Stephanie Izard never had anything to prove to Chicago. Long before she conquered Top Chef, she was mistress of her domain at Bucktown's Scylla. Still, during the interminable two-year wait between her Season Four win and the opening of Girl & the Goat, she rode the rapids of a relentless if entertaining hype stream punctuated by tweets, blog posts, and innumerable public events. And unless you were lucky enough to score tickets to one of her well-publicized "underground" dinners (or to bear witness as a member of the city's increasingly compromised food media), word of them only served to heighten the anxiety: would Steph really pull it off?
With her partners in the Boka Restaurant Group—who've made a habit of backing formidable chefs such as Boka's Giuseppe Tentori and Perennial's Ryan Poli—she's made her stand in a cavernous space on Randolph's restaurant row. The second you spin through its revolving doors you're blasted with a besotting roasty meatgust issuing from the wood oven at the back of the room—a sensation reinforced by the charred floor-to-ceiling divider and iron fireplace fixtures above the bar. It's as if you've stepped onto the scene of a smoldering barn fire where the former inhabitants are being put to the best possible use.
And there in the rear, backlit by kitchen light and open flame, is the Top Chef herself, sweating in front of the exposed line and expediting orders. The only indication she's anything more than a hardworking chef is the occasional snapshot break with grinning fans. Just over a month in action, that line was putting out some of my most memorable dishes of the year, as well as many very good ones, and only a few duds.
The menu of rustic, shareable small plates, broken down into vegetable, fish, and meat categories, is strongly seasonal—many are bound to have changed by the time you read this.
Unorthodox but not offputting combinations are Izard's thing: shaved root vegetables and blueberries in anchovy-buttermilk dressing, chicken with fermented black bean sauce and watermelon, smoked goat pizza with sour cherries, grilled lamb and avocado with tart pistachio sauce. She's particularly fond of mammalian garnishes on fish dishes; a hiramasa crudo sprinkled with crispy lardons and drizzled with Peruvian chile aioli was one of the most delicate things I put in my mouth. Most everything else was simply and appealingly arranged: a crispy soft-shell crab dug itself out of a pile of sweet chile-lime corn that trumped the overpriced elotes so many restaurants were upselling this summer. Snails and goat meatballs with romesco and bagna cauda nestled in a crock. Shisito pepper roulette (one in ten will burn your face off) played out in a bowl, drizzled with creamy Parmesan-miso sauce. Clams and sausage in a tureen of thin cream sauce with just a few lonely strands of linguine was my biggest regret—not just oversauced but oversalted. I could have ordered more meat.
Committed restaurant-goers are by now comfortable with the whole beast, but Izard's efforts with the fifth quarter are truly original—the already notorious roasted pig face, slabs of luscious head meat stacked like pancakes with a fried egg on top and potato stix, being the exception. Though it's won most of the attention, the braised beef tongue with masa, salsa verde, and rough sauteed greens deserves more—like a Vietnamese banh mi, it's a beautiful orchestration of taste, texture, and temperature. The offal changes quite a bit: one night a dollop of deceptively light smoked, whipped fatback with biscuits and boubon-soaked onions appeared, along with a plate of thin, steaky goat-heart satay with sweet local peaches and pleasantly bitter radicchio.
Similarly, big goat rib roast and roasted veal legs come and go, and so does the changing bread service—which will cost you. The hot doughy boule with liver butter and tart plum sauce was well worth the $4, though I'd recommend pacing the bread courses out to sop up the excess of later dishes.
Things get particularly heartbreaking at dessert, the likes of which won't soon be seen again. The sweet corn nougat—practically hidden on the bottom of a canning jar, tempered with a few drops of sherry vinegar and topped with crumbled bacon—is the richest, coolest summer gold. That's almost rivaled by a creamy goat cheese bavaroise with crumbly brown sugar cake and blueberries, or a riff on a Fudgesicle with olive oil gelato drizzled in oak-aged ale.
This is my favorite new opening this year, only in small part because it's one of those rare instances where the hoopla is entirely justified.In fact, for once it serves a noble purpose: Izard's food, already validated on TV, will continue to get the attention it's always deserved long after the cameras stopped rolling. —Mike Sula
You might think Chikurin Sushi & Asian Cuisine sounds like just another ho-hum pan-Asian restaurant, but this sleek Bucktown newcomer has some surprises in store. Piquant ma po tofu was as good as most versions I've had in Chinatown, and Mongolian beef made with very tender meat surpassed many. Pork wasn't a protein choice for moo shu, and chicken couldn't compare, but the filling had the rest of the right stuff, and the pancakes were properly thin. With a touch more curry flavor, Singapore noodles with barbecued pork and jumbo shrimp could become my favorite late-night snack.
The sushi, on the other hand, is nothing special. Rice balls were a bit loose on one visit, fine on another. An inside-out Fuji roll was enjoyable except for the fibrous asparagus inside with the eel and crab. And soggy nori ruined a simple yellowtail-scallion maki with hardly any scallion. Intriguing but imperfect fusion takes on raw fish included "carpaccio" (aka sashimi) with thin slices of fiery green chile swimming in ponzu sauce, and slightly mushy tuna tartare with avocado, cilantro, and sesame oil, camera ready in a martini glass trailing curly threads of carrot and daikon.
Of the three hot appetizers we tried, tempura was coated with dense breading that wouldn't pass muster in any Japanese spot worth its name, and I couldn't taste the pickled cabbage in the kimchi pancakes. "Dynamite Mussels," stuffed with a mix of crab and mussels and baked, were better, but the sauce didn't live up to the name. Our one Thai entree, a red coconut-milk curry loaded with shrimp and vegetables, was rich and satisfying. Steamed rice is Japanese-style, short-grained and a bit sticky.
Judging from two visits, service needs work—it might be wise to specify the order in which you want to receive your dishes. There's now a full bar. —Anne Spiselman
This summer chef-consultant Alan Lake took over Evanston's much-loved Va Pensiero and transformed it into Pensiero Ristorante—upgrading and refining the original concept rather than upending it, as the name suggests. Housed in the stately Margarita European Inn on a quiet side street, it still has that "special night out" feeling—I'm sure it'll be packed on Northwestern's parents' weekend. But now it's got something more.
Italian cuisine hews strongly to tradition, and any variation can cause consternation in the homeland. When I ordered sliced beef with carrot puree once in Italy, an Italian dining companion declared that no countryman of his would ever dream of ordering such a thing. This strict mindset allows traditional recipes to flourish, but doesn't leave much room for experimentation. But here Lake is free to add Asiago cheese to fish—heresy! Specifically he adds it to linguine diavolo, a spicy pasta dish of shrimp and oysters (mostly shrimp) with lobster essence, where it melts to impart a subtle, slippery texture to the perfectly al dente linguine without being gooey.
Likewise I've never had pork belly that was so unabashedly fatty and meltingly tender as Lake's in an Italian restaurant; it's served with exotic mushrooms and a crispy risotto cake. He also deconstructs crostini alla Toscana (a Tuscan appetizer of hot chicken liver paste on bread), serving soft whole grilled chicken livers speared on sprigs of rosemary. A condiment of jam made with onions and sweet marsala wine from Sicily—practically a foreign country to northern Italians—showed a deft ability to cross regional borders in a single recipe. Seemingly weightless ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, accompanied by cubes of sauteed tart apples and sprinkled with pistachios, played up the savory nature of a familiar dish.
A special of veal saltimbocca was perhaps a little heavy for a hot August night—I actually enjoyed it more as leftovers the next day, when the earthy flavors had settled down a little bit. The accompanying crispy fried polenta, perfectly creamy on the inside, made me wish I knew the secret to replicating it at home. Diver scallops with sweet-sour caponata and a prosecco-orange beurre blanc was a more weather-appropriate choice. The menu will continue to change seasonally under permanent chef Christian Fantoni, who was brought on just this week.
A list of historic cocktails seemed a little jarring in this context, and held little appeal before a large meal. Better to stick to the wine list, which offers reasonably priced bottles from all over Italy and a good selection by the glass. —Heather Kenny[Editor's note: after a number chef changes, Pensiero Ristorante is now offering only limited hours.]