One look at the nightly specials menu at West Town's Arami should jar anyone out of his sushi-ordering routine. Sushi chef B.K. Park, a veteran of Mirai, Meiji, and Aria, leaves the spicy-mayo-tempura-crunch frippery to everyone else, instead focusing on the fundamentals of traditional Japanese cooking: rice, fish, soy, seaweed.
Park's sushi showcases outstanding quality and character across a wide variety of fish, both familiar (tuna, salmon, yellowtail) and less common (madai, kampachi, shima aji). Even if you don't opt for omakase (chef's choice), pieces arrive in an experience-enhancing progression, starting with the most delicate and ramping up in intensity throughout the meal. Though some folks might be unnerved by sashimi that stares back, the whole aji (horse mackerel)—sliced off the bone into silvery wisps and artfully reassembled and arranged with flowers—is a spectacular beginning. This species belies mackerel's oily, fishy reputation, especially when paired with Park's ginger-chive dipping sauce. At the top end of the intensity scale is the toro hand roll, in which incredibly rich tuna belly is chopped into smooth submission, fat threatening to melt into the rice—it's an instant candidate for last-meal consideration.
Superpremium California Tamaki Gold is the rice of choice here. Cooked and seasoned to exacting specs, the tangy grains barely cling together when formed into bite-size fingers for nigiri—what a difference from the cold, sticky rice bombs so often found hiding out under slabs of weepy tuna. After my pal fumbled a striking piece of aka anago (red sea eel) nigiri into his soy sauce dish, he painstakingly retrieved every grain, muttering regrets. Other thoughtful details include house-pickled ginger, crisp sheets of toasted nori, and a fine selection of loose-leaf teas. It's just a shame customers can't watch Park and his assistants at work—the raised sushi bar obscures the view.
Despite all the attention to tradition, Arami isn't some hushed temple of sushi. The simple space is casual—hipsters, families, and neighbors quickly fill up the small room on any given night. Homey dishes like steaming bowls of pork-belly ramen, short rib donburi, and broiled octopus salad come from the kitchen tucked behind the sushi bar. But though the cooked stuff is competent, it doesn't shine the way the raw does. One exception is the broiled fish collar that appears regularly on the specials menu. Rare at the bone and blistered on the surface, this gnarly hunk of sushi-grade fish neck is like the seafood version of a porterhouse steak.
Arami's BYO days are numbered, but I'd expect an interesting beverage program from owners Troy and Ty Fujimora, who also own Small Bar and the Exchange. —Kristina Meyer
With Old Town's Burger Bar and Sono Wood Fired, former corporate chef John McLean, who handled menu planning for Levy Restaurants sports facilities, jumps on the coattails of two of the Great Recession's prevailing food trends—probably just in time for the coming plagues of Burger Boredom and Pizza Fatigue.
At Burger Bar, the precisely cooked, loosely formed, unseasoned half-pound patties can be piled with an unlimited combination of 13 toppings for an attractive $9 (or $10 with the $1 upcharge for cheese, bacon, or fried egg). Those who prefer to abdicate creative control must confront a selection of Kuma's-style exercises in superfluity, including a barbecue pork burger topped with bacon, ham, white cheddar, and apple-cabbage slaw and the Burgh, a burger with fries on top named for the great city of Pittsburgh, where the natives are known to put fries on their oatmeal.
Among these "stackers," the best I had was a special of a goat burger (ordered and received perfectly medium rare, although the kitchen recommended medium), topped with the winning combo of tzatziki, lightly pickled onions and cucumber, and, oddly, garlicky green chimichurri. Chicken, turkey, veggie, and tuna sashimi burgers are options for the beef averse. Salads and sides call into question the commitment to the mission—a floury mac 'n' cheese, nearly unseasoned salt-and-pepper calamari—and the selection of "fries," which encompasses not only thin, limp regular, truffled, and sweet potato shoestring but fried green beans, zucchini, and thick, soft wedges of battered portobello, is inversely proportional to the quality of the frying.
A nice selection of tap and bottled craft beers boosted by an evangelical staff creates a pacing dilemma when combined with the menu of 11 thick hand-spun specialty shakes, including flavors like black cow, banana-Nutella, and malted milk ball. For the most part McLean's simplest efforts here are the best.
Things are even simpler next door at Sono: lots of wine, antipasti, bruschetta, some salads, three pasta dishes, and of course, pizza, "80 percent" of it all, a server informed us, coming out of the 1,000-degree tiled wood-burning oven into a small room that has waitstaff stumbling on table legs between the tables and the bar.
Over small plates of crumbly, dry polenta crostini and cannellini beans with olive oil, I became convinced of something I only suspected back in the Burger Bar. What might be interpreted as an authentically Tuscan light touch with salt is simply institutional overrestraint in almost everything—including the centerpiece pizzas, which are built in rossa and bianco varieties on a thin, dry Neapolitan crust that you can sense getting drier by the second. The white pizzas are almost custardy—a clam pie is blanketed with béchamel, and a braised fennel-topped one is caked with mascarpone and goat cheese. Red pies are dressed in simple parcooked tomato, its blandness sometimes brightened by sheets of hot soppressata or the incendiary pork sausage.
The pork sausage also appeared in the best thing I tried, sadly not a pie but an ample plate of orecchiette and spinach; you may or may not get off on the sensation of eating the pasta maker's thumbprint (I did). Among the antipasti there's a terrific shareable, chunky eggplant caponata, which comes with three thick chunks of oven-toasted bread. At $5 it's a terrific value, certainly better than the $3-per-piece selection of bruschetta built on the same bread. Here the problem is the obverse of the burger bar's—the incidentals are superior to the main product. —Mike Sula
Ten more recent openings
1236 W. 18th | 312-733-9601
BREAKFAST, BURGERS | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY
Next door to Benny's Pizza, Benny's Grill features all-day breakfast and dinner, with specials several times a week, and a standard lineup of burgers, sandwiches and omelets. But we found the real soul of the place in the Mexican breakfast specials. While a Denver omelet was a decently fluffy take on the classic, the pancakes that came with it were tastier. A half order of biscuits and gravy had three fresh biscuits doused in sweet, sticky sauce with pork bits. The best part of the meal was the machacado con huevos, a mishmash of eggs, shredded air-dried Mexican beef, onions, and tomatoes, which arrived with a side of spicy salsa, steaming tortillas, and refried beans and rice. Also notable is the multicolored, multidimensional art on the walls (including abstract designs on cow-skin canvases; organic paintings, and jewelry), most of which, it turns out, was inherited from the previous occupant, Mexican bakery Bombon. —Izidora Angel
2210 N. California | 773-276-5625
BAR/LOUNGE, PIZZA | LUNCH: SATURDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2
The Boiler Room embraces kitsch, from its industrial, subway-themed take on cool to its predictable punk and mid-90s alt-rock soundtrack. The new Logan Square pizza joint from the owners of Simone's also offers daily specials—and one permanent one, the PB&J: an enormous slice of pizza, a tall boy of PBR, and a shot of Jameson for $7.50. Actually, if you can avoid ingesting PBR or Jameson during your meal, you should probably get a gold star or a high five or something. Although we couldn't manage the PB&J at 2 PM on a Sunday, my friend did order the Boiler Room pizza with PBR meatballs (success!), giardiniera, and oregano. While she said it lacked spice (she's full-on Italian and was likely just trying to show off), it still got a definite thumbs-up. I had a serviceable Purist slice with fresh mozzarella, basil (not much of it, though), and a welcome drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. The highlights of the Seasonal were the thin, crunchy crust and abundant roasted garlic, though the healthy portion of summer squash was mostly undercooked. Aside from slices and pies, the stripped-down menu offers a handful of appetizers and salads as well as a dessert special. There's also a beer and cocktail menu that's solid but unspectacular. The Boiler Room's bread and butter, though, is the same as Santullo's in Wicker Park: giant slices of pizza and (usually) cheap alcohol. It's really not a bad niche to have. And with clever novelties like a free shot of Jameson with each $2.75 ATM withdrawal fee (the restaurant is cash only), the Boiler Room will likely be able to live happily ever after, despite being situated right around the corner from the kingdom of Revolution Brewing. —Kevin Warwick
3749 W. Fullerton | 773-489-3748
MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OUTDOOR SEATING | BYO
This Logan Square mid-level regional Mexican spot is, according to its website, "literally born from the ashes of Fonda del Mar," but that's simplifying the confusing saga of this onetime gem quite a bit. After expanding to the North Center neighborhood as FDM (that location is now closed), Fonda del Mar changed its name to Don Diablo and relaunched as a taqueria. It then closed for a time, scuttled the tacos, and reopened this summer as a restaurant similar to the original concept. But I wonder if chef Angel Hernandez shares that first incarnation's commitment to sourcing quality ingredients. While the plates are beautiful and sauces mostly complex and delicious, something about the food falls flat, particularly when it comes to seafood. The limp, dull mariscos did not go well with a tangy, deeply-flavored chilatole with sweet corn kernels. And the only bright side of a poblano stuffed with ground salmon and mushrooms was its creamy chipotle sauce. On the other hand, Hernandez makes a mean cochinita pibil, tart juice and pickled red onion offsetting earthy black beans, and desserts—like a lime tart with blueberry puree dressing and a flan studded with raisiny anchos—are terrific. It's just as friendly as its previous incarnations—bring your own tequila and they'll make you a hell of margarita—which should be a comfort to its original fans. —Mike Sula
3352 N. Halsted | 773-697-9127
BAR/LOUNGE, BURGERS | LUNCH: FRIDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2 | OUTDOOR SEATING | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
Located in the heart of Boys Town, D.S. Tequila Company has all the usual features of a sports bar: tons of flat-screen TVs, blaring music, and Bud, Coors, and Miller Lite on tap (though there are also a few marginally more exotic options like Negra Modelo, Victoria, and Harp). But the food is a cut above normal bar fare, with a focus on Mexican items like guacamole and tacos (both excellent). Close to half of the menu is devoted to burgers. The signature version was juicy enough to soak the bun and benefited from the aged white cheddar, bacon, and balsamic pickled onions on top. Getting dessert was a challenge because our waiter, though enthusiastic when we first sat down, brought the check unasked (he'd long since seemed to lose interest in serving us). When our tres leches "cupcake" finally arrived, it was soggy even by tres leches standards; the "sugar crisps"—deep-fried tortillas coated in cinnamon sugar and served with a bourbon cream dipping sauce—were better. The bar plans to start selling its own brand of tequila within the next few months, and in the meantime margaritas are made with Don Modesto. I didn't have the courage to try any of the frozen, flavored variations, which include "Coco Loco" and "Bumpin' Bananas," but the classic margarita on the rocks was made with fresh lime juice, strong and pretty decent. —Julia Thiel
1467 N. Milwaukee | 773-360-7650
BAR/LOUNGE, burgers | Dinner: seven days | Open Late: Daily Till 2 AM | OUTDOOR SEATING | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
The food menu here is nothing if not concise: a few appetizers and four sandwich-type items, including chicken on pita and a brat. The half-dozen cocktails at this new Wicker Park venture by two veterans of the Matchbox and the Silver Palm are similarly restrained: mostly classics like gimlets and manhattans, well balanced and not overly sweet. The sense of balance extends, unexpectedly, to the Hog's Boss sandwich, consisting of pork loin with bratwurst and chipotle mayo, the richness cut by bacon-laced sauerkraut. Crispy french fries were beautifully studded with coarse salt, but the house-made rosemary potato chips were a little lacking in that department. Intended more as bar snacks than entrees, sandwiches are on the small side, which means that at $8 apiece they're not exactly cheap. Still, they do come with fries, chips, or onion rings, and the Gunner's Burger with bacon and egg was worth the price. There's no beer on tap yet; the selection of bottles is undistinguished. Bell's Oberon is pretty much all there is as far as craft beer goes, and the imports don't get much more interesting than Sapporo. —Julia Thiel
1045 W. Madison | 312-563-1008
SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OUTDOOR SEATING | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
The overwhelming menu at Mark Bires and Mindy Friedler's old West Loop sandwich shop Jerry's has been preserved at their newer, larger Wicker Park location, but the selection of po'boys at the shop's new incarnation as Mac and Min's is somewhat limited by comparison. The lineup of New Orleans-style submarines still encourages dithering, though—especially if you're of a mind to stray from icons like the fried oyster po'boy. The spicy batter-coated bivalves could stand a harder fry, but otherwise it's as faithful a rendition of the classic sandwich as you're likely to find outside of Louisiana. Similarly faithful are the roughly sliced roast beef, bathed in a tangy gravy, and the barbecue shrimp—not barbecued at all but rather enrobed in a NOLA butter-garlic-Worcestershire sauce I'd be happy to lick off a shoe. The bread (against which the aforementioned crustaceans provide a satisfying pop) comes from D'Amato's, except for the La Farine ciabatta that restrains the story upon story of ham, mortadella, capicola, salami, Provolone, and olive salad in the almost obscenely towering muffuletta. I've had one stinker so far in my efforts to work down the menu: a special corn crab cake that was crispy hot on one side, cold on the flip, and wasted stomach space that could have been filled with spicy chaurice sausage or surf-and-turf shrimp and beef. But in contrast to Jerry's, with its blunderbuss approach to sandwich making, Mac and Min's is a focused if swooning love letter to New Orleans. There are a few unfortunate corny touches, such as as Mardi Gras beads and masks on the wall, but the thoughtful complements—chicory coffee in a French press, a complete line of Zapp's potato chips, and the most respectfully rendered andouille-and-chicken gumbo I've slurped outside of the Crescent City—make it a keeper. —Mike Sula
5304 W. Devon | 773-792-8300
ITALIAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11
John Boudouvas is a Tizi Melloul alum, but Mia Figlia, the comfortable Edgebrook trattoria he and chef-partner Armando Lopez have created, owes more to their time working at the Francesca's restaurants. The menu mostly sticks to the tried and true, and almost nothing tastes authentically Italian. But the cooking is competent, with some interesting twists. Carpaccio benefited from a novel garnish of potato salad coated with basil pesto, and if everything were as good as the warm lentils, complemented by baby spinach, piquant black olives, tangy goat cheese, and a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, I'd be back regularly. Old-fashioned eggplant Parmesan with a side of al dente linguine in spunky tomato sauce could have been prepared by an Italian-American mama, and the same was true of the substantial, reasonably priced pastas and secondi. Dense handmade cavatelli in rich Gorgonzola cream sauce needed spicier house-made sausage, but toasted walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes added some pizzazz. While the tagliata al marsala arrived medium rare rather than rare as ordered, the tender sliced steak with smoked mozzarella sticks, lots of roasted wild mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and marsala glaze was a satisfying meal. The small Italian wine list is affordable but may disappoint serious oenophiles. Considerate service was unevenly paced. —Anne Spiselman
4256 N. Western | 773-588-6266
ASIAN, JAPANESE, THAI | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO
Replacing the Thai bakery Kan Pou on a nondescript strip of Western, Nano Sushi seemed a more useful addition to the neighborhood's array of restaurants. Yet a recent visit found the sushi, as chosen by the chef, less than fresh—the shrimp in particular looked as if it had walked over from the nearby Jewel, and proved tough enough to have done just that—and the ebi tempura maki was nothing special. Even the seemingly infallible gomae turned out to be tightly wound, leaving cold patches in the center, and overly lathered with sauce and sesame seeds. The menu also included Thai staples like pad Thai and pad see ew, unfortunate in that the restaurant is located midway between two of the top Thai spots in the city, Sticky Rice and Spoon Thai. The red-and-black interior and the music mix of acid-jazz lounge tunes by anonymous acts all trying to sing like Bono didn't freshen the atmosphere. Still, it's hard not to root for a place that trots out a motorized scooter from the back room to make nearby deliveries. —Ted Cox
1401 W. Taylor | 312-733-9871
BREAKFAST | 6 AM-3 PM DAILY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Spiro Tsaldaris—whose family used to own breakfast favorite Eppel's—is behind Taylor Street's new Stax Cafe, a higher-end concept for breakfast and lunch with offerings like brisket hash, falafel sliders, pineapple upside-down pancakes, and blue-corn-and-bacon waffles. Chef Chris Barron is in the kitchen, bringing to the table experience from Market and a couple of Jerry Kleiner's venues (Opera, Red Light). This corner spot done up in shades of cafe au lait has a white-tiled counter with a full view of the kitchen and a juice bar serving fresh orange, grapefruit, and apple juice, the last with a pineapple leaf stirrer. It'd be silly not to try the pancakes at a place called Stax; we went with white chocolate-raspberry and, no, there was no need for maple syrup. Eggs Sardou, artichoke cups filled with creamed spinach, poached eggs, and hollandaise, were on the bland side, but the Parma Prosciutto—polenta cakes with poached eggs, salty prosciutto, and Parmesan—was just heaven. The fried potatoes that accompany most egg dishes are beautifully done, perfectly crisped in oil for a guilty crunch. Lunch brings sandwiches, burgers—both a half-pound Angus and a turkey burger—and salads. —Izidora Angel
1059 W. Belmont | 773-868-9900
ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH: TUESDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO
Matsuyama has morphed into Ukai, a deep storefront in red and brown tones with look-of-stone vinyl-tile flooring, a sit-down sushi bar, and a combination of banquettes and tables. Held over from the old place is a policy of offering smaller maki for lower prices (most are five pieces for $8, though you can get full size for $6 extra). Among the innovations: sushi chef-partner Choong J's rolls dedicated to Chicago sports teams and executive chef Paul Chant's fusion-y hot tapas. On our visit, fin fish were limited to salmon, yellowtail, tuna, and super white tuna. While we enjoyed them as nigiri and sashimi, we were wowed by a "raw" small plate of hamachi jalapeño, four slices of very fresh yellowtail with just enough sriracha, ponzu, and mustard seed oil, topped with a little grapefruit, jalapeño, and cilantro for a perfect balance of flavors and textures. Gomae reinvented as a spinach-wrapped maki stuffed with minced cucumber and kampyo also was a winner, enhanced by a fine powder called "cracked sesame and soy yuzu air." A couple of our maki deviated from the menu descriptions, but I'd order the pink lady (salmon, avocado, pink soy paper, ikura) and belinary (soft-shell crab tempura, unagi, avocado) again. The tempura-fried Cubs roll (unagi, shrimp, mozzarella) won more points with us than the Sox one (super white tuna, cilantro, kampyo; inside-out and coated with black tobiko to match the team's colors). Our four hot plates were hit-or-miss. Best was tender, rare-as-requested lamb loin paired with hummus. The worst: two tiny bites of foie gras with soupy mushrooms for $11. Rosemary-spiked miso broth did nothing for overbreaded agedashi tofu, but miso foam and edamame perked up miso soup. Pork ramen is the only noodle dish and an ideal winter meal: the robust broth was loaded with roasted pork tenderloin, spinach, pickled cabbage, and thin noodles finished with a sunny fried egg. First-rate house-made chocolate lava cake had a creamy surprise inside and green tea ice cream on the side. A prix fixe five-course meal (currently $19.99) changes monthly. —Anne Spiselman