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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
4471 Lawn Avenue, Western Springs
|Paul Virant’s pan-seared salmon brushed with herbs and butters nestled on barley, greens, and sherry sauce|
Near the center of a suburb Norman Rockwell would have loved, chef Paul Virant serves up the good life. And he does it as naturally as possible in this French-appointed restaurant. His salad of Bibb lettuce, fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm, and avocado with a citrusy yogurt dressing makes the drive from the city worth the effort. So do dishes such as herb ricotta gnocchi with braised rabbit and salsify, and pan-roasted fluke with mustard jus de poulet on lentils with glazed root vegetables, which show the influence of Virant’s mentors (Messrs. Trotter, Joho, and Kahan). But a wood-grilled organic hanger steak with shallot confit and potatoes puréed in olive oil with Tuscan kale and Picholine olives is pure Virant-and it went well with an A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir ($33) from a list selected by Virant and Ambria’s brilliant sommelier, Bob Bansberg. The “gooey” butter cake with coconut sorbet, vanilla-roasted pineapple, and macadamia brittle could make the pastry chef, Mary Bodach, a household name.
–D. R. W.
1747 North Damen Avenue
|Milk shakes at HotChocolate (vanilla;mint and chocolate chip; stout and caramel; milk chocolate malt), with raspberry crumble, fudge brownie, and pecan pie|
This is the sharp urban café you wish were in your neighborhood. The creation of the supremely talented pastry chef, Mindy Segal, HotChocolate is an homage to desserts: even the décor comes in shades of milk and dark chocolate. And, trust me, the desserts are fantastic, bursting with intense flavors and never cloying. As she did at MK, Segal teases your inner child with productions such as a milk chocolate–malt mousse with layers of salted peanuts and caramel that’s a Snickers bar with a halo, embellished with a Reese’s takeoff. And then there’s “chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate,” Scharffen Berger fashioned into an extreme chocolate experience, and rhubarb pot pie-think cobbler-a transcendent warm compote topped with raspberry jam ice cream and garnished with lemongrass sorbet. And desserts are only the tip of the iceberg. Segal’s soul-satisfying chicken soup, extraordinarily bright goat cheese–beet salad, gently spiced steamed green curry mussels, and seared Kobe-style beef skirt steak prove she knows her way around every station of the kitchen. No reservations are taken and the crowd gets younger as the night gets older. Naturally, chocolate drinks abound, and there’s a HotChocolate martini on the menu, too.
–D. R. W.
Osteria Via Stato
620 North State Street
|Cured olives at Osteria Via Stato|
“Sit back and relax,” our waiter says. “The olives, chunks of Parmesan with balsamic vinegar, and roasted beets with orange zest are pre-antipasti. Then come four antipasti. For the pasta, we have pappardelle with meat ragù and Parmesan rigatoni with cauliflower and spinach. For your entrée you get a choice from this chalkboard.” The onslaught is awesome at this rollicking spot-the brainchild of impresario Rich Melman and his partners, executive chef Rick Tramonto (Tru) and chef-on-the-spot David DiGregorio-and second helpings are yours for the asking. All you have to choose is the entrée (no seconds here), and the whole shebang is $36 per person. After house-cured salmon, chopped radicchio salad, prosciutto, and much, much more, I could have called it a day before hearty entrées such as braised pork shank and seafood stew arrived. Desserts are $5 each; a pomegranate granita perked me up after the feast. And the “just bring me wine!” menu of Italian tastings from sommelier Belinda Chang (pick your price point and don’t be surprised by refills) are almost necessary to wash it all down.
–D. R. W.
1441 West Fullerton Avenue
I can’t stop thinking about chawan mushi. No, that’s not the latest Asian starlet, although just as alluring. Usually, it’s egg custard. Here at Tsuki, it’s three saké cups filled with steamed egg and scallop custard-one topped with tiny mushrooms and salmon roe, one with shrimp, and one with crab. Entrancing. The chef, Toyoji Hemmi, presents elegant interpretations of Japanese cuisine at the frosted-glass sushi bar and at high-backed secluded booths with copper tables. Hamachi kama-grilled yellowtail cheek served still attached-is fabulously strange. Go on a weekend when Tsuki has specials just flown in from Japan, and you’ll find more exotica, such as a platter of aji (horse mackerel) sashimi served in three styles: traditional, a thicker cut topped with grated ginger on an ohba leaf, and a chopped mound mixed with red miso. When you finish, the bare bones are taken back to the kitchen and deep-fried crisp so you can eat the whole fish.
–D. R. W.
1625 Hinman Avenue, Evanston
|Trio Atelier staff Jin Ahn, Lennie Dietsch, and Mike Adaniya|
Innovative owner Henry Adaniya-looking dapper patrolling the room in his suit and spiky hairstyle-is in the groove again at his reborn Trio space. It’s easier to swallow the highfalutin “Atelier Artistic Vision” menu spiel now that the creative cooking of the chef, Dale Levitski, has become so polished (even the formerly disorganized service has smoothed out). My hands-down favorite small course is rillettes of potted rabbit, pork, and duck, and a fine savory-sweet medium course is a Parmesan cheesecake made with grape focaccia and pine nuts flavored with rosemary. The large course of grilled venison loin with a fruity, spicy “glögg” sauce and cauliflower-chestnut purée is completely original, and it scores-so does the pear tart with brown butter sauce and almonds from the gifted pastry chef, Mary McMahon. Avoid the too-cute lab flasks used as small carafes, and order a bottle of supple Red X from Napa Valley’s X Winery ($39) instead. I don’t even notice the peculiar décor-stacks of salt bags, intentionally unfinished floors, and ragged looking ceilings-when I dine this fine.
–D. R. W.