a 22-ounce prime steak, I opted for relatively dainty double rib chops of Colorado lamb, which were chewy with a slightly salty crust. Wild king salmon with soba noodles, bok choy, and shiitake mushrooms was perfectly soft and flaky; the mushrooms were small delights in themselves. A lighter menu is available in the bar and lounge, and a garden with private gazebos is set to open in a few weeks. --Heather Kenny
1629 N. Halsted
I remember this place when it was Kabul House, and Afghan pentimenti (lamps, archways, dinnerware) are still in evidence at Spotlight Grill, an all-American Italo-Hispanic-Asian restaurant that offers a kaleidoscopic range of dishes, from a porterhouse to pad thai to Jack Daniel's shrimp with linguine (not, it turns out, a T.G.I. Friday's exclusive). So vast and eclectic is the menu that we felt it best to put our fate in the eager hands of chef-owner David Lee, who bounces from kitchen to dining room, telepathically picking up customers' preferences and infusing lots of energy into the dining experience. We kicked off with "gushi," the house gimmick, a do-it-yourself maki roll so named, Lee says, because novices are likely to goof it up. The lightly battered calamari were good, the crab cakes--served with sweet-and-sour sauce and pico de gallo--exceptional. Baby eggplants were sesame sweet, though a strip steak was slightly mushy; Lee had told us from the get-go that we could return anything we didn't like, but we didn't have the heart to follow through. The money-back guarantee, however, gives an indication of what this place is about: across the street from Steppenwolf and just down the block from wallet-busting Alinea, it gives big bang for the buck. Of course it's BYO. --David Hammond
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.