500 S. Dearborn
I wanted to like Custom House, Shawn McClain's third big splash (after Green Zebra and Spring) in the city's ever deepening puddle of international culinary credibility. But try as I might, I can't believe this rarefied steak house completes any sort of holy trinity. There's a lot to want to like: artful-sounding sides and mains, predominantly meat and fish, created by the semicelebrated (but not always present) chef-owner; a sleek, relaxing space in a neighborhood associated with some of the city's first modern fine-dining restaurants (and first hookers); and a mostly efficient and accommodating (if not terribly knowledgeable) staff. On a visit about a month after the opening, I was willing to forgive some disappointments no one would expect at a place this expensive. About half the dishes served to my party of eight failed to live up to their tantalizing descriptions (or their prices): the Oregon black truffle risotto was so salty they could use it to clear tarmac, and the cannellini beans served with the baby lamb were undercooked. One friend who admits "I like to be a prick about salt" and stocks more than 20 varieties in his kitchen was served the iodized granulated kind before he spoke up and got some sea salt. Another pal, a recovering wine snob, was put off by a server who tried to foist on us the costly and unpolished idea that we shouldn't get more than four pours out of a bottle. On the other hand, tender veal cheeks with tomato anchovy preserves were very good, and baby beets with mascarpone were fluorescently bright and explosively flavorful. A piece of marinated yellowtail was flopping-fresh and tasty, and the best dish at the table was a bone-in rib eye with a red onion tarte tatin. Other terrific-sounding items were nothing special: frisee with ham hocks, mustard, and quail eggs was way out of balance, and a New York strip advertised as dry aged had none of the mineral tang associated with aging--plus it came presliced and fanned out as if it were a duck breast. The desserts by Elissa Narow, formerly of Blackbird, were entirely forgettable. A month later I had a much better lunch with my friend the salt prick. A piece of cured sturgeon with julienned apples and pumpernickel toast was similar to the yellowtail we had the first time, and every bit as good. A sea bass fillet was delicately cooked, with crispy skin, but the accompanying truffled mashed potatoes lacked any truffle note. Once more, I think the best thing was the beef--my prime sirloin was perfectly cooked (and sprinkled with sea salt), but I still can't get past the kitchen's paternalistic decision to cut up steaks before serving. And again my friend was given iodized salt. Custom House is a tranquil open space conducive to business meals, prettily decorated with pebbles, twigs, and rocks like a Zen garden, but it still seems like the love is missing. PS, guys: next time it snows toss a few pence to a street urchin to shovel the west sidewalk. --Mike Sula
1520 N. Damen
The interior at the snazzy new small-plate restaurant Del Toro, in the former Mod space, is meant to suggest a bullfight, from the red recesses in the bull's-hide wall to the short, hornlike light fixtures above the bar. I know this all sounds tweer than twee, but it's offset by the ambitious if occasionally pretentious menu. On a recent visit my friend and I started out with sashimi-grade tuna from the cold-plate menu, two or three little quivering bites each, accompanied by a smoked sea salt. Thinly sliced serrano ham topped with manchego was delicious, the salty meat a perfect foil for the smooth creaminess of the cheese. We next opted for the anchovy bruschetta; the tiny silver fish piled on toast with thinly sliced avocado were perhaps the best thing we ate. The only misfire of the night was a bowlful of mussels that seemed a bit past their prime. Large plates were poached halibut and something truly special--simmered pork belly with that oleaginous, ultrasalty, meaty flavor that screams pig. We finished with a bowl of mission figs steeped in red wine, accompanied by a delicately flavored ice cream made from cream cheese and Mahon, a cow's-milk cheese from the Spanish island of Minorca. The atmosphere is loungy, but there's a plus to that: the enormous cocktails are served until the wee hours, and the kitchen is open till three on weekends,
two on other nights. One caveat: Del Toro can be expensive. Small plates range from $8-$15, and portions are skimpy. --Chip Dudley
1350 W. Randolph
Could a name change already be in the offing for Saltaus? The moniker's derived from the surnames of owner Nader Salti and chef Michael Taus, but two months after the restaurant's opening Taus has already departed, replaced by Brad Phillips, a former sous-chef at NoMi. Taus (who remains the chef-owner of Zealous) designed a menu that seeks to fuse Mediterranean and Asian flavors, but on a recent visit the execution was so clumsy it was impossible to judge the merits of the idea. The sumac-and-star-anise glaze on a pair of boneless short ribs was exciting, but the meat was rubbery, and the side of green papaya slaw was drowning in a dreary mayo-based dressing. The ingredients of the rock shrimp salad might have worked individually, but with the critters buried under sweet potato mousse the dish had the tooth of baby food. An appetizer of five kinds of dim sum came not in a steamer but wobbling on a plate, and the dumplings' inoffensive fillings were foiled by their gummy wrappers. Entrees fared better, though pork tenderloin medallions roasted in a pomegranate molasses arrived tough and overdone. The evening's best dish was the corvina fillet sauteed in a caper-and-lemongrass sauce, despite the rather bland turnip-scallion pancake it sat on, and a side of braised artichoke smothered in white anchovies and preserved lemons packed a wonderful punch. The Meyer lemon tart was workmanlike, and an exceptionally dry yuzu-poppyseed pound cake was topped with a scoop of sesame-brittle ice cream that was stingy on sesame flavor and crunch. Our server was friendly and eager, but when we requested a good light red that would work with both pork and fish he suggested a cab blend that he could only describe as "awesome" (we passed). Saltaus features a slick modern interior of polished wood and stark white walls; a sizable lounge overlooks the dining room. With its late hours (the kitchen stays open till midnight), the establishment seems intent on becoming a destination for the hipoisie, but if the food doesn't improve it won't be anything more than that. Does it want to be? --Peter Margasak
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.