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Dialed Back, for the Better

A Wicker Park mainstay and two downtown business-class spots make smart adjustments to the economic climate.

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"I'll remember the food this time," said the friend I brought to the Southern, who'd accompanied me when I reviewed this Wicker Park restaurant's previous incarnation, Chaise Lounge. Swanky Chaise was questionably upscale: the well-dressed young things drawn to the scene on the upper deck or the spacious patio for cocktails seemed unlikely to drop $30 on forgettable entrees. The Southern's slightly refined Dixie-inspired fare in a casual bar setting is a much better platform for chef Cary Taylor's talents.

The menu divides up items under "bar food" and "plates," aka appetizers and entrees, but there's freedom to graze. In the new rough-chic atmosphere—the main room now features reclaimed wood tables, two giant booths, and more bar seating—we ate slim, tortillalike johnnycakes taco-style with soft, vinegary pork and sweet chow-chow (pickled vegetable relish) that was served in a little canning jar. "Duck Orleans" was like a slightly dry but flavorful cassoulet: an oven-to-table pot of tender duck, garlic sausage, and black-eyed peas that arrived a la Alinea with a smoking sprig of rosemary. Red pepper dressed up cheddary shrimp and grits, making for a colorful rendition of this classic. There's a perfunctory list of wines by the glass—you'll have more fun ordering from the wide selection of whiskey, old-fashioned cocktails, and southern beers like Abita's Turbodog and Southern Star Bombshell Blonde Ale. —Heather Kenny

Changes at C-House, Marcus Samuelsson's Chicago outpost in the Affinia Hotel, have been subtle but significant since executive chef Nicole Pederson (a former sous chef at Lula Cafe) took over the open kitchen last fall. She's pared down the menu, boosted local sources, and put her own stamp on the cooking. The seafood towers, tiered platters piled with selections, are no longer available, and while gleaming copper pots still hang over the raw bar, the iced shellfish on display was oddly limited mostly to lobster parts—despite the absence of lobster on the dinner lineup. There were some missteps here: a blackboard classified oysters as "East" or "West," but when asked about WiAnnos, listed under "West," the friendly server told us they were from Maine (they're from Cape Cod). Sand in some of our Rappahannocks and Pebble Beaches suggested insufficient attention had been paid to the oysters in other ways too.

The chef's selection of three, five, or seven C-Bar tastes has been trimmed to a taste of three, but we liked them all: lively pickled herring topped with tomato-cabbage relish, buttery-mild ribbons of cured steelhead salmon with fingerling potatoes, and the signature mini tacos, crispy shells filled with yellowtail ceviche and avocado. Another winner was octopus terrine complemented by refreshing fennel-satsuma salad and slightly smoky bacon aioli. Of our two hot appetizers, we preferred sweetbreads on a smear of sunchoke puree with sunchokes, chanterelles, and red lentils; the other was a pair of nicely seared but salty sea scallops bedded on parsley root, golden raisins, and brussels sprouts.

Whole grilled trout, deboned and moistened by brown butter, came smothered in lardons, wilted Bordeaux spinach, chopped almonds, and both roasted pear slices and julienne raw pear. It vied for favorite entree with the hearty persimmon-glazed Gunthorp Farms pork chop with cubes of brown bread, roasted shallots, and baby spinach. Poached sturgeon—three little two-bite pieces—was stingy by comparison, and neither the piles of peekytoe crab and fennel nor the tidbits of pickled crab apple that accompanied it compensated for fishy undertones.

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