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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
3441 North Halsted Street
|X/O bartenders Danny Garcia and Adam Gibbs|
“My mother would hate me if she knew how much I like the meringue here,” says our waiter as he sets down the lemon tart. I can empathize. Even an expert farm-raised cook like my mom would have given the nod to this lovely dessert from the pastry chef, Jordan Rappaport-especially after savoring the cooking of chef Bob Zrenner, a veteran of Tru and Tournesol. Dishes such as seared scallops and pumpkin dumplings with sage hazelnut brown butter cross almost as many borders as does the Vietnamese spicy duck leg with roasted Korean sweet potatoes and Thai chilies. Folks slightly more hip than my teetotaling mother pour into this chic Lake View spot late in the evening; it’s open till 2 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 3 a.m. on Saturdays. This crowd doesn’t blink at the wonderful $50 flight of 25-year-old Cognacs, nor at the de-scription of the Kelt XO, which “spends three months on a ship touring the world, adding to its unrivaled richness.”
–D. R. W.
109 Franklin Street, Bloomingdale
Bistro Solitaire might be a better name for this charming “small house” in quaint Old Towne Bloomingdale. Except for the ebullient owner and host, Franco Serafini, the cozy bi-level dining rooms connected by a big winding staircase were practically vacant on our visits. Not for much longer, I trust. Chef Famous Jefferson’s food-French with lots of Italian input-is lusty and fun. I admired his cooking at Cochon Sauvage, and the pâtés at Maisonette brought back fond memories. Serafini recommended a glass of pinot blanc by Hugel (2001) with them, a heavenly pairing. Grilled lamb sausage barese with roast peppers is almost too hearty an opener if you are moving on to major productions like the flavor-packed bouillabaisse provençale or the seared duck breast and braised leg with port-ginger sauce on braised sweet-and-sour red cabbage. Desserts soar, especially two: the crème brûlée chock-full of fresh orange segments and the buttery bread pudding in rum butter sauce.
–D. R. W.
1540 North Milwaukee Avenue
In 1998 John Bubala opened Thyme in River West and proved that he could do classy. Now, with equal aplomb, he’s taken on drop-by casual in a Wicker Park café. His chef de cuisine, Armando Cabrera, is often visible through the front window making the daily ravioli, which on a recent visit were filled with mushrooms and aged Cheddar in a rich corn sauce. I was surprised to see artichoke fritters with béarnaise sauce on the short, eclectic menu-everybody’s favorite appetizer back when Gordon Sinclair ruled River North-until the waitress explained that the sous-chef, Pedro Benitez, used to work at Gordon’s landmark restaurant. Pepper steak in red wine sauce with whipped potatoes is a winner, as is the playful dessert of chocolate croque-monsieur with hazelnut filling and warm raspberry jam. The wine list is small, and the drink list is unusual: a Scotch-loving friend was impressed that such a casual café carried six kinds of Bowmore single malts.
–D. R. W.
Charlie’s on Leavitt
4352 North Leavitt Street
Charlie Socher and his sister, Susan, have a hit with their smart-looking Lincoln Square gamble. In a surprise move away from the focused French cuisine of their fine Cafe Matou in Wicker Park, they’ve set their sights on American favorites punched up with Mariano Aguirre’s big doses of bold global flavors. For starters, oysters come bathed in lemongrass-ginger sauce with a zippy red onion relish, and grilled merguez lamb sausage teams up with herb-dressed Belgian endive and avocado. Entrées continue the international beat, and the one I never miss is the tender grilled “burnt chile” pork chop with “tres chiles” coulis, an intense blend of three kinds of Mexican chilies. The à la carte fries served in a paper cone can wave any flag they want-I can’t resist ’em. Wines run to selections from small producers such as a 2002 Australian Four Sisters Shiraz ($32) that match the chef’s striking dishes, all the way to little strawberry and pineapple tartlets with chipotle cream.
–D. R. W.