Best New Restaurants

From a French-Asian stunner to a veggie revelation—new restaurants shaking up the scene. How many have you tried?

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The old adage that says “Nothing succeeds like success” still holds. For confirmation, take a look around at Chicago’s newest restaurants. You’ve got Tru’s Rick Tramonto making antipasto plates at Osteria Via Stato; there’s Gabriel Viti in jeans welcoming his loyal Gabriel’s clientele to the casual Miramar; Spring’s Shawn McClain is flexing some new muscles at the veg-happy Green Zebra. Le Lan-the best new restaurant of the year-is a French-Vietnamese collaboration between two of Chicago’s true heavyweights, Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat. So many of the year’s best arrived with impressive pedigrees, it was easy to overlook promising rookies, such as Paul Virant’s dazzling Vie in Western Springs, which seemed to materialize so fully formed it felt as if it had been around for years. Virant’s work at Vie has earned him the golden toque for best new chef, but, knowing this year’s field, we half expect Virant to be opening another restaurant by the time this hits newsstands.

Photography by Nathan Kirkman

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

[¢] $10 to $19
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49

Le Lan

749 North Clark Street
312-280-9100 [$$$]
FRENCH-VIETNAMESE

Le Lan’s roast duck breast draped over creamy polenta and a disk of seared foie gras, stacked on duck rillette flavored with lemongrass and kaffir lime

There was so much buzz around the opening of this beautiful restaurant, it seemed destined to disappoint. Early on, the collaboration of Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat (with their chef de cuisine, Andy Motto) was better in theory than in practice. Not now; dubious creations have been jettisoned for more blissful dishes, and the execution is almost flawless. From an amuse of a delicate noodle-filled spring roll with watermelon relish and crispy shallots all the way to a dessert of sheep’s-milk flan topped with crystallized cilantro and garnished with tropical fruit compote, Le Lan is luscious. In between choose a spring roll duo: One is cold and packed with slow-roasted pork and shrimp with sweet and spicy shallot vinaigrette; the other is a warm beauty filled with chicken and vermicelli with four-pepper vinaigrette. Then move on to a Le Français–worthy entrée of roast duck breast with green cardamom jus next to a stack of seared foie gras, creamy polenta, and lemongrass- and kaffir lime–scented duck rillette. A bottle of vivid 2003 Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($60) off the diverse list answers the call of such bold food. When my party raved about dinner to the manager, Terry McNeese, he smiled and said: “We’re tightening up and getting better.” Damn right. It’s the best new restaurant of the year.
–D. R. W.

Green Zebra

1460 West Chicago Avenue
312-243-7100 [$$]
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN

Even the most carnivorous among us can stand to eat a little less meat and a lot more great-tasting vegetables. Chef Shawn McClain’s veggie-oriented Green Zebra was an instant hit when it opened last spring, hyped all over the country. Chicago hasn’t seen such green-revolution virtuosity since Charlie Trotter innovated his vegetable tasting menus, although McClain’s garden creations deliver finesse at much lower prices. While he specializes in intricate presentations of organic vegetables, his GZ is not strictly vegetarian and cleverly avoids preachy health and environment messages. Why worry about labels with entrées as good as a foamy celery-root soup with black walnuts and black truffle essence, a Gruyère soufflé with endive and apple salad, or a Canadian wild rice and barley cake with huckleberry gastrique and braised Tuscan kale?
–D. R. W.

Les Deux Autres

462 North Park Boulevard, Glen Ellyn
630-469-4002 [$$$]
FRENCH

There’s an air of exotica at Les Deux Autres. Yes, it’s in a strip mall and the place is full of stodgy wood paneling, but listen to the staff speak and you know it’s different. Louisa Lima, the charming pastry chef/owner, is a Bermuda native; our gracious waiter was from Luxembourg. Disappointing by comparison, chef Greg Lutes hails from Malden, Illinois-though his modern French menu has roots in distant settings. Gentle-but-rich dishes such as a flaky napoleon enclosing escargots and wild mushrooms in a garlic-wine sauce showcase the same skills Lutes had displayed at south suburban Courtright’s. His entrées are unpretentious but packed with flavor, such as the gorgeous silky scallops encrusted with shiitake dust and set atop lobster-and-potato-stuffed ravioli. Lima’s wonderful crème brûlée trio (hazelnut, espresso, and vanilla) is a fresh take on an old warhorse; a smoky 2001 Gigondas Domaine Raspail-Ay ($44) served in elegant Riedel stemware more than holds its own. And service is so smooth that even your leftovers get the royal treatment: in lieu of a doggy bag, leftovers go home in aluminum foil shaped like a swan.
–J. R.

De Cero

814 West Randolph Street
312-455-8114 [$$]
MEXICAN

BEST NEW DISH: De Cero’s shareable taco platter

Randolph Street’s modern taquería-the brainchild of Sushi Wabi’s owners-has its problems. The place is too loud; it charges for chips and salsa; the stylized décor is best described as Roadhouse Chic. But you’d have to be an insufferable grump to fault Jill Rosenthall-Barron’s food, a savvy mix of regional Mexican flavors, à la Frontera Grill. The name De Cero means “from scratch,” and the queso-oozing chiles rellenos with smoked tomato salsa prove it. Even better is the selection of eight diverse fresh tacos (containing everything from braised duck with sweet corn salsa to sautéed salmon with cilantro and pesto) accompanied by three house salsas and warm corn tortillas for $26. It gets my vote for best shareable new dish. Entrées are secondary, but there’s a smoky boneless grilled chicken mole, and wonderful cheese enchiladas with queso anejo alongside tomatillo salsa. Desserts are terrific, even the simple bowl of fresh berries in Mexican lime honey. Don’t ignore the big tequila list, but go easy on the hibiscus margaritas-one bolsters the smart menu, two obliterate it.
–J. R.

 

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

[¢] $10 to $19
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus

Indie Cafe

5951 North Broadway
773-561-5577 [$]
JAPANESE, THAI

This charming BYO spot takes pride in its service, its décor, and-especially-its food. Our solemn waitress was delivering a “crunchy” maki roll (an elaborate deep-fried yellowtail, scallion, and asparagus construction) when a carefully balanced asparagus spear fell from its perch atop the sushi. Distraught, she appeared to be scanning the sushi bar for something sharp to plunge into her gut when one of my companions consoled her. “It’s OK,” she said. “We saw it.” This seemed to please her. Indie’s half-Thai, half-Japanese menu pleased us: think delicious buttery tom kha kai (coconut milk soup), outstanding Penang curry flavored with kaffir lime leaves, and wonderful maki named for everyone from Metallica to Popeye. Even desserts, such as a coconut-and-sesame-informed taro root custard with raspberry sauce, are several cuts above usual storefront fare. Every night, it seems half the residents of Edgewater are crammed into the glossy, narrow space, opening their own bottles of wine to toast their good luck.
–J. R.

Kaze Sushi

2032 West Roscoe Street
773-327-4860 [$$]
JAPANESE

Kaze’s lump-crab roll

A proud waiter tells me that the offerings of the three chefs Chan-Macku, Kaze, and Hari, all relatives-are “fine dining fusion.” I’m wary until I taste the delicious rare seared bison with red-wine reduction garnished with yamamomo, a flavorful red berry with a cherrylike pit. All doubts vanish when the waiter brings delicately fried scallops atop a “salad” of greens with kiwi dressing wrapped in cucumber and sliced maki-style. Three more hits: unagi (eel) topped with cheese and chives, saké-marinated salmon garnished with crisp salmon skin under white onions and truffle oil, and hamachi (yellowtail) with banana peppers and spicy Japanese black pepper. At the far reaches of nouvelle Japanese lies a signature creation: batter-fried lobster served as inside-out maki topped with sliced strawberries and red tobiko (flying fish roe) on a creamy strawberry purée with enough wasabi to balance the sweetness. After experiencing all that, I was willing to try anything the Chans could dish out.
–D. R. W.

Miramar Bistro

301 Waukegan Avenue, Highwood
847-433-1078 [$$]
FRENCH

Last June, right after Gabriel Viti opened this casual French spot near Gabriel’s, his namesake haute restaurant, the waiting crowds spilled out of the lounge and into the street. You would have thought Cartier was giving away jewelry. The no-reservations policy created the mother of all jams-but seats at the best bistro on the North Shore are worth hanging around for. The masses go for generous appetizers such as a platter of saucisson, prosciutto, salami, and cheese; a heaping bowl of mussels marinière; artichokes in vinaigrette; and the roasted half lobster with herb butter. Then they move on to skate grenobloise, a memorable bouillabaisse, and perfect herby-seasoned lamb chops. Once diners exchange promises to hit the gym and confess to their personal trainers, they may indulge in Miramar’s rich chocolate mousse with whipped cream and raspberry purée.
–D. R. W.

Prairie Grass Cafe

601 Skokie Boulevard, Northbrook
847-205-4433 [$$]
AMERICAN

Prairie Grass Cafe’s rasberry crêpe

As cheery as cherry pie, this venture by Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris is way down-home compared with their haute years as Ritz-Carlton chefs. The spacious setting teems with boisterous groups gathered around bare wood tables chowing down on terrific housemade lamb sausages with ratatouille and goat cheese, the best moussaka hereabouts, and honest steaks with twice-baked potatoes laced with caramelized onions and Gruyère. For such heartiness, I vote for a peppery, fruity 2001 Lock “Ecluse” Paso Robles Syrah ($44). And if you are in a meat-versus-veggie group, the bottle won’t go to waste: it drinks equally well with a dynamite crisp phyllo strudel crammed with mushrooms and Gruyère jazzed by balsamic-braised onions and served over creamed spinach. To start a meal, order crab cakes with roasted sweet-pepper sauce and zesty corn relish or pâté with port wine reduction; then finish with cherry pie, baked by Stegner’s mom, Elizabeth.
–D. R. W.

Scylla

1952 North Damen Avenue
773-227-2995 [$$]
MEDITERRANEAN SEAFOOD

Scylla, tucked into a snug Bucktown brownstone, may remind you of Shawn McClain’s Spring. Stephanie Izard, the 28-year-old chef/owner, is a veteran of the seafood paradise down the road, and her appetizer of creamy whitefish bisque swimming with lobster and sweet English peas is evidence that she soaked up a lot in her two years there. Izard doesn’t go overboard with potentially complex dishes such as prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with buttery cauliflower purée, toasted hazelnuts, and pomegranate sauce. And her presentations are quirky: the crisp skate wing looks as though it were in its natural habitat, hiding a treasure of grilled calamari, explosive roasted cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, and spiced tomato aïoli. An eggy lemon custard has a delicious cheesecake consistency and came with an understated olive oil–thyme ice cream that one of my companions said “tasted like something I would rub on my face at a spa.” (I assume that’s good.) Servers are sharp and pleasant, considering the tight quarters, but the real revelation here is Izard, who seems primed for stardom of her own.
–J. R.

 

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