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Two Takes on Italian and Bubble Tea Galore

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Erba
4520 N. Lincoln
773-989-4200

Erba, the "urban Italian" restaurant from the owners of nearby Brioso, is sleek and dark, with the barest hints of decoration. The menu's equally spare, totaling just 22 dishes including appetizers. Choices include a variety of homemade pastas, among them "discombobulated lasagna," and larger plates like herb-crusted rib eye, roasted pork loin, and sea scallops served, according to the menu, with "expensive olive oil." On a recent visit my companion and I started with bruschetta topped with rapini, grape tomatoes, basil, and pecorino Romano. Though I normally love the bitterness of rapini, the dish could have been mellower--and for $7 there could have been more of it. Our other appetizer, prosciutto with asparagus, Parmesan, and white truffle oil, was delicious, but likewise seemed a paltry portion for $9. Our entrees--pesto-and-goat-cheese gnocchi that oozed flavor and a fillet of wild-caught salmon served on a warm fennel-and-tangerine salad--were both gorgeous and packed with character, though not particularly substantial. For dessert we had the one and only option: an exceptional chocolate-hazelnut cake so crunchy it seemed to be mostly nuts. The wine list is reasonably priced but right now of limited scope--three whites, four reds. --Chip Dudley


Il Covo
2152 N. Damen
773-862-5555

Dear Il Covo: What in the Sam Hill was going on with your red sauce the other night? Thin and metallic, it clung wetly to doughy knuckles of gnocchi that, though billed as "con Gorgonzola," evinced no sign of cheese. Said my friend, a little sadly, "It's a bit Boyardee." The red sauce aside, our meal at Il Covo, a swank new Italian place in the bi-level Bucktown storefront that formerly housed Babaluci, wasn't bad. Chef Luka Lukic, a Trio vet, has put together a menu of pan-Italian standards dotted with a few surprises inspired by his native Australia, like Tasmanian salmon cured in Campari and beet juice and spaghetti tossed with "Moreton Bay bugs," described by a solicitous if scattered waiter as a cross between lobster and crayfish. A substantial serving of osso buco, meat melting off the bone, came served with a decadent heap of rich, creamy polenta. A rib eye over a mound of peppery rapini was equally generous and, if not terribly innovative, a decent piece of meat nicely blackened on the surface and still rare at the core. We weren't happy to be seated in the upstairs lounge--the nonsmoking dining room downstairs looked cozier and, minus the insistent electrovator music, quieter--but a smooth bottle of Barolo let us forgive some of the new-restaurant kinks. --Martha Bayne


Saint's Alp Teahouse
2131 S. Archer
312-842-1886

Saint's Alp Teahouse, a chain based in Hong Kong, has taken the Taiwanese teahouse and packaged it into a West-friendly franchise. Parked underneath the Phoenix, the new Chicago location is cartoonishly bright and cheerful, with service to match. The draw, of course, is the tea--more than 70 crazy-flavored bubble teas with jelly goos and gummy tapioca balls to be sucked up through oversize straws. Ruby grapefruit with CitronAgarTM was bracingly tart like a grapefruit should be; almond milk tea was great over ice and would have been just as good hot. Saint's Alp is named after a famous stone said to contain the footprint of Lu Dong-bin, a Taoist immortal known for being accessible (for a demigod) and very quick--a description that also fits the food here. My favorite so far among the 20 items tagged as signature dishes, a Taiwanese appetizer platter offered tea eggs (hard-boiled eggs stewed in seasoned tea), chicken wings, and spongy orange shrimp balls. Others were less successful: pork-and-vegetable-dumpling soup was innocuous at best, and the Taiwanese Succulent Chicken Chop was a five-spice bore. Deep-fried tako (octopus) balls looked promising but turned out to be one small sliver of tako surrounded by a giant ball of white paste. The standout was a nonsignature item: crispy radish fritters, a deep-fried version of the dim sum dish loh bok goh. Other nonsignature dishes looked equally promising--next time I'll try the smoked pork neck or spiced beef shin. --Kristina Meyer


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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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