The main attraction at Humboldt Park's Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, not surprisingly, is the intriguing list of small-batch beverages put together by a trio of Webster's Wine Bar vets. There are a good many interesting selections—including a passel of wines from Greece, Austria, and unusual spots like Slovenia—among the more than 60 bottles and 15 available by the glass. But the tight, well-curated menu of small and midsize plates, cheese, and charcuterie, from consulting chef Mark Steur (Hot Chocolate) and executive chef Remy Ayesh, is no afterthought, peppered with items engineered to trigger Pavlovian gushes of saliva: bar plates include a few sweet and savory duos, including bacon toffee with spiced mixed nuts and skewers of watermelon and salty halloumi cheese, both grilled smoky and accompanied by a dollop of tangy labne. Deep-fried items—particularly the frites—are less well executed, and a trio of "crusts" were flimsy discs of topped naan, though the bourbon-glazed mushroom version, blanketed with gooey Vivace cheese, transcended the delivery system.
Among the generally solid larger plates, the loosely packed Tallgrass burger with bacon-chive aioli is super, and the cognac-lamb sausage with braised chard and fresh celery hearts was a beautiful plate of complementary textures. Yet the $8 half-size pork-belly banh mi just demonstrated this near perfect street food's resistance to upscaling. Still, overall this is a fine spot to take sip or two, dark and comfy with an outdoor patio that brightens an otherwise stark intersection. —Mike Sula
Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar
954 N. California, 773-292-1616
The pretty birds preening on the Wit's sceney rooftop lounge may be enjoying sunshine and balmy breezes, but in the boutique hotel's dark, pubby ground-floor restaurant, State and Lake, it might as well be the depths of a bitter winter. It's not just the padded leather walls and poor air circulation—it's also the menu, which is dominated by heavy dishes suitable for hibernatory preparation. I can see how an outfit like corporate parent Doubletree might not be as nimble in adapting to the seasons as your average indie farm-to-table partisans, but even with the mild summer we've had so far, bock-beer-and-cheese soup, pork shoulder with mac 'n' cheese pie, and sticky toffee pudding are about as inappropriate right now as Italian ice on Valentine's Day.
Still, you have to give the brass credit for allowing chef Bradley Manchester a few relatively daring dishes, like his trio of roasted marrow bones with a bracing parsley salad—though the mechanics of enjoying the just-undercooked bone jelly with two too-tiny wedges of grilled bread and no marrow spoon presented a greasy challenge. For a hotel restaurant there are a few decent deals: a heaping plate of house-made potato chips and a ramekin of caramelized onion dip is just $5, and a $14 prime cheeseburger came with a value-added mountain of crispy fries. But State and Lake hasn't managed to transcend a certain institutional quality—a crab-stuffed duck-egg omelet was a bad marriage of sea and airplane galley, and the tiny, delicate cheese-ravioli coins encircling slices of roast lamb leg were obliterated by a syrupy balsamic glaze, betraying an elemental misunderstanding of balance. Earnest attempts to escape the persistent autumnalness were thwarted at every turn—we skipped the pecan pie and carrot cheesecake only to be rewarded with house-made orange-vanilla ice cream that tasted like children's aspirin. A server told us a menu revision is coming up in the next few weeks; here's hoping the kitchen catches up to the rotation of the earth. —Mike Sula
State and Lake
201 N. State, 312-239-9400
The sign outside Siboney Cuban Cuisine says est. 2009, suggesting the place has aspirations to be around long enough to make that statement of fact a boast. Owners Julio Perez and Jose Luis Hernandez make no little plans: their Web site promises "more refined Cuban dishes" influenced by Franco-Italian techniques. Currently, though, they're banging out the basics. Traditional ham croquettes are tasty, delicately fried cigar-shaped shells filled with smoky ham paste; crispy yuca balls with centers of fresh cheese pack more flavor than you'd imagine.
Alas, some of the main courses proved dismal: cerdo estofado was six golf-ball-size chunks of leathery, underseasoned pork, and classic Cuban ropa vieja took more chewing than it should've, as though it hadn't been cooked long enough. These hurriedly prepared entrees seemed to reflect a broader focus on the future rather than the present. Dinner was rushed, glasses were overfilled with BYO wine, and appetizers and entrees arrived almost simultaneously—we were in and out in about an hour.
Folks at this handsome, freshly appointed restaurant smile genuinely as they race toward Perez and Hernandez's dreams. But they might do well to remember the fable about those who have their eyes on the stars falling into ditches. There's a weekday lunch special for $6.95. —David Hammond
Siboney Cuban Cuisine
2165 N. Western, 773-904-7210, siboneychicago.com
Build it near Wrigley—or the Music Box—and they will come might have been the thinking behind Frida's, the Lakeview outpost of Andersonville's Kahlo-crazy La Cocina de Frida (since closed). On a recent Saturday with the Cubs playing at home, the place was packed, but I'm not sure the food was the draw. Particularly at this price point, the restaurant faces steep competition from the likes of Mixteco Grill and Chilam Balam. The sparely decorated storefront is lined down one side with a cushioned banquette and adorned with photos of the namesake artist and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera. At $12, the Kahlo margarita was refreshing, but I'm not sure that premium tequila made it worth $4 more than the similar-tasting regular margarita. Chips, fried in-house, were tasty, and the house salsa had some bite, but tilapia flaca was underspiced and overcooked, and the flavors in a mole verde with chicken were muddy. The rich enchiladas with mole and sides like black beans and pintos were better. But the single best thing I ate was a simple green salad garnished with tomato slices and queso fresco. This is hearty home-style cooking served up by a friendly staff. So what's with the blaring disco music? —Kate Schmidt
3755 N. Southport, 773-935-2330