Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, November 20, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, November 20, 2008

South Loop restaurants

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In the Neighborhood

Cafe Bionda South Loop1924 S. State | 312-326-9800

$$$Italian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, monday-thursday till 11

A newer restaurant in the increasingly newer South Loop, Cafe Bionda looks like a blond Mia Francesca clone, albeit one with some worthwhile menu options. Escarole with white beans was tender and unusually picante—in fact, all the veggies, including broccolini and spinach, were well handled. Veal Francese—egg dipped, fried gently, and served in generous slices—was a luscious dish, and the fish of the day is worth trying. Desserts are limited; we had a tiramisu that must have violated some D.O.C. regulation or another: it was pink, filled with strawberries, but with no noticeable chocolate or liquor. There are two other locations of this franchise from Joe Farina, a former executive chef at Rosebud: Cafe Bionda Wicker Park (1467 N. Milwaukee, 773-342-2100) and Bionda To Go (400 S. Financial, 312-435-0400). —David Hammond

Custom House500 S. Dearborn | 312-523-0200

F 9.1 | S 8.3 | A 8.3 | $$$$ (6 reports)American, Steaks/Lobster | Breakfast: Monday-Saturday; Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days

rrr Try as I might, I can't believe Shawn McClain's third big splash (after Spring and Green Zebra) completes any sort of holy trinity, but clearly others disagree with me. A restaurant this expensive shouldn't screw anything up, and while on an early visit tender veal cheeks with tomato-anchovy preserves were very good and baby beets with mascarpone explosively flavorful, black truffle risotto was salty enough to clear tarmac. On the other hand, a piece of marinated yellowtail was flopping-fresh and tasty, and a bone-in rib eye with a red-onion tarte tatin was the best thing on the table. On a second occasion cured sturgeon with julienned apples and pumpernickel toast was similar to the yellowtail and every bit as good, and a sea bass fillet was delicately cooked, with crispy skin. Once more, though, I think the best thing was the beef, however much I regret the kitchen's paternalistic decision to cut up steaks and fan them out like a duck breast. Custom House is a tranquil, open space conducive to business meals, prettily decorated with pebbles, twigs, and rocks like a Zen garden. —Mike Sula

Eleven City Diner1112 S. Wabash | 312-212-1112

F 8.1 | S 7.3 | A 7.7 | $$ (6 reports)Kosher/Jewish/Deli | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

rrr Don't go to Eleven City Diner expecting the fast, brusque treatment you usually find in a traditional deli. Dinner service on a recent visit was slow (though not interminable) and polite to the point of approval seeking: a staffer made a special trip to the table to find out if the egg cream he'd made was up to par. (Yes.) Despite its unnerving lack of attitude, Eleven City offers other traditional trappings—there's a pie case up front, and matzo ball soup, knishes, and tuna melts on the menu. But as an all-day-breakfast fan, I chose the huge and excellent challah French toast topped with strawberries, bananas, and coconut—"I'm going to have to get in on that action" was a fellow diner's response. They don't skimp on desserts here: the root beer float comes in a glass three fists high, and I struck ice cream as soon as I stuck my spoon in the foam. On the other side of the restaurant is a deli counter stocked with sandwich fixings for carryout customers. Maybe they're ruder over there. —Anne Ford

Epic Burger517 S. State | 312-913-1373

$Burgers | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

This South Loop quick-service joint promises all-natural burgers and sandwiches, fresh-cut fries fried in oil free of trans fats and seasoned with sea salt, plus extras like cage-free organic eggs, nitrate-free bacon, and Wisconsin-made cheeses. No doubt because of all the hype on the menu, which is printed with "Epic Rules" like "The bun is the beginning and the end," I was initially a little disappointed with my cheeseburger: the puffy bun completely overwhelmed the thinnish meat patty. I couldn't much discern the vaunted "Epic sauce" (its ingredients, the counter guy told us, cannot be disclosed), but once I'd applied some Grey Poupon and smooshed the thing down some I was pretty well satisfied—the pickles and grilled onions are a nice touch. My friend felt the same about his turkey burger with horseradish Havarti, though here again the horseradish wasn't readily detectable. Tasty fries are worlds better than at other fast-food joints and come in a good-size bag, plenty enough for two. The place is well suited to its Columbia College environs, an industrial space with high ceilings hung with designy white lamps of various sizes and shapes, walls painted with bold abstract graphics, bright orange plastic seating made from recycled materials, and, on our visit, two flat-screen TVs showing a Japanese art film with the sound turned down—don't ask me. —Kate Schmidt

Gioco1312 S. Wabash | 312-939-3870

F 7.8 | S 6.7 | A 8.0 | $$$$ (11 reports)Italian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

This rustic Italian restaurant from the owners of Marché and Red Light was a harbinger of South Loop gentrification to come. The room is chic in a weathered way, with exposed brick, high ceilings, velvet curtains, large flower arrangements, and an enormous open kitchen. There's a ravioli of the day, and the menu offers several vegetarian options, including beet carpaccio with frisee and truffle oil and fried eggplant with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes. There's also plenty of meat (grilled pork chops, a 40-ounce porterhouse for two) and seafood; side dishes like roasted brussels sprouts, sauteed rapini, and grilled asparagus can be ordered a la carte. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Kroll's South Loop1736 S. Michigan | 312-235-1400

$$American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Sunday-Thursday till midnight

Can a Packer bar survive in a Bears town? Kroll's, a Green Bay institution since 1931, is best known for its location across from Lambeau Field, where it gets stormed by burger-jonesing cheeseheads on game days. Now the youngest generation of the family has set up shop in the South Loop, hard by Soldier Field. More than 20 flat-screen TVs line the spacious room and bar, there are daily drink specials and shuffleboard, and in addition to the standard roster of apps, sandwiches, and wraps, there are some specialties that seem appropriately alien to Chicago: chili with spaghetti, a Reuben pizza, and even the much-vaunted charcoal-grilled burger, which is served on a toasted bun with ketchup, pickles, raw onion, and butter. Yep, they're from Wisconsin, all right. —Kate Schmidt

Mercat a la Planxa638 S. Michigan | 312-765-0524

$$$$Tapas/Spanish | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, other nights till 11

Jose Garces's splashy homecoming from Philadelphia—where the Chicago-bred celeb launched two successful tapas restaurants in as many years—marks him as a sort of Spanish imperialist. But the chef isn't stamping out his empire with a giant cookie cutter shaped like the Iberian Peninsula. His other restaurants have affinities for distinct Spanish regions (Andalusia and the Basque Country), and at this one, Mercat a la Planxa, signifiers of Catalan cuisine dot the menu: Spanish scallions (calçots), charred and served with romesco sauce (salbitxada); cured sausages like butifarra and fuet; and pa amb tomaquet, grilled tomato-garlic bread, to name a few. The menu is a bit intimidating in its depth and pricing, especially considering that these are small plates, but with the exception of a $13 grilled flatbread with mascarpone, most were pretty darn good. I can't get my mind off the inky black, superrich fideua negra—angel-hair and baby squid topped with saffron aioli—and even an old standby like bacon-wrapped dates was distinguished by a tiny pitcher of blue cheese and skewered over a small bowl of frisee that helped cut the richness. Ordering the kitchen's much-talked-about whole roasted suckling pig (cochinillo asado) is a bit like adopting a child, requiring a group of four, two days' advance notice, a faxed form, and a $75 deposit. Chef de cuisine Michael Fiorello escorts the little guy to your table and carves him up there, separating the delectable crispy skin and the fatty cheek tissue from the rest of meat, and, at our request, going so far as to remove the tiny, creamy gray matter from the skull, grill it, and plate it with a rich sherry reduction. Given enough notice they'll brine the pig for up to three days, though ours was plenty juicy and flavorful. It includes sides of calçots, roasted fingerling potatoes, and two particularly fantastic dishes—sauteed spinach with raisins, pine nuts, and julienned apples, and a cassouletlike crock of white beans with bacon. Even with a recent price hike (to $45 per head), this might be the best value in the restaurant, and it's well worth the effort. —Mike Sula

Oysy888 S. Michigan | 312-922-1127

F 8.2 | S 8.4 | A 7.6 | $$ (14 reports)Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

rrr Designed by local architect Douglas Garofalo, this minimalist South Loop sushi place has two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows. Behind the long sushi bar, chefs in black baseball caps cut fish, roll maki, and greet customers. The menu at Oysy (pronounced oh-EE-she and meaning "delicious") is distinctly value conscious, with most nigiri priced under $6 for two pieces and most maki under $7. Ten grilled dishes come in at $10 and under, among them toro steak with ponzu sauce and spicy radish, Chilean sea bass in garlic-black bean sauce, teriyaki eel, and octopus with miso sauce. Tempura options include soft-shell crab and baby squid and come with homemade soy, sesame, or garlic sauce. An interesting chef's special is the Emerald Maki: sauteed scallops rolled with asparagus, cucumber, green tobiko caviar, and a spicy sauce. At lunch the bento boxes are a good deal; a choice of entree—like perfectly grilled white tuna with a yuzu vinaigrette—comes with several pieces of maki and tiny portions of tofu salad, orange tempura shrimp, and Japanese pickles, all for $12. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Panozzo's Italian Market1303 S. Michigan | 312-356-9966

$Italian | Tuesday-friday 10:30 AM-7 PM, saturday 10 am-5 pm, sunday 10 am-4 pm | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted

Panozzo's is kind of like Bari's and L'Appetito's more cultured cousin. It's a modern Italian deli that happily churns out high-quality sandwiches (including homemade meatball and Italian sausage subs and a delicious combination of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil pesto) as well as offering the usual accoutrements: fancy olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, cured meats. What sets Panozzo's apart is its suppliers—Panozzo's is the only deli I know of in town that carries Fra'Mani artisan salamis and La Quercia prosciutto. These two producers insist on using the leaner, more flavorful meat of humanely treated pasture-raised pigs. For both brands, the result is cured pork of exceptional quality, worth hoarding and savoring bit by bit. My favorite treat these days is the aforementioned prosciutto, mozzarella, and pesto sandwich, with an upgrade to La Quercia prosciutto. While eating such prosciutto and salami might make you feel virtuous, you'll likely be too busy sighing in delight to notice. —Anderson Gansner, Rater

South Coast1700 S. Michigan | 312-662-1700

$$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Saturday-sunday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Monday-Saturday till 11

Teeming with South Loop yuppies, South Coast's sleek space is outfitted with chandeliers resembling the tentacles of aquatic creatures, swaying to club music cranked to 11. As with Coast, its northwest-side sibling, the focus here is on stylish "new Japanese" cuisine. Thankfully, our waiter gave us the heads-up on more staid sushi specials—fatty salmon, hamachi, and uni—each spanking fresh and bright. "Angry salmon" was bursting with omega threes, the fleshy fish holding firm against the spicy "dynamite sauce." There's a lot of seafood here dressed with ingredients like mango and jalapeño, rolled in a wide range of attractive maki, tempura fried, and drizzled with sauce—it's not for purists. —David Hammond

Spertus Cafe610 S. Michigan | 312-322-1700

$Kosher/Jewish/Deli | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday-Friday | Closed Saturday | Reservations not accepted

Come on, Wolf—not even a pizza? If you can pull it off at the airport and the MCA, and even invent Jewish pizza for Spago, why not here? OK, so everything's kosher, and the space overlooking the trees in Grant Park is architecturally pleasing, but aside from that this is a purely functional, phoned-in, shallow stab at celeb-chef branding offering only a couple soups of the day, a few unremarkable salads and sandwiches, some sweets, beer and wine, and not much else. I'm not sure what Wolfgang Puck contributed apart from his pasted mug on the carryout containers, or why this place requires the talents of a noted executive chef like Laura Frankel, who founded the kosher restaurant Shallots (now in Skokie) and authored her own kosher cookbook. Spertus donors could've saved a bundle without you, Wolf. —Mike Sula

Tamarind614 S. Wabash | 312-379-0970

$$Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night Till 11

It's hard not to be dubious when a restaurant menu cuts as broad a culinary swath as Tamarind's—the multipage document covers an exhausting range of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes. But for the most part this "eclectic Asian" place in the South Loop acquits itself well, though authenticity is obviously not a priority. The ahi-poki tuna was a tasty scoop of diced raw fish mixed with avocado and scallions, topped with a dollop of masago and served in a martini glass on a festive tangle of radish. A "carpaccio trio" of yellowtail, salmon, and super white tuna was lightly dressed in a sweet ponzu sauce that didn't overpower the fish. Our entrees were similarly well constructed: rich slices of panfried Tamarind duck were wrapped in slabs of duck fat and accompanied by crisp snow peas and veggies; grilled pork with vermicelli was tender and tangy and served with a delicately spiced pork spring roll; the "red dragon" maki was savory and smooth. Wash it all down with a couple of "fruitinis"—in our case fresh pear juice, ginger, and vodka—and the stress of that overwhelming menu washes away as well. —Martha Bayne

Yolk1120 S. Michigan | 312-789-9655

F 7.9 | S 7.3 | A 8.5 | $ (8 reports)American, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

rrr Perhaps self-evidently, the specialty at this sunny South Loop breakfast-and-lunch spot is eggs, offered in several different Benedict styles (for example, there's an Irish Benny topped with corned beef hash) as well as in omelets and frittatas or served just plain old sunny-side up. I opted for a "West Coast" crepe filled with scrambled eggs, avocado, mushrooms, and cheese, and though it said "sweet crepe" right there on the menu, I still found it odd with all the other savory flavors. As for the eggs Benedict (we went for the classic version), despite the fact that it was crowded on the plate by huge chunks of fresh fruit ("Who wants fruit covered in hollandaise?" my companion asked), it was very good. In addition to egg dishes, Yolk's menu features a variety of pancakes, waffles, and French toast, as well as sandwiches and salads for the lunch crowd. The custom-roasted coffee was significantly better than typical diner swill and refilled often, and on a weekday service was friendly and prompt. —Kathie Bergquist

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