Restaurants: New Too, November 6, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: New Too, November 6, 2008

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New Too

Blue 13416 W. Ontario | 312-787-1400

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Tuesday-Saturday till midnight

The rock 'n' roll trappings of Blue 13, from former Zealous sous chef Chris Curren, aren't any more original than those at Graham Elliot or even Rockstar Dogs. (Replace the skin art with skin diseases and maybe you'll scare me.) But even if badass fine dining already seems so last month, I wouldn't write off this little spot: in the earlier dinner hours the vibe is dialed down, putting the focus on the food, and the kitchen's ratio of hits to misses is not discouraging, starting on my last visit with "fish and chips," a glass of ahi tuna tartare, taro chips, and wasabi foam—finally there's a way to enjoy foam. On the other hand, butter-poached lobster on polenta cake was overcooked, so gummy you could blow a bubble with it. And back and forth it goes: a plank of pan-seared walleye balanced on four enormous and beautiful roasted-corn-and-manchego agnolotti would have been perfect if the pasta were cooked just a bit more (usually it's the opposite problem). A structurally frustrating pylon of icy blood orange semifreddo toppled over repeatedly, but a perfectly simple fudge brownie with coffee ice cream balanced the scale. I have to reserve highest praise for Curren's signature "steak and eggs on acid"—beef tenderloin layered over pierogi and topped with a quail egg. A smear of wasabi between the steak and dumplings was a simple but inspired riff on horseradish that took this far beyond the realm of mere meat and potatoes—and made me think Curren just might rock harder than he pretends to. —Mike Sula

Cipollina1543 N. Damen | 773-227-6300

$Italian, Kosher/Jewish/Deli | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

This tiny Italian deli and specialty foods store in the short-lived Milk and Honey Bake Shop's former space (still under the same ownership) preserves some of its earlier incarnation with a small selection of pastries, cookies, and cakes as well as a wide range of teas and Intelligentsia coffee. There's also gelato, Italian soda, a soup of the day, and a dozen-odd sandwiches with several vegetarian-friendly options. We tried the marinated artichoke, roasted red pepper, Pecorino Romano, olive tapenade, and arugula sandwich and a special of grilled sweet potato and eggplant with herbed goat cheese. Both had a nice balance of flavors, though a smoked salmon, cream cheese, and red onion breakfast panini was a bit salty. The deli case features cured meats and Italian cheeses, many of which also show up in the sandwich offerings, as well as olives, cornichons, and a few salads. It's not always easy to snag one of the four tables—the focus is on carryout, and even if you order in, your soup is likely to be served in a plastic container and your coffee in a paper cup—but the tall saddle chairs next to the plate-glass window are a nice place to hang out if you can. —Julia Thiel

Duchamp2118 N. Damen | 773-235-6434

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Sunday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday till 11

"Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided," declared Marcel Duchamp. So he'd have to scoff at Michael Taus, whose chummy Bucktown spot Duchamp is aesthetically delectable in a couple ways. Unlike the chef's pricier Zealous, most main courses here run between $15 and $20, and for that kind of money they're a lot more satisfying than might be expected. We approached a crispy fried skate wing "fish-and-chips" with tartar sauce with some unease, but the dense pieces of fish held up well to the oil under the bread-crumb batter (though the garlic spuds on the side didn't). The awkwardly named "Return to Thailand Bouillabaisse" (enough with the quote marks already) was simply a luxuriant coconut curry with mussels, shrimp, and a gorgeous piece of sea bass. The least successful of the large plates we tried was a hunk of braised pork shoulder, luscious and tender but so big it rejected the penetration of the puttanesca that sauced it. Small plates were a little more expensive, relatively speaking, but mostly gratifying: a white pizza with sweet lobster offset by some beefy trumpet mushrooms; an off-menu tempura rock shrimp toast afloat in a thick, rich lobster bisque; smoked salmon tartare blinis like little turbans ornamented with dollops of creme fraiche; duck rillettes set atop swabs of cauliflower puree. Utilitarian desserts—creme brulee, lemon tart—were outclassed by a duo of mini chocolate cupcakes and chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches. There are a few questionable decorative choices—clear Plexiglas dining room chairs and bar stools that resemble torture devices might've made the ol' Dadaist happy—but the broad communal tables don't seem to foster a rushed, chaotic environment (see Avec, Urban Belly). This is a comfortable, enjoyable spot the neighborhood's lucky to have. —Mike Sula

Marion Street Cheese Market Cafe100 S. Marion, Oak Park | 708-725-7200

$$American Contemporary/Regional, Small Plates| Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Marion Street Cheese Market Cafe lays out exquisite cheeses, meats, and local produce, done up as small plates and entrees—but not too done up. The cafe specializes in noninterventionist cuisine, manipulating its plates minimally and setting them forth in ways that foreground the undiluted goodness of artisanal chow; the goal of chef Michael Pivoney seems to be to let the food work its own natural magic. We marveled at panko-dusted fried green tomatoes, dressed with bearnaise, and innovative pizzas prepared with a rotating selection from the 100 or so cheeses lovingly stored in a massive glassed-in cooler. Wine and beer flights—three decent pours priced $11 and under—are well paired with cheese and charcuterie, affording tiny tastes of many good things, which is what this cafe is all about. Don't come here expecting a bellyful; instead, seek to sample simple dishes like smoked pork with sweet potato hash or prosciutto with mango, sip a tasty beverage or two, and leave feeling very satisfied but not stuffed. Sounds sensible, doesn't it? —David Hammond

Old Oak Tap2109 W. Chicago | 773-772-0406

$$Bar/Lounge, American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3; Sunday, Tuesday-Friday till 2 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Wondering where the older siblings of the kids at the Continental—the ones with jobs and starter homes—head when they need to cut loose? Try the Old Oak Tap, a new barstaurant from the owners of the Continental and Darkroom. On a recent Friday the 1,500-square-foot front patio was jammed, and every third patron seemed to be bouncing a baby between sips of Saison DuPont. The high-ceilinged interior has been widely compared to a ski lodge, but the feel is more goth-modern, wrought-iron chandeliers in tenuous balance with the low, clean lines of the dark oak tables and pale green banquettes. The menu, created with consulting chef John Manion (Mas), is full of spiffed-up bar standards like sweet-and-spicy sriracha wings, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and sandwiches stuffed with tilapia or five-spice pork belly. And I mean stuffed: the lump crabmeat club was an ungainly mound of crab salad with four inches of fresh ciabatta on either side and finished with chunks of bacon and avocado. It was tasty—and the accompanying fries were outstanding—but presented a serious structural challenge. Deep-fried rock shrimp glazed with chipotle aioli and a rib eye salad with romaine and avocado proved more navigable, but underneath the spicy mayo the shrimp seemed oddly flavorless. The craft beer list showcases a lot of predictable crowd-pleasers—Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Three Floyd's Alpha King, Two Brothers Cane and Ebel—but also a couple intriguing curveballs like the Magic Hat #9 Pale Ale, a light, fruity, strangely pleasant brew I'd never tried before and liked a lot by the fourth sip. Like the beer list, Old Oak overall follows a well-known formula, but if the formula works, why mess with it? There's an enclosed heated patio. —Martha Bayne

RoPa Restaurant & Wine Bar1146 W. Pratt | 773-465-6500

$$$American, mediterranean | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday & Sunday till 11

I miss Cafe Suron, the always pleasant Mediterranean spot that's been replaced by an unworthy successor in RoPa (short for "Rogers Park"). Appetizers like kashke bademjan, an irresistible warm eggplant spread seasoned with mint, are no more, replaced with boringly generic starters like artichoke dip, a crab cake, and dispiriting fried calamari, a lot more batter than squid and served with a cloying "Thai chile sauce." Where Cafe Suron was BYO, RoPa has a full liquor license, but I'd gladly trade the option of specialty martinis for the ability to bring my own bottle, particularly when the list here is long on marked-up critter wines. I did like the sprightly tasting Aegean salad, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, parsley, and red onions dressed with lemon and olive oil. But that was the sole highlight: wet noodle-y seafood linguine came with chewy scallops and an unopened mussel, a so-called Cajun tilapia had next to no heat and was served with bland sauteed spinach that glistened with oil. Other entrees are no more interesting, unless you get excited about paying in the low 20s for hunks of grilled meat. Looking glumly down at my plate, I said, "Isn't this kind of like—" "Olive Garden?" my friend supplied. Well, actually I was thinking Marriott. Service—with a 15-minute initial wait for bread and water—was well meaning but hopeless. —Kate Schmidt

Rosa de Lima2013-15 N. Western | 773-342-4557

$$South American, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Peru gave the world potatoes, so you'd expect the country's signature tuber to be presented here with aplomb, and so it is: causa de camarones is a layered tower of grainy mashed yellow spuds alternating with shrimp salad, a study in subtle flavors and textures; papas a la Huancaina is a mound of potato disks drenched in creamy Peruvian cheese, dappled with olives and parsley in a rich, delicious mess. We eagerly slurped down parihuela, a savory bowl of steamed sea creatures in a complex broth of tomato, onion, and panca-red pepper cream. Belly-worthy chicken is marinated, roasted, and rendered even more delicious with seriously perky onion and tomato salsa. Peruvian beverages are made with care and fresh juices; the passion fruit sour—creamy and cool with egg white and ice—is a winning sip. The dessert combo of pisco-spiked rice pudding with mazzamora, purple corn cooked with sweet potato and fruit, looks and tastes really good. Rosa de Lima has an adventurous, reasonably priced menu worthy of exploration and featuring regional exotica like pumpkin puree with milk and butter and veal hearts skewered with (what else?) potatoes. —David Hammond

Soul1 Walker, Clarendon Hills | 630-920-1999

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

At the time of the 2000 census, fewer than 1 percent of Clarendon Hills residents were African-American. So things must have radically changed over the last eight years for the affluent, sleepy DuPage County hamlet to get its very own soul food restaurant, appropriately enough called Soul. Well, probably not—and as you might guess, this large, brashly appointed suburban peculiarity (the decorator might have shot a flock of macaws out of a jet turbine) is more "soul food" than soul food. One of the major players behind it is none other than Bill Kim, whose smashingly popular noodle bar, Urban Belly, does a similar thing with a similarly populist food. Both have taken traditionally simple, inexpensive cuisines and amped up the execution—with a corresponding increase in price. Kim's lieutenant in this venture is executive chef Karen Nicolas, formerly of the private Metropolitan Club and NYC's Gramercy Tavern, who oversees the attractive menu of high-end takes on folkloric foodways. She tends to balance richly and sweetly flavored proteins and whole grains with hearty, bitter greens—and I'm a sucker for that. I'm talking a robustly piggy grilled Duroc pork chop with a lode of internal fat, served with bewitchingly fragrant baby mustard greens and braised farro over roasted fig sauce. Or glazed duck breast with pureed yams in foie gras sauce and sauteed rapini. It's everywhere—shrimp and chicory, scallops and radicchio, codfish hush puppies and frisee. It's not that there are no surprises—a pureed apple-parsnip soup I expected to be a thick, heavy harbinger of cooler weather was instead a bowl of sunshine, tart and sweet with a touch of grassy herbaceousness from pickled celery. Not everything I ate at Soul knocked my boots off—I have a friend who calls this sort of place "high-end boring." But Clarendon Hills could do a whole lot worse. —Mike Sula

Urban Belly3053 N. California | 773-583-0500

$$Asian, Noodles | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Often with domestic attempts to popularize or synthesize Asian cuisines, one taste predominates: sweetness. To his credit, Bill Kim doesn't try to lure babies with candy at his upscale neighborhood noodle joint, Urban Belly. Instead he offers an array of pan-Asian-inspired dumplings and rice and noodle bowls with bold but occasionally wearying flavors. It's a quick-serve, sometimes frenzied communal setting that by early indications is a winning business model. The dumplings alone could carry it; offered in five distinctive varieties, they're tasty across the board. I particularly liked the ones stuffed with lamb and brandy, fragrant pork and cilantro, and duck with pho spices. But my excitement was quickly dampened by the other menu categories, particularly the greasy rice bowls—long-grain rice topped with a few small slabs of short rib, or tossed with pork belly and pineapple, pea shoots and basil, or a combination of all of the above. The noodles have a tendency to taste strikingly delicious in the first few slurps, but gradually exhaust the palate the closer you get to the bottom of the bowl. This is especially true of the saltier varieties—the rice cakes in Korean chile broth with katsu-style chicken breast, for instance, or the stir-fried egg noodles, which while nicely knotted and crispy were bathed in a broth not all that different. I did feel favorably toward the ramen, a chewy tangle with shiitake and thick slabs of pork belly. And in general, there's a lot to like in these bowls: bonito flakes, Kim's springy house-made fish cakes, the bitter Chinese broccoli that offsets the sweet chile-lime broth in the udon, the one entry that could be considered cloying. —Mike Sula

El Veneno Mariscos1024 N. Ashland | 773-252-7200

$$Mexican, Seafood | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Don't be put off by the name: the only poisonous seafood at El Veneno Mariscos is the dried puffer fish among the marine paraphernalia decorating the walls and ceiling of the small storefront that used to be Punta Cana—and, before that, Rudy's Taste. The newcomer has already found a following, judging by the Mexican-gringo mix of families, couples, and groups crowding the laminate tables (set with metal buckets of paper napkins) for fish and shellfish estilo Nayarit—that is, in the style of the Maryland-size state on Mexico's west coast. Crunchy whole tortillas with fiery salsa, also typical of the region, and complimentary marlin ceviche tostadas got our meal off to a great start. After that, my favorite cold choice was la Copa Veneno ($13.99), a giant seafood cocktail of light tomato sauce chock-full of shrimp, octopus, oysters, and other goodies, crowned by avocado. It was one of the best I've had, though I'd recommend a smaller cocktail if you plan to eat anything else. We were very happy with two house specialties designed for sharing: chapuzon del mar ($20), a platter of tender octopus, oysters, and shrimp with sweet slivered red onions in a piquant russet-colored sauce, and a half order of charola de langostino ($12.99), slightly tough but tasty shell-on langostinos bathed in butter and spices. Of the platillos, a crispy whole fried huachinango estilo Nayarit featured red snapper topped with saucy shrimp and onions, good french fries, rice, and salad on the side—quite a meal for $14.99. Other options range from first-rate fish tacos ($2.99) to a whole stuffed lobster for two ($38.99) to a blowout dinner for six ($95). My only regret: several items were not available, among them a Nayarit fish stew called zarandeado and camarones momias ("mummy shrimp," stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon). Skip dessert and BYO booze; service can be chaotic. —Anne Spiselman

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