Noted architect Edward Burling built the Renaissance-style mansion that houses BIGGS STEAKHOUSE AND WINE CELLAR in 1875 for financier John de Koven and his family, who turned it over to Joseph Biggs's catering company in the early 1900s. It wasn't until 1964 that the historic landmark became Biggs Restaurant, a fancy French dining room whose glory days ended in the late 70s. Several changes of hands later, Lezlie Keebler, her husband Louis Grant, and their partner Dan Cummins have taken over the lease. After hosting a few private events over the holidays, they reopened to the public this month. The building was renovated in 1997 by previous owner James Graca, but Keebler and company have redecorated, replacing the weathered wood floors and painting the walls and 15-foot ceilings midnight blue while maintaining the fabulous original fixtures like the Italian marble mantels and fireplaces (five in all) and the hand-turned oak banister leading to the second floor. They've installed executive chef Frederic Boyer (Pump Room) to replace the French menu with a more accessible contemporary American one, full of steaks and chops prepared in a refined but not stuffy style. The basement is still a work in progress--it'll eventually hold a wine cellar and a cheese cave--but the lower-level wine bar is open and soon to be serving a light menu. There's also a bar on the second floor, where a few former bedrooms have been turned into exquisite private dining nooks. Keebler, Grant, and Cummins are also running Albert's Cafe, which has inhabited the mansion's coach house since 1982; though it's received a minor face-lift, kitchen and staff haven't changed. Biggs Steakhouse and Wine Cellar is at 1150 N. Dearborn, 312-787-0900.
Chef Herbert Delgado and wife Beatriz ran the Colombian restaurant La Fonda on Clark near Lawrence for 16 years before it was destroyed in a 2001 fire. Now they've reopened in Edgewater as LA FONDA LATINO GRILL, offering a more ambitious menu. The bulk of the dishes are still Colombian--including starters like the wonderfully crisp spinach-and-mushroom empanadas, delicate arepas (white corn cakes) topped with mushrooms and cheese, and morcilla (blood pudding) with guajillo chili sauce--but occasionally Mexican and Cuban influences show up, as in the sopa de frijol negro (black bean soup topped with raw onions and cilantro). Entrees like lengua en salsa roja (beef tongue simmered in a creamy tomato sauce with green peas) and arroz con camarones (yellow rice with shrimp, peas, onions, and peppers) are so generously portioned that they'd be best shared, perhaps with soup or an order of churrasco (grilled loin of beef served with chimichurri sauce and sweet plantains). The Delgados now serve alcohol: hand-shaken margaritas, mojitos, sangria, and a concise but well-selected list of inexpensive wines, with glass prices ranging from $4.50 to $6. The new location is more upscale than the old one; they've painted the tin ceiling bronze and hung the brick walls with framed pastel still lifes and Colombian folk art. Handcrafted carrieles (handbags from the country's coffee-growing region) decorate the short stairway linking the room's split levels. The operation feels family run, with servers who are genuinely helpful and gracious. A lunch buffet Tuesday through Friday offers a limited sampling of the dinner menu for $7.50. La Fonda Latino Grill is at 5350 N. Broadway, 773-271-3935.
Just when it seems like Chicago has hit its limit on sleek sushi bars, the Japanese bistro OYSY SUSHI has opened in the South Loop. Designed by local architect Douglas Garofalo, the minimalist space has two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Grant Park, striated wood-veneer tables, halogen lighting, and low-backed bench seating. Patrons can also choose a stool at the long sushi bar and watch chefs in black baseball caps cut fish, roll maki, and greet customers. The menu at Oysy (meaning "delicious" and pronounced oh-EE-she) is distinctly value conscious, with most nigiri sushi priced under $6 for two pieces and most maki under $7. Ten grilled entrees come in under $10, among them toro steak with ponzu sauce and spicy radish, Chilean sea bass in garlic-black bean sauce, teriyaki eel, and octopus with two salsas. Tempura options include soft-shell crab and baby squid and come with homemade soy, sesame, or garlic sauce. An interesting chef's special is the scallop emerald maki: sauteed scallops rolled with asparagus, cucumber, green tobiko caviar, and a spicy sauce. At lunch the bento boxes are a good deal; a choice of entree--like perfectly grilled white tuna with a yuzu vinaigrette--comes with several maki and tiny portions of tofu salad, orange tempura shrimp, and Japanese pickles, all for $12. Service is gracious, and it's still BYO. Oysy Sushi is at 888 S. Wabash, 312-922-1127.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.