Restaurants: New Too, October 2, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: New Too, October 2, 2008

Thirteen more recent openings

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New TooThirteen more recent openings

Blue 13416 W. Ontario | 312-787-1400

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

Tattoos! On the wall! Oh my stars! 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—the framed flash looks suspiciously similar to the wallpaper in the men's room at Kuma's. (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, housed in the former Tony Rocco's River North. 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

Hub 5151 W. Hubbard | 312-828-0051

$Bar/Lounge, American, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Thursday-Friday till 2, Sunday-Wednesday till midnight

As we dithered over half-finished plates in the packed dining room of Hub 51, the restaurant debut of Rich Melman spawn R.J. and Jerrod, my pal and I challenged ourselves to think of one nice thing we could say about it before we'd allow ourselves to escape. And we continued to sit, until our server blinked past the headlights in her eyes and began to twitch. Maybe I shouldn't blame her. It's not a place to puzzle over the unimaginative menu, or even expect a serious recommendation for what's particularly tasty (hummus? really?), but rather a place to direct your eyes around the room and try to spot a celebrity among the conventioneers. But should you actually be here to eat you might have trouble zeroing in on the tiresome and dissipated selection of sushi rolls, soft tacos, burgers, salads, and platters. There's a lot of fish on the menu, and if the serviceable ahi tuna poke—the only plate we had the strength to finish—is any indication, that might be the way to go. Otherwise you're taking your chances with bulked-up bar food like a heaping plate of pulled chicken nachos smothered in cold roasted-tomato salsa and half-melted, half-congealed cheese or an open-faced BLT, an overdressed disaster salad of frisee, bacon cut two ways, tomatoes, and blue cheese atop a thick piece of toast. Meatier plates feature usual suspects like braised short ribs, Chilean sea bass, and pork tenderloin, but grasping for something special, we were defeated by "The Dude," a $35 18-ounce model of stringy, supermarket-quality rib eye. The ramekin of Parmesan-crusted mashed potatoes it arrived with was ...ummm...nice. Check, please. —Mike Sula

Madame Tartine22 E. Hubbard | 312-755-0007

$$$French, Bar/Lounge | Lunch, dinner: monday-saturday | Open late: monday-saturday till 1

The former BB's is now tarted up as 60s-era French brasserie, with lots of black, white, and red; funky lamps and candelabra; and a women's restroom with hideous psychedelic wallpaper where you have to pay to pee. Under chef Jonathan Foster (Savarin, Le Passage) the food's improved, but it's hard seeing this awkward space as a destination at its price point, with dinner entrees mostly in the $20s and skimpy pours of wine by the glass $9 and up. A tasty beet salad was oddly presented, so completely hidden by greens and slices of dehydrated beet that I at first thought they were the dish. Duck confit spring rolls lived up to their promise for the duck lover at the table, but French onion soup was strictly standard issue and a salad Nicoise was thrown off-kilter by a bitter walnut vinaigrette. I thought I was hungry, but I couldn't manage better than two bites of tough steak frites with the only aioli I ever met that I didn't like. My friend valiantly undertaking to finish the thing off, he swapped me his tartine, a paninilike pressed sandwich with chicken, arugula, and goat cheese, which might be a better way to go—especially at lunch. —Kate Schmidt

Mana Food Bar1742 W. Division | 773-342-1742

$$Vegetarian/Healthy, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

This Wicker Park vegetarian spot from Susan Thompson (who also owns De Cero and Sushi Wabi) and Jill Barron (executive chef at De Cero) is small but pleasant, and the closeness of the tables in the outdoor seating area encourages conversations between strangers. While it's always nice to be able to grill the people at the next table about what they're eating, our waiter's suggestions were also good, especially the salad of Thai pineapple with cucumbers, spicy green chiles, mint, and lime. Other favorites were a blue cheese tart with caramelized onion and "sliders" of brown rice and mushrooms, served with spicy pickles that saved them from blandness (the menu also says they're served with spicy mayo, but I didn't notice it). We didn't encounter any major culinary disasters, though the bi bim bop was unremarkable and went mostly uneaten. The option of ordering most menu items in small or large servings is nice—it's easy to taste several things without ordering way too much food, and if one item isn't a hit, it's no big deal. —Julia Thiel

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. —David Hammond

Perennial1800 N. Lincoln | 312-981-7070

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch

Situated in a primo piece of real estate—on the ground floor of the new Park View Hotel, facing the Green City Market—Perennial is for the most part a solid homecoming for chef de cuisine Ryan Poli (formerly of Butter), who's working under the aegis of executive chef Giuseppe Tentori (Boka). There's a rustic and seasonal simplicity that's occasionally sideswiped by some untamed flourishes: a sweet peekytoe crab salad was all but destroyed by a bitterly acid avocado mousse that's in the running for one of the worst things I've eaten all year, and the short-rib cannelloni that accompanied some otherwise beautiful seared sea scallops was a textural nightmare of overmanipulated manky meatstuff. Overall, though, Poli is working excellent ingredients into appealing, often colorful creations, from Roman-style crusty baked cylindrical semolina-beet gnocchi with a thick walnut puree to a portobello carpaccio salad with pickled garlic and diced prosciutto vinaigrette executed in such a way as to make the meaty fungus almost diaphanous. A striped bass fillet with crisp, silvery skin in a bath of Parmesan-tomato jus stirred up happy childhood memories for a tablemate, who compared it to alphabet soup. The simplest dishes were the most impressive: a lamb duo of chops and spicy braised loin with eggplant chutney, a lush foie gras torchon on the charcuterie plate, and a watermelon-tomato-olive-oil salad that should be devastating at high tomato season. This is one of the most boring restaurant neighborhoods in the city, so Perennial ought to be valued by locals as well as hotel guests. —Mike Sula

Piccolo Sogno464 N. Halsted | 312-421-0077

$$$Italian | lunch: monday-friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Ex Coco Pazzo chef Tony Priolo and vino pro Ciro Longobardo's Piccolo Sogno, or "little dream" as the name translates, looks great on paper and in person with a range of touchstone though not tired pan-Italian dishes; a thoughtful, affordable regional wine list that spans the Boot; one of the most idyllic outdoor dining areas in the city—and on most evenings, a parking lot packed with Beemers and Lexuses. Good for them, but I'd caution any paying customer to keep dreaming if they expect to be transported to some mythical Italian Eden where the flavors in the margherita pop just as brightly as those in the risotto. Priolo certainly hasn't inherited the Italian talent for moderate portion control, either—his admittedly affordable main courses tip an Olympic scale. And working through flat-flavored but ample meaty dishes like thick slabs of Roman-style porchetta or wine-braised beef brasato takes effort, especially in the aftermath of overpowering earlier courses such as greasy fried fontina-stuffed zucchini flowers, a sprawling plate of drying prosciutto, or a carpaccio with cremini mushroom whose natural earthiness is suffocated with a cruel dousing of truffle oil that hits you halfway from the kitchen. Aquatic creatures are treated little more delicately: a Sicilian-style piece of tuna with vegetables, raisins, and almonds was dangerously overdone, as were the poor pieces of monkfish fish in a cioppino (aka "sapore di mare"). Someone knows what they're doing with pastas though, particularly the house-made green-and-white fettuccine with veal ragu, boiled not a minute too long and sauced with restraint—though a half portion ought to do ya. But if you subscribe to the notion that real Italian food is simple and dependent on superior ingredients for its magic, it's hard to reconcile the meticulous sourcing the restaurant touts on its Web site with what turn up on the plate. Service was well-informed, apologetic, and practically heroic in reaction to a kitchen that was clearly in the weeds. Maybe there's hope Priolo's dishes will sing if his crew learns to keep up with the crowds. But not if the throngs lose patience first. —Mike Sula

Real Tenochtitlan2451 N. Milwaukee | 773-227-1050

$$$Mexican | Lunch: saturday-sunday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | saturday & sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

"Is that Rick Bayless?" my daughter asked as chef Geno Bahena swept through his dining room at Real Tenochtitlan. Although one is ripped and the other rotund, one boyishly tousled and the other continuously kepi-capped, her confusion was understandable: the Bayless spirit hangs heavily upon Bahena's new venture, and it's reinforced by the restaurant's Web site, which cites Bayless almost as frequently as Bahena, who works steadily within the Chicago tradition of higher-end panregional Mexican cuisine. A mole master, Bahena prepares knockout pumpkin seed butter for dry pack scallops and a pleasing plum sauce for venison; his rendition of the now ubiquitous lamb in mole negro expertly balances the meat's aggressive flavor with a complex blend of seeds and spices. Using raw materials from local farmers is now de rigueur (see Frontera Foundation), and Real Tenochtitlan surfs this laudable wave with artisanal products from local producers like Gunthorp and Little Sugar River farms, dutifully credited on a menu studded with Mexican selections like Tarascan corn soup and uchepos from Michoacan. Though the current BYOB policy can significantly reduce the bill, some might balk at being charged for chips and salsa, but oh well—that's the way they do it at Frontera. —David Hammond

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

Tapas las Ramblas5101 N. Clark | 773-769-9700

$$Tapas/Spanish | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In August Michael Moore transformed his presciently ill-named Il Fiasco into Tapas Las Ramblas with mosaic tiles outside and colorful abstract murals inside, but whether the Spanish restaurant escapes the fate of its Italian predecessor remains to be seen. Except for the guitarist playing Iberian classics in the bar, which feels more authentic than the dining room, the odds on my visit didn't look too good. A menu of small plates ($3.95-$9.95) and paella ($12.95-$14.95 per serving, minimum two) that would have been exciting 15 or so years ago is standard-issue nowadays, and comparatively limited. Our cold tapas included inedibly salty patatas con aioli, garlicky potato salad, and slightly dry tortilla española. Pan con tomato, jamon, y queso featured naked baguette slices rather than traditional tomato-topped bread, and wedges of underripe plum tomato were a lousy substitute to go with the paper-thin slices of serrano ham and manchego cheese. Best of the hot tapas were bacon-wrapped dates in red bell pepper sauce and the pincho de solomillo, a skewer of nicely seared beef tenderloin morsels with caramelized onions and horseradish cream. Gambas a la diabla, tail-on shrimp swimming in olive oil and crushed red pepper, lived up to their name but were a tad overcooked. Chewy grilled baby lamb chops, a special, came on a bed of damp couscous mixed with cabbage and mushrooms in forgettable paprika sauce. Whole poached pear glazed with raspberry sauce and a fudgy flourless chocolate cake ended the meal on a positive note. Why the wine list has no Spanish whites and only some Spanish reds is beyond me. Friendly service was a bit disorganized. —Anne Spiselman

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 pufferfish 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 blow-out 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

Yats955 W. Randolph | 312-820-7930

$Cajun | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

At Yats, the recently opened West Loop outpost of an Indiana restaurant group, most menu items are Cajuny or Creole-ish stews of some sort—jambalaya, chili, or etouffee involving meat, beans or corn, and lots of rice; vegetarian and/or vegan options are also usually on deck. Running a marathon? You couldn't pick a better place to carbo load. We liked the red beans and rice with andouille sausage, creamy and smoky, and black beans with caramelized corn, somewhat sweet and like many of the dishes, benefiting from a spritz with one of the hot sauces. Warning: the chili cheese etouffee with crawdaddies, reportedly their best seller, is vile, gloppy with a cheeselike substance bearing an artificial note, somewhat similar to their bread, which sports a taste much like movie-theater "butter." Still, the folks who work here are right friendly, the food decently prepared and priced; a good ordering strategy is to get a "half-and-half," two half-portions of any two entrees for $6.80. The peanut butter pie—cream filled in an Oreo crust—is yummy. —David Hammond

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