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AFFORDABLE FRENCH, CITY
111 N. Carpenter St.; 312-421-2800
Like any bistro worth its Fleur de Sel, La Sardine has perfected the classics. The Pernod-perfumed bouillabaisse, creamy cassoulet, and crispy duck confit are rustic gems. But it’s the fringe items that really provide the edge. Sweetbreads, a.k.a. thymus glands, hit the trifecta of perfection—caramelized, crunchy, and creamy—and La Sardine’s sweet-and-spicy duck sausage gets its kick from pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg balanced with caramelized apple. The iconic Grand Marnier soufflé is a destination dessert here: puffed up high with eggy goodness and graced by a warm fresh-fruit coulis, La Sardine’s is the best example in town. And despite the already affordable prices (all entrées under $20), on Tuesdays, any appetizer, entrée, and dessert will run you $25 total; on Mondays, bottles of wine are half price.
AFFORDABLE FRENCH, SUBURBAN
466 S. Rand Rd., Lake Zurich; 847-438-8001
With fusionism blurring the distinctions between one cuisine and another, it’s a relief to be offered the authentic, no-kidding French food at D&J Bistro, even if it is in a mall, and even if its outdoor seating does face the parking lot. For 20 years now, life has been beautiful at D&J, and winningly eccentric—we love the framed posters of French country scenes on the walls, as well as the paintings by local artists. The list of inexpensive wines is large and inviting, and foodwise you’re reminded how tasty meat, fish, and vegetables can be when judiciously combined and not lost in a haze of salt and sugar. Offerings are especially français around the edges: plain Bibb lettuce salad and tomato salad, in season? A gratin of provençal vegetables? Fruit tarts for dessert? For prices that don’t make you weep? Where are we?
2546 N. Clark St.; 773-348-4877
You may recently have noticed a gaggle of Lincoln Parkers, half of whom are standing in a rather dimly lit storefront space a few doors down from Frances’ Deli, and wondered, “What the heck is going on there?” Three words: delicious sushi, cheap. Admittedly, the space is cramped, the wait for a table long, and the service at times mind-bendingly slow. But sushi lovers endure these minor inconveniences for Mitch Kim’s extraordinarily fresh, larger-than-average maki inventions, such as the popular “Oh” roll (tuna, avocado, and spicy tobiko, $11.95) and the even more popular “Oh My God” roll (shrimp tempura, mango, unagi, and hot pepper sauce, $12.95). Regulars have devised a clever strategy to make the at times hourlong wait for a table fly by: they wander off to one of the many neighborhood watering holes and drink until Toro Sushi, which is BYOB, rings their cell phones for dinner.
New Shui Wah
2162 S. Archer Ave.; 312-225-8811
If “dim sum” is a Cantonese phrase that means “touch the heart,” then eating the joltingly good dim sum at Shui Wah is like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Mola Ram rips out the heart of his human sacrifice. Favoring menu service instead of the more typical rolling carts, Shui Wah makes every dish to order, so the fare here is always hot and fresh. Batter-kissed fried squid in pepper salt are like seafaring french fries. Airy Chiu Chow pork-and-peanut dumplings with a zing of scallion, and delicate steamed shrimp crêpes doused in aged soy sauce, fill your mouth in rich waves. A golfball-size bun enveloping a duck egg and lotus cream makes the perfect sweet-savory dessert. Best of all, this spot—though tiny and often packed on weekends (dim sum is served daily until 3 p.m.)—is BYOB. Take Champagne and toast your good fortune.
1576 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-770-0184
The “naked ravioli” at Fran-cesca’s Forno—a.k.a. i gnudi alla Fiorentina—took us by complete surprise the first time we had it. Now that we know gnudi (Italian for “nude”) are a genuine trendlet on the dining scene, we feel smug to have loved them, in pure innocence, on first bite. Get this: They’re not ravioli with no filling; they’re filling with no ravioli. Francesca’s superrich little dumplings are, frankly, ricotta cheese held together with more cheese and a little spinach, cooked up and served awash with sagey brown butter and a bit of chopped tomato. How great is that? For anyone who, at least privately, would prefer to eat the cheese off pizza and leave the crust behind, or who has hung around at turkey-carving time and snatched the butteriest bites of stuffing as they fell out of the bird, your moment has arrived.
216 W. Cermak Rd.; 312-225-4081
“Harmonious” and “flavorful” are not words that often spring to mind when one is faced with a bowl of hot-and-sour soup, that by now over-familiar staple of every corner Chinese restaurant. But the dish need not be a murky and salty glop. For our money, the best in Chicago is made in the kitchen of Moon Palace, a popular Shanghainese restaurant in Chinatown. Made with good chicken stock and chock full of tofu, pork, bamboo shoots, and Chinese mushrooms, this version of the classic Szechwan soup, which purportedly got its start as a doctor’s quasi-medicinal curative, is actually hot (thanks to a properly heavy dose of ground black pepper) and bracingly sour. A touch
of sesame oil is the unmistakable signature of Moon Palace’s stellar rendition.
1940 W. Division St.; 773-772-2626
This gourmet chocolatier on a trendy stretch of Division Street hasn’t quite toppled Vosges as the city’s best fancy candy maker, but Jeremy Brutzkus’s outrageous hot chocolate menu is reason enough to go. Brutzkus takes a chef’s approach to creating each flavor, building a recipe around a star ingredient—such as a wild cherry from a mountaintop in Italy—and then adding elements that lift or contrast. In his Italian Amarena Cherry concoction, a blend of three bittersweet chocolates amplifies the cherry’s sourness, all balanced by a soothing drop of vanilla. Hearty drinkers should be able to polish off the generous eight-ounce single-strength serving (most are $4); but steel yourself for the almost puddinglike double strength, which is so intense you’ll be vibrating long after you’ve finished the cup.
Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro
3905 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-3905
Any fourth-generation Irish person can throw a Vienna corned beef and some cabbage into a pot. But it takes a deft hand to transform the carb-loaded fare of the Irish workingman into elegant, refined plates. Here, at the Irish-themed fine-dining spot in West Lake View that was the dream project of the late Jim Murphy of Murphy’s Bleachers, chef Jeanne Carlson reinvents classics like shepherd’s pie with braised lamb, leeks, and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. She crusts rainbow trout with oats, demonstrating that Irish cuisine, while hearty, can also be haute. Boxty—traditional Irish potato pancakes—get glammed up with paper-thin slices of Scottish smoked salmon and herbed crème fraîche. Carlson even transforms Guinness, the liquid soul of Irish pubgoers, into crocks of onion soup oozing with white Cheddar broiled crispy onto a raft of sliced Irish bread.
5406 N. Clark St.; 773-989-0662
Cannoli may seem like the most overrated entry in the history of sweets but that’s only because most Americans have never tasted an authentic, freshly made one. Rescuing the reputation of Sicilian pastries in the world is, in a nutshell, Natalie Zarzour’s mission, starting from the adorable, pistachio-green bakery in Andersonville on Chicago’s North Side that she and her husband, Nicolas, opened in February. The menu of goods is quirkily limited and seems to change weekly, but taken together the offerings exemplify the refined yet simple pleasures of Italian desserts. The ricotta cheesecake is fluffy and delicately sweet; the biscotti, crunchy and addictive (if you’re dieting, avoid the chocolate hazelnut). Fig-filled cookies are sophisticated, jammy bites. (The couple can be maddeningly protective of the integrity of their products: on one visit, they could not be persuaded to sell pignolate cookies, in spite of some very persistent begging, that were not yet cooled.) The cannoli here are filled to order with sweetened fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta—the real stuff, from Italy—and come with the stern admonition that they must be consumed “right away.” Is in the car on our way home soon enough?
1851 W. Addison St.; 773-248-2777
Pasta bolognese—that cream-infused staple of the Italian table—is a restaurant standby that seems almost too perfunctory to try to do well anymore. At Terragusto, a newish spot in Lake View that blends regional Italian cooking with the recent haute-barnyard trend, the dish takes on transcendent new life. Owner–head chef Theo Gilbert and his staff crank out fresh, house-made pasta each morning and in the evening transform the tender, wide ribbons of tagliatelle into a modest-size plate of piping hot and unctuously meat-coated bliss. The sauce is classically constructed: pork, beef, veal, and lamb are bound together in a rich concoction of red wine, cream, vegetables, and just a splash of pureed tomato. But the ingenious distinguishing ingredient is a finishing touch of white-truffle oil. “I had this particular version of the dish during truffle season in Bologna and it was just amazing,” says Gilbert, who replicates it here for our benefit. For about $34 a person, you can dine “family-style,” a fun scheme in which you may pick and share a mix of dishes. Do double up your order of the bolognese; after you’ve inhaled your serving, we recommend stealing from your companion’s plate.
Hoosier Mama Pie Company
If you’re in the camp that believes pie—the old-fashioned American variety with a flaky and tender crust—beats cake any day, then Paula Haney’s incredible hand-baked creations (available for pickup or delivery through the Web site) will set you back on your heels. First, the crust: all butter, violating the first truism of pie-baking that says you can’t achieve greatness without at least a little shortening. Haney’s crusts, while not shatteringly flaky, are crisp, golden brown, tasty, and tender—certainly someone’s idea of perfect execution. But Haney’s fillings are indisputably excellent: the apples in her double-crust version are densely flavorful; the seasonal rhubarb lusciously balanced, instead of acerbic; her peerless chocolate cream intensely dark and nearly espresso-like. An Indianapolis native who put in years as head pastry chef at some of the best restaurants around town (Trio, One Sixtyblue, Pili.Pili), Haney started the business with her husband in 2005, having long lamented the city’s dearth of good-quality pies, ones that don’t contain yucky industrial ingredients like hydrogenated oils, canned fruit, and corn syrup. Case closed.
20 W. Kinzie St.; 312-467-9525
A porterhouse, with its double whammy of a buttery filet and a juicy strip, should be the ideal steak cut—can we not all agree on that much? Yet too many porterhouses suffer from split personalities, with a perfectly tender filet side and a rough strip side that seems to exist in a different universe, or a juicy strip and a shriveled, chalky filet. The answer: Go to Keefer’s. Served naked on the plate, the prime bone-in porterhouse is spectacular and equally tender on either side of the bone, seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and maître d’ butter. With no ambitious seasoning or overly precious sides to hide behind, this is what steak houses are supposed to be all about: the pure, unadulterated glory of red meat.
May Street Market
1132 W. Grand Ave.; 312-421-5547
It often seems that turkey burgers, as a class of sandwich, are neglected by restaurant kitchens, taking a forlorn and depress-ingly dietetic second place on the menu to the cheeseburger. Not so at May Street Market, where chef Alexander Cheswick instructs his cooks to regrind the ground turkey for the patties, which are pure meat except for a light seasoning with salt and pepper and some olive oil. They are then gently pan-sautéed rather than torched on a grill or smashed down on a hot griddle. Under such attentive conditions, this turkey burger emerges as an airily light and moist pâté, complemented perfectly by a relatively lean and petite-sized brioche bun, a squirt of chi-potle mayo, and a few creamy slices of avocado. The excellent and salty house-made fries on the side (served with a truffled aïoli and demurely described by one waiter as a “work in progress”) will remind you that this dish was once considered mere diner fare.
1232 N. Bloomingdale Rd., Glendale Heights; 630-462-8888
Chicago’s best Vietnamese restaurant isn’t on Argyle Street, where all the restaurants tend to blend together into one great big cartoonish pho-fest. For the real thing, head 33 miles to the southwest. There, in a dubious west suburban strip mall, tucked between a pawn shop and a dollar store, Tay Do gets all the standards right. Ultrafresh banh mi sandwiches, bun thit nuong cha gio (rice noodles with grilled marinated beef and bite-size egg rolls), and banh xeo (a crispy pancake enfolded with shrimp and pork): they all out-Argyle Argyle—at cheaper prices, to boot. And buried among the hundreds of menu items are authentic Saigon treasures like cua rang me, a delightfully messy whole Dungeness crab with a sticky tamarind sauce, and thit kho to, pork simmered in a clay pot with a caramelized sauce. Get in your car and go.