The two best restaurants to open in the past year escaped from New York. Tra Via features a chef who worked at some of the Big Apple's highest-rated dining rooms; the Park Avenue Cafe is the first out-of-town venture by David Burke, a lauded New York chef and cookbook author--though he installed a local chef to oversee the kitchen here.
For David Wennerlyn of Tra Via it's been a circuitous route: he's from Minneapolis, where he had his own chic little place before moving on to New York and the kitchens of Bouley, Le Cirque, and the Gotham Bar and Grill. Wennerlyn had a brief stint at Yvette Wintergarden before hooking up with Stephen Goebel to open Tra Via last fall.
"New York has this demanding, sophisticated group of people who dine out regularly," Wennerlyn says. "You've got to be on your toes all the time. But Chicago is almost as much of a challenge these days. More and more people really know food--though they may not eat out as often."
David Burke says, "We picked Chicago for our first out-of-town restaurant because we thought it would be the most accepting city for the kind of thing we do." Burke's partner, Allan Stillman, operates a half-dozen places, including Smith & Wollensky, one of the best steakhouses in New York.
Burke hired local chef Charles Weber, who gained fame at the old La Tour and later the Blackhawk Lodge, because he was "totally sympathetic and compatible" for the kind of "new American" cuisine featured in the restaurant.
When it opened early this year, the menu was identical to the one in New York. Gradually a few new items were added, though Burke says, "I want to let Weber do more of his own things."
The Park Avenue Cafe, on the second floor of the Doubletree Guest Suites hotel, is an overly bright maze of rooms that can get a bit noisy at times. Once you get past the guy with the attitude who checks your reservations and looks at you as if you crawled out of a coal mine, everybody treats you very well. The service, however, is usually v-e-r-y s-l-o-w. But they're not beyond compensating for it with a free round of drinks.
And the food is well worth waiting for. The flavors are always intense and the combinations are unique. An amazing starter is the perfectly seared sea scallops atop a fine bed of stewed oxtail ($8.50). There are different takes on raw and cured fish--tartare and carpaccio--the most interesting of which is a triumvirate of salmon: tartare, smoked, and Burke's patented pastrami-cured, all served with corn blini and airy cream cheese ($9.50). The rich lobster broth with lobster wontons is another big hit ($7.50).
The signature entree is the swordfish "chop," an enormous piece of fish cut with its collarbone protruding. It's seared, treated with mixed herbs and olive oil, and finished in the oven ($26.50). Another magnificent entree is a batch of mustard-crusted tuna, piled high and accompanied by lovely shiitakes ($21.50). I was equally pleased by a giant, juicy roasted pork chop topped with tender clams, heavy on the garlic ($22.50).
Tra Via--located on a boisterous strip of bars and restaurants in Lincoln Park--is deceptive in appearance and style. Its atmosphere is casual and pleasant, and most dishes--which come in generous portions at very reasonable prices--are exceptional. But it gets much too loud, even when half full, and the seating isn't very comfortable. Though it has an Italian name and a great wood-burning brick pizza oven, the food is not authentic Italian but Italian-influenced "new American."
You will forgive these transgressions, however, once you taste Wennerlyn's wild mushroom ragout starter ($7.50), an ever-changing mix of seasonal wild mushrooms in a glistening pan sauce that turns these earthy entities into something ethereal. (The menu is a collaboration between Wennerlyn and Goebel, who is also a wine expert.)
Among the best appetizers on the night I was there were the grilled calamari, touched with a tomato-caper relish and mated with a creamy blob of polenta ($6), and the pepper-seared tuna, accompanied by pancetta, white beans, and arugula oil ($7). Also tasty are little pizzas (enough for two), which feature a terrific crackling-crisp crust. There are five topping combinations ($6.50 to $9), the least exciting of which is the eggplant-mozzarella.
The signature entree here is brick chicken--yes, baked under a brick after an initial browning--whose herbal coating elevates a peasant dish to royalty ($10). Grilled lamb--done to a rosy turn--came with an astonishing compote of roasted garlic and tomato to go with its aromatic crust ($13.50). The only disappointment was the roast pork chops, which were a bit dry ($12).
Both restaurants are inventive with their sauces and combinations, and change their menus seasonally. Both are welcome additions, even if they do have New York connections. Park Avenue Cafe is located at 199 E. Walton; call 944-4414 for reservations. Tra Via is at 2263 N. Lincoln; call 348-7200 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.