In an area filled with Vietnamese restaurants, the Mandarin SILVER SEAFOOD is something different. The focus here is on fresh seafood; they'll steam a red snapper or sea bass (or whatever else is swimming in the tank) to order, then delicately top it with wonderfully aromatic herbs and a drizzle of soy sauce. Skip the pot stickers and egg rolls on the English-language menu and ask for the Chinese menu instead, which has English translations and offerings like fried crab claws, braised cuttlefish, and boneless duck web. Main courses are offered in a few familiar categories--seafood, chicken, beef--and then venture into the unusual. Some dishes, like shark fin soup, must be ordered 24 hours in advance (at $78 an order, it's no wonder). Abalone, which doesn't often appear on local menus, is done nicely here, sliced paper thin and set atop an ample bed of steamed pea pod greens. A simple roast pigeon is masterfully cooked to render the fat and leave the skin crisp and mahogany and the meat ultratender. Servers are professional, welcoming, and willing to make suggestions. Prices are reasonable and it's still BYO. Silver Seafood is at 4829 N. Broadway, 773-784-0668.
You have to go down a short flight of stairs and through a tiny, three-table patio to find the entrance to HI MA WA RI; only a red awning over the single window and two candlelit Chinese lanterns flanking the stairway draw attention to this capable Japanese and Chinese newcomer. This location has been home to a variety of restaurants over the years, most notably Lan's a decade ago. The room is stylish yet reserved; walls are sleek black marble, topped with mirrors that open up the tiny space. Korean owner Calvin Ku circulates the room with a warm smile, graciously boasting about specials. The menu has a full array of fresh sushi, sashimi, and 23 expertly prepared maki, along with appetizers like tempura, asparagus-beef rolls, and some of the best gyoza in town, wrapped in homemade wonton skins. For sharing and experimenting there are bento boxes and sushi boats, the latter serving two to five people and ranging from $75-$125. The four stools at the small sushi bar are usually occupied by a steady flow of locals awaiting carryout orders, while the kitchen in back produces not only standard Japanese entrees (sukiyaki, una-don, teriyaki) but a full line of predictable Chinese dishes like Mongolian beef, sweet-and-sour shrimp, and moo shu pork. Ku also offers a few Korean specialties he thought patrons would appreciate, like bi bim bop, the famous steamed rice bowl topped with vegetables, beef, a sunny-side-up egg, and spicy bean sauce. Japanese beer is available in both small and large bottles and sake is served hot or cold. Green tea or red bean ice cream makes a refreshing finish. Hi Ma Wa Ri is at 346 W. Armitage, 773-871-4777.
The 40-seat FOX AND OBEL CAFE is an extension of the 22,000-square-foot high-end market, which sells such finds as house-cured salmon, dry-aged prime beef, and over 350 cheeses from around the world in addition to a lineup of prepared dishes ("home meal replacement," as they call it in the biz). CIA-trained chef Peter Repak, who paid his dues at Charlie Trotter's, oversees the kitchen, preparing up to 75 dishes daily, several of which are featured in the cafe. They might include marinated flank steak with chimichurri sauce, Thai-style tofu-vegetable stir-fry, couscous salad with an apricot curry vinaigrette, or a spice-rubbed New York strip loin sandwich with caramelized onions and blue Brie. Pastry chef Pamela Fitzpatrick of LA's acclaimed LaBrea Bakery runs the bakeshop, where she whips up treats like plum sabayon trifle and lime poppy seed cookies plus an array of artisanal breads (olive ciabatta, rosemary peasant sourdough, and lemon rye, to name a few). The cafe has a separate entrance to allow for longer hours than the market, and it doubles as a cooking demonstration area for visiting chefs and cookbook authors. Ninety minutes of free parking in the lot across the street makes it convenient even in this overcrowded neighborhood; there's also a valet. Fox and Obel Cafe is at 401 E. Illinois, 312-410-7301.
Lakeview's BOLAT AFRICAN CUISINE is quite a change from the many neighboring Mexican, Asian, and even Ethiopian restaurants. It's located in the former Zushi Sushi; the sushi bar has been converted into counter seating, and the room is simply decorated with African artifacts, wicker chairs, and glass-topped tables. The Nigerian-Ghanaian menu is loaded with interesting soups, stews, and many meatless dishes full of unusual ingredients. Aya mashe is a delicately spiced green pepper soup, while efo riro is a spinach stew cooked in a tomato-based sauce. Sides include tongue and oxtail, and the variety of rice dishes might come with curried goat, fish, or jerk chicken. There's also a breakfast menu featuring dishes like fried plantains with eggs and boiled yam with tomato sauce. Bolat African Cuisine is at 3346 N. Clark, 773-665-1100.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.