Central St Cafe’s Asiago gnocchi
BUDGET BEAT: Taverna 750
Open for less than six months, Paul Cannella’s swanky Lake View digs have swiftly become a neighborhood hot spot. It’s easy to see why. He combines a glam look and a svelte squad of genial young waiters with fun drinks and a small-plate menu big on contemporary Italian comfort food. No dish exceeds $12, making it a snap to share gobs of grub. Though offerings change seasonally, delicate crackly-edged pizzas are always on tap, whether topped with artichokes, Asiago, and pesto or a more daring fèsta of salami, Brie, poppy seeds, and wine-poached figs. Pastas, led by fettuccine crowned with delectably seared shrimp, are crowd pleasers, as are mozzarella sticks wrapped in phyllo and gently splashed with white-truffle honey and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. Our menu favorite is more robust: homey chunks of fork-tender pork shoulder atop creamy Parmesan-sparked polenta. Dazzling drinks ($10 each), from classy martinis to rainbow-hued concoctions, can up the tab, but since each is accompanied by an extra glassful, they are still a swell deal. And if the deep chocolate lava cake is on hand, be sure to give it a whirl. 750 W. Cornelia Ave.; 773-904-7466.
COMING: Red Violet
When it’s posh dining you seek, River North delivers, and when the craving for cream cheese wonton hits, a takeout joint is never far. Scoring upscale Chinese in the hood, however, is like finding a chopstick in a haystack. Enter Red Violet, a dapper bi-level newcomer showcasing Beijing, Sichuan, and Shanghai cuisines under the able cleaver of Franky Fong, formerly of Tony Hu’s Chinatown Lao empire. Here, General Tso takes a back seat to stir-fried egg noodles with black truffle oil, wild mushrooms, and black pepper. And bring on the foie gras wonton chicken soup, we say. Just don’t deny us our fortune cookie. 121 W. Hubbard St.
“I’m pretty old,” muses Ryan McCaskey, who’s only 37. But the seasoned chef (Rushmore, Tizi Melloul, Courtright’s) takes cues from his past at the 60-seat Acadia, a contemporary American eatery nostalgically named for the coastal Maine region where McCaskey summered as a kid. The classic menu will also source seafood from McCaskey’s fisherman pals in that area. “We will have all the amenities of high-end restaurants, but also fun bar food that is approachable and geared toward the neighborhood,” McCaskey says. Sounds quite hip, old-timer. 1639 S. Wabash Ave.
MINI-REVIEW: Central St Cafe
Mitchell Dulin, the proprietor/chef/GM/general contractor/designer of Central St Cafe, ran The Chardonnay in Lincoln Park in the 1980s, the Loop’s ever-bustling Venice Cafe in the 1990s, and the Tuscan Market wine shop in Arlington Heights in the 2000s. Now he’s putting his 30 years of experience all under one roof in Evanston. First there’s an industrial-looking artisanal mart with a terrific selection of imported cheeses and meats. Round the corner, and the atmo warms considerably in a retro dining room flanked by a wood-hewn wine-rack wall from which you can purchase a bottle to have with dinner for a $10 corkage fee. And there’s nothing froufrou about the menu. We oohed and aahed our way through hard-wood-smoked salmon, aubergine de Marseilles (think eggplant lasagna without noodles), and grilled skirt steak with charred sweet onions. Then there was the indulgent Asiago gnocchi in black peppercorn Parmesan cream sauce. How do you say “pièce de résistance” in Italian? 2800 Central St., Evanston; 847-864-4444.
Photograph: Anna Knott