Mexx Kitchen at the Whiskey
1015 N. Rush
If star chef Richard Sandoval of Modern Mexican--the group behind luxe neuvo Latino restaurants such as New York's Maya and Pampano and Las Vegas's Isla--hadn't collaborated on Mexx Kitchen at the Whiskey, no one would pay much attention to the cozy folk-art-decorated room tucked behind Rush Street's see-and-be-seen Whiskey Bar. And even though the press has taken notice of the food, drinks and quick bites seemed to be what the handful of businessmen, tourists, and locals wanted on my visit. Problem is, Mexx Kitchen has an identity crisis. Servers are fine with beverages--many tequilas, margaritas (decent, not great), cocktails (skip the misguided mango-mint mojito), and beers--but less adept at pacing meals. The menu is divided between marginally upscale renditions of Mexican favorites and much more sophisticated fare. Well-balanced guacamole with crisp chips would be at home in a neighborhood spot, as would chilorio sopes brimming with pulled pork, queso cotija, chopped lettuce, tomato, and crema fresco. Walleye ceviche swimming in guava-citrus sauce with diced watermelon, jicama, and mint was a refreshing alternative to everyday tomato-based versions. On the other hand, a trio of too-fragile, extremely salty Mexico City-style steak tacos made me wonder why I was spending $10 for what would cost half that at my local taqueria (where they have the sense to double up on the corn tortillas). The highlights came from the more sophisticated camp: creamy balsamic-painted roasted corn soup with a huitlacoche dumpling and a picture-perfect entree of seared coriander-chile-crusted tuna slices propped up around mashed boniato on a hibiscus-blood orange-habanero emulsion. Flaky banana dessert empanadas were fun but anticlimactic. --Anne Spiselman
The Bluebird Bistro & Wine Bar
1749 N. Damen
Want some bacon with your porchetta? On the menu at the Bluebird Bistro & Wine Bar, a new late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar, it's hard to find anything not spiked with smoked pig. An otherwise relatively sane addition to the nightlife corridor stretching up Damen from the Wicker Park crotch, Bluebird's a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great--lots of cured meats and funky cheeses, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. But a crab salad with arugula and watercress was bland (except for the bacon bits), and heartier main plates were a mixed bag. There's a satisfying bowl of beer-braised rabbit with shallots, mushrooms, and (surprise) bacon over fettucine. But a flap steak with marrow butter and parsley toasts was pretty undistinguished, and the brined and smoked "baconed pork chop" tasted of nothing but smoke and salt--though maybe my taste buds were just numb by then. The wine list is organized by "climate"--IMHO a fairly useless conceit--but the by-the-glass options we tried were excellent. The extensive beer list is heavy on the Belgians and sophisticated enough to justify one more appendage to the official name of the place. --Martha Bayne
3839 W. Grand
Bright, spacious, and friendly CJ's Eatery might do for west Humboldt Park what the original Wishbone did for another desolate stretch of Grand Avenue in the 90s: grow into a vital community hub while serving solid southern and soul-inspired comfort food. Charles Armstead and Vanessa Perez have filled a couple deep voids already, providing a Lavazza-dispensing coffee bar and sit-down table service for three squares in a neighborhood where the only other viable eats are at Jimmy's Red Hots around the corner. Breakfast is a steal: an egg-and-chorizo burrito or biscuits and gravy are just $3.50; French toast and a hangover-blanketing sausage casserole don't go much higher. Sandwiches predominate at lunch, along with a few entrees (barbecued pork steak, four-cheese mac), soups, salads, and a handful of appetizers (crab cakes, spinach dip) that pull a double shift at dinner. Entrees include a chile-rubbed sirloin with southern-fried corn and a "BBQ Meatloaf Tower" crowned with mashed potatoes and fried onions. At a recent lazy Sunday brunch, carb loading was accomplished with a special of shrimp and creamy grits and a banana bread pudding with peanut butter creme anglaise that could've raised Elvis off the bathroom floor. --Mike Sula
Allen's: The New American Cafe | 217 W. Huron
Scylla | 1952 N. Damen
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Walleye ceviche and seared corander-chile-crusted tuna at Mexx Kitchen at the Whisky photos by Rob Warner.