Between Boutique Cafe & Lounge opened in 2007 offering creative Indian fusion small plates by Radhika Desai, who appeared on Top Chef before leaving the restaurant in May. Now, after a short stint by Noah Sandoval, the restaurant is focusing on a different but equally creative fusion: Peruvian-Asian dishes dreamed up by consulting chef Jose Victorio. When we visited, the menu was still in transition, but what we tried showed real promise.
Fresh tarragon gave a salad of mixed greens with manchego and basil oil a distinctive earthiness. Tilapia ceviche got a traditional Peruvian preparation: the fish, lightly "cooked" in a citrusy marinade, was topped with kernels of Andean corn and served alongside slices of sweet potato. Recently Andean corn has also turned up in a spicy shrimp soup with aji panca (Peruvian red pepper), rice, and a poached quail egg. Duck breast, prepared on our visit with lingonberries, a schmear of calabrese, and cocoa nibs, is now served with crushed cassava and ceviche.
The Asian influence comes out more strongly in plates like an ahi tuna flatbread with mango, scallion, chopped tomato, and wasabi aioli or the "mantou burgers," two spicy minipatties on Chinese steamed buns, served with fries and adobo. Victorio has also included some more traditional Peruvian dishes, like fried rice mariscos, cooked in wine and beer with shrimp, octopus, scallops, and squid. The sleeper on our visit was a twist on the coastal Peruvian dish causa: lime-infused mashed potato balls topped with smoked salmon, avocado confit, onion, tomato, and a sprig of Chinese parsley and served with jalapeño aioli—kind of like a bagel with lox with an ethereal potato dumpling in place of the bagel.
Between's Wicker Park location, boudoirlike decor, and Web site (which boasts, "It's sexy here—feel free to make out on our couches") might lead you to expect attitude. But while I can't speak to the atmosphere late at night, our visit was a pleasure, the atmosphere mellow and the service friendly, straightforward, and informed. There's a list of specialty cocktails ranging from the Hot and Dirty, a dirty martini with jalapeño olive juice and blue cheese-habanero olives, to the very sweet Spring Lu Lu, with St-Germain elderberry liqueur, Hendrick's small-batch gin, and prosecco. And there are specials nightly—the Tuesday half-price wine deal landed us a perfectly drinkable pinot grigio for $14. —Kate Schmidt
Between Boutique Cafe & Lounge
1324 N. Milwaukee, 773-292-0585, betweenchicago.com
The hordes that descended on the Grocery Bistro after its March opening seem to have thinned: two months ago on a Monday night, the dining room was jam packed; on a recent Monday at 8 PM, it was half empty (though the few sidewalk tables were all taken). I doubt the slowdown is a result of the stink raised last month by former chef Andre Christopher and his parents, who alleged (on the side of a van parked outside the restaurant) that he hadn't been paid for nine weeks. And it's certainly not because the food's any worse under Monica Walters, who was promoted from sous chef to chef de cuisine after Christopher's departure. On the contrary, there were a few disappointments among the successes when he was running the kitchen. On this visit, though, I was impressed by pretty much everything I tasted.
Walters is in the process of revamping the menu, adding more fish dishes and switching out some of the appetizers and desserts. One notable new addition was an ahi tuna ceviche with watermelon, chile, and pea shoots (I could've skipped the tortilla chips it was served with, but my friend loved them). The cucumber gazpacho was also fresh-tasting and pleasantly spicy. A chopped BLT salad came with a perfectly poached egg and plenty of slightly crispy bacon, though the corn vinaigrette was a tad heavy for my taste.
Our very honest waiter recommended the seared halibut with fava bean puree, roasted radish, and pea shoots over another fish dish that he didn't personally care for; true to his word, it was flaky and flavorful. My personal favorite, also highly praised by the waiter, was the lemon and basil pasta with roasted corn and asparagus, where the sweetness of the corn was complemented by the lemony, creamy sauce and petite pieces of asparagus. I could've eaten it for days, but unfortunately the waiter never brought back the boxed leftovers.
For dessert, vanilla bean risotto with peaches and lemon-basil syrup sounded intriguing, but we went for the berry tiramisu with lemon curd mascarpone, which was excellent. The restaurant is still BYO; Perman Wine Selections next door will help you choose a bottle to go with your food. —Julia Thiel
The Grocery Bistro
804 W. Washington, 312-850-9291, thegrocerybistro.com
In its early days, under Dale Levitski, Andersonville's La Tache was my go-to spot for a steak frites fix when the Hopleaf was too crowded or too casual. But by the time the restaurant closed for renovations this spring, the entire place, from hostess stand to kitchen, seemed to be running on French onion soup fumes, turning out uninspired renditions of a small range of standards. A change could only be for the better, right?
Well, let's get the good news out of the way first. The outdoor patio at the renamed La Tache Bistro & Bar is a lovely, quiet spot for a meal. The bar menu, with no item more than $10, appears a good deal—as does the $20 Monday night prix fixe dinner. And the mac 'n' cheese that accompanied a filet mignon was terrifically rich and satisfying. Oysters on the half shell, if unremarkable, weren't bad either.
But otherwise La Tache is operating at prerenovation levels of sloppiness. A salad Lyonnaise was disappointing—an overcooked egg atop a pile of wan frisee and some petrified lardons—and the seared bay scallops were a mess, the flabby bivalves hopelessly at odds with a pale, acidic gazpacho and some strangely smoky squash blossoms. The filet was tender, but it came lukewarm with some limp, charred spears of grilled asparagus. The service was no help: despite an almost comical series of service gaffes, from the missing blue cheese olives in my friend's martini at the start to the error-riddled check at the end, our waiter could barely rouse himself to ask if we wanted dessert. That's OK, we said, and beelined across Clark Street for a stiff after-dinner drink. —Martha Bayne
La Tache Bistro & Bar
1475 W. Balmoral, 773-334-7168, latachechicago.com