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The two-room Portage Park storefront that houses Ecuadoran restaurant LA PENA, cheerfully decorated in tones of green and burgundy, is family owned and operated: Jaime Fidel Castillo mans the front of the house, while his wife and mother cook the coastal Latin fare, some of the first upscale food of this type in town. A complimentary plate of impossibly thin homemade fried plantain chips starts off the meal, served with a tomato-based hot sauce flavored with carrots, onions, and cilantro. The extensive appetizers could make a great meal: there are five seviches (shrimp, oyster, whitefish, octopus, and calamari); humita, a rich Ecuadoran tamale; maduro lampreado, fried sweet plantain croquettes; and muchin de yuca, a deep-fried starchy oval oozing with cheese. Ensalada de rabano looks as good as it tastes; it's a refreshing mound of sliced radishes, jicama, and thin yellow and red pepper strips tossed in a lime vinaigrette. Entrees, mostly meat or fish based, include churrasco (fried beef and eggs), a pork chop, and three rice dishes that come with a choice of shrimp, steak, or a seafood combination. There's also llapingachos--a fried whipped potato cake topped with a thick peanut sauce, accompanied by a refreshing avocado and tomato salad, a fried egg, white rice, and beef sausage. Homemade desserts include coconut flan and oven-roasted sweet plantains. Until the Castillos get their liquor license, sodas, fruit juices, and batidos (fruit shakes) are available, along with hot chocolate made the traditional way from Mexican chocolate. On weekends the live Andean music draws a crowd; the two-person group Tribus Futuras plays up to 40 instruments in the course of an evening. La Pena is at 4212 N. Milwaukee, 773-545-7022.

Wicker Park is now home to pizzeria and microbrewery PIECE, the brainchild of Bill Jacobs, one of the Jacobs brothers of bagel fame. He's imported childhood friend Ray Peck from his hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, to craft the hand-formed, east-coast-style pizzas, and an exposed kitchen behind the 5,800-square-foot dining room lets diners view the dough being tossed, topped, and cooked in a brick oven. Also attached (but not yet up and running) is a microbrewery, where former Goose Island brewmaster Matt Brynildson has consulted on seven house beers; Jonathan Cutler, formerly

of Sierra Nevada, will oversee day-to-day operations. The space that used to be Casten Roofing's garage has been spruced up with counter-height tables and chairs, a faux concrete floor, a bow-truss ceiling with a skylight running its full length, and two sunken lounge areas up front, where soothing blue banquettes face windows that open onto the sidewalk. Diners create their own pizzas, choosing from three bases--plain (tomato sauce, garlic, and Parmesan), white (olive oil, garlic, and mozzarella), and red (tomato sauce with mozzarella)--and toppings that range from mushrooms and onions to the more unusual clams and bacon. There's also a short list of appetizers, salads, and sandwiches. Piece is the casual hangout this neighborhood was missing--and the pizza is unique in a town that's full of cardboardy thin-crust and cheesy pan pies but not much in between. Piece is at 1927 W. North, 773-772-4422.

A new chef is rarely a reason to revisit a restaurant--unless the restaurant is TRIO, where proprietor Henry Adaniya has brought Grant Achatz aboard from the Napa Valley's famous French Laundry. After five years as Thomas Keller's sous chef, Achatz has replaced Shawn McClain, who left to open Spring in Wicker Park. Adaniya's also made a few decorating changes: gone are the flowing window treatments, the lights are brighter, and the walls have been painted stark white. But it's the progressive French fare that will make Trio a new destination. Achatz is classically trained, with a refined style and a skillful hand that speaks of disciplined experience, but he's also playful and daring, creating flavor and texture combinations not seen before in these parts. Both four- and eight-course tasting menus ($65 and $85 respectively) are offered, along with a four-course vegetarian option ($55); at lunch, served Fridays from noon to 1 only, three courses are offered for $35. The culinary journey might begin with a complimentary shot glass full of what could be described as heaven: clove- and nutmeg-scented chilled consomme, topped with truffle oil and a light layer of hazelnut foam, it's meant to be consumed in one gulp for the full effect. Next might come a deconstructed Bloody Mary--a slow-poached Roma tomato next to a scoop of celery granita, a dollop of horseradish foam, and tiny squares of Worcestershire gelee. There's a whimsical and sensual ravioli filled with liquified black truffles; the rich pockets, served over sweet corn and finely diced pancetta with shards of salty Parmesan, squirt earthy flavor with every bite. The tartare of bluefin tuna is so artfully arranged it seems a shame to dig in: Tiny cubes of tender fish are mixed with scoops of more brightly colored gelees--red pepper, roasted yellow pepper, cucumber, and tamari--on top of dozens of paper-thin slices of fresh hearts of palm. The dish is finished with elegant lacy microgreens and a pool of sweet-tart vinaigrette made from mango and the citrus fruit yuzu. Meat courses include a cashew-crusted tenderloin of free-range veal with vanilla-braised endive, baby chanterelle mushrooms, and a splash of sweet reduced milk. Wine flights are available, and consulting sommelier Joseph Catterson has a knack for wonderful pairings: he puts a 1999 Albert Mann Alsatian Pinot Auxerrois with lighter starters, a 1998 Girardet Oregon Baco Noir with foie gras, and sets off the tuna tartare with a 1997 Patient Cottat Loire Sancerre. The experience is topped off with professional, unobtrusive service. Trio is at 1625 Hinman in Evanston, 847-733-8746.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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