600 W. Chicago
Hubie Greenwald and John Manion, the team behind Wicker Park's Mas, tackle American comfort food at the Motel Bar, a clubby new spot in the old Montgomery Ward catalog building. The chic industrial space, with high vaulted ceilings, exposed ductwork, and circular red vinyl booths, is designed for mingling: there are no TVs and the music is kept at a conversation-friendly volume. An extensive list of classic cocktails--manhattans, Tom Collinses, Rob Roys--dominates the five-page room-service-themed menu, but the simply prepared food makes for great late-night snacking (the kitchen's open until 1:30 AM, 2:30 AM on Saturdays). Burgers and steak sandwiches come with house-made fries and truffle aioli, the beer-battered chicken tenders are accompanied by mayonnaise spiked with spicy Dijon and Chinese mustards, and the grilled artisanal cheese sandwich is cut into three crustless circles and paired with a bowl of fresh tomato soup. A Caesar salad is prepared with mild Spanish white anchovies (instead of the excessively salty canned ones) and manchego cheese rather than Parmesan. Though the ambience is only mildly retro, the Motel Bar is a bit of a throwback to a time when sophisticated cocktailing was the thing to do, and a roomier, more casual alternative to its neighbor, the loud and impossibly crowded bar at Japonais. --Laura Levy Shatkin
623 W. Randolph
The creative Japanese restaurant Meiji is the latest to take up residence in the space formerly occupied by D. Kelly and, before that, Grace, one door west of Blackbird. It's yet another entry in what's becoming an overcrowded culinary niche, but it stands out for its impressive lineup of composed dishes. The subtly flavored toro parfait, for example, is both visually interesting and texturally exciting--a cylindrical stack of ultrafresh fatty tuna layered with crunchy panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and glistening red and black tobiko (flying fish roe), topped with a wasabi cream mousse. Shallow red lacquered bowls provide a nice bed for the delicate manjuebi, steamed potato dumplings stuffed with shiitakes and spring peas in a smoky broth. Even the filet mignon, an eight-ounce piece of perfectly cooked, fork-tender beef, reasonably priced at $23, is good, marinated in a ginger-soy sauce that contrasts nicely with the smooth mound of wasabi mashed potatoes and the bright orange chile oil. There's an extensive list of sushi and maki, including the signature Meiji Roll: spicy king crab over rice, wrapped in tuna rather than nori and topped with tempura flakes. Huge panels of dark Brazilian wood back the entryway, bar, and rear sushi bar, but the spacious room is otherwise neutral, without a single piece of art on the stark white walls. Owner Alan Chou is waiting on a liquor license, but with the new Just Grapes wine shop around the corner on Washington it's easy to grab a chilled bottle of sparkling wine or viognier and spend the extra money you'd pay for the markup on another dish. --LLS
4639 N. Kedzie
The semilegendary Assyrian queen Semiramis supposedly ordered her posse of fanatical drug-addled priests to tear her King Nimrod limb from limb, eat him raw, and put her illegitimate son on the throne in his place, but don't read too much into the name of Joseph Abraham's new spot, in the space left vacant by the semilegendary Shawerma King--where he's from streets and hotels are named for her. About nine months ago Abraham (late of ZouZou) and partner George Elbekai took over yet another semilegend, Leo's Lunchroom, but Abraham says he didn't feel challenged cooking there, so in January he decamped to Albany Park to open Semiramis, focusing on the food he grew up with in Lebanon. He and Elbekai, also his partner in the new venture, opened last week with a wide assortment of dishes, beginning with nine vegetarian mezes, most notably tabbouleh done Lebanese style: heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgur. Elaborate kebab, falafel, and roast chicken sandwiches reach a pinnacle in the lamb and beef shawirma combo--a textural marvel of juicy, caramelized meat wrapped in thin lavosh with roasted eggplant, red cabbage, tomatoes, pickles, hummus, and harissa-spiked tahini. The shawirma and skewered meat entrees include a marinated roasted chicken resting on a huge blanket of lavosh beside a cup of cool glutinous garlic mousse called toum. At $5.50 per bird it could be the take-out deal of the neighborhood. Elbekai's mom is contributing daily specials--on opening day she made fasoulya bayda, tomatoey white beans with lamb, and dahoud basha, densely textured little meatballs in a thin spicy tomato sauce (both served with a pile of vermicelli rice), plus sambusik, or "meat kisses," flaky fried pastries filled with ground lamb, onions, and pine nuts that come with a house salad or a pool of extremely fresh homemade yogurt. Abraham says he'll soon reintroduce the sumac-sprinkled french fries that were so popular at ZouZou. The owners have expanded the dining room and spiffed the place up considerably; the broad front window is a perfect spot to take a pot of strong, sweet cardamom-laced coffee and watch the street. --Mike Sula
Other Recent Openings
Alibi, 23 W. Hubbard, 312-464-0609. "Detroit-style" pizza (similar to New York-style) with a chewy crust and whole milk mozzarella, available by the slice or the pie.
A Milano, 305 S. Happ Rd., Northfield, 847-716-6500. Michael Kornick, chef-owner of MK, transformed MK North into this casual Italian dining room.
Butter, 130 S. Green, 312-666-9813. The former Green Room is now this contemporary American dining room.
Kitsch'n River North, 600 W. Chicago, 312-644-1500. A larger offshoot of the retro Roscoe Village diner.
Sal & Carvao, 739 N. Clark, 312-932-1100. Brazilian churrascaria just blocks from its competitor Fogo de Chao.
Becco D'oro, 160 E. Huron; F.D.L.T., 5588 N. Lincoln; Green Room, 130 S. Green; Red Line, 228 W. Chicago; Shanghai Terrace, 108 E. Superior, for renovations only (scheduled to reopen in early April).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.