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What's New: Coming Up Aces

Ex-Fianco chef Matt Troost scores again with a Taylor Street bar. Plus: Zenlike Italian in Lincoln Square and a downtown steak house that's dinner and a show

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Plus: Reviews of Bangers & Lace and Blokes & Birds

On a recent Friday night at Three Aces,

small plate after small plate of rich Italian soul food arrived at my table at an unhurried pace. It would've been a delicious meal at any Taylor Street restaurant. But a restaurant Three Aces is not. The latest from chef Matt Troost, formerly of Fianco, it bills itself as a bar with a kitchen.

The bar piece comes across loud and clear, due to the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and blaring sound system. My friend and I were, uncomfortably, the only people eating during our visit and we had to half-mime, half-shout our order.

If you can get past those inconveniences, you'll encounter a formidable kitchen. After finishing some grilled greens and crusty bread soaked in an anchovy slurry, followed by toothy pappardelle pasta with a sort of cheesy Bolognese sauce, I realized that this wasn't at all the Italianized pub fare I'd expected.

Nothing is dumbed down, but neither are dishes unnecessarily weird or fussy. Oozing arancini nestled in an oxtail ragu struck just the right balance between familiar and funk. Slices of porchetta melted into larded beans, the porky goodness complemented and cut by spicy rapini and apple mostarda. One of the better winter salads I've had consisted of shaved fennel, citrus, and bitter greens that actually tasted fresh despite the time of the year.

The more conventional bar food is just as good as the rest of the menu. Crispy, crusty, and served on a log, the pizzettas range from classic margherita to braised chicken thigh and squash. Three Aces' grass-fed burger is better than most—they've managed to find a meat mixture that stays juicy. It comes loaded with aioli, cheese, and bacon jam, but would probably be even better with just one of the three. Maybe it's not exactly the kind of low-brow food that tipsy revelers crave, but it's reasonably priced and too good not to catch on. —Kristina Meyer

Tucked between France (Bistro Campagne) and Ireland (the Grafton) on Lincoln Avenue, Massimo Di Vuolo's cozy Due Lire Vino & Cucina occupies a low-slung, dark-timbered room as evocative of a Japanese teahouse as it is an osteria. It took me several minutes to put a name to this gentle disconnect, and the distressing op-art canvases on the wall confused the issue even further. But as my friend and I studied the abbreviated menu—a handful each of antipasti, salads, pasta, and secondi—we remarked upon it with bemusement. And once we tucked into the food, it made sense.

From the involtini Napoli appetizer to the short rib ravioli, Due Lire chef Kevin Abshire seems inspired by a very Japanese clarity of flavor and presentation. That involtini, for example, could've easily been a vehicle for a mess of smoked mozzarella. Instead, fresh, unadulterated eggplant and shredded zucchini more than held their own against the strong cheese, each forkful a dense study in balance.

Of course, celebrating the essential flavor of fresh, good ingredients is as central to the Italian kitchen as to the sushi bar, and purity of flavor needn't mean austerity. Take that ridiculously rich ravioli: complex layers of meat, pasta, and Parmigiano glazed with porcini mushroom sauce. It's reasonably portioned, though, and—despite loads of butter—not overwhelmingly heavy.

Strong, oily mackerel, ever a challenge, materialized as two squared, pan-seared fillets atop a bed of Israeli couscous a la puttanesca, the capers, olives, and onions providing a stern rebuke to the main event. The gamberi carciofi—grilled, peppery shrimp with tempura-style artichokes—suffered only from an unnecessary salsa verde. And half a Cornish hen was stripped to the essentials: crispy skin and tender, juicy meat seasoned, as far as we could tell, with just salt and pepper. Dessert dialed it back even further with a classic panna cotta served with pomegranate seeds, black sea salt, and a balsamic reduction—an elegantly acidic trio that played off the custard's creamy simplicity.

I'd like to go back and sample the menu at its most fundamental, trying, perhaps, some linguine Calabria (clams, salami, wine sauce), crostini, or just salumi and cheese. Despite the "vino" in the name, Due Lire is currently BYOB, with a $5 corkage fee. —Martha Bayne

Mastro's Steakhouse is a sort of culinary Disney attraction—theatrical, grandiose, and rehearsed to the point of parody. The price tag is high, but you're paying for dinner and a show. It's Steak! The Experience. Housed in a two-story, 20,000-square-foot space, Mastro's features two plush dining rooms, a piano bar, and several private rooms.

Once we were seated, servers launched into a scripted routine covering the concept and the menu. Prepped for a drink, I suffered sticker shock over an $18 martini that's shaken and poured tableside. Though the price makes sense mathematically—you're getting the equivalent of two jumbo drinks—the gimmick is a flop. Your second helping melts into watery irrelevance as you sip the first, providing an unnecessary reminder that a martini isn't a milk shake. With a range of sophisticated and affordable bottles starting at around $40, the wine list is a better value.

Mastro's menu offers the diner many opportunities to become a victim of its flaming train wreck of excess. You can upgrade or customize your selections for every course. The signature appetizer is the seafood tower, which can be built to spec with oysters, Spanish caviar, king crab, and the like. The shellfish emerges from the kitchen on platters of billowing dry ice, uplit by flashlight-toting waitstaff. But when the smoke clears, all that's left is some presplit, waterlogged crab legs.

Deflated expectations carry over to the main courses, especially the steaks, all of which are wet-aged and USDA Prime. The 24-ounce porterhouse, though cooked perfectly, was overwhelmed by Cajun rub. But the premium "chef's cut" rib eye chop was delicious and, at 33 ounces, of Flintstone-esque proportions. In this case the upgrade was well worth it—but considering the size and cost of this chop ($51), I'm glad I didn't surf my turf with the optional pair of lobster tails.

Fish comes braised, sauteed, or broiled according to your preference. The sea bass oreganata had a pleasing golden herb crust, but the nearly molten plate it was served on sent the fish from medium to overdone at the table. A hot, hot plate is fine for steak, but not so much for a delicate fish.

A standard range of soups, bread, salads, and sides form a forgettable supporting cast. One exception: gnocchi with Alaskan king crab and black truffle, served suspended in butter. They're as good as they sound, and three or four gilded potato pillows are a meal by themselves.

If the three pillars of a great steak house are professional service, a consistent, superior product, and a perfect martini, then Mastro's succeeds only in the service category. The other two get lost in the show. —Kristina Meyer

New Too

Cravin' Chicago Wings

5750 N. California | 773-944-0662

$

AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

This spacious sport-themed strip-mall wing joint wedged between a Filipino bakery and a Korean barbecue picks up heavy after-school traffic from Mather. Varieties range from the cloying—Hawaiian, dressed with pineapple puree and shaved coconut—to the brutish; the Chicago Fire is amped with raw minced jalapeño. My favorites are the moderately spicy Italian garlic. There's also a selection of burgers, salads, and sides including waffle-style sweet potato fries, dusted, bizarrely, with sugar and maple cinnamon. —Mike Sula

Le Fleur de Lis

301 E. 43rd | 773-268-8770

$$

SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | BYO

This new Creole-inspired Bronzeville restaurant in the former Negro League Cafe seeks not just to provide good food but to create a community. Sundays are all-day affairs with a popular all-you-can-eat brunch with live jazz and poetry readings at night; there's karaoke on Thursdays. Owner Allen J. Rochelle, a native of New Iberia, has drawn on the recipes of his family in Louisiana for his eclectic menu, which employs "Creole" loosely, omitting classics like oysters, blackened fish, and trout meuniére. But gumbo was a thick, spicy green-tinted roux with chicken, sausage, and shrimp, and a special of house-made boudin blanc sausage was subtly spiced. The catfish in a po'boy was a pair of hot, curled fried fillets encased in a thin, delicate, spice-specked batter that didn't crunch so much as slide off. The same faultless batter surrounded the half dozen shrimp atop the less-stellar red beans and rice, which looked reheated. The crawfish etoufee was creamy, with lingering heat, and a doughy, sweet lemon square came covered by a blizzard of powdered sugar. —Izidora Angel

Letizia's Fiore

2456 N. California | 773-342-4400

$

BAKERY, COFFEEHOUSE, PIZZA | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Already tending to Letizia's Natural Bakery and the neighboring Enoteca Roma Ristorante in Wicker Park, Italian-born Letizia Sorano expands her mini-empire with Logan Square's Letizia's Fiore. Nicely nestled just south of Logan Boulevard on California, the bakery and coffee shop offers an array of natural muffins, cookies, doughnuts, and brownies. My friends and I were impressed with the moist, savory muffins we sampled, but found massive Italian-style doughnuts, well, too doughy. In addition to baked goods galore, Letizia's offers a full espresso bar with small breakfast and lunch menus. Piadina, a flatbread sandwich from Romagna, make an appearance on both menus, and is a good bet for a quick bite for around five bucks (I had the roasted tomato, basil pesto, and smoked mozzarella). In the coming months there are plans to add dinner and a wine bar. —Kevin Warwick

Ole Hardwood

1315 S. Wabash | 312-583-9761

$$$

BARBECUE/RIBS, SOUTHERN/SOUL FOOD | Lunch: sunday; DINNER: Sunday, thursday-saturday | OPEN LATE: friday & saturday TILL 11

UPDATE: Closed to a fire early in the morning of December 30. Nowhere is "lipstick on a pig" more apt than at Ole Hardwood, a "gastro-smokehouse" where mediocre barbecue comes dressed in its Sunday finest. It's a difficult concept to achieve, in part because barbecue calls traditionally for cheaper cuts of meat. This makes the place's prices a tough sell, and neither the service nor the decor—all wood, glass, and dramatic lighting—compensate for them. Small-portioned appetizers arrived quickly, starting with a few fried green tomatoes that wouldn't cut it in the south, too thinly sliced and lightly breaded. Our entree, the smoker sampler, fared a little better: the mesquite-smoked brisket was so good on its own it required hardly any sauce. But not even a trio of homemade sauces—a thick, molasses-based sweet one and two Carolina sauces with a sharp vinegar sting—could save the watery pulled pork. The waiter steered us away from the menu's smattering of standard-fare grilled entrees. We should have listened; we sorely regretted the four crab-stuffed shrimp. The meal ended on a high note, though, with an amazing apple crumble that packed perfectly cooked apples under a crispy top. —Emily Withrow

Owen & Engine

2700 N. Western | 773-235-2930

$$$

Bar/lounge, English/Irish/Scottish | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

It's a little-known fact that the Secret Order of Posturing Publicans requires pledge-member establishments to staff up with a minimum 65 percent of scruffy beardos, each outfitted with a tweed scally cap, before they can be awarded their ampersands. Opening well ahead of Wicker Park's Bangers & Lace and Lakeview's Blokes & Birds, Logan Square's Owen & Engine was assured its pick of the hirsute chaps passed over by Longman & Eagle. The owners have enlisted young veterans of Alinea, Trotter's, and MK and tout the provenance of their farm supply, at least showing some determination to rise above the stereotype of this subset of gastropubbery, and perhaps also to set some stiff prices. Chef de cuisine Charles Burkhardt's light, greaseless batter-fried haddock and chubby chips are pretty good, and the structurally unstable rasher-and-egg sandwich is worth painting your face with. But the most delicious thing on his menu is the item least likely to appear within the confines of a British pub. That would be sous chef Jacob Bickelhaupt's so-called rustic lasagna: dollops of rabbit confit layered between large irregular sheets of pasta drizzled with a fennel-infused orange-zest-ricotta sauce. The presence of this shockingly delicious anomaly—on a menu that boasts bubble and squeak, a charcuterie plate of sausages, paté, and pork belly rillettes arrayed on a tree trunk, and an open-faced mutton-and-rutabaga meat pie with a crust thicker and drier than a powdered wig—makes me wonder what else the staff can do that might surprise Charles Dickens. In the front of the house certified cicerone Elliot Beier (whiskers, check; headgear, check) might visit your table midmeal and insist on pouring sample pairings; don't turn down the chance to quaff a pint of one of the four cask-conditioned ales hooked up to hand-drawn beer engines. Also don't miss a chance to plow into pastry chef Crystal Chiang's chocolate banoffee, a wide parfait glass lined with rum-drunk bananas and buttery graham cracker crust and filled with toffee-threaded chocolate mousse. —Mike Sula

Saigon Grill

5736 N. Elston | 773-628-7156

$

ASIAN, VIETNAMESE | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | BYO

Edgebrook dry cleaners Sonny and April Tran opened this fast casual Chinese-Vietnamese spot with a few tables in the former Pier 5736, as an outgrowth of their yearly New Year's Eve parties. The menu is limited and as basic as it gets, with standards such as egg foo young, kung pao chicken, and fried rice sharing space with crispy rice crepes stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts (ban xeo), beef or shrimp vermicelli salad (bun) and translucent rice-paper spring rolls. —Mike Sula

Simply Thalia

108 N. State | 312-750-9098

$$

ASIAN, JAPANESE, THAI | lunch, dinner: MONDAY-SATURDAY | closed sunday | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Sibling to West Town's Thalia Spice, the pan-Asian Simply Thalia has done a booming business with Loop office workers since moving into the renovated pedway beneath Block 37. The reason's obvious: in a stretch overrun by chains, it offers crisp ingredients and freshly prepared dishes. The roasted duck banh mi comes with the meat on a bed of shredded carrots, cilantro, jalapeño, and onion in a baguette that doesn't overwhelm the innards. The kimchi in the bi bim bop has an audible crunch, while the spinach adds color, a warm dark green. The boat noodles get texture from bean sprouts and scallions. And the sushi is done on-site, with the colorful Crazy Tuna roll having three different types of the fish, all of which can be tasted amid the tobiko and rice. The banh mi, rice, and noodle lunch specials can all be ordered as Bento boxes with gyoza, salad, miso soup, and an almond cookie; in the late afternoon and early evening, larger sushi combos are available. —Ted Cox

Watershed

601 N. State | 312-266-7677

$$

Bar/Lounge, Small Plates | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Monday-Saturday till 2

The basement of Pops for Champagne has been transformed into Watershed, a dim, nautically themed suburban home barroom circa 1976. Drinks, devised by Daniel D'Oliveira (formerly of Boka and Mercadito) and mixed predominantly with craft spirits from the Great Lakes region, weigh in on the sweet end of the scale, but a handful of nicely balanced potions—like the Italian Hurricane, made with Campari, mezcal, and Adam Seger's herbal Hum spirit, or the Shake in the Hay, gin and Chartreuse with a bracing dose of celery bitters—stand out. Former chef Chris Walker (who also ran the kitchen upstairs until he moved on to Evanston's Bistro Bordeaux this month) left behind a menu of small $3 bites—cold smoked eggplant caponata, marinated olives, Publican-style barbecue pork rinds—and larger plates under $10. A curated selection of midwestern beers, as well as the same cheese and charcuterie selection available upstairs, all seem secondary to Watershed's primary attraction; its womblike cuddle of stone walls, pillowy chairs, and high backed booths, a great escape from the bustle outside Tree Studios. —Mike Sula

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