Walk into CAFE DES ARCHITECTES, just off the lobby of the ultrachic new Sofitel hotel, and you could easily think you're in Paris (where the chain is based) or Milan. Pierre-Yves Rochon's stunning decor features 5-foot-tall light fixtures suspended from 50-foot vaulted ceilings, floor-to-ceiling glass room dividers, brilliant red banquettes, aubergine carpeting, and backlit translucent bar walls that change from green to purple. Chef Frederic Castan aims to dazzle as well, with an innovative Mediterranean-inflected French menu that covers meals from breakfast to late-night snack. Lunch is a treat but doesn't come cheap, so perhaps it's best reserved for business or a special occasion. The elegant frisee and mache salad is a refreshing choice, tossed in an aged red wine vinegar with olive oil croutons, finely diced pancetta, and a perfectly runny poached egg. Even the sandwiches are special--a lobster BLT comes on ciabatta, citrus swordfish on focaccia with yogurt cucumber spread. Plats principaux include sea scallops on a bed of whipped cannellini beans, served with a nicely bitter braised endive and fresh fava beans, and a divine tomato risotto with grilled garlic shrimp and asparagus touched by a crustacean essence. The wine list, disappointingly, is limited to bottles from France and California; most are under $50, with the exception of a few pricier reds like a '98 Opus One ($189), a '99 Vosne-Romanee Domaine Gros ($75), and a '93 Dom Perignon ($179). The cafe will probably cater mostly to tourists and international business travelers, although they might not remember what city they're in. Cafe des Architectes is at 20 E. Chestnut, 312-324-4000.
The former Puerto Rican eatery Isabel's has been toned down and turned into WEST TOWN TAVERN, a casual restaurant and bar from Zinfandel owners Susan and Drew Goss. They've kept the decor simple yet handsome--with dark oak trim, exposed brick walls, French doors off to one side--and it's comfortable enough to draw locals any day of the week. Chef Luis Suarez came right from the kitchen at Zinfandel, which is apparent from the regional American menu: There are skillet-roasted mussels, flatbread with herb-roasted mushrooms, and wild rice soup to start, followed by entrees like a pepper-crusted sirloin and maple-cured pork chops. Wine is Drew Goss's passion, and that comes across in West Town's broad but reasonably priced wine list, which features ample by-the-glass selections along with some smaller-vineyard bottles that are unusual to find at a corner tap. West Town Tavern is at 1329 W. Chicago, 312-666-6175.
Generoso's Bar and Grill never quite took off like its sister restaurant, Chilpancingo, so Geno Bahena has leased the mammoth space to his former general manager Jona Silva and former Frontera Grill chef Kevin Korales, who've reopened it as SAVOR. Korales has fused several of the cuisines he's worked with to create an eclectic menu--there's a hint of Cajun in the grilled pork chop with andouille sausage and red cabbage slaw, a nod to Argentina in the strip steak chimichurri, and even some classic French underlying the dry-rubbed spiced duck with crispy beets. An interesting take on the BLT is a soup of roasted tomatoes and applewood-smoked bacon, served with a chiffonade of lettuce and garlic-Tabasco croutons. The location is convenient to the expressway, but the room could use a little cozying up. Savor is at 358 W. Ontario, 312-944-3586.
The owners of CAFE SURON have restored the enormous lobby of an old Rogers Park hotel as the setting for their Persian cuisine. Caramel-colored walls (with the original molding) contrast with black-and-white tile floors and contemporary art; they've painted a mural of the sky on the 35-foot ceiling; and natural light floods in from stunning oak-framed French windows, illuminating a 7-foot-tall Roman-looking sculpture set in a plaster fountain. The beauty of the room makes it easy to forgive the restaurant's slipups--once they closed an hour early, turning away guests, and another day they opened for lunch 30 minutes late--as does the wonderfully aromatic food. Classic Middle Eastern appetizers are freshly prepared: hummus, fattoush, and dolmades, along with a grilled portobello mushroom kissed with tomato puree and melted mozzarella. Another winner is kashke bademjan, smoky eggplant dip with caramelized onions and mint. Fluffy mounds of basmati rice flecked with dill and lima beans are the base of most entrees, which include marinated chicken skewers, nicely charred tenderloin cubes, and charred shrimp. A juicy fillet of salmon comes topped with a distinctly Mediterranean combination of sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, red peppers, and black olives. The floral Persian tea is the nicest beverage choice offered, but the food would benefit from a good bottle of wine. The restaurant is permanently BYO. Cafe Suron is at 1146 W. Pratt, 773-465-6500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.