1466 N. Ashland
These days it seems like every other restaurant is all local this, seasonal that, and SCHWA is no exception: "Schwa uses only the freshest, finest and organic ingredients when possible," the menu brags. But those are more than just buzzwords for this place, which has taken over the old Lovitt space and whose executive chef (and co-owner) is Michael Carlson, formerly Lovitt's sous-chef. Back when Lovitt opened in 2002 it didn't have a lot of company in the local-and-seasonal category. The small, dimly lit restaurant served simple vegetarian-friendly food that put the spotlight squarely on the farmers and producers who supplied the ingredients. It was cozy and casual and not too pricey--$25 would get you a wholesome meal prepared with obvious care. Schwa is a lot lighter and brighter, not to mention more expensive (dinner for one was $44, and that's without drinks). The food is gorgeous: a soft-boiled egg was coated in bread crumbs, then fried golden brown and served with a butter yellow potato puree, a dab of creme fraiche, and a dainty spoon of black Illinois caviar; the seitan roast was cut into diamonds and decorated with fresh peanuts and ribbons of basil. It didn't taste quite as good as it looked, though. The egg's bread-crumb shell had a weird spongy texture, as did the seitan, which was way too salty, and the coffee was bitter. They'd been open just two nights when I was there, however, and these little missteps may well get sorted out as Carlson and his team get their bearings. Keri Putney, Carlson's partner, was the pastry chef at Trio and the Peninsula, and my dessert was revelatory: pineapple and banana roasted until the sugars caramelized and the very edges turned black, seasoned with sea salt and pepper and accompanied by a glass of lemongrass custard. It's one of those weird flavor combinations that engages every taste bud and sends you home wanting more. Schwa is BYO forever. --Anaheed Alani
Cork Wine Bar and Cafe
4343 N. Lincoln
Alas, though I can still taste the panfried trout, Tournesol is no more. In its place owners Michael Smith and Julie Palmer have opened CORK WINE BAR AND CAFE. The tone is casual, from the chalkboards listing wine and beer specials to the seating, which is scattered and comfy. The former menu of classic bistro fare has been replaced with a sampling of French-inspired small plates--and small really is the operative word. On a recent visit my sidekick and I sampled five dishes, as well as the soup du jour, and left hungry, not to mention a bit underwhelmed. Duck confit, served in a crepe, was dry and underseasoned. Two bay scallops on a bed of diced mushrooms were moist but minuscule, one bite each. The warm mussel salad was also a paltry portion and, again, essentially unseasoned--what's with the salt boycott? The one all-out hit was a savory soup of green lentils and ham hocks, the kind of simple, hearty dish that used to grace every table at Tournesol. To be fair, it must be said that this new incarnation is more wine bar than restaurant, and if small plates are not to your liking there's a rotating cheese board for $12 and, for $4 each, you can get sides like olives, nuts, and frites with aioli. The wine list is extensive, with a paragraph-long description of each bottle (most in the $30-$50 range), and the more than 20 by-the-glass offerings (many $6-$8) change weekly. Our waiter was extremely knowledgeable and eager to suggest pairings, and the back of the menu promises future tastings. I'll savor my wine but look for sustenance elsewhere. --Chip Dudley
1041 N. California
Carlos Reyna reopened MAIZ in a lovely storefront in Humboldt Park this past spring--the restaurant's third location since 1998. Maybe the fire that ended his stint in Wicker Park was a blessing in disguise: this time around Maiz has a liquor license and a friendly bartender who'll mix you as many fishbowl-size margaritas as you can handle. In fact, everything about Maiz feels friendly. Reyna takes orders and explains the menu to new customers, couples on dates and whole families seem relaxed (two toddlers played in bicycle helmets when we were there), and the food is all freshly homemade. We ordered several things and shared. The antojitos (snacks) are served in moderate portions, at least in light of the trend of burritos too big to bite into. The guacamole arrives in a dish with legs and a face, accompanied by crunchy chips, and there are lots of different quesos fundidos to try, plus quesadillas with huitlacoche, or corn smut. Tacos, tortas, huaraches, and fajitas can be ordered with red meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables (including cactus); extras include poblano peppers, avocado, and cheese, and the tortillas are house-made. Care was evident in all aspects of the meal, and while service definitely wasn't slow, there also wasn't any hurry, and the front windows provided a nice view of the sunset. --Katherine Young
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.