The serene room at MUANG THAI--white linens, dim lighting, and a single silk flower on each table--is the perfect backdrop for chef-owner Sirihathai Patkadee's delicate fare. While the extensive menu is full of familiar offerings like satay, beef salad, tom yum, and pad see eiw, it's Patkadee's original concoctions that are most alluring. Pad paey sean, for instance, combines stir-fried shrimp, chicken, pork, baby corn, pea pods, and napa cabbage with clear bean thread noodles in a savory brown sauce. Pad mee is a great meatless choice: thin rice noodles stir-fried with tofu, bean sprouts, and onions in a red bean sauce and topped with scrambled eggs. There are also a few American-sounding options, pad macaroni and spaghetti ki-mao, that are actually "the most popular dishes in Thailand today," says Patkadee. The most subtly flavored and beautifully presented preparation is the clay pot full of greenlip mussels, steamed in an aromatic broth of lemongrass, Thai basil, and galangal. Portions are big enough to share, but why bother when prices hover in the $7 range? It's BYO to boot. Don't pass on the sublime warm bananas in coconut milk for dessert; a $5.95 lunch special includes an entree or noodle dish plus soup and an appetizer. Muang Thai is at 4943 N. Damen, 773-506-8059.
Despite the rumble of the el overhead and the unappetizing sample plates arranged on a table just inside the door, pan-Asian newcomer SATAY is worth a visit. Head past the small front area and through the bottleneck hallway and you'll find a spacious, stylish back room where chartreuse walls, recessed lights, nicely spaced tables, and New Age music create an inviting place to eat. A range of influences shows up in every category on the menu: appetizers include chive dumplings in sweet soy sauce, chicken or vegetable gyoza, and tofu satay, while soups range from vegetable-miso to Thai coconut to a hot-and-sour variety that's chock-full of eggs, tofu, and veggies. Spicy ground-chicken salad is brimming with fresh mint, shredded carrots, red onion, and Thai basil. A grilled salmon dish in the "chef's specialties" section came on a bed of sauteed cabbage with grilled vegetables, grapes, and rice in a sauce of red curry and coconut milk. To drink, there's a range of freshly squeezed juices (orange, carrot, or apple), smoothies, and dairy-free freezes (with or without tapioca "bubbles") in flavors like watermelon, lychee, and green tea. Definitely a cut above the average neighborhood Thai eatery, this place will likely draw patrons from neighboring Penny's. Satay is at 936 W. Diversey, 773-477-0100.
Yet another steak house hits the Gold Coast. GROTTO has an Italian slant, serving a variety of pasta dishes plus appetizers like calamari (grilled or fried), scampi in puff pastry, and bruschetta. The space (formerly home to Palette's) is enormous, with three dining rooms wrapped around a glassed-in courtyard. In the front room is a long bar equipped with a row of overhead TVs; additional plasma screens are clipped onto the ends of the adjacent leather couches so patrons won't miss a play on their way to a table or the rest rooms. The music is vintage 70s, the creamy moss walls are decorated with mirrors, and the overall feeling is one of glamorized banquet room, though it's made more attractive by the huge green plants in the courtyard, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows. Aside from the Italian dishes there's a predictable lineup of steaks and chops, from a bone-in 18-ounce filet mignon to a 22-ounce porterhouse to a Sicilian-style 16-ounce veal chop in a balsamic glaze. Fish dishes include mahimahi with capers and olives in a white wine sauce and broiled whitefish with lemon sauce. Prices are standard for the area, with hardly an entree under $20. The wine list is limited but has several affordable American bottles. Grotto is at 1030 N. State, 312-280-1005.
A decade ago the corner of Webster and Bissell was home to breakfast favorite Ina's Kitchen, whose proprietor now runs Ina's on West Randolph; after several incarnations, her old restaurant has morphed into the charming enoteca (Italian wine bar) PIATTINI. The spacious front room holds a bar and banquette seating, while down a few steps is a cozy back dining room with a fireplace. Dark wood and forest green appointments make this place handsome, and the small-plate cuisine makes it budget friendly. Waiters advise ordering several items, but don't rush into it: dishes are filling, and most come with several accompaniments, like the thin-cut lamb chops served with sauteed spinach and a risotto. Other options include a petite filet mignon, an artichoke stuffed with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes, penne arrabiata, or a refreshing arugula salad with shaved Parmesan. Daily specials are posted on a chalkboard. The wine list is surprisingly short on Italian selections, but the owners have invested in a wine-preservation system that keeps the by-the-glass selections fresh. Piattini is at 934 W. Webster, 773-281-3898.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.