Restaurants: Cooks With Books, December 11, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: Cooks With Books, December 11, 2008

Eat in, take home the recipes

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Cooks With Books

17 West at the Berghoff17 W. Adams | 312-427-3170

F 6.6 | S 5.6 | A 8.0 | $$$ (6 reports)German/Austrian, American, Bar/Lounge | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Any restaurant existing in the shadow of the beloved, much mourned Berghoff has got its work cut out for it. And yet if you dined at its successor, the awkwardly named 17 West at the Berghoff, without any sort of emotional baggage, you might wonder what the fuss was about. At least the charming atmosphere and historic interiors have been largely preserved, with a bit of remodeling that's made the Berghoff Bar more easily accessible from the dining room. Several signature dishes have been retained as well, notably the Wiener schnitzel, knockwurst, and the famous creamed spinach. Among the appetizers, the old-fashioned chicken-spaetzle soup was straightforward but satisfying and the warm potato salad as homey as ever. Unfortunately the new additions to the menu are more lackluster in execution: butternut squash ravioli were somewhat gluey and just plain too sweet—they might as well have been smothered in whipped cream. But the actual desserts, including holdovers like Black Forest cake and, in season, a Yule log, are still wonderful. And though the dining room's prices remain on the steep end of things, sitting at the bar makes you privy to some exceptionally good happy hour specials on nibbles and drinks. —Rob Christopher

The Berghoff Family Cookbook: From Our Table to Yours, Celebrating a Century of Entertaining, Carlyn Berghoff and Nancy Ross Ryan (Andrews McMeel, $29.99)

Alinea1723 N. Halsted | 312-867-0110

F 9.9 | S 9.7 | A 8.2 | $$$$$ (12 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday

rrr Discreetly located in a town house spitting distance from chef Grant Achatz's first employer, Charlie Trotter, Alinea is marked only by a valet's sandwich board at the curb. Inside, a dining room and glass-walled kitchen share the first floor; up a set of glass stairs covered by metal mesh mats are two more small, luxuriously spare dining rooms. The menu has changed since I went there, but the concept remains the same: prix fixe tasting menus of experimental cuisine in 12 ($145) or a daunting 25 ($225) courses; wine pairings add to the bill. Achatz's initial offerings included bacon mounted on a trapeze and the by-now-notorious PB&J amuse—a peeled grape slathered with peanut butter, wrapped in brioche, and served, with stem, atop a wicked-looking wire contraption. Now the frequently changing menu might include such dishes as Hot Potato, a tiny bowl of chilled potato soup with a pin bearing a chunk of hot potato, Parmesan, butter, and a slice of black truffle; to eat it you slide the pin out so the potato and truffle drop into the soup, then slurp it as you would an oyster. The Alinea experience remains tightly controlled, with specific instructions as to how certain dishes should be eaten. Under less polished conditions this would be annoyingly pretentious, but the soothing rituals of fine dining can take the edge off the edgiest of cuisines. —Martha Bayne

Alinea, Grant Achatz (Ten Speed Press, $50)

Chicago Diner3411 N. Halsted | 773-935-6696

F 8.0 | S 6.0 | A 6.0 | $ (9 reports)Vegetarian/Healthy | brunch, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted

"Great food, all vegetarian—anything can be vegan" says one Rater of this north-side meatless mecca, now in its 25th year. Chicago Diner offers creative veggie, vegan, and gluten-free dishes in a comfortable space lined with old-fashioned wooden booths. Brunch, served till 3:30 daily, is very popular, with offerings including biscuits and gravy, a veggie Monte Cristo, and an award-winning veggie Reuben. —Martha Bayne

The Chicago Diner Cookbook, Jo A. Kaucher (Book Publishing Company, $14.95)

Frontera Grill445 N. Clark | 312-661-1434

F 8.6 | S 6.8 | A 7.5 | $$$ (13 reports)Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday brunch | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

rrr Next door to the more formal Topolobampo, in a room covered with folk art, Frontera delivers a changing menu of exotically elemental stuff rarely represented on menus north of the Rio Grande—enchiladas dulces, for example, Colima-style shredded pork in a peppery chocolate sauce with pickled cabbage. On our last visit we sampled Mayan-inspired dishes, among them poc chuc de puerco, orange-marinated pork with a sharply defined habanero salsa. Frontera's marisqueira ecologica, a "sustainable seafood bar," lays out gorgeous oysters and vuelve a la vida, the classic ceviche cocktail. Yellow mole shows up on some other local menus, but here it cushioned a trout dressed with hoja santa (aka root beer plant) and garlicky purslane, both common in Mexico but less so on stateside platters. Desserts such as plantains with homemade crema make a suitably rich and sweet finish. With them, consider spending a few extra bucks on "Coffee for a Cause," a 100 percent Oaxacan brew that will go down as one of the most full-flavored straight-ahead joes you've ever tasted. —David Hammond

Authentic Mexican 20th Anniversary Edition: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico, Rick Bayless (William Morrow, $30)

Heaven on Seven111 N. Wabash | 312-263-6443

F 7.5 | S 6.0 | A 6.3 | $ (6 reports)Cajun | Breakfast, Lunch: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations accepted for large groups only | Cash only

Step off the elevator and get in line: this original Cajun restaurant, one of the first in town, is hidden in a seventh-floor coffee shop in the Garland Building in the heart of the Loop. Open just 9 AM to 4 PM Monday through Friday and Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM, it still attracts a steady stream of fans who line up in the corridor and sometimes wait as long as 45 minutes for chef-owner Jimmy Bannos's lively, authentic food: consistently good jambalaya, gumbo, and po'boys, plus daily etouffees, pastas, and more. Diners can spice up dishes at will with the ubiquitous bottles of hot sauce. For more regular dinner service, check out the restaurant's spin-off location at 600 N. Michigan (entrance at Rush and Ohio). —Laura Levy Shatkin

The Heaven on Seven Cookbook: Where It's Mardi Gras All the Time!, Jimmy Bannos and John DeMers (Ten Speed Press, $18.95)

The Parthenon314 S. Halsted | 312-726-2407

$Greek, Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till midnight

Few Chicago restaurants have delivered the goods as well and for as long as the Parthenon. I've never had a better taramasalata, and the tzatziki has none of yogurt's usual sourness. The Parthenon claims to have invented saganaki, and it's always a kick to watch a waiter light up five or six portions at once. The meats (mostly lamb and pork) are on the fatty side, but, hey, this is essentially soul food, and the fat's where the flavor is. A favorite is the fried sweetbreads, which are crisp and light and usually available only at much fancier places. The wine list offers a variety of Greek reds and whites, but most people get the retsina, which goes down well with the rich meats and is especially good well chilled on a hot summer night. The Parthenon keeps redecorating and expanding to keep up with the times. But year in and year out, it's one of Chicago's best buys for flavor. —Steve Tomashefsky, Rater

The Parthenon Cookbook: Great Mediterranean Recipes From the Heart of Chicago's Greektown, Camille Stagg (Agate Surrey, $24.95)

Spiaggia980 N. Michigan | 312-280-2750

F 9.4 | S 9.7 | A 9.7 | $$$$ (6 reports)Italian | Dinner: seven days

rrr Whoever says people don't dress for dinner anymore hasn't been to Spiaggia lately: the guests are as perfectly appointed as the room. Chef Tony Mantuano offers tasting menus, but on this visit we went full bore and ordered a la carte, starting with sea scallops paired with Italian lentils and cotechino sausage; a trio of pesce cruda; and surprisingly delicate house-marinated anchovies with buffalo mozzarella. Pasta here, as one might expect, is terrific: handmade spaghetti alla chitarra came with sweet lobster, spring garlic, dried tomatoes, and arugula; squid ink and saffron spaghettis with surprisingly meaty Dover sole and baby fennel fronds. Mantuano's risotto is not to be missed, and my grilled pork loin—served with morels, ramps, braised pork cheek, and a chunk of guanciale—was so damn good I felt abandoned when they took the plate away. Desserts—an intense chocolate semifreddo and mouth-puckering lemon panna cotta—were grand, but Spiaggia's cheese program is second to none, with superior offerings like a signature aged cow's milk cheese and a cheese made with grape must and grape seeds, which crunch under your teeth. Service is seamless. —Gary Wiviott

Wine Bar Food: Mediterranean Flavors to Crave With Wines to Match, Cathy and Tony Mantuano (Clarkson Potter, $27.50)

Tru676 N. Saint Clair | 312-202-0001

F 8.2 | S 9.0 | A 8.4 | $$$$$ (7 reports)French, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

The cheapest way to eat at Tru, the Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand temple, is to skip dinner and just show up for dessert. Tru offers a few late-night reservations, subject to availability, for their three-course dessert tasting menu, which runs $40—a deal considering that a single dessert on the regular menu is $15. In any case, there's no question it would be hubris to have dinner at Tru and then order the dessert tasting (I recommend an early evening salad and a nap). There's a round of "fruit and custard" desserts, followed by a chocolate round: that's a total of eight different desserts for the four of us at the table, and although there were a few misses—the chocolate-port semifreddo was inexplicable—things like the gianduja napoleon with layers of frozen caramel mousse and hazelnut nougatine were breathtaking. To top it off, out came a dollhouse-size float of house-made root beer and Kahlua ice cream, and then—just to be polite—the staff brought by a tray of truffles and a jar of madeleines, then an entire cart of candies and miniature pastries: nougat, lollipops, truffles, macaroons, gelees. At 1 AM I walked out dizzy with sugar and luxury, convinced I'd never want dessert again and grateful that Northwestern University Hospital was across the street. —Nicholas Day

Short and Sweet Dessert Deck: 50 Mouthwatering Recipes with Eight Ingredients or Less, Gale Gand (Potter Style, $14.95)

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