Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, March 5, 2009

Ten restaurants on or near Fulton

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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

Follia953 W. Fulton | 312-243-2888

F 7.5 | S 7.2 | A 6.8 | $$$ (5 reports)Italian | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

Passersby may mistake this stylish storefront for a boutique or gallery: the mannequins perched in the front windows are all wearing haute couture. Inside, the waitstaff are mostly models, but the food is the real deal, a refreshingly straightforward menu using mostly imported Italian ingredients and fresh cheese and pasta. The mozzarella on the caprese salad, fresh and creamy and drizzled with an aromatic herbed olive oil, is just one of the things shipped over from the mother country. The pizzas don't have any designer elements and don't need them; margherita, quattro formaggi, and napoletana (anchovies and oregano) all come on a thin, deliciously chewy crust. The rest of the menu changes weekly, but on one visit there was an assortment of homemade pastas for the first course: tagliolini with fresh shrimp and zucchini, ziti with tomato sauce and ricotta, a rich but al dente risotto with porcini mushrooms and asparagus. The limited selection of entrees one night included veal in lemon sauce and a sole dish with shrimp, tomato, and capers. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Ina's1235 W. Randolph | 312-226-8227

F 7.0 | S 6.9 | A 6.4 | $$ (11 reports)American | Breakfast: seven days; Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday

Ina Pinkney is one of the movers and shakers behind the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, a loose consortium of restaurateurs who have put their collective buying power behind drawing green products and packaging into the Chicago market. At her cheerful namesake restaurant, brick walls are brightened with salmon trim and aqua wainscoting and tables are topped with white butcher paper and salt-and-pepper shakers from Pinkney's eclectic collection. Entrees are comfort-food favorites like fried chicken, chicken potpie, and meat loaf; there's also a BLT with avocado and a grilled cheese with Gruyere and Swiss. The breakfast menu includes scrapple with black beans and corn, four kinds of pancakes, homemade granola with dried cranberries, omelets with potatoes, and a vegetable hash. The bread comes fresh from Labriola, the coffee from Intelligentsia. Perhaps best of all, the place is a cell-phone-free zone. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Jaipur847 W. Randolph | 312-526-3655

$$Indian/Pakistani | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

If you want to have the Devon Avenue Indian experience right on Randolph Row—and are willing to pay $3 to $4 more per entree for it—head to Jaipur. Everything from the red-heavy decor to the medium-size menu is traditional at this relative newcomer, the antithesis of hip Veerasway across the street. Our meal began with free pappadam, and from the limited appetizer lineup we enjoyed crisp pea-and-potato-stuffed samosas and aloo papdi chaat, a typical snack of chickpeas, potatoes, onions, and flour crisps sauced with spiced yogurt, tamarind, and mint chutney. But except for deftly seasoned saag paneer, spinach laced with cubes of firm cheese, our main courses were nothing to shout about. Tandoori chicken, served on a platter of sizzling onions and green peppers, paired a dry breast with a moister leg. The lamb in the vindaloo was well trimmed and reasonably tender, but the tomatoey sauce, while intricately spiced, seemed toned down for Western tastes. Shrimp masala, billed as "jumbo prawns, halved," turned out to be whole, tail-on, average-size shrimp, cooked a little too long and bathed in a creamy tomato sauce. Top-notch naan, puffy and hot from the tandoor, was the biggest hit. On the downside: spongy, overfried gulab jamun and a poorly trained server who couldn't tell us anything about the food and didn't bother to give us the drinks menu. —Anne Spiselman

Nia mediterranean tapas803 W. Randolph | 312-226-3110

$$Mediterranean, Small Plates, Tapas/Spanish| Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Tuesday-Saturday till 11

Chef Greg Cannon has departed, and the menu has been somewhat streamlined, but owner Antonia Asimis is still sticking to her concept: there are tapas and small plates here from not just Spain but Greece and Cyprus, plus Italian dishes and Mediterranean-influenced contemporary American plates like crab cakes with saffron-apple aioli. Though Cannon's more elaborate constructions are gone, the nicely gamy lamb-and-feta meatballs remain, as does the tender baby octopus in limoncello vinaigrette, and shrimp Commanderia, prawns sauteed with the Cypriot dessert wine. The standard if no less enjoyable Spanish tapas remain as well, from bacon-wrapped dates to tortilla a la Espagnole to patatas bravas. Now, bring on the flaming cheese! —Mike Sula

Province161 N. Jefferson | 312-669-9900

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

At least superficially, Province, chef Randy Zweiban's breakaway from the Lettuce Entertain You empire— where for ten years he helmed the nuevo Latino Nacional 27—resembles another well-known local toque's recent declaration of independence, with Adidas on the servers and rock 'n' roll on the sound system. (Looking at you, Graham Elliot Bowles.) But when it comes to the food, Zweiban has a different set of problems: his menu is at best inoffensive, at worst forgettable. Surf edges out turf, and Spanish and Latin American influences are present but not predominant in the American-style dishes: marcona almond emulsion with the rabbit confit, manchego with the shrimp and grits, and mole verde with the rotisserie chicken. I want to credit Zweiban for creating a decent, affordable option in a neighborhood where similar restaurants command higher prices. Yet the morning after a visit I was unable to remember anything I ate, recalling a few standouts only after deciphering my notes. One of them, an unlikely sounding smoked sable ceviche, managed to merge papaya and Spanish olives into something as memorable as the shredded pork bocadillo wasn't. The squash taquito was clever—made with a crispy gyoza wrapper—but bland. Salty house-cured anchovies were nicely balanced with some cool pickled celery, but striped bass and tuna, though skillfully cooked, were just taking up space atop chanterelles and roasted root vegetables. Only one thing I tried really sang—a dessert—a simple sour cream pound cake invigorated by a terrific lemon frozen yogurt. And Zweiban's booze crew (partly poached from Nacional's celebrated cocktail program) has developed a small but mature house drink list, with just one vodka option to appease the children. Subtlety and restraint aren't the usual reasons that fusion cuisine (for lack of a better term) fails. And I can't believe that Zweiban's problem is that he's underestimating his audience. Whatever inner demon came up with fish, papaya, and olives just needs to come off the leash bit more often. —Mike Sula

The Publican837 W. Fulton | 312-733-9555

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

On a busy night diners can wait upwards of an hour to knock elbows with their neighbors at communal tables at executive chef Paul Kahan's latest venture, attended to by (mostly) solicitous servers who deliver platters of creamy La Quercia ham, oddments of offal, and peasant classics like cassoulet and boudin blanc in occasionally haphazard fashion. But on balance the food, under chef de cuisine Brian Huston, is pretty great. The menu changes daily but stays relentlessly on its snout-to-tail message. Rillettes were a rich jam of concentrated pork fat and flavor; dense, savory short ribs were brought into balance with a light, cheery dressing of watermelon and cherry tomatoes. Frites topped with a poached organic egg would've made a decadent breakfast. A briny Penn Cove oyster, one of six varieties on the menu that day, was silkenly sublime. And the pork rinds were revelatory, lighter than air yet still chewy, hit with an invigorating splash of malt vinegar. The extensive beer list is lovingly curated, full of Belgian rarities and international cult faves. The best of several meals I took at the Publican came on a Sunday, when the menu's given the boot in favor of a four-course prix fixe meal ($45 per person, served family style). That night the room was quiet and relaxed and the menu sanely, gracefully balanced: a bright, clean salad of persimmon, avocado, grapefruit, and bitter treviso, a plate of delicate roasted pompano, and a simple platter piled with rich, tender pork shoulder, roast chicken, a coarse, addictive cotechino sausage spiked with nutmeg, and a bit of braised lamb's tongue. Our server also happened to be the beer buyer, Michael McAvena; announcing he was bored, he plied us with samples. —Martha Bayne

Red Light820 W. Randolph | 312-733-8880

F 8.2 | S 8.8 | A 9.4 | $$ (10 reports)Asian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

rrr A giant red neon flame on the roof marks the entrance to an ultramodern room where a see-and-be-seen crowd shouts over a loud, eclectic mix of music. Chef Jackie Shen heads a kitchen serving "fun, not funny, food." The menu has an East-meets-West theme with French influences, mixing traditional Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese dishes with things like diver scallops with coconut sauce and polenta and stuffed dumplings. Raters think it's a good value for huge portions of tasty, innovative fare. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Sepia123 N. Jefferson | 312-441-1920

F 8.7 | S 8.4 | A 9.6 | $$$$ (9 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr At Sepia, Emmanuel Nony's sleek "modern speakeasy," creative chef Kendal Duque (Everest, Tru, NoMi) runs the kitchen, and out front savvy servers seem happy to be there. I'd beg the restaurant to bring back the succulent slow-baked veal short ribs on wide, lightly minted noodles with truffle butter. I also liked the thick Berkshire pork chop with arugula and apple. Flatbreads, which head the menu, should be a natural with cocktails, but I didn't have much luck: the little one topped with applewood-smoked bacon and seasonal fruit didn't go at all with the Sepia Mule, which features house-made ginger-infused vodka. Other appetizers include pork rilletes with fig jam and whole wheat pasta carbonara with pecans and pumpkin; there are three fish selectionsamong the five entrees, and tempting sides like brussels sprouts with guanciale. The eclectic, affordable wine list rounds out an enjoyable experience. Note: the restaurant will resume serving dinner on Sundays beginning March 8. —Anne Spiselman

The Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars1415 W. Randolph | 312-942-1313

F 8.7 | S 8.7 | A 10.0 | $$ (3 reports)European, Small Plates, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Saturday till 2, Monday-Friday till 1

This sleek two-story bar is stocked with a large selection of spirits and more than 300 wines available by the bottle (about 100 by the glass). The cheese selection is remarkable and very reasonably priced. On your own or following the recommendations of the knowledgeable staff, you can pick from dozens of offerings such as fresh French chevre, mild Spanish iberico, and a sweet, nutty Italian piave. Or opt for a preassembled off-the-menu board that's amply garnished with fruits, nuts, and bread. The menu also includes "flights" of seafood and charcuterie, plus small plates like beef tenderloin skewers and a variety of thin-crust pizzas. Much of the seating area is outfitted with comfy couches, so you can relax for hours. The huge windows offer a dramatic view of the skyline. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Veerasway844 W. Randolph | 312-491-0844

$$Indian/Pakistani, Small Plates | Dinner: seven days

Angela Hepler Lee (Sushi Wabi,De Cero) has expanded her Randolph Street miniempire with Veerasway, an airy storefront specializing in a mix of traditional Indian and Indo-American cuisine. 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) go well with the free pappadam chips and dips. Appetizers include samosas and stuffed banana peppers, filled with lentils and paneer, fried in chickpea batter, and served with coriander chutney. My favorite dish was a salad: shredded green papaya laced with toasted peanuts and grape tomatoes served with ripe mango slices tossed with puffed rice, chopped tomato, and a few golden raisins, both in tamarind-lime dressing. Moist chicken tikka in a complex tomato cream sauce, was solid if unexceptional, but it surpassed the surprisingly dull Indo-American coconut scallops. Decent naan and a coconut-mango lassi rounded out the meal; moist spiced chocolate cake with chile-dusted cashew brittle ended it on a high note. —Anne Spiselman

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