Omar Rodriguez spent close to a decade cooking for the Carlucci restaurant group--Carlucci, Vinni's, Strega Nona--before opening his own place. His first effort was a Loop sandwich shop; his second is the charming Bucktown storefront THINK CAFE, where he seems to have hit his stride. The room is simple but welcoming, with blond wood floors and chairs, white linen tablecloths topped with butcher paper, and attractive silk flower arrangements for a splash of color. The lunch menu is pretty much a holdover from his first place. There are homemade chili and soups, a chicken panini with pesto, a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich with roasted red peppers, and several wraps: the Cobb, the Greek, and the Veggie. For composed-salad lovers there's the Think Salad--mesclun greens tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with blue cheese, walnuts, and fresh sliced pears. Dinner appetizers and entrees hark back to Rodriguez's days with Carlucci. A generous portion of sauteed sea scallops rests on a bed of fresh spinach with a lemon butter sauce on one side and a roasted red pepper coulis on the other; lemon chicken linguini combines marinated chicken, mushrooms, and a tasty lemon cream sauce; and garlic-marinated skirt steak is served with a homemade roasted tomato sauce. Considering it comes out of a one-man kitchen, the food is seriously impressive--Rodriguez even makes his own desserts. The zuccotto (a variation on a bombe) is a work of art, filled with layers of white and dark chocolate mousse (rather than ice cream), then drizzled with dark chocolate and set on a plate of fresh apricot sauce. His espresso flan is something to be tried, as is the tiramisu. It's BYO indefinitely. Think Cafe is at 2235 N. Western, 773-394-0537.
After 20 years at O'Brien's on Wells, with short stints at L'Escargot and the Pump Room, Luis Morocho has moved west and gone solo with a menu that's ambitious and inexpensive. The plain white room at LUIS'S RESTAURANT is a fine backdrop for his food--except for the TV perched in a corner that's played too loud. There's a range of traditional Mexican items (which he calls continental)--tostadas, burritos, and chicken enchiladas--along with several more sophisticated entrees that reveal his culinary acumen. Camaron a la veracruzana consists of eight giant, perfectly plump shrimp sauteed in a white wine sauce with red and green peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic, topped with red mole, and served with rice and beans; his gorditas are fresh corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, beef, pork, or tender tongue and served with salsa morita and grilled vegetables. His homemade chips and two salsas alone are worth the trip, and the restaurant's BYO status will most likely be permanent. Morocho himself is gracious and charming, and he tends to visit with customers. Luis's Restaurant is at 2830 W. Armitage, 773-394-3431.
[After months of paper-on-the-windows anticipation, former Clean Plate Club employees Rob Strom and Paul White have finally opened Evanston's new American eatery PRAIRIE MOON. The three huge front rooms are appointed with Art Deco details: a period bar from an old Bridgeport saloon, brushed metal fixtures, and framed posters of various American tourist destinations. The main bar is wired for sound, with close to a dozen speakers mounted around the perimeter of the room. The menu offers a variety of "plates"--small, big, and side. Small options include ancho-cherry barbecue chicken wings, sourdough-crusted Chesapeake blue crab cakes, and a bowl of steaming mussels and clams in a garlic-laced tomato-and-basil broth. Big plates represent various U.S. regions: there's a chili-marinated Texas sliced sirloin steak; a low-country (southern) clambake with shrimp, mussels, sausage, and redskin potatoes; a Mackinaw whitefish with toasted almonds and wild rice; and pan-seared Colorado brook trout with pico de gallo and homemade potato chips. Portions are too large for the oval plates they're served on, but the flavors are decent, and there are worse things than taking home a doggie bag. An extensive variety of microbrews is offered both by the bottle and on tap, and the wine list has several deals. Service is ambitious and cheerful. For late nights there's an industrial-themed back bar decorated with gas station paraphernalia. Prairie Moon is at 1502 Sherman in Evanston, 847-864-8328.
Another cozy Italian place comes to Roscoe Village. The small, dimly lit LA MORA is warmed by a fireplace, taupe walls, and deep cocoa velvet curtains gracing French doors. The back room doubles as a lounge, with a couch and armchairs alongside a few tables. The menu is straightforward and unpretentious. Starters might include calamari griglia in a sauce of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic; two large squares of polenta (which on my visit were somewhat dried out around the edges) topped with a wonderfully earthy sauce chock-full of sauteed crimini and button mushrooms; or an asparagus salad with lemon, olive oil, and blue cheese. A nicely executed entree is the branzino acqua matta, a large fillet of sea bass--not properly identified as Chilean--lifted by piquant capers and a spicy tomato sauce. There's also a variety of pasta dishes--spaghetti carbonara, cannelloni al forno, and fettuccine a modo mio (with wild mushrooms and pancetta in a red wine herb sauce). Servers couldn't be more attentive and accommodating, and the Italian wine list, while limited, is affordable and well selected. La Mora is at 2132 W. Roscoe, 773-404-4555.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.