Chef Don Yamauchi (Le Francais) resigned just before the February opening of FUSE, a modern French 144-seat dining room inside the newly renovated Hotel 71. His replacement, Eric Aubriot (who recently shuttered his namesake restaurant), dishes up elegant but simply prepared specialties like a poached pear and Muenster salad with figs; yellow and red beets lined up in thin slices with mache, oranges, and truffle vinaigrette; and seared foie gras with bittersweet chocolate sauce. A delicious seared black cod came with a poached egg and a pool of black-olive, truffle, and zucchini puree; the sublime braised short ribs were accompanied by glazed brussels sprouts (which everyone at my table fought over) and a satiny parsnip puree. The room, designed by North Pond's Nancy Warren, is remarkable too. The large oval bar's glass mosaic top is lit from below, and a large wall of windows looks out onto the river. Fuse has two entrances: one on Wacker Drive and another in the hotel lobby. It's at 71 E. Wacker, 312-462-7071. --Luara Levy Shatkin
Victoria Medina-Lollino designed the two-month-old pan-Latin CALIENTE to be at once artsy and familiar. Her approach is reflected in the decor--there's a colorful mural on one of the spice-colored walls and folk art scattered around the place--and the menu. "It's basically what I eat at home," explains Medina-Lollino, who's the chef as well as the owner. "It's not exactly traditional. I try and throw in a few curves." In place of the typical complimentary tortilla chips, Caliente offers bread spread with spicy oil, accompanied by a cool, fresh-tasting jicama, red pepper, and cucumber salsa with a delayed kick. Tasty appetizers include plump, tequila-marinated shrimp and a trio of hefty empanadas stuffed with (1) sirloin steak and almonds, (2) cheesy garlic potatoes, and (3) a syrupy sweet guava paste. The corn-and-red-pepper soup is thin but refreshing, with heaps of kernels. Entrees include a flavorful skirt steak--a tender, generous slab served with fresh salsa, black beans, and coaster-size tortillas--and a chicken breast stuffed with poblanos and goat cheese. There's also traditional taqueria fare like tacos and enchiladas. For dessert there's flourless chocolate cake, key lime pie, and plantains served with dulce de leche ice cream. Caliente is at 3910 N. Sheridan, 773-525-0129. --Kathie Bergquist
Until now, Uptown has been the only place to get good authentic Vietnamese food in Chicago. But VIEN DONG in Wrigleyville will look familiar to Argyle Street veterans: a clean and unremarkable room and a menu with incredible breadth, to the point of being overwhelming to the uninitiated. Luckily the menu's English translations and the staff's friendliness and expertise make the experience less intimidating. Spring rolls, duck egg rolls, fried wontons, and shrimp toast are all safe bets, but there are more intriguing choices, like thit lui--tender lemongrass-marinated and charred beef on a stick with sweet-and-sour nam pla dipping sauce. Another interesting appetizer, the rice flour pancake (banh xeo), is studded with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts and served with a plate of leaf lettuce to wrap it in. Noodle and rice dishes are abundant, some served in broth, others stir-fried, like ga xao bun tau: bean thread noodles, chicken, and vegetables all tossed in ginger sauce. There are half a dozen choices in each of the menu categories--vegetarian, chicken, beef, pork, and fish--with Chinese standbys like cashew chicken and pork chow mein listed alongside classic Vietnamese dishes. The dinner entrees are all under $10, and the lunch prices are even more reasonable: the most expensive dish, marinated pork chop and shredded pork skin (com bi suon), costs $6.50 and comes with an egg roll, soup, and steamed rice. Soda, juice, and tea are the only beverages on the menu; if you're bringing your own I suggest a chilled bottle of Alsatian Riesling or German gewurztraminer. Vien Dong is at 3227 N. Clark, 773-348-6879. --LLS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.