Echo, another eclectic Wicker Park place, opened recently in the former Starfish space with chef Dirk Flanigan (of just-closed Madam B) running the kitchen. Starfish owner Sean Herron (who also owns Meritage) gave the room a cool yet comfortable new look with cast concrete tables, an aluminum bar, gray hardwood floors, and dusty blue walls. The menu features "small-plate cuisine," tasting portions meant to be ordered several at a time. "We want our patrons to have a tasting experience, not just the basic appetizer and entree," says Flanigan. The menu is all over the globe, with dishes like seared beef salad in a mango horseradish vinaigrette with green papaya and cellophane noodles sharing space with rock shrimp cakes--a unique take on a crab cake--served over star-anise-glazed pineapple garnished with crunchy sweet potato "hay" for texture. For the most part, it all works nicely, although dishes are so done up (there's lots of stacking, dotting, and drizzling) that you crave just one simple plate. Echo, 1856 W. North, 773-395-3474.
Streeterville's Seneca Hotel now houses QP, an upscale eatery that opened in mid-November in the former Grappa space. The name is shorthand for "kuipe"--the clay pots commonly used in Greek cooking--and there are plenty of them scattered around the well-appointed bi-level dining room. The large menu offers classic Greek cuisine presented with a bit more polish than you get at the average Greektown taverna. Complimentary samples of eggplant spread, tzatziki, and taramosalata come with the bread basket, making cold appetizers somewhat redundant. But the htapodaki, a tender grilled whole baby octopus in a piquant vinaigrette, and the spinach "Greek latke," a pancake of sorts served with a lemon-anchovy sauce and laced with pork, are warm and satisfying. The expected pastitsio, moussaka, dolmas, and lamb dishes are all present, but the whole-fish offerings--red snapper, black sea bass, and Dover sole served in true Mediterranean style with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice, a sprinkle of oregano, and a drizzle of extravirgin olive oil--are more interesting. Service is pleasant but our waiter could have used a brushup on the dishes. QP, 200 E. Chestnut, 312-751-2100.
Chef Don Yamauchi trained in two of the finest kitchens (Gordon and Carlos') but now goes a bit downscale at Bliss Restaurant, a new venture inside Club Zentra. There's no designated dining room: tables are arranged in the main-floor bar area for just a few dinner hours, then whisked away. The lights are dim and rhythmic club tunes boom, but despite the surroundings (which are annoying if you want to actually see your food and converse), Yamauchi's skilled hand comes through. The "transglobal" menu is a bit sparse, with three appetizers, two salads, and five entrees, but the Jonah crab cakes are delicious--delicately panfried then set in a semispicy shrimp ragout and topped with a velvety Parmesan cream sauce--and the Chinese-inspired barbecued spare ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, covered in a sweet soy barbecue sauce, with a peanut and cilantro garnish. The soy-marinated Chilean sea bass with a wasabi vinaigrette set on a bed of Japanese ginger slaw is a strong entree. The pasta dish, a paparadelle layered with ricotta, spinach, and a tomato-kalamata compote, is a bit overpowering. Overall the concept is awkward, but the food is worth the stop. Bliss Restaurant at Zentra, 923 W. Weed, 312-787-8899.
Encore, a Kimpton Group-managed "lunch club and liquid lounge" nestled between the Palace Theatre and the Hotel Allegro, opened its doors December 9. The lunch menu features sandwiches made from freshly carved beef tenderloin marinated in garlic and herbs, barbecued brisket topped with house barbecue sauce, plus turkey, ham, and chicken breast. Each comes with a choice of condiments. Also on the menu: a BLT, homemade soups, and a grilled vegetable salad. The place morphs into a cocktail lounge in the evening, with live music, crazy martinis (a stiff "smokey joe," a mixture of Ketel One vodka and Glenlivet, has a fiery finish), and classic drinks such as old-fashioneds and brandy alexanders. The bar menu includes the obligatory hot wings with blue cheese, jumbo prawn cocktails, oysters on the half shell, and steak tacos. The swanky purple and red room features velvet-draped booths and a huge, spiral-shaped cherry wood and wrought iron bar. The overall ambience is comfortably luxurious, if somewhat affected. Encore, 171 W. Randolph, 312-338-3788.
Kitsch'n on Roscoe has begun serving weekend "TV Dinners" and "Retro Cocktails." In addition to regular breakfast and lunch hours, it's now open Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner and Tang martinis.
After touring the country to promote Charlie Trotter's Desserts cookbook, acclaimed pastry chef Michelle Gayer has left Trotter's for Evanston's Campagnola.
The Hotel InterContinental gets a dining room makeover with the opening of ultracontemporary Amber at 525 N. Michigan.
"When Worlds Collide" is the new theme at Red Light, reflecting a collaboration between chef Paul Wildermuth and Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun's.
North Pond Cafe has brought chef Bruce Sherman (The Dining Room) on board to replace founding chef Mary Ellen Diaz, who recently departed to become Lettuce Entertain You's corporate chef.
Mirai Sushi, a new venture from the owners of Big Wig, is scheduled to open December 17 at 2020 W. Division. The owners hope to offer Wicker Park a dramatically different environment for "sushi, sake, and socializing." --Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.