Vacant for seven years, the gorgeous brownstone that formerly housed the Waterfront has finally been restored to its turn-of-the-century beauty by the Sassi family, owners of the new MERLO ON MAPLE (the original Merlo Ristorante is still open in Lincoln Park). "We had so many customers coming from the Gold Coast who asked if we'd open a restaurant closer to them," says Giampaolo, the Sassi patriarch. The Sassis stripped and stained the building's oak banisters and floors and built three semiprivate dining rooms--one on each floor--and an inviting bar near the entrance. Giampaolo's wife, Sylvia, is the executive chef for both locations and chef de cuisine on Maple. Her Italian menu is full of dishes not commonly found in Chicago: homemade tagliatelle, green lasagna, tarte di carciofi (artichoke tart with parsley and mortadella), lamb loin with wild-berry sauce. The wine list is predominantly Italian. Merlo on Maple is at 16 W. Maple, 312-336-8200.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
When CERISE opened two years ago, not only was it difficult to find--on the fifth floor of Le Meridien Hotel--it didn't have the culinary chops to be a destination. With David Burns (La Sardine, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Le Bouchon) now running the show, it's a different story. Burns cooks mostly standards: pan-roasted sea scallops served with forest mushrooms and truffle essence, a wild-mushroom and sweetbread pithiviers (sandwich in puff pastry) with truffle sauce, and a memorable roasted duck breast served with duck-leg confit, wild rice, and roasted pears. Attached to the front of the dining room is Le Rendez-Vous, a bar that serves small plates including escargots, steak au poivre, and a classic American hamburger. Cerise is at 520 N. Michigan, 312-645-1500. --LLS
Since it opened in 1998, the nightclub NARCISSE has served upscale snacks like lamb carpaccio and caviar. But according to Jay Vohra, who bought the place two and a half years ago, adding a dinner menu was "always part of the plan." Chef Jason McClain, who's worked at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York and alongside Nobu Matsuhisa at the Shore Club in Miami Beach, wants the food to be excellent but accessible--"I've worked at some of the best restaurants in the country," he says. "That type of dining experience wasn't always appealing to everyday people. I don't want anybody to feel intimidated when they go out to eat." That would seem to be a challenge at a place where a snifter of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac will set you back $125. The new menu features opulent dishes like an exquisite spiced foie gras accompanied by apple strudel, served with freshly sliced raw apple and a cider vinegar sauce--the crisp, tart apples contrast nicely with the rich liver and sweet strudel. But McClain insists that's nothing fancy. "Basically what you're getting is just foie gras and apples," he says. Such oddly perfect combinations abound: an oniony goat cheese tart, served on a bed of prosciutto, is topped with a generous slice of fresh black truffle; a spicy curried pumpkin soup has chunks of Maine lobster. There's also lobster in the mashed potatoes that come with the prime filet mignon, a tender eight-ounce cut. Diners are invited to select their own steak knives from a display box brought to the table before they dig in. Why? I don't know, but it did make me feel special. Narcisse is definitely a nightclub first, and the smoke, mood lighting, and Eurolounge sound track may turn off diners looking for a more Everestlike experience. "But even those people want to let their hair down from time to time," says Vohra. Narcisse is at 710 N. Clark, 312-787-2675. --Kathie Bergquist
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.