1540 N. Milwaukee
John Bubala's Italian awakening continues with this recasting of Thyme Cafe as BACCALA, a Piedmont-influenced trattoria inspired by Bubala's 2006 visit to the region as a delegate to Slow Food International's Terra Madre Conference. Bubala is known for his rigorous sourcing of local ingredients, here manifested in a short menu of simple, deeply satisfying dishes prepared along northern Italian models. That means meats cooked low and slow, a liberal use of butter as well as olive oil, and more polenta and risotto than pasta. Pork predominates: whether shank, butt, or luscious belly, the high-fat cuts are fully flavored and luxuriantly tender. Same goes for the dino-size beef short ribs and a curveball--lamb tongue in red wine sauce, its heavy richness brightened by grilled fennel, grain mustard, and dried tomatoes. Baccala, the restaurant's namesake puree of reconstituted salted cod and milk--otherwise known as brandade--comes with chunks of scallop and potato; squid is stuffed with sweet sausage in a rich mascarpone sauce. Pastas are represented by three stuffed varieties, including porcini tortellini in a broth dancing with tiny dice of lardo, a cured lard overlooked here but treasured in Italy. Tables are supplied with plenty of grissini, the long breadsticks that originated in Piedmont, but that's one gesture toward regionalism I'd rather see sacrificed to a breadbasket--a lot of delicious sauce leaves the table unsopped. There's a small but well-chosen selection of some two dozen Italian reds and whites, plus four bubblies and ten Goose Island brews. --Mike Sula
1729 N. Halsted
Giuseppe Tentori, a nine-year veteran of Charlie Trotter's, took over the reins at a revamped BOKA last month, offering a menu with a few startling if enjoyable items. Scallop-stuffed squid with baby spinach, spicy pineapple, and black tapioca was one of the weirdest-looking plates I've set eyes on this year and texturally freaky too--squishes and pops in every bite--but really tasty and fun to eat. The bacon-wrapped Berkshire pork tenderloin with Israeli couscous was another odd, vaguely provocative pairing that might have worked better if the pig hadn't been so dry. A salad of luscious raw big-eye tuna, mizuna, grapefruit, and capers was a pretty interesting combination of flavors, though the saffron risotto with serrano and arugula took things too far, gilded with flakes of gold leaf. (Does anyone ever see that on a plate and think, "Mmmm, metal?") But it was sumptuous veal cheeks, topped with a dollop of excellent house-made mustard and served with pureed runner beans and grilled treviso, that won the day. Service was deft, knowledgeable, and unruffled, though on the Friday night I went the place was overwhelmed and I wasn't seated for over an hour after my reservation--maybe because Tentori wasn't in the kitchen but in the dining room conducting a tasting for a food magazine. The house made amends with a comped round of drinks and dessert. --Mike Sula
HB Home Bistro
3404 N. Halsted
Except for a tweak of the name, little has changed at HB HOME BISTRO--formerly HB--since the Hearty Boys of Food Network fame sold the Boys Town mainstay to their opening chef, Joncarl Lachman. The loft-look storefront decorated with vintage mirrors and black-and-white photos by "front-of-the-house guy" Bob Moysan is the sort of friendly restaurant you'd like to have in your neighborhood. On a recent visit the waiters seemed to know most of their customers, occasionally even sitting down with them. Specials, written on a blackboard, bop around the Mediterranean and beyond, and Lachman's cooking remains . . . well, hearty. Plump black mussels "Amsterdam" style swam in an extremely buttery herb-flecked beer broth, along with fennel, garlic cloves, and slices of carrot. A special of creamy risotto with braised rabbit, topped with coarsely grated Parmesan and garnished with green apple and fennel fronds, had enough flavor to compensate for the slightly overdone rice. Caesar salad came swathed in a tangy anchovy dressing, though I'd prefer crisp inner leaves of romaine to the dark green outer ones and multiple croutons to the single tooth breaker. A seared salmon fillet was cooked through but still moist, and I liked the bed of curried lentils, roasted brussels sprouts, firm chickpeas, and fingerling potatoes in toasted mustard-seed butter, even if it threatened to overwhelm the fish. The massive double-cut pork chop served with sweet mashed butternut squash, peppery braised purple cabbage, and whiskey-glazed apples is one of the most popular entrees on the seasonal menu--and for good reason. Desserts aren't artful, but bananas Foster bread pudding or chocolate chocolate-chip bundt cake should satisfy anyone's inner child. On Wednesdays there's a $25 three-course prix fixe with your choice of items from the a la carte menu, and HB Home Bistro is BYO with no corkage fee. A couple of caveats: the room gets noisy, and two steps at the entrance make wheelchair access a real challenge. --Anne Spiselman
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.