Restaurants: Honorable Mention, November 13, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: Honorable Mention, November 13, 2008

Eleven more notable new restaurants

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Honorable Mention

Big Jones5347 N. Clark | 773-275-5725

$$$american contemporary/regional, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch: monday-friday; dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch

Paul Fehribach, former chef at Schubas' Harmony Grill, has taken the space long home to trapped-in-amber Augie's diner and turned it into an airy, minimalist dining room distinguished by floor-to-ceiling windows and wrought-iron chandeliers. Like those chandeliers, the menu gives a little wave to the French Quarter. The cocktail list is full of daiquiris, hurricanes, and nicely balanced Sazeracs—including one with absinthe—and the menu includes crawfish croquettes, etouffee, and a rich and smoky gumbo with chicken and andouille. But these items share the page with inland delicacies like baby back ribs, not to mention the complimentary starter, currently a homemade cheddar cracker with five-pepper jelly. I didn't try the sandwiches but I wish I had: at a neighboring table the fried green tomato BLT on Sally Lunn and a sizable Tallgrass beef burger with fontina and green aioli were provoking groans of happiness. And the fresh, clean flavors of a simple house salad got my friend to sit up and take notice. All in all Big Jones seems to be striving to fuse the accoutrements of upscale dining with the down-home soul of country cooking. When it doesn't work there can be a disconnect. But when it does, the results are stellar, both sophisticated and bone-deep satisfying. —Martha Bayne

Blue 13416 W. Ontario | 312-787-1400

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Tuesday-Saturday till midnight

Tattoos! On the wall! Oh my stars! The rock 'n' roll trappings of Blue 13, from former Zealous sous chef Chris Curren, aren't any more original than those at Graham Elliot or even Rockstar Dogs—the framed flash looks suspiciously similar to the wallpaper in the men's room at Kuma's. (Replace the skin art with skin diseases and maybe you'll scare me.) But even if badass fine dining already seems so last month, I wouldn't write off this little spot, housed in the former Tony Rocco's River North. In the earlier dinner hours the vibe is dialed down, putting the focus on the food, and the kitchen's ratio of hits to misses is not discouraging, starting on my last visit with "fish and chips," a glass of ahi tuna tartare, taro chips, and wasabi foam—finally there's a way to enjoy foam. On the other hand, butter-poached lobster on polenta cake was overcooked, so gummy you could blow a bubble with it. And back and forth it goes: a plank of pan-seared walleye balanced on four enormous and beautiful roasted-corn-and-manchego agnolotti would have been perfect if the pasta were cooked just a bit more (usually it's the opposite problem). A structurally frustrating pylon of icy blood orange semifreddo toppled over repeatedly, but a perfectly simple fudge brownie with coffee ice cream balanced the scale. I have to reserve highest praise for Curren's signature "steak and eggs on acid"—beef tenderloin layered over pierogi and topped with a quail egg. A smear of wasabi between the steak and dumplings was a simple but inspired riff on horseradish that took this far beyond the realm of mere meat and potatoes—and made me think Curren just might rock harder than he pretends to. —Mike Sula

The Bristol2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Thursday till midnight, Monday-Wednesday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

If we truly lived in a town that cared to eat well, restaurants like chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol would be distributed evenly instead of concentrating in overcrowded, gentrified ghettos like Bucktown or Lincoln Square. The seasonal menu at this new arrival promises interesting variety at accessible prices, including of late a broiled eel sandwich, a perfect pairing of grilled mackerel and romaine in the Caesar, and "Scotch olives," a mutation of a Scotch egg (a boiled egg encased in sausage and deep-fried) and Italian olives all'Ascolana (fat green olives stuffed with pork and veal and deep-fried). The Bristol's snack portion consists of smaller fruit somewhat overwhelmed by their envelope of crispy pork sausage—but I'd be helpless not to order it again. Challenges are even more evident on the daily chalkboard menu, where snout-to-tail items beyond pork belly or the increasingly common headcheese put the Bristol (along with places like Mado and the Publican) in the growing class of restaurants catering to the public's curiosity about the fifth quarter and other uncommon proteins. It's indicative of Pandel's guts that he's unafraid to leave the foot on a roasted half chicken, but at the same time he occasionally shows too much restraint. A supper-club-style relish plate special with potted salmon and beer cheese featured beets with a sprinkling of grated bottarga, the delicious, famously funky cured roe of a mullet. But it was applied with such moderation that if I'd never eaten it before I'd think it was nothing more than some ungarnished purple root vegetable. Similarly, the gaminess inherent in a grilled goat trio—chops, belly, and rib—was so disguised by a sweet, sticky hoisin sauce that I could have been eating lamb. If these dishes still sound fearsome, there's plenty here to feed the timid—duck-fat fries, grilled seafood, a burger, a steak—and the beer list is deep and fascinating, with lots of large-format bottles and unusual choices. The Bristol's not yet a one-of-a-kind destination, but it shows potential as the kind of neighborhood beer hall everyone deserves to have within walking distance. —Mike Sula

Duchamp2118 N. Damen | 773-235-6434

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday till 11

"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," declared Marcel Duchamp. So he'd have to scoff at Michael Taus, whose chummy Bucktown spot Duchamp is aesthetically delectable in a couple ways. Unlike the chef's pricier Zealous, most main courses here run between $15 and $20, and for that kind of money they're a lot more satisfying than might be expected. We approached a crispy fried skate wing "fish-and-chips" with tartar sauce with some unease, but the dense pieces of fish held up well to the oil under the bread-crumb batter. "Return to Thailand Bouillabaisse" (enough with the quote marks already) was a luxuriant coconut curry with mussels, shrimp, and a gorgeous piece of sea bass. The least successful of the large plates we tried was a hunk of braised pork shoulder, luscious and tender but so big it rejected the penetration of the puttanesca that sauced it. Small plates were a little more expensive, relatively speaking, but mostly gratifying: a white pizza with sweet lobster offset by some beefy trumpet mushrooms; an off-menu tempura rock shrimp toast afloat in a thick, rich lobster bisque; smoked salmon tartare blinis like little turbans ornamented with dollops of creme fraiche; duck rillettes set atop swabs of cauliflower puree. Utilitarian desserts—creme brulee, lemon tart—were outclassed by a duo of mini chocolate cupcakes and chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. There are a few questionable decorative choices—clear Plexiglas dining room chairs and bar stools that resemble torture devices might've made the ol' Dadaist happy—but the broad communal tables don't seem to foster a rushed, chaotic environment (see Avec, Urban Belly). This is a comfortable, enjoyable spot the neighborhood's lucky to have. —Mike Sula

Marion Street Cheese Market Cafe100 S. Marion, Oak Park | 708-725-7200

$$American Contemporary/Regional, Small Plates| Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Marion Street Cheese Market Cafe lays out exquisite cheeses, meats, and local produce, done up as small plates and entrees—but not too done up. The cafe specializes in noninterventionist cuisine, manipulating its plates minimally and setting them forth in ways that foreground the undiluted goodness of artisanal chow; the goal of chef Michael Pivoney seems to be to let the food work its own natural magic. We marveled at panko-dusted fried green tomatoes, dressed with bearnaise, and innovative pizzas prepared with a rotating selection from the 100 or so cheeses lovingly stored in a massive glassed-in cooler. Wine and beer flights—three decent pours priced $11 and under—are well paired with cheese and charcuterie, affording tiny tastes of many good things, which is what this cafe is all about. Don't come here expecting a bellyful; instead, sample simple dishes like smoked pork with sweet potato hash or prosciutto with mango, sip a tasty beverage or two, and leave feeling very satisfied but not stuffed. —David Hammond

Mexique1529 W. Chicago | 312-850-0288

$$$Mexican, global/fusion/eclectic | Lunch: Tuesday-friday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Imagine the intensity of native Mexican ingredients, finessed with French exuberance, and you have an idea of what you can expect at Mexique. Case in point: pescamal, a seafood mousse tamal cooked in banana leaf and stuffed with crabmeat fricassee, the smooth tastes of cornmeal and crab sharpened and brought into focus with lemon confit. A trio of sopes combines escargots and chimichurri butter, avocado mousse and shrimp Provencal, and sweet plantains with coconut and xico mole, harmonizing Native American and continental European accents. Chef Carlos Gaytan presents finely balanced flavors: pato al tamarindo is duck breast and rich leg confit in a slightly sour tamarind glaze, paired with Swiss chard that supplies a bitter note; the herb-crusted rack of lamb, lush and perfectly cooked, gets a counterpoint from delicately astringent sweet and spicy eggplant. Classic cochinita pibil is moist and luxuriant, perked up with piquant pickled onion, or you can have it Frenchified as rillettes, finely minced, almost spreadable meat, a beautiful example of Franco-Mexican fusion. All dishes show sensitive uses of chile heat, with condiments like mango-habanero couli and garlic-mulato chile essence. For dessert, an avocado pastry cream with crispy tortilla is another successful cross-cultural creation. At Mexique, fusing Mexican and French is no mere gimmick; it works wonderfully. —David Hammond

Mixteco Grill1601 W. Montrose | 773-868-1601

$$Mexican | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

Based on the name and the looks of the place, you might take Mixteco Grill for a nicer-than-normal diner, acceptable if unambitious. Don't be fooled: this is a restaurant set on greatness. The menu is pan-Mexican, featuring Oaxacan moles, Pueblan salsas, Guerrerense meats, and other regional specialties. One bite into the fish tacos and my dining companion pronounced them her favorite ever. The pollito envinado, a little wood-grilled chicken served with red wine-guajillo sauce, gave me new hope for restaurant chicken, too often drab and tasteless, like tofu with legs. Cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan classic, is pork slow cooked with achiote and other relatively mild spices, then perked up with pickled onions and incendiary habanero salsa. Delicate handmade tortillas add to every dish. Though entrees fall within the $15-$20 range, Mixteco Grill is BYO, and that, along with the graciousness of the serving staff, makes dinner here a pleasant, not pricey, experience. —David Hammond

Nia803 W. Randolph | 312-226-3110

$$Mediterranean, Small Plates, Tapas/Spanish | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight

Antonia Asimis, daughter of a seasoned Randolph Street restaurant purveyor, might have aimed a sawed-off shotgun at the Mediterranean when planning her new small-plates place: the menu is all over the map. There's the unlikely European axis represented in gnocchi sauced with Cabrales and cognac, multiregional cheese and charcuterie selections, and no less than 14 different a la carte "dipping sauces" if, say, your prawns "sauteed with the Spirit of Cyprus" aren't complicated enough. There's even a nod to the more familiar environs of Halsted Street: flaming cheese. This unfocused approach was gnawing at me as my group dithered over the menu. But either we were lucky in our choices or chef Greg Cannon is more versatile than his onetime involvement in the mediocre south-side Basque tapas joint Haro would indicate. On our visit he whipped up an orange-sauced crab-stuffed piquillo paired with a lobster-stuffed deviled egg, a plate of nicely gamy lamb-and-feta meatballs, tender baby octopus in limoncello sauce, and a grilled sausage sampler that included a surprisingly light morcilla and a terrific orange-scented loukaniko. Most of these items were very tasty, and the amarena cherry tiramisu with imported ricotta set a new standard for me. One down note: a dinner pal who was raised on classic Spanish cookery engaged the chef in a polite disagreement on the correct preparation of the Valencian pasta paella fideua. Right or wrong, while its shrimp, octopus, and scallops were gorgeously fresh and perfectly cooked, the pasta was undercooked, overtoasted, and inedible. But overall Cannon seems like he's doing a fine job exploiting whatever familial advantages Asimis may have in sourcing quality ingredients. —Mike Sula

Perennial1800 N. Lincoln | 312-981-7070

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch

Situated in a primo piece of real estate—on the ground floor of the new Park View Hotel, facing the Green City Market—Perennial is for the most part a solid homecoming for chef de cuisine Ryan Poli (formerly of Butter), who's working under the aegis of executive chef Giuseppe Tentori (Boka). There's a rustic and seasonal simplicity that's occasionally sideswiped by some untamed flourishes: a sweet peekytoe crab salad was all but destroyed by a bitterly acid avocado mousse that's in the running for one of the worst things I've eaten all year, and the short-rib cannelloni that accompanied some otherwise beautiful seared sea scallops was a textural nightmare of overmanipulated manky meatstuff. Overall, though, Poli is working excellent ingredients into appealing, often colorful creations, from Roman-style crusty baked cylindrical semolina-beet gnocchi with a thick walnut puree to a portobello carpaccio salad with pickled garlic and diced prosciutto vinaigrette executed in such a way as to make the meaty fungus almost diaphanous. A striped bass fillet with crisp, silvery skin in a bath of Parmesan-tomato jus stirred up happy childhood memories for a tablemate, who compared it to alphabet soup. The simplest dishes were the most impressive: a lamb duo of chops and spicy braised loin with eggplant chutney, a lush foie gras torchon. This is one of the most boring restaurant neighborhoods in the city, so Perennial ought to be valued by locals as well as hotel guests. —Mike Sula

Real Tenochtitlan2451 N. Milwaukee | 773-227-1050

$$$mexican | lunch, Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

The spirit of Rick Bayless hangs heavily over Geno Bahena's latest venture, and it's reinforced by the restaurant's Web site, which cites Bayless almost as frequently as Bahena, who works steadily within the Chicago tradition of higher-end panregional Mexican cuisine. A mole master, Bahena prepares knockout pumpkin-seed butter for dry pack scallops and a pleasing plum sauce for venison; his rendition of the now ubiquitous lamb in mole negro expertly balances the meat's aggressive flavor with a complex blend of seeds and spices. Using raw materials from local farmers is now de rigueur (see Frontera Foundation), and Real Tenochtitlan surfs this laudable wave with artisanal products from local producers like Gunthorp and Little Sugar River farms, dutifully credited on a menu studded with Mexican selections like Tarascan corn soup and uchepos from Michoacan. Though the current BYOB policy can significantly reduce the bill, some might balk at being charged for chips and salsa, but oh well—that's the way they do it at Frontera. —David Hammond

Veerasway844 W. Randolph | 312-491-0844

$$Indian/Pakistani, Small Plates | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Thursday-Saturday till 11

Angela Hepler Lee, co-owner of Sushi Wabi and De Cero, has expanded her multiethnic Randolph Street miniempire with Veerasway, an airy storefront specializing in a mix of traditional Indian and Indo-American cuisine. Lots of light wood, curry-yellow and lentil-brown walls, and hanging glass lanterns set a modern tone, along with mood-mellowing cocktails (you'll need 'em—it's noisy) such as the Bengali tiger (vanilla-bean-infused vodka, green and black cardamom, tamarind-date puree, ghost peppers, and pineapple) that go well with the free pappadam chips and three accompanying dips. Appetizers "from the streets" include vegetarian samosas and stuffed banana peppers—basically spicy Indian chiles rellenos, filled with lentils and paneer, fried in chickpea batter, and served with coriander chutney. My favorite dish was a salad, or actually two salads: shredded green papaya laced with toasted peanuts and grape tomatoes side by side with ripe mango slices tossed with puffed rice, chopped tomato, and a few golden raisins, both in tamarind-lime dressing. The contrast of flavors and textures was terrific. One of the traditional meat and vegetarian choices I tried, moist chicken tikka in a complex tomato cream sauce, was solid if unexceptional, but it surpassed the surprisingly dull Indo-American coconut scallops, an overcooked trio in individual pools of coconut milk. Decent naan and a milk-shake-thick coconut-mango lassi rounded out the meal; moist spiced chocolate cake with chile-dusted cashew brittle and coconut sorbet ended it on a high note. —Anne Spiselman

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