1150 N. Dearborn
Phil Romano, the man who brought Macaroni Grill into a clamoring world, once sued a restaurant critic for writing a tepid review of the Dallas branch of Il Mulino, the extravagant Italian restaurant he franchised from brothers Fernando and Gino Masci. So after eating at Chicago's new outpost in the stately Biggs mansion, I don't say this lightly: the food is nothing special. Every time a new clone of this Old New York establishment opens somewhere--Vegas, Tokyo, Long Island--a Darwinian struggle for reservations commences among a certain species of diner that loves to be the first to throw down outrageous amounts of money to make the scene. Granted, for those who prevail there's a lot of free stuff: thin fried zucchini, house-cured salume, mussels and bruschetta, several kinds of garlic bread, and a server whose sole purpose seems to be to haul around a giant wheel of Reggiano and hunk it onto your plate.
And yes, portions are huge. Steak cartoccio, from an epic list of specials, was a formidable brick of cow smothered in sauteed mushrooms and guarded by a circular battlement of fried potatoes. But apart from its size, "you can get the same thing at Denny's," said my underwhelmed companion. I ate it, but the question remained: what possible justification is there for this $60 steak? I can only guess that the majority of food ordered at Il Mulino is taken home and eaten over a week of lunches, or perhaps presented to the servants in lieu of wages. Another problem, noted by the Dallas defendant as well, is that many of the dishes are overrich and oversauced; my Flintstone-size osso buco was slathered with a thick port gravy more suitable for ice cream. The same goes for the porcini ravioli in champagne-black truffle sauce--highly adhesive, and with barely a hint of fungal funk.
For dessert we went for fresh mixed berries with zabaglione, impressively prepared by a waiter who whipped the eggs, marsala, and sugar over a burner at the table, then poured it over two glasses filled with about a third of a cup of berries. Nice--until the check came. Those berries cost $15 per glass; the zabaglione show was an extra $22. Then again, the production values are part of what you're paying for all night, the whole shebang sound tracked by Andrea Bocelli, Carmela Soprano's favorite popera singer. It's tightly choreographed, but there's nothing stuffy about the chummy, Italo-accented, tuxedo-clad waiters, captains, and servers, whose frantic bustle recalls the mating scenes in March of the Penguins.
I don't think I've ever met anyone who could become a regular at Il Mulino, but I imagine if there are such creatures they're the sort who insist on tooling around the golf course in a yellow Hummer. There's no question that this is a fun place to throw away several hundred dollars--preferably not your own. --Mike Sula
May Street Market
1132 W. Grand
If nothing else this new contemporary American restaurant from Tru vet Alex Cheswick aims to please. From the sunny hostess to the chatty server to the chef himself, who emerged late in the evening to personally thank each of the remaining tables for coming, everybody at May Street Market exudes goodwill: they even send you out the door with a complimentary little loaf of chocolate bread. But the kitchen still seems to be finding its legs. Chilled shots of a creamy potato veloute drizzled with chive juice--a fancy-pants vichyssoise--were a fine starter, but the salads that followed were a mixed bag. In the good one, diced root veggies were separated from a toss of mixed greens by a lusty slice of prosciutto wrapped around warm goat cheese, but the clump of arugula and kohlrabi in my friend's Maytag blue cheese salad was no match for the mound of dairy. An entree that paired delicate panfried trout with rich braised short rib was choice, but the venison medallions--visually nifty on a bed of vibrant green spaetzle and coated with a thick pistachio crust--came in a too-salty lingonberry sauce. It took a preposterous dessert to win me back: billed as a pomegranate tart, it was essentially an oversize Oreo, chocolate crumb crust and a thick layer of fondant, capped with a quivering crown of pomegranate foam. Served with banana ice cream and a grilled banana slice and speckled with pomegranate seeds, it's ridiculous and ridiculously good. The restaurant is teaming up with the Merchandise Mart's Artisan Cellars to provide bottles at retail prices, but as of last week the program hadn't been implemented. Our server cheerfully confessed he hadn't a clue about most of the wines on the extensive list, but he knocked 50 percent off the price of ours--can't do much more than that to keep a customer happy. --Martha Bayne
3868 N. Lincoln
At Sola self-described former surfer girl Carol Wallack has dreamed up a menu board with expert balance. A roasted-pepper-and-fennel soup came with a sambuca-infused creme fraiche; a sea greens salad was crisp with water chestnuts and played the bitterness of hijiki against the sweet spiciness of hoisin. There were some gimmicks: the "trio of tuna tartares," though fresh, were indistinct in flavor; Parmesan fries with truffle oil sounded fabulous but turned out to be a fancified version of what you'd get at Gene and Jude's. Far more memorable was the black cod, marinated three days in miso paste and rice vinegar, then seared and served with curried sunchokes and bamboo rice; it paired very well with a 2004 Mak sauvignon blanc big with grapefruit notes. We also tried Colorado lamb chops with eggplant and leeks, for which our server suggested a medium-weight Cartlidge & Brown pinot noir--an excellent match. Capping things off were citrus pound cake with mango curd and a molten chocolate cake with sesame brickle ice cream and wasabi-vanilla bean syrup. Sola delivers its entire menu curbside--call ahead, pay with a card, and pull up in front. --David Hammond
OTHER RECENT OPENINGS
Chiyo, 3800 W. Lawrence, 773-267-1555
Spacca Napoli, 1769 W. Sunnyside, 773-878-2420
Terragusto Cafe & Local Market, 1851 W. Addison, 773-248-2777
T-Spot Sushi, 3925 N. Lincoln, 773-572-7682
Hilary's Urban Eatery
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.