Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, November 27, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, November 27, 2008

Randolph Row

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In the Neighborhood

Avec615 W. Randolph | 312-377-2002

F 8.4 | S 7.1 | A 7.4 | $$$ (17 reports) Mediterranean, Small Plates | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Monday-Thursday till midnight, sunday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

rrr At first, sitting on a bench between strangers in this cedar-lined, saunalike room makes me feel a little apprehensive, like I'm wrapped in naught but a sweaty towel. But as the wine flows and the evening grows long, everyone's gabbing like pals, offering around bits of robust cheese or chorizo-stuffed dates and dredging juices off empty plates with warm rustic bread. Chef Koren Grieveson's Mediterranean "peasant" food is paired with an ever intriguing and ever changing selection of uncommon wines and cheeses, many of which are as unforgettable as the Spanish sheep's-milk torta del casar, a powerful molten gob of delicious funk that may forever remain my benchmark for strong queso (if only because I couldn't seem to wash the smell from my fingers). The chefs make excellent and varied use of the wood-burning oven, firing up everything from focaccia to roast chicken, hanger steak, and skate wing. And it never ceases to amaze me how combining just two or three seasonal ingredients—say springtime's baby asparagus, smoked mozzarella, and Meyer lemon vinaigrette—can be, in the right hands, a kind of alchemy. —Mike Sula

Blackbird619 W. Randolph | 312-715-0708

F 9.2 | S 8.0 | A 7.4 | $$$$ (7 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

rrr This sterile white-and-steel space would make a lab rat feel at home. But for fine dining with a rotation of top-notch seasonal ingredients, served by a crack cadre of skilled food-service ninjas who would die for your smallest whim, Blackbird's still at the top of its game. Don't do what I did last time, succumbing to my basest instincts and ordering course after course featuring a cured pork product. By the time I'd finished my endive salad with poached egg and pancetta, seared diver scallops with guanciale, and braised pork belly, my alimentary canal felt like the Bonneville Salt Flats, and my plan to finish with the bacon ice cream was foiled. You owe it to yourself—and to executive chef Mike Sheerin—to try, say, sauteed skate wing with sassafras, pickled pear, Parmesan, and rosemary or crispy veal sweetbreads with cashew butter, rye waffle, black mission figs, and black olive honey. Challenges in the area of wine selection are sometimes met by the guidance of your Joseph Abboud-clad waiter, sometimes not. —Mike Sula

De Cero814 W. Randolph | 312-455-8114

F 7.8 | S 7.0 | A 7.0 | $$$ (12 reports)Mexican | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

De Cero means means "from scratch," and under executive chef Jill Barron (Sushi Wabi) the food here—fresh coastal Mexican cuisine—is made with attention to detail. Plates of soft-shell tacos ($3-$4.50 apiece) with fillings like ahi tuna and mango-habanero salsa and chipotle chicken fly from the exposed kitchen at a dizzying pace. They're unsauced, but the $6 trio of homemade salsas—verde, picante, and a chunky mix of pickled jalapeños and vegetables—complement them well. Entrees include grilled chicken mole, shrimp fajitas, grilled ahi tuna, carne asada, and a 12-ounce pork chop. The margaritas and daiquiris blended with herbs are refreshing and not too sweet, but they don't come close to the superlative house margarita with fresh-squeezed lime juice and homemade sour mix. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Jaipur847 W. Randolph | 312-526-3655

$$Indian/Pakistani | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Vegetarian friendly

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 newcomer, the antithesis of hip Veerasway across the street. Our meal began with free papadum, 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

Marché833 W. Randolph | 312-226-8399

F 7.2 | S 7.5 | A 8.5 | $$$ (8 reports)French | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight

Brasserie fare gets a contemporary twist at this superchic, noisy market-district hot spot. You can tell the room's a former warehouse, but the industrial decor is softened by strategically placed vintage couches that give it an air of humor and style. The exposed kitchen puts out simple Franco-American food—spit-roasted chicken with pommes frites, for example, or a 16-ounce rib eye. Raters agree that it's more of a see-and-be-seen spot than a culinary destination, but most think the food is more than competent. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Nia803 W. Randolph | 312-226-3110

$$Mediterranean, Small Plates, Tapas/Spanish| Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | 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. —Mike Sula

Red Light820 W. Randolph | 312-733-8880

F 8.2 | S 8.9 | A 9.1 | $$ (11 reports)Asian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days| Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight

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, mixing traditional Asian 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. The upstairs party room can accommodate 40. —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: seven days | Sunday brunch

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. The menu changes seasonally, but I wouldn't mind seeing the return of succulent slow-baked veal short ribs on wide, lightly minted noodles with truffle butter, which quickly became a signature entree not simply by default but because they're delicious. 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 might include pork rillettes with fig jam, toasts, and pistachio brittle or steak tartare with raw farm egg yolk and pickled shallots. At brunch there's a bacon Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka and eggs Benedict made with Berkshire pork belly. The eclectic, affordable wine list rounds out an enjoyable experience. —Anne Spiselman

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

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 contemporary space has exposed brick walls, natural-wood floors, high ceilings, and huge windows that showcase a dramatic skyline view. 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. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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 papadam 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. An a la carte side of sauteed spinach, mustard greens, and fingerling potatoes with garlic and onions was so jarringly tart it clashed with everything else. 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

Vivo838 W. Randolph | 312-733-3379

F 7.1 | S 7.2 | A 7.6 | $$$ (5 reports)Italian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, monday-Thursday till 11

In 1991 this Italian restaurant was a pioneer on the West Randolph strip. Competition in the area has grown much fiercer since those early days, but Vivo is holding its own. The menu is approachable and uncomplicated, even somewhat reasonably priced for the neighborhood. There are starters like carpaccio and antipasto, plus several salads. Pasta dishes range from simple tomato and basil spaghetti to a more elegant spinach and ricotta ravioli, and in addition to daily specials, there are several veal and fish dishes, all simply prepared to enhance their natural flavors. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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