Someone at my table suggested that the quick trip down the tasting menu at Han 202, the unusual new Bridgeport Asian restaurant from the folks behind Evanston's late Restaurant Guan (previously Ninefish), would be the perfect date for sophisticated teenagers. It's serious but in no way stuffy, and at $20 for five expertly turned-out courses, it's also one of the best deals in town—an affordable lesson in fine dining for budding fressers. But it has a lot to offer older and more experienced eaters too. Like any self-respecting chef, Guan Chen winces at the term fusion, though he acknowledges that in some cases there's no better way to explain his mix of Western and Asian ingredients and techniques. But his judgment is too sound and his touch too deft for any of the excesses that dated label conjures.
Let's look at three of his simple second-course salads. Julienned green apple is dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, and two of the most aggressive ingredients you can think of, capers and truffle oil, applied with such restraint that it's difficult to imagine them not working. For his beef and lemongrass salad Chen simply builds on the apple salad, adding the herb and tender glazed chunks of beef; it's completely different from the base but no less memorable. And a bowl of romaine laced with wakame seaweed is a harmonious preparation—and head-slappingly simple, easily duplicated at home.
To say Chen makes things look easy, though, would ignore his facility with sea creatures—like a special of baby scallops, luscious, perfectly cooked, and served in spicy miso broth, or the just-over-wobbly scallops and shrimp he pairs with firm vegetables in a red seafood curry.
Fourth courses move from sea to land with dishes like spicy lamb chops in bonito-plum sauce with sprigs of thyme and Chen's takes on Chinese-American classics like General Tso's chicken and orange beef. Light desserts—vanilla ice cream with a sphere of mango-tomato sorbet or an unpitted poached peach enrobed in green apple sorbet and sprinkled with poppy seeds—serve as a proper punctuation mark.
Chen says he can source high-quality ingredients, maintain tightly orchestrated service, and still keep his prices ridiculously low because his rent is about a third of what it was in Evanston. But his mission of bringing Asian fine dining to an underserved neighborhood comes at a cost. I'd be happy if just a small percentage of the hordes that have descended on River North's overrated Sunda would glance away from their fellow diners, look south, and flutter down to this remarkable little spot, which could certainly use the help. —Mike Sula
I really wanted to like Ristorante Al Teatro, the Italian newcomer in Pilsen's landmark Thalia Hall. The dramatic spot lives up to its name, with ornate tin ceilings, gleaming woodwork, glowing chandeliers, and many murals, including scenes from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Painted stage drapes frame the mouth of the wood-burning oven, from which emerge the would-be stars: slightly puffy thin-crust pizzas with 20 topping combos ranging from a simple margherita to the al Teatro, baby shrimp and prosecco bechamel on sauteed spinach. But our pizza rustica rated little applause: the crust was standard for its type, and the mix of filetto di pomodoro (fresh tomato pulp), partially caramelized onions, asparagus, mozzarella, and barely there shaved grana and oregano lacked pizzazz.
The antipasto al Teatro arrived without the caponata listed on the menu, and instead of just bringing some, the server took the plate back to the kitchen, where they removed cantaloupe balls we would have enjoyed with the prosciutto and plopped the mild Sicilian ratatouille on the melon's balsamic glaze; forgettable salami and four cheeses rounded out the assortment. We preferred an opener of tender grilled squid, tossed with a few arugula leaves, and a well-seasoned (if salty) secondo, galletto al Teatro, a small but mostly moist roasted half chicken with garlic, lemon, asparagus, and overdone potatoes fancily cut to look like mushrooms. Tortelloni alla boscaiola, one of a dozen pastas, consisted of three large, flat mushroom-filled packets in an unapologetically rich cream sauce.
Speaking of apologies, the server never uttered a single one despite a number of snafus, and my distress over the lack of a handicapped-accessible washroom was met with a shrug. Owner Dominick Geraci is also behind Wicker Park's Caffe Gelato, and not surprisingly the many gelati and sorbetti are the best desserts. The wine list is small but offers quite a few bottles for less than $30. —Anne Spiselman
Just so you don't mistake it for Stanley's Pierogi Palace, Fuego Mexican Grill & Margarita Lounge announces its presence on Milwaukee Avenue with a giant writhing iguana silhouette, and inside walls are bedecked with actores, luchadores, cantadores, and other assorted Mexibilia. The service has its theatrical aspects too: ceviche and guac carts roam from table to table, and cheerful waitstaff seem to assemble every three minutes or so to sing "Happy Birthday" to someone. It's a loud, fun atmosphere, lubricated by lengthy cocktail, tequila, and margarita lists—which are eclipsed only by the epic, something-for-everyone dinner menu. It stretches from familiar (if filigreed) fajitas, burritos, and taco salads to challenging—e.g., huitlachoche-sauced chicken breast—though it's not so daring that the birria is actually made with goat (it's lamb).
Few kitchens can maintain consistency over such a vast range, so I wasn't too shocked when tilapia fish tacos arrived soft and soggy and lamb taquitos greasy and oversalted. But a red snapper ceviche was bright and fresh, and a pork chop with mole manchamanteles was perfectly cooked even if the sauce was wasn't nearly as nuanced as it should be. Moles—four regular offerings and a weekly special—are something of a specialty here, and diners have the option of dolloping them on any of a number of proteins. In short, it seems possible to make whatever sort of meal you want here, within certain predictable parameters, and you can be assured it'll arrive in a large, ostentatious presentation. My suspicion is that someone's been studying Chain Restaurant 101, and though this is only the second Fuego from the Arlington Heights-based Foodworks Hospitality Group, I'll be surprised if it's the last. —Mike Sula
For more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.