Restaurants: New Too, August 10, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: New Too, August 10, 2008

Seventeen more recent openings

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New Too

Seventeen more recent openings

Big Jones5347 N. Clark | 773-275-5725

$$American, Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, 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 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 of boiled peanuts. 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—price tag included—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

Bull-Eh-Dias Tapas Bar3651 N. Southport | 773-404-2855

$$Tapas/Spanish | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Wednesday-Thursday till 1, Sunday-Tuesday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

You may think Chicago needs another tapas restaurant about as much as it does another fire, yet despite the inexplicable name, Bull-Eh-Dias (a close-but-not-quite-phonetic spelling of bulerias, a flamenco rhythm) is a welcome newcomer along a stretch of Southport heavy with sushi joints and boisterous bars. Chorizo empanadas with red pepper and avocado vinaigrettes were a tangy complement to a pitcher of reasonably priced sangria (we prefer the sweet, fruity white version over the red). A salpicon of crisp sweet peppers, red onion, and seafood leveraged Spain's signature style: fresh Mediterranean produce, light spice, brilliant color and texture. Misses were the Styrofoam-like bread; thin, watery olive oil; a Spanish tortilla that lacked the requisite custardy quality; and chunks of spud in garlicky mayo that were disconcertingly woody and undercooked. Still, lamb chops with peppery sauce were quite delicious, as was the paella, available in three versions (vegetarian, seafood, or mixed) and baked in a pan that creates a caramelized crust on the edges. For dessert the crema Catalana had a texturally tantalizing crunchy, sugary surface, and like most of the rest of the menu it was reasonably priced ($5). —David Hammond

Couture Crepe Cafe2568 N. Clark | 773-857-2638

$European | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| BYO

Crepes and coffee are the specialties at this little modern-looking Lincoln Park cafe decorated almost entirely in black and white. In fact, aside from a few panini and salads—dwarfed on the menu by nearly three dozen sweet and savory crepes—plus fresh-squeezed juice and Intelligentsia coffees and teas, that's all there is. The owners, Serbian brother-sister team Dusica and Darko Matijasevic, were originally just planning to have a cafe, but thought that it would be fun to have crepes as well. And it looks like they had fun coming up with their offerings: they've converted lots of classic sandwiches and salads into crepes, like the BLT, the PB&J, and the Capri (spinach, sun-dried tomato, feta, and olives). A separate menu of specialties offers the likes of the "Monsterella," with mozzarella, portobellos, spinach, and bacon, and the "Pepperonata," with pepper puree, avocado, sun-dried tomato, and fresh mozzarella. Sweet crepes mostly feature fruit or some combination of chocolate, caramel, and Nutella—it's hard to go wrong there. There are only a few small tables, but beneath their glass tops they're stocked with an eclectic selection of magazines, and there's also free Wi-Fi for lingerers. —Julia Thiel

Epic Burger517 S. State | 312-913-1373

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

This new 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 Gray 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

Habibi1225-27 W. Devon | 773-465-9318

$Middle Eastern | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | BYO

Don't be put off by the shabby-unchic decor: the food at this BYO double storefront outclasses the setting. Besides well-balanced hummus, lightly smoky baba ghanoush, and grape leaves stuffed with nicely seasoned rice, cold appetizers included thick, smooth labenah, sour cream available plain, with green onions, or dotted with black olives and enriched with olive oil. Of the warm choices, we preferred kibbe, deep-fried torpedoes of cracked wheat stuffed with mild minced meat, to the average falafel. Habibi A, one of four mixed grills, featured flavorful marinated beef and chicken plus a small lamb chop, but the meats were heavily cooked, the chop to very well done. Much more interesting was maklouba, a melange of sauteed eggplant, smoky-brown cauliflower, thin potato slices, carrots, and beef (or chicken), with rice that soaked up all the juices. I'd return to try musakhan, a variation on a chicken wrap, and the lamb shanks, which were unavailable when I visited. They'd also run out of hareca, but another unusual dessert, spherical coconut-dusted kakaw, was a satisfying, not-too-sweet cross between candy and moist cake. Perfumy cinnamon-scented tea, offered when we arrived, was a blend of Lipton's and herbal, according to a friendly server. —Anne Spiselman

Harry Caray's Tavern3551 N. Sheffield | 773-327-7800

$Bar/Lounge, American, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: Seven days | Open late: saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Do Cubs fans even remember that Harry Caray spent 11 years covering White Sox games—not to mention his 24 with the archrival Saint Louis Cardinals? Nah, they claim him as their own, and they're packing into this namesake sports bar kitty-corner from the statue commemorating his "Bud man, Cubs fan" days. It's a palace of kitsch, and a place with more than 50 flat-screen TVs and a mass of deluded souls convinced that this is the year the Cubs will win the World Series (just 100 years after their last victory) is about as far from my idea of fun as could be possible. The food's not bad, though—mostly bar bites and burgers, with upscale options like Wagyu and Tallgrass beef. There are also a few items from the downtown Harry Caray's, including, inevitably, chicken Vesuvio. A shamelessly pandering gift shop promotes all manner of Harry memorabilia like "Holy Cow!" T-shirts. Cubs fans like that sort of shit. —Kate Schmidt

Mado1647 N. Milwaukee | 773-342-2340

$$$Mediterranean | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

By the time you read about what I ate at Allison and Rob Levitt's minimalist new Wicker Park restaurant, you may have to wait until next year to try some of it. That's because much of the menu at Mado, in the space formerly housing Barcello's, reads like a shopping list for the week's Green City Market. Preparations are simple, with all due reverence given to the superior quality of the ingredients, raised by an A-list of regional agrarian rock stars. The porchetta, a riff on the central Italian boneless roast pig, was presented as a slab of luscious pork with amalgamated crispy bits, dressed with a light salsa verde and some arugula. Raw sunchokes, sliced into small coins and tossed with lemon and parsley, were every bit as memorable—and so uncomplicated it's a wonder you don't see this dish everywhere. Nearly everything I ate tasted like spring, from the thick, deep, dark green wild nettle soup to the trout with walnuts, deftly grilled over wood to yield perfectly lush pink flesh under delicate crispy skin. Desserts were also excellent in their restraint, particularly a rhubarb fool, layers of lightly tart fruit and lightly sweet whipped cream. Don't overlook the fragile, buttery shortbread, which crumbles at a touch—it's listed modestly on the menu but it'll be the last thing I forget about this place. About the only off-key item—tellingly one of the few that couldn't have had a local provenance—was octopus braised with chiles on crostini. This neighborhood has already rejected one great restaurant built on this model in John Bubala's late Baccala—I hope Wicker Park gets it this time. —Mike Sula

Mexique1529 W. Chicago | 312-850-0288

$$$Mexican/Southwestern | Lunch, dinner: seven days | 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 tamale stuffed with seafood mousse and cooked in banana leaf, the smooth tastes of cornmeal and crab sharpened and brought into focus with preserved lemon rind. Sopes combine escargots and chimichurri as well as creamy avocado and shrimp Provencal, both of which harmonize 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 and paired with chard that supplies a bitter note; the herb-crusted rack of lamb, lush and perfectly cooked, gets a counterpoint from delicately astringent eggplant. Classic cochinita pibil is moist and luxuriant, or you can have it Frenchified as rilletes, 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 coulis and garlic-Mulato pepper essence. For dessert an avocado pastry cream with crispy phyllo 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 | Lunch: Saturday-Sunday; Dinner: sunday, tuesday-friday | 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

Paddy O'Splaine's2434 W. Montrose | 773-866-1825

$Bar/Lounge, English/Irish/Scottish | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

I can't fathom what sort of strategy was plotted during the endless buildout of this proudly faux Irish, comically inept monstrosity, the latest and greatest of Lincoln Square's ever growing roster of dumb, TV-centric barstaurants. Let's have a flat-screen for each eyeball to draw attention from the perpetual absence of servers! Let's tart up the crushing institutional mediocrity of the cattle feed with more ingredients than the human palate can process! Let's search for a bartender who thinks a twist in a gin martini is a fat wedge of lime! The atmospheric sensory overload is echoed on the menu of pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and main dishes. My tongue lost its way in a murky swamp of Guinness-bathed mussels, then seized up when confronted with an enormous pork chop stuffed with blue cheese and a trail mix of cherries and pistachios, with an extra fruit grenade in the apple chutney on the side. An overcooked crab-stuffed salmon was awash in red pepper coulis, and even the little ones aren't spared the assault—a kid's marinara pasta dish was plated with a double shot of linguine and penne. But this wanton excess is best expressed by the inclusion on the menu of Chilean sea bass, the poster fish for irresponsible eating. Even in ideal conditions, with an eighth of the tables occupied, both the kitchen and bar seem incapable of producing anything in a timely manner. —Mike Sula

The Parmigian2826 N. Lincoln | 773-388-8341

$$Italian | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Sunday till midnight, Saturday till 11 | BYO

The sheer earnestness of this informal BYO effort is endearing. Named for—what? a citizen of Parma?—its slaphappy red-spackled paint job, ESL menu, bargain-basement prices, and friendly, flirty front of the house make you hope for a Cinderella story. But nothing we sampled on this menu ranging from salads, pastas, sandwiches, pizzas, and classic Italian-American entrees could lure me back. With stale bread, overcooked and oversauced pastas, chicken-breast jerky in the salads, and a rangy "Visivo of the day," this place has a long way to go before it can call itself a restaurant. —MikeSula

Shochu3313 N. Clark | 773-348-3313

$$Bar/Lounge, Asian, Small Plates | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

A loungey, modern restaurant, Shochu boasts a heavily Asian-influenced menu by Josh Hansen of Deleece but is really about its namesake booze, a distilled spirit that in recent years has overtaken sales of sake in Japan. On offer are almost 20 varieties, all served neat or on the rocks at $5 to $12 a glass or in cocktails like the Shione (barley), whose generous dollop of muddled blackberries kept me from knocking it straight back. The drinks are a far cry from the staple "sours"—shochu, ice, and soda served with half a citrus fruit, a molded juicer, and a swizzle stick—on the menu at standard Japanese izakaya (casual bars that offer bites of everything from sashimi to french fries), but Shochu's service style is more or less the same. The dishes are small and varied (curry, maki, yakitori, and "raw"), meant for sharing and to be ordered as the mood (or the alcohol) strikes. From the raw menu we tried a small mound of chopped ono, avocado, scallion, and chile on a rice-paper bed; it looked doused in peanut sauce (hints of Thailand) but to my relief had the refreshing citrus taste of ceviche (viva Mexico?). The grilled skewers came three to a plate with seven dips and a salt for dipping. The shrimp and pear, the bacon-wrapped dates, and the shiitake, tomato, and onion all lacked the nice smoky flavor lent by a good charcoal, but the avocado-wasabi mayo spared the shrimp from just OK-dom, the "Japanese ranch" revived the dates, and the salt saved the day. Which is to say that about half of everything—though essentially good—was too intensely flavored, most often overly sweet. Next time I'll take a glass of the Shiranami, neat. —Irma Nuñez

Sixteen401 N. Wabash | 312-588-8030

$$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch

Every critic who steps off the elevators on the Trump Tower's 16th floor is going to have the pin already pulled from his grenade, braced for any hint of the Donald's trademark vulgarity. At least I know I did. But though the prohibitive prices and cheesy tunes piped through the sound system raised my hackles, the food at Sixteen is bewitching. It certainly confirms the reputation of chef Frank Brunacci, who launched his globe-trotting career in Melbourne, Australia, and went on to London's Les Saveurs and Ritz-Carlton restaurants in Atlanta and New Orleans. On my visit he was offering at least one signature dish from his past, a vanilla-scented crab salad in a cylinder of rock melon (that's Aussie for "cantaloupe," Yank). Everyone I describe this to snirches, and maybe that's why the menu doesn't mention vanilla, but with the briny crab, the sweet melon, and the acidic pineapple dressing it makes for a novel harmony of clear flavors—unrestrained, sure, but not obnoxious. That goes for many of Brunacci's presentations, from a lamb loin perched atop "forbidden" black rice and lightened with grapefruit and lemongrass accents to duck "Percik," a take on Malaysian roast duck splashed with a currylike cumin-and-carrot jus. It's recommended that you order desserts, by pastry chef Hichem Lahreche (who has a similarly impressive CV, beginning with a run at D.C.'s Citronelle), at the start of the meal—they're constructed like birds of paradise, particularly the monnaie du pape, a wafer protruding from a scoop of luscious milk sorbet with Drambuie gastrique. —Mike Sula

Trattoria Pizzeria I Monelli5019 N. Western | 773-561-8499

$$Italian, Pizza | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 11 | BYO

I watched a doddering elderly couple shuffle out of this Lincoln Square trattoria when they were told the pizza comes out of a conventional oven. At this stage in our evolution, with Chicagoans accustomed to a wood-burning oven within walking distance of every bus stop, you have to wonder how smart it was to open a pizzeria without one. Here the pizzas are served Roman style, pizza rustica, shaped into rectangles, and square cut, with a thickish, breadlike, aerated crust fired at an intensity that doesn't do much to distinguish it. On my visit, though, half of ours was cut, unbidden, into extrasmall pieces out of respect for a toddler in the group. It's that sort of thoughtfulness, and an easygoing tenor, that might win over the neighborhood. Water and soft drinks are served without ice—just like in Italy!—and the operators, with ties to Pizzeria D.O.C. and Pizza Metro, can be observed bustling about the place, chattering with each other in uncensored Italiano and flirting with the stroller moms (careful boys—some of them might know what vafanculo means). Unremarkable but ample antipasti, panini, pasta plates, and salads round out the menu. —Mike Sula

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 a 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

Viaggio Ristorante & Lounge1330 W. Madison | 312-829-3333

$$$$Italian | Dinner: monday-friday | closed sunday| Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-Thursday till 11

From a distance Viaggio seems to have lassoed all the cliches of a pricey southern Italian red-sauce joint, beginning with a limited menu of pastas and meats dominated by tomatoes, peppers, ricotta, and bitter greens. I wasn't reassured when I walked in and found two mirrored disco balls hanging among the half-dozen flat-screens, half of which were playing, I kid you not, The Godfather, Part II. But chef Anthony Rissoli, a transplant from south Florida, quickly disabused me of those assumptions, beginning with a plate of house-roasted sweet-hot peppers and a basket of Turano's bread to sop up the oil. All four ample appetizers show a bold, but deft touch where things could so easily go off the rails: fried calamari tossed in a tomato sauce were sweetened with a drizzle of aged balsamic, and two tremendous, bready meatballs in red sauce provided a counterpoint to a pile of verdant romaine leaves. Both pastas we tried—the signature rigatoni in "Sunday" pork gravy with enormous chunks of tender pork and an ice cream scoop of ricotta and the linguine with fresh-shucked clams tossed with whole cloves of roasted garlic—were cooked perfectly al dente. Entrees like a gigantic pork chop (plated with more peppers set against nicely bitter rapini) and, Poseidon forgive us, a sea bass Francese special of silky fish in lemon butter sauce and topped with spinach and jumbo lump crabmeat are big enough to feed two. Rissoli is doing relatively few things exceptionally well—the quality of these familiar dishes is so high (and the portions so huge) that everything seems more or less in less in line with what may seem at first to be an excessively high price point. All I'd ask for is a few more southern Italian reds on the wine list. —Mike Sula

Zed 451739 N. Clark | 312-266-6691

$$$$$Steaks/Lobster, Latin American, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

The Orlando investment firm that snapped up Sal & Carvao three years ago must have known there were enough knickered "gauchos" scampering around River North's Brazilian-themed feeding factories to occupy a flattened rain forest. But it also knew that the all-you-can-eat-meat-on-a-blade concept still has juice, especially if marketed to Sex and the City wannabes who don't care as much about eating as about being seen in the right place eating. I was no fan of Sal & Carvao, but I don't remember feeling as blatantly manipulated there as at its replacement, Zed 451. The game began the instant we approached the host stand and were directed into a holding pattern in the bar, where we were free to order weak pours at stiff prices before finally being permitted to feed at one of several long-available tables. In the dining room, the Brazil-on-Disney shtick and the simple, reasonably palatable flame-roasted meats have been replaced with white-coated "chefs" who table-shave a less beef-centric variety of proteins gussied up with global-fusiony marinades and accents, such as bricks of Parmesan-crusted pork loin, citrus salmon, and mango mahimahi. The "Harvest-Table" is laden with salads and vegetable dishes in enough sugary dressings to accommodate heroin withdrawal (bok choy with orange-chile glaze, sweet potatoes with ginger maple syrup, etc), and if the trio of "artisan cheeses" was any less industrial than supermarket deli-case varieties, I'll go bag groceries at Jewel. This is the human counterpart to confined animal feeding operations, the industrial meat factories that supply the sort of unexceptional product served here. —Mike Sula

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