Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, March 19, 2009

Twelve restaurants in the Gold Coast

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Restaurant listings are culled from the Reader Restaurant Finder, an online database of more than 4,200 Chicago-area restaurants. Restaurants are reviewed by staff, contributors, and (where noted) individual Reader Restaurant Raters. Though reviewers try to reflect the Raters' input, reviews should be considered one person's opinion; the Raters' collective opinions are best expressed in the numbers. Complete searchable listings, Raters' comments, and information on how to become a Rater are at chicagoreader.com/restaurantfinder.

In the Neighborhood

Bistrot Zinc1131 N. State | 312-337-1131

F 7.6 | S 7.7 | A 7.5 | $$ (12 reports)French | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

This convivial Gold Coast restaurant serves classic bistro cuisine—salade niçoise, moules marinieres, roast chicken—with mostly successful results. One Rater gives special praise to the "out of this world" dessert crepes and strong Intelligentsia coffee. (Illy espresso is also served.) The dining room evokes a Parisian bistro, with tiled floors, heavily mirrored walls, and teeny tables lining long leather banquettes. Weekend brunch offerings have a Gallic twist: eggs Benedict come with poached salmon, there's brioche French toast with vanilla mascarpone and fresh berries, and of course omelets and a quiche du jour. —Martha Bayne

Gibsons Steakhouse1028 N. Rush | 312-266-8999

F 7.8 | S 8.8 | A 7.0 | $$$$ (6 reports)Steaks/Lobster | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till midnight

rrr This flashy, bustling steak house plays host to the Gold Coast singles crowd and heavy hitters on the political scene. Raters love the service, which they call friendly, helpful, and efficient. Most love the food too, which tends toward the old school: prime steaks, London broil, two sizes of filet mignon, lamb and pork chops, shrimp cocktail, grilled lobster tails, double-baked potatoes, garlicky spinach and mushrooms, and the like. The desserts are almost overwhelming in size; you'll probably have to share your macadamia turtle pie or Essee Kup Cake. The sidewalk cafe bustles with the Viagra set. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House1024 N. Rush | 312-640-0999

$$$Seafood | Dinner: seven days | Open late: every night Till midnight

This sibling to neighboring Gibson's attracts a similarly moneyed crowd. The kitchen produces large portions of fresh seafood in unadulterated preparations: huge crab cakes, classic sides like baked potatoes and creamed spinach, fish dishes—blackened grouper, grilled mahimahi, baked halibut with crabmeat stuffing—and, of course, frog's legs. The decor takes a maritime theme and runs with it—model ships stand on raised shelves, old photos of someone's sea voyage hang on the walls, and with the low ceilings and frequent crowds, you might as well be belowdecks. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Le Colonial937 N. Rush | 312-255-0088

F 6.8 | S 6.8 | A 7.2 | $$$ (5 reports)Asian, Vietnamese | Lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Saturday till midnight, Monday-Friday till 11

Despite the Gold Coast location, this striking New York clone—decorated with bamboo shutters, sepia-toned photos of old Vietnam, and rotating fans suspended from 30-foot ceilings—conjures a vision of French-occupied Saigon. The second-story dining room and lounge (available for private parties of up to 55) has cushy couches and tall windows that open onto a balcony, where there's also seating affording a bird's-eye view of Rush Street. The Vietnamese cuisine hints of French in presentation only—no heavy sauces, rather plenty of light and tangy flavors from citrus and chiles. A typical dish is the goi bo, a spicy marinated beef salad with lemongrass and Thai basil: it holds its own as a classic but doesn't stretch any culinary boundaries. The prices reflect the lavish decor and high-rent location. But for newcomers to Vietnamese cuisine this is a good place to experiment, and the sidewalk patio seating is always a treat. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Merlo on Maple16 W. Maple | 312-335-8200

F 8.6 | S 8.4 | A 9.2 | $$$$ (5 reports)Italian | Dinner: Seven days | Friday & saturday till 11

rrr Giampaolo Sassi, owner of Merlo, restored this gorgeous brownstone to its turn-of-the-century beauty, stripping and staining the building's oak banisters and floors and building three semiprivate dining rooms and an inviting bar near the entrance. Giampaolo's wife, Luisa Silvia Marani, is the executive chef for all Merlolocations, including the newish Trattoria del Merlo. Her menu is full of Bolognese specialties: handmade tagliatelli and other pastas, lamb shank, tarte di carciofi (artichoke tart with parsley and mortadella). The wine list is predominantly Italian. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Mexx Kitchen at the Whiskey1015 N. Rush | 312-475-0300

$$$Bar/Lounge, Mexican/Southwestern | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, other nights till 11

Star chef Richard Sandoval of Modern Mexican collaborated on this cozy folk-art-decorated room tucked behind Rush Street's see-and-be-seen Whiskey Bar. But the menu is now mostly traditional Mexican, with more changes planned for later in the spring. Well-balanced guacamole, made to order and served with crisp chips, would be at home in a neighborhood spot, as would chilorio sopes brimming with pulled pork. Other standards include carne asada, three-cheese enchiladas, combo plates, and chicken adobado. But a trio of extremely salty Mexico City-style steak tacos made me wonder why I was spending $10 for what would cost half that at my local taqueria. The highlights came from the more sophisticated camp that is no longer: creamy balsamic-painted roasted corn soup with a huitlacoche dumpling and a picture-perfect entree of seared coriander-chile-crusted tuna slices propped up around boniato puree on a hibiscus-blood orange-habanero emulsion. The patio is scheduled to open May 1. —Anne Spiselman

Morton's, the Steakhouse1050 N. State | 312-266-4820

F 7.1 | S 4.8 | A 6.8 | $$$$$ (5 reports)Steaks/Lobster | Dinner: seven days

Arnie Morton's coast-to-coast steak empire was born here, and this location still has a men's-club atmosphere—starched white tablecloths, low ceilings, dim lighting, and mostly male waitstaff—and a following of local politicos. Humongous portions prevail, with prices to match. Raters appreciate the warm, crusty onion bread to start and the classic souffles—chocolate, Grand Marnier, raspberry, and lemon—which must be ordered at the same time as the entrees. But Rater reports from longtime customers complain of declines in both food and service over the last few years—not a good thing at these prices. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Pane Caldo72 E. Walton | 312-649-0055

$$$Italian | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

This cozy Italian restaurant seems to go unnoticed, but it's worth seeking out. Behind the bar are a dozen bins of wine, a hint at the list of more than 1,200 bottles, which also features several well-selected but pricey by-the-glass choices. The menu changes every day, but a few dishes show up with some frequency, such as a saute of wild mushrooms that makes a stellar appetizer. Half portions of the many pasta and risotto entrees are available, and include dishes such as an al dente black linguine with plump scallops, shrimp, tender calamari, mussels, and clams in a mild red sauce with chunks of fresh tomato. —Laura Levy Shatkin

RA Sushi1139 N. State | 312-274-0011

F 7.9 | S 7.2 | A 7.6 | $$$ (10 reports)Japanese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, other nights till 11 | Reservations not accepted

With its blaring rock sound track and flamboyant red-and-black decor, the Hogs and Honeys of sushi-house chains does more to attract young swingles than raw-fish purists. All the same, we were feeling fishy. We started our meal sharing the yummy blue-claw crab cakes. Eating them with chopsticks proved to be a challenge, so we requested silverware. Instead our sushi arrived. The Latin-Asian albacore plate consisted of barely seared white tuna slices with avocado and cilantro; cashews and pine nuts added a nice crunch, but the soy-garlic sauce overwhelmed the dish's delicate flavors—a minor issue since it was served on the side. Tuna nigiri was competent, as was the spicy salmon roll. We were also served the "ultimate shrimp tempura." Unfortunately, that wasn't what we'd ordered, and like our silverware, the correct roll never arrived. But despite the missteps, the party-hearty atmosphere made for a jolly time. —Kathie Bergquist

Sortie restaurant and Lounge1212 N. State | 312-440-5100

$$$Mediterranean | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

Looking for a quiet place to dine? On my weeknight visit Sortie Restaurant and Lounge was empty. The waiter said it filled up on weekends, when the huge room with two bars and a dining area turns into a private lounge (anyone is welcome, he assured us) after the kitchen closes at 9 PM; however, a swing-by at 11 PM on a Saturday revealed no crowds. On the upside, being able to hear the Turkish background music while dining was a pleasure, and the chef has talent. The "mix appetizer" included good eggplant salad, thick yogurt with vegetables and mint, and mercimek kofte, cold lentils, all served in individual hollowed-out yellow squash and cucumber cups. The lahmacun, a Turkish variation on thin-crust pizza topped with minced lamb, peppers, and tomato, was first-rate, and the mixed grill provided a sampling of decent lamb and chicken kebabs, comparatively mild adana kebab (chopped, seasoned lamb and beef), tasty lamb-and-beef doner (like gyros), and a small lamb chop plus rice, grilled tomato and peppers, and fancy-cut baby vegetables. Creamy rice pudding with a little scoop of vanilla ice cream was a fine dessert, but the Turkish coffee was muddy. No vintages were listed on the mostly American wine list with adequate by-the-glass options. Turkish beer and raki (anise-flavored aperitif) were available, but no Turkish wines. —Anne Spiselman

Table Fifty-Two52 W. Elm | 312-573-4000

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

Yes, he was the Big O's personal chef, but besides that I knew next to nothing about Art Smith before sitting down at Table Fifty-Two. Then came a slap on the back, and five minutes later, I knew everything—the charity, the Obama fund-raiser, the cookbooks. The way Smith works the room I would have expected a line of Oprah groupies out the door, but this is more of a neighborhood place, a spot where Gold Coast old folks can pretend to keep it real on down-home comfort food without suffering the indignity of spending economically. Or, as my companion put it, "It's like Southern Charm Night at your parents' country club." Smith's menu visits other parts of the globe—on my visit there was a red curry multigrain risotto with butternut squash and a chicken breast with coconut-ginger-chile sauce—and a wood-fired oven burns for pizza and a fish of the day. But the key ingredients are seasonal and southern, beginning with a dense moist goat cheese-chive buttermilk biscuit that renders everything to follow a disappointment. A crab cake with fennel slaw was fat with excellent sweet crab, but the fried-green-tomato napoleon (with bacon, goat cheese, and greens) was fried too hard, and limp hand-cut french fries with grated manchego weren't fried hard enough. A dinosaur-size ancho-crusted Berkshire pork chop was cooked perfectly medium rare, but the flesh wasn't much more flavorful than conventional pig. Similarly, a wood-fired Tasmanian ocean trout—which is supposed to be a step up from salmon—was texturally undistinguished chicken of the sea. The room is small (as are the menu and wine list) and convivially done in Country Kitchen yellow, the only atmospheric anomaly being the waitstaff's brown pajamas—a cross between Shaolin monk and sharecropper. —Mike Sula

Trader Vic's1030 N. State | 312-642-6500

$$$$Asian, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

The faux-Polynesian empire Vic Bergeron started in Oakland, California in 1934 has reestablished a Chicago beachhead after vacating one of its oldest outposts, at the Palmer House Hilton, four years ago. I find it impossible to dislike Trader Vic's—home of the original mai tai—though even as I write that I realize it's going to be a hard sell after my visit to the new Viagra Triangle location. Despite a few terrific bites, it's not a great place to eat, and worse, it's not even a particularly good place to drink. Sure, it's a hoot to slurp up a giant Tiki Bowl with a friend, but recognize that it's nothing more than a giant icy Sweet Tart. And the little rubber islander that wades in the Menehune Juice is cute as hell, but the drink itself is indistinguishable from the storied mai tai. As for the food: a giant egg roll stuffed to bursting with chicken and char siu (roast pork) was about as flavorful as a car seat, and the curries are relics of deflavored 50s-style exotica. The double-cut pork chop was so slick and salty I imagined it going straight from butcher to brine and bathing there. But the spare ribs are lean, juicy, and smoky, the peanut butter sauce that comes with the bread service is irresistible, and a spicy, gingery slice of barbecued pineapple with a scoop of coconut ice cream is a fantastic dessert. Mike Sula

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