The header on the menu of the Doubletree Hotel's new Markethouse (611 N. Fairbanks, 312-224-2200) promises a marriage of "heartland basics with new cooking styles and ingredients, so you'll find surprising twists to otherwise well-known dishes." I assume that refers to eyeball grabbers like the goat cheese nougat with apple and beet salad, the pistachio brittle with squash soup, or the pickled Asian pear with diver scallops. In execution, I'm not sure those represent anything more radical than creative applications of classic techniques, but chef Scott Walton's steering of the seasonal/local bandwagon ought to pack in the hotel guests, if not necessarily to locals, who have an increasing number of similarly driven chefs to follow.
One surprising twist not detailed on the menu (too much information?) is the caul fat wrapped around the meat loaf. This is a technique often used in making sausage and other meat preparations to keep them moist and juicy. It works—and it shows that Walton should be taken seriously. So do dishes like juicy honey-cayenne rotisserie chicken with fingerlings topped by sweet candied lemon and the white cheddar mac 'n' cheese gratin, made with al dente penne, larded with bacon bits, and topped with a crown of browned melted cheese. On the other hand, some don't add up to the sum of their parts. Underseasoned, overbreaded, and out-of-season fried green tomatoes, for instance, were upstaged by their intensely flavored accompaniments—pickled cherry tomatoes and too many slabs of pastrami-cured salmon—which were delicious but over-the-top. Markethouse's sprawling dining room, with giant windows looking out onto Fairbanks, serves three squares, including a breakfast buffet, as well as a late-night bar menu. Even with every chef on the planet going seasonal, it should be fun to watch what Walton comes up with. —Mike Sula
"Remember: good shoes, good wine, and good food make your life better. Ciao from Bruno." That's the sign-off on the voice mail for Tocco (1266 N. Milwaukee, 773-687-8895), Bruno Abate's high-fashion Wicker Park pizzeria/trattoria/runway, an adjunct to his couture-themed Follia. Relative to the McDonald's that once inhabited the space, it does look mahvelous in a menacing, modish sort of way—the sort of place one's droogies might peet the milk with the knives in it before doing the ultraviolent on some of the lewdies that are filling it up on weekends.
But no one should doubt that serious pizzas emerge from the two wood-burning ovens hidden in plain sight behind the bar, particularly the three varieties of schiacciata, minimally topped flatbreads whose saucelessness allows the thin crust to develop in all its full blistered chewiness; I particularly liked the one with funky, full-flavored speck and melted Taleggio. Some may feel the delicate crusts can't stand up to the toppings on other variants, like the margherita, but they're fired just fine.
However, the small rear kitchen responsible for the rest of the menu—antipasti, salads, house-made pastas, and meatier second courses—seems less capable of its mission and hampered by less-than-ideal ingredients. A plate of gnocco frito, knobs of fried dough that were undercooked inside, were accompanied by supermarket-quality salumi. And someone in the kitchen seems to be scared to death of overcooking starches, as evidenced by a granular polenta with a watery sausage ragu and tough paccheri (like supersize rigatoni) with spent chunks of pork. Gelati said to be made by a mysterious "old man from Melrose Park" were variable—a simple vanilla was smooth, creamy, and excellent, but chocolate was icy and over-the-hill, and hazelnut and pistachio were somewhere in the middle.
Service is well drilled, featuring obsessive changing of the plates—as if an inordinate focus on the front of house might make up for neglect of the back. I've never had a look at Abate's footwear, but I found myself wondering if the primary ingredient in his particular recipe for la dolce vita isn't actually fine Italian shoe leather, with the vino and the food running a long second and third. —Mike Sula
Some things to keep in mind if you're considering joining the tapas-starved South Loopers at Tapas Valencia (1530 S. State, 312-842-4444), the month-old sister to Naperville's Meson Sabika: Service snafus abound, though the staff is eager to please/make amends; the plywood-partitioned warehouse space is so noisy that if you worked here you'd be filing a complaint with OSHA; and the fairly formulaic menu is less Spanish than Span-American, a hybrid offered by practically every tapas bar in town. You can still have a good time—just don't expect the place to be something it isn't. I enjoyed the well-made if too cold wedge of tortilla española, the timbale of pisto manchego (Spain's answer to ratatouille), and the fresh artichoke hearts with hard-boiled egg in a creamy, tangy tomato vinaigrette, though the fibrous leaves should have been trimmed off. The best of my hot tapas was pato confitado, a moist confit of duck leg paired with sauteed apples and mushrooms. Tiny seafood-stuffed baby squid in ink sauce were bland and a bit chewy, while the crunchy bacon-wrapped dates looked like they'd overstayed their time in the oven. The biggest disappointment was a special: tostadas con langosta, soggy toast points smeared with tuna, potato, capers, and chopped tomatoes and topped with flavor-challenged rock lobster that I suspect may have actually been the Alaskan king crab used on the regular menu's tostadas. As for the paella Valenciana, it didn't come close to any I've had in Spain, though I like that you can order it for one person. The rice, not short grain as it should be, resembled Uncle Ben's, and there was no socarrat, the traditional crusty bottom. Peas and peppers stood in for traditional broad green beans and favalike beans. And in Valencia, valenciana isn't a combination of boneless chicken, shrimp, mussels, clams. It typically includes bone-in rabbit, duck, and chicken or snails, though originally field workers made it from anything at hand—including rat. Since I'm griping: the wine markups seem high, and the list needs more by-the-glass options. But tarta de pera, almond-pear pound cake with ice cream and caramel sauce, ended the evening on a sweet note. —Anne Spiselman