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Omnivorous: What's New

A top-flight boite, a brazen brasserie, and a Puglian restaurant with its hearth in the right place

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Bob Djahanguiri, impresario behind celebrity-magnet boites of yore (Toulouse, Yvette), returns with Old Town Brasserie, a jazzy, boisterous nightspot specializing in classic French food with a few tweaks. Veteran chef Roland Liccioni came up in legendary European kitchens (the Parisian brasserie Bofinger and London's La Gavroche) before conquering Chicago at Carlos', Le Francais, and Les Nomades, and while this assignment might seem a step down from the high-end nouvelle cuisine he's known for, it's modest only in name and price. Appropriately, a trio of patés leads off the menu, including a creamy slab of "chicken" liver that might have rejiggered my opinion of the bird's potential had a server not hinted it was made from the outlawed organ of another species. Duck consomme with a single truffle ravioli was a paradigm of clear, dark amber purity, and escargots were broiled in a tomato confit, funky with Roquefort, that begged for the bread basket. I want to think the highly salted sauces that accompany meaty entrees such as duck breast with leg confit, rack of lamb with Kobe beef, and veal hanger steak are evidence of the kitchen keepin' it real with respect to the European preference. On the other hand, lemongrass-seasoned poached salmon and lobster ravioli with a wasabi-based foam show that the Vietnamese-born chef is not enslaved by tradition. For better or worse, that is—the veal was presented with a mound of crinkle-cut frites that momentarily conjured up unhappy associations with Ore-Ida. On Monday nights Liccioni presents an offal special meant to lure in off-duty chefs; I tried a super tripe dish with crispy fried sweetbreads and chestnuts in a velvety reduction. But not everything is meat and

potatoes: an oil-poached lobster with seared scallops is a delicate option, and for dessert, Gran Marnier and chocolate souffles are fluffy and light. Musicians tune up in the later hours on weekends, and a market featuring cheese, wine, and specialty goods is set to open up next door in time for the holidays. —MikeSula

If pedigree guaranteed quality, Brasserie Ruhlmann would be sitting pretty. The partners include Jean Denoyer, Miae Lim, and Rick Wahlstedt of Japonais, across the street, and the chef is Christian Delouvrier, formerly of Alain Ducasse and Lespinasse in New York (where the original Brasserie Ruhlmann is located). Named for art deco designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the place makes a great first impression with its oversize alabaster ceiling fixtures, gleaming dark paneling, giant metallic bas relief over the long bar, and plush red velvet drapes, chairs, and banquettes. So what if the lighting is so low you can't read the wine list and the noise level so high you can't hear your own conversation? The problem was that the food and service weren't special enough to justify the prices ($19 for a burger to $65 for surf and turf). Leathery baguette slices were a bad sign. Skipping the raw bar in favor of hot hors d'oeuvres, we were buoyed by plump snails swimming in garlic butter under individual caps of flaky puff pastry, only to be dismayed by a tarte savoyarde that resembled a shrunken softish-crust pizza with a salty topping of bacon, cheeses, and dried beef. Speaking of salt, the kitchen seemed to have dumped a whole shaker of it on the crisp American-style fries accompanying our rarer-than-ordered hanger steak, which was small for $26 and short on flavor despite the shallots on top and trio of sauces on the side. A little cod fillet with shellfish in a creamy shallot-white-wine broth didn't impress us either, except for the single deliciously sweet sea scallop. Gratineed onion soup that could have been made from the classic recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking also ranked high, as did the hazelnut cream puff with poached pear, a dessert special. With bottles of red wine starting at $60 and only two glasses for less than $10, the $22 carafe of house pinot noir (about half a bottle) wasn't a bad buy. —Anne Spiselman

It takes guts in these vegetarian-friendly times to name a restaurant "Slaughterhouse" and whimsically flesh out the conceit. But that's just what the owners have done at Macello, from the butcher-block host's stand and the pig motif in the men's room to the hoists and pulleys suspended from the ceiling of the onetime meatpacking warehouse. Executive chef-partner Giovanni DeNigris (Trattoria Trullo) showcases the rustic cucina and robust wines of Puglia in his exposed-brick dining room, and pizzas are a good bet under the hands of chef Gino Losacco, who mans the central wood-burning brick oven. Pizza Barese featured melted mozzarella and burrata blanketed by silken prosciutto crudo on a beautifully blistered thin crust; I also enjoyed a white pizza with asparagus and little dots of Puglian sausage (more, please!). Wood-roasted meats and daily hot antipasti, such as butterflied shrimp smothered with buttery bread crumbs, come from a smaller oven. The hefty pork chop, though cooked past the requested medium rare and a tad dry, was flavorful and cannily paired with porcini linguine. Fish are roasted whole only, but don't expect a lot of food: once deboned by the friendly server, our strawberry grouper turned out to be a mere half-dozen bites for $26. One pasta, cappellacci stuffed with firm pumpkin-squash puree, basked in a truffle-flecked Parmesan cream sauce, making it even richer than the best dessert, croccantino with walnuts and caramel. Brachetto, a fizzy dessert wine, was the perfect finale. Weekends bustle with trendy crowds, but I prefer quieter nights early in the week. —Anne Spiselman

For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

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