Abundant natural light, dark wood tables, and white linen walls make HAI YEN, a cheerful Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant, a touch more elegant than most of its Argyle Street neighbors. The extensive menu features several dozen appetizers, salads, dumplings, soups, and noodles, and a host of seafood, meat, and poultry entrees. The hu tieu dac biet, for example, is a soup loaded with shrimp, crab, bean sprouts, and chewy rice noodles; goi cuon are featherlight rice paper spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork, carrots, lettuce, and vermicelli rice noodles and served with a plum dipping sauce. The banh combination is a more unusual appetizer: six banh beo (tiny rice flour crepes meant to be rolled around the accompanying fresh carrots and bean sprouts), four banh bot loc (tapioca dumplings filled with bits of pork and chicken) and two banh nam (thick, chewy disks of rice batter, pork, and chicken steamed in bamboo leaves and served with a fish sauce). Many entrees are served family style. There are also a number of multicourse family meals that serve anywhere from two to eight diners, including an intriguing traditional Vietnamese option called bo bay mon: $12.75 gets each diner seven courses of beef prepared seven different ways, including a seasoned ground beef porridge. Other good choices for group dining are the nhung dam and nuong vi specials--combinations nations of shrimp, squid, and beef that you can either cook yourself, fondue style, in a bowl of piping hot vinegar-based broth or broil on a candle-fired tabletop grill. All are served with rice pancakes and mounds of fresh mint, Thai basil, and leaf lettuce. Right now the restaurant is BYO, but chef and owner Hien Ngo is hoping to secure a liquor license soon. Hai Yen is at 1055 W. Argyle, 773-561-4077.
SETTI MANA CAFE, which opened September 26 on the booming Wicker Park stretch of West Division, is a classic Italian eatery from owners Richard Durra and Fernando Lopez (La Vita). The two-room storefront is simply finished with exposed brick, crisp butcher-paper-topped, tables, and a large earth-toned fresco of a sundial. Chef Martin Ontiveros (formerly of Mia Francesca) does a good job with the standard fare. An appetizer of calamari alla griglia consists of three large char-grilled squid on a bed of mesclun lettuce whose smoky flavor is balanced by several large, briny capers, diced tomatoes, and a lemon-basil reduction. Beef carpaccio--a special one night--is paper-thin slices of raw sirloin fanned out on a plate and topped with a refreshing mix of arugula, tomatoes, and shaved Parmesan cheese. Pizzas have a cracker-crisp crust and are topped with tomato and, basil or your choice of two other items like sausage, prosciutto, or artichokes. As might be expected, there's a wide range of pasta dishes. Meatless dishes include ravioli with porcini mushrooms and spinach fusilli tossed with seasonal vegetables, fontina, and mozzarella cheese in a plum tomato sauce. Meat-based pastas come with Italian sausage (penne di salsicca), mixed seafood with cherry tomatoes (fettuccine tutomare), and pancetta, roasted garlic, shallots, and radicchio (gnocchi alla trevisano). The rest of the menu is devoted to chicken, fish, and meat entrees like pollo rosemarino, half a roast chicken and potatoes in a rosemary, garlic, and lemon sauce, fillet of tilapia with mushrooms and herbs in an orange-white wine reduction, and a New York strip-steak.
Nothing about the place is extraordinary, but on this increasingly upscale restaurant strip a casual, comfortable (currently BYO) alternative is noteworthy enough. Settimana Cafe is at 2056 W. Division, 773-394-1629.
It's an odd combination--Italian and Thai--but ORIENTE, a new pan-noodle restaurant in Wrigleyville, manages to do it justice. A collaboration between Sal Ismail, an 11-year veteran of Italian restaurants from fast-food Sbarro to Rosebud's Centro, and Jaree Kantantan, who makes the authentic Thai sauces, the restaurant offers a short menu of Thai and Italian favorites. Appetizers include standards like pot stickers, shu mai, and chicken satay. Noodle dishes cover the basics like pad thai, pad see eiw, and a fantastic rendition of Thai basil spicy noodles made of flat, chewy rice noodles' panfried with chicken, broccoli, carrots, pea pods, and Thai basil. The Italian dishes also stick to the basics with a pasta marinara, penne with pesto, and a creamy version of mac and cheese made with ricotta, Romano, and mozzarella. The quaint room is as inviting as the menu--one wall is covered with intricate, colorful paintings of the Thai countryside while another features two Italianate pillars hung with a swag of aqua fabric and a garland of silk leaves. Dark oak tables and chairs on casters stand in stark contrast to the otherwise bright, clean space. Oriente is at 3343 N. Clark, 773-388-0185.
In late November Chris and Mike Schuba (Schubas, Harmony Grill) plan to open the Dearborn Diner at 449 N. Dearborn (formerly Fog City Diner), serving regional American comfort food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Firehouse Grill, another casual American venture from Spare Time, Inc. (Daily Bar & Grill, Southport Lanes" Hudson Club), opened October 24 in the old fire station at 750 Chicago in Evanston.
--LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.