Nightwood, the new Pilsen venture from the Lula talent trust of Jason Hammel, Amalea Tshilds, and chef Jason Vincent, in tandem with designer Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler (Bar DeVille, etc), has had the loyal Lulaphile base licking its lips for months. When Hammel finally posted news of its opening on May 26, it practically took over my Facebook feed. This place could serve stale Cheetos and still have 'em lined up down Halsted. So it's a testament to the team's creative vision that Nightwood is a lot more than just Lula south.
Heisner's sleek design, simultaneously spare and luxe, sets the tone, from the clean cubism of the outdoor patio to the surprisingly comfortable modern squiggles of the chairs. The vibe is minimalist but polished, right down to the unnervingly attractive staff. The main dining room is both warm and airy, its dark walnut and iron tones set off by light-colored ceiling beams and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. Behind it, a long counter runs the length of the open kitchen, where the kitchen crew, clad in casual gray T-shirts, tends the wood-fired grill that anchors the ever-changing seasonal menu.
The simple yet sophisticated food mirrors the elegant surroundings. I went with a party of five, so we managed to eat our way through half of that night's handwritten list. Some standouts included delicate grilled Wisconsin trout; half a juicy roast chicken complemented by peppery mustard greens; devastating pork belly; and a duck potpie whose rich flavors were teased out with a restrained, confident hand. Appetizers included a nicely balanced arugula and steak salad starring some flavorful roasted beets and a terrific duo of silken, miso-cured pork tenderloin and savory shank.
My only complaints were with the desserts. The blueberry sour cream cake was pedestrian and, while simple is one thing, $8 for a cup of fresh cherries and some milk chocolate dipping sauce? Sure, they were delicious, and you can't fault the purism behind the dish, but the price sure seemed steep.
As the name suggests, this is a late-night spot; dinner's served till 11 and the bar's open till 2. The latter features a roster of creative house cocktails and craft beers, though Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Wisconsin, lager") also makes the cut. The extensive wine list is weighted toward sustainable and/or biodynamic small producers and, like the menu and the restaurant design, demonstrates an abundance of taste, consideration, and savvy planning. The upshot? Go—and take your friends so you can eat off their plates. —Martha Bayne
The most unfortunate name, Browntrout (see urbandictionary.com), in fact commemorates a simply prepared rod-and-reel-caught fish that sustained chef Sean Sanders and his wife while they honeymooned in remote New Zealand. Sanders, a Bin 36 vet, doesn't have that particular species on his menu, but his signature golden trout is done "New Zealand style," a crispy crushed-walnut armor protecting the luscious fillet, pan-seared in brown butter and served with fresh peas and mint. It's an incredibly satisfying piece of fish, and emblematic of nearly everything I've sampled on Sanders's simple and easily navigable menu, which you can expect to change with some frequency.
A seemingly bottomless ramekin of light and fluffy brandade studded with sweet corn could have used a bit of salt, but for $5 it's hard to complain. Simple salads, like one of superfresh pea shoots and pea leaves gilded with an outstanding house-made ricotta, were as refreshing as morels and ramps with French breakfast cheese and potato gaufrettes were rich and intense.
Sanders's preference for simplicity doesn't rule out unorthodox presentations. The menu features a "pasta of the moment," which on one visit was a light, feathery pappardelle rolled upon itself with meatballs made of beef and pork and served with wild mushrooms—more like a messy dumpling than a plate of noodles, but very tasty. Silky sliced Amish chicken thigh with smoked pistachio mousse on polenta was among the most memorable poultry dishes I've tried recently, and grilled lamb sirloin sat atop an unforgettable celery root risotto, a saucy mound of starch also available as a $5 side.
Sanders has set grand goals of eventually going greener than any restaurant in town; to that end so far the restaurant features house-filtered tap and sparkling water, battery-powered votives, a rooftop garden, and a logo in which three leaping trout form a recycling symbol. We're at a point in time where these notions, like claims about the locality and seasonality of one's menu, are so common among new restaurants that a place like Browntrout runs the risk of getting lost in the stream. But it would be a shame to let that happen. —Mike Sula
Fianco is one of those low-key neighborhood Italian joints that often fly under the foodie radar. With its photo-lined exposed-brick walls, butcher-paper-covered tables, and high exposed-beam ceiling, the spacious storefront feels like a throwback. The modestly priced one-page menu hinted at a hip aesthetic with atypical ingredients like saba (a sweet grape-must syrup), but little suggested chef Matt Troost's considerable talent.
Then his chicken liver paté arrived—a dense, ultrasilky slab intriguingly paired with sharp grain mustard, salty-tart olives, sweet house-made strawberry preserves, and crostini. Delicately fried fontina-filled arancini on rapini pesto showed his skill with Italian mainstays, as did black mussels in buttery white wine spiked with herbs and chile flakes.
Artful handmade pastas included maltagliata (rough-cut pappardelle) in a bright tomato sauce with basil and ricotta and agnolotti stuffed with a sweet pea-ricotta blend and bathed in tarragon butter sauce. Troost's Achilles' heels are a heavy hand with the salt, which especially marred sweet sea scallops that were beautifully cooked, and a tendency to use one too many ingredients—his moist trout was draped with assertive green olives, fennel, arugula, orange segments, cherry tomatoes, and overdone escarole.
On the other hand, his milk-braised and grilled pork was a delight: simultaneously crisp and tender, with a toss of borlotti beans, arugula, roasted tomato strips, and shallots. I also loved the mocha and masala ice creams, but fans of bread pudding should go with the gooey-rich chocolate version with caramelized bananas. The all-Italian wine list is small, carefully chosen, and affordable. Considerate service completes the picture. —Anne Spiselman
[Editor's note: Fianco closed in 2009; chef Matt Troost is now at Three Aces.]