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Best New Restaurants 2006

Best Restaurants | Best of the Best | Q & A with Best Chef Michael Carlson

 

It’s been a year of sensational food at oddly named places. The best new restaurant in town, Grant Achatz’s Alinea, borrows its name from a character used in medieval European writing to signal a new train of thought; best new chef Michael Carlson performs his culinary magic at Schwa, the word for an unstressed vowel; and Copperblue—which came up with the best new dish—is also the title of a rock album. Two New York restaurants opened successful siblings, Il Mulino New York and Blue Water Grill, while our two biggest restaurant empires, Lettuce Entertain You and Levy Restaurants, showed they still have the right stuff, with Di Pescara and Fulton’s on the River. The sprawling Mia Francesca family has another winner in Francesca’s Forno, and chef Shawn McClain extends his takeover of the major food groups with Custom House, a carnivore’s dream. These terrific spots plus more than a dozen others equal 26 reasons why Chicago stays at the top of the food chain as a great restaurant city.

(Above) The only place comfortable enough for a 21-course meal: Alinea’s cushy environs
(Below) Alinea’s radish with pine nut, balsamic, and olive oil

Alinea
1723 North Halsted Street; 312-867-0110
Progressive American
[$$$$]
Calling Alinea a restaurant is like referring to a Ferrari as a car. You don’t go to Grant Achatz’s refined salons for a steak or a nice piece of fish; you go for food that has been transformed by a science-lab kitchen into dehydrated dust, edible spheres holding mysterious, delectable liquids, morsels speared on fanciful pins suspended above fragrant emulsions. And Achatz adores aromatic vapors that aren’t directly part of the food but enhance it, such as those produced by a bed of toasted juniper under sous vide bison wrapped around persimmon. Pondering his high-tech presentations and tabletop devices is as much a part of the experience as watching a Ferrari’s tachometer needle, and his tasting menus are as exhilarating and exhausting as the Grand Prix—all five hours of it.
–D. R. W.

Di Pescara
2124 Northbrook Court, Northbrook; 847-498-4321
Italian, seafood
[$$]

“We don’t do anything small,” cautions the on-the-ball waiter as I order too much food. The dishes are big enough for two at this packed spot tucked in a tony mall. A disassembled artichoke with balsamic vinaigrette and Parmesan along with panko-breaded popcorn shrimp drizzled with spicy rémoulade was plenty for four. Tilapia milanese gets a spicy sesame-almond crust topped with arugula and radishes, and the jumbo shrimp fra diavolo is first-rate. A changing braised meat might be succulent veal breast in white wine reduction. Chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream and candied figs will finish you off. The wine list sports well-priced and lesser-known selections—master sommelier Alpana Singh’s first big project as the corporate wine and spirits director for the Lettuce Entertain You operation.

–D. R. W.

(Above) Parlor’s sweet tea– brined fried chicken with a malted waffle and Vermont maple syrup
(Below) The brûléed marshmallow-meringue-topped ice-cream tart “s’more” at Parlor

Parlor
1745 West North Avenue; 773-782-9000
American
[$$]

Parlor’s trick is to offer what at first appear to be ordinary, all-American, so-called comfort food choices, and then to disarm the diner with virtuoso execution. Even such quiet-looking choices as baked-potato soup and macaroni and cheese rise happily above cliché. The juicy pan-roasted chicken breast with wilted arugula and blueberry vinaigrette makes you see this humble fowl in a whole new light. Meat loaf: same deal. Chef Tim Small’s moist, supremely flavorful version comes topped with groovy apple-onion marmalade. Best of all is the glorious double pork chop—brined, then smoked over cherry wood and served with cherry brandy sauce. A brûléed marshmallow-meringue-topped ice-cream tart, playfully called a s’more, is an elegant spin on a campfire classic. Even the short list of well-chosen, affordable wines is comfortable.
–J. T.

Butter
130 South Green Street; 312-666-9813
Contemporary American
[$$$]

This sleek, chic, and slightly precious lair promotes itself as a ladies-friendly place, from tableside purse holders to lighting designed for a tête-à-tête of any stripe. Whatever audience the place is after, Ryan Poli, the executive chef, suffered from an acute case of overexposure by the national press early on when his food didn’t match the hype. He’s made a full recovery. Take his terrific buttery risotto, for instance—mine held lots of rock shrimp with summer squash and thyme. There was no gender dispute at my table over the cod poached in olive oil and served in saffron emulsion with fennel purée and artichokes. I’m eager to return for whatever the chef is dishing up, especially if I can order the vanilla and saffron panna cotta with wild berries and crème fraîche for dessert.
–D. R. W.

Cuatro’s seviche of citrus-marinated salmon, seared bay scallops, and avocado in a tamarind-aji panca vinaigrette.

Cuatro
2030 South Wabash Avenue; 312-842-8856
Nuevo Latino
[$$]

Cuatro pushes the gentrifying action in the South Loop that much closer to Bronzeville, and it raises the bar on Latino fare. The Acapulco-style coctel vuelve a la vida brims with ahi tuna, seared shrimp, baby octopus, and squid—zingy Mexican beach chow. Chef Bryan Garcia’s banana leaf–wrapped salmon on saffron quinoa ragoût with mojo de ajo takes you farther into Latin America, as does his chicken breast stuffed with red poblanos and farmer cheese with guajillo chile sauce alongside an humita (fresh corn tamale). The mango mousse with strawberry seviche served in half of a Brazilian red papaya anchors the lovely desserts. Diners happily slosh around trendy cocktails such as 10 Cane mojitos, but I wish the service were sharper—and that Cuatro would jettison the stainless steel coffee cups. They stick to their bases and cause room-jolting saucer crashes when lifted. The pulsating soundtrack doesn’t help.
–D. R. W.

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus

 

 

Carnivale
702 West Fulton Market; 312-850-5005
Latin American
[$$$]

Kleinermania is in full bloom again. At Jerry Kleiner’s latest concept, a kaleidoscopic Nuevo Latino party room with a glassed-in display of Spanish foodstuffs, chef Mark Mendez matches cured meats and cheeses with quince paste and dried fruits. Check out the big salad of hearts of palm, watercress, pumpkinseeds, and tamarind dressing: pure pleasure. Braised short ribs with corn-and-peanut salsa and grilled skirt steak with chimichurri make lusty entrées. Run the fresh doughnuts through chocolate, cajeta (goat-milk caramel), and blueberry sauces for a final flavor blast. Of course, tropical cocktails are everywhere—the surprising horchatatini tastes like liquid rice pudding with Captain Morgan rum and B&B.
–D. R. W.

 

Meiji
623 West Randolph Street; 312-887-9999
Japanese, sushi
[$$$]

Knives flash at the glistening sushi bar as sushi chefs perfect their craft: turning supremely fresh seafood into Japanese delicacies. Executive chef Ishi flies the fish in from Japan—and grates his own wasabi. Naturally, the nigiri is splendid. Haru, a signature maki made with three kinds of fish, crab, and avocado wrapped in cucumber and topped with sunomono dressing, is a delicious offering, while cold Umenishiki saké is a bracing accessory ($32/carafe). For zensai (appetizers) try the age dashi of shrimp, rice cake, and asparagus wrapped in a soybean sheet with sweet tempura sauce. It’s likely you will have room only to share the savory sabaku beef—strip loin with wasabi cilantro sauce served with mint-flavored shiitakes and asparagus tempura—but fight with all your power for your half before a final mochi or two.
–D. R. W.

Fulton’s on the River
315 North LaSalle Street; 312-822-0100
Seafood, steaks
[$$$$]

Last fall, Chris Harter, president of the Levy Restaurant Group, told us that Fulton’s executive chef, Mark Mavrantonis, “knows more about oysters than anyone ever. He is going to put together the best oyster program in the country.” He just might have. Fulton’s, an urban face-lift of the sprawling loft space that formerly housed Bob Chinn’s Crabhouse Chicago, has an assemblage of the best oysters I’ve had in many a tide. But if you’re not into raw oysters, it’s OK: there are deviled eggs drizzled with truffle oil and topped with domestic osetra caviar, and a pretty good sushi bar matched by vibrant wines such as a 2004 Ferrari-Carano Sonoma County fumé blanc ($40). The steaks are expensive but cooked right; and fish aficionados will like the topnotch Parmesan-crusted fluke with lemon caper butter or a luxurious shellfish pot pie. And retro-trendy “s’mores” also take the form of a pie.
–D. R. W.

Mrs. Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro
3905 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-248-3905
Contemporary Irish
[$$]

This handsomely redone funeral parlor looks like an Irish pub that swallowed a French bistro. A big U-shaped bar stocked with scads of Irish whiskeys welcomes imbibers, and comfy banquettes with dark wood tables beckon diners. The executive chef, Jeanne Carlson, uses Irish dairy products: butter for terrific brown soda bread, organic Irish white Cheddar for a take on French onion soup made with Guinness, and Irish cream in bread pudding. Monkfish wrapped in crispy pancetta with cauliflower gratin makes a strong case for modern Irish cuisine, while lamb dishes cover the British Isles, from a hearty shepherd’s pie to elegant grilled lamb chops with rosemary onion jus and wild mushroom bread pudding. Either is perfect with a glass of Scottish Old Engine Oil ale.
–D. R. W.

Michael
64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka; 847-441-3100
Country French
[$$$]

A devout disciple of that old-time religion—haute cuisine—Michael Lachowicz cares nothing for restraint. Culinarily he scores with treats fit for Louis XIV’s 21st-century North Shore equivalents. A lengthy wine list includes “library wines” with prices that reach quadruple digits. Foie gras is seared to perfection, sided with strudel and awash with buttered rum fig sauce. Silky-textured lobster ravioli come paired with a plump, orange-dusted sea scallop in sweet curry sauce. Pretty fish, fowl, and game preps often come in “duos”—roasted duck and squab breast, Atlantic wild salmon and escolar, for example. All come with well-chosen, flavorful sauces. The behind-the-scenes chaos sometimes spills over into the dining room in the form of discombobulated or pretentious servers and, on one recent occasion, profane outbursts issuing loudly from the kitchen. Nothing haute about that.
–J. T.

Schwa
1466 North Ashland Avenue; 773-252-1466
Contemporary American
[$$$$]

This tiny, minimalist-to-the-max charmer combines the virtues and quirks of your favorite neighborhood storefront restaurant (decent parking; a single restroom, reached through the kitchen; a BYO policy) with serious, superbly inventive cooking. The chef/proprietor, Michael Carlson, wows with tasty stunts such as a flash-fried, brioche-crumbed soft-boiled egg and an astonishingly simple yet profound prosciutto consommé with melon. Even the amuse-bouches knock your socks off—we were taken with the tiny tumblers of sunchoke purée topped with raspberry gel. Among entrées, if you see white truffle tagliatelle on the menu, go for it. Ditto on the inspired, fennel-cured pork belly/tenderloin entrée, a triumph of meaty flavor and texture. Desserts don’t fly as high, but it hardly matters.
–J. T.

Pancho Viti’s Mexican Cantina
431 Temple Avenue, Highland Park; 847-433-5550
Mexican
[$]

For sheer fun, the funky setting of this boisterous North Shore cantina scores high. You half expect to see a certain lanky, cheroot-smoking cowboy wearing a dusty serape and a dangerous mien at the next table, or, at least, restaurant impresario Gabriel Viti working the room with a bandoleer strapped on over his chef whites. But it’s all in good fun, and the honest Mexican grub listed on the place-mat menus is well made and the excellent waitstaff know their way around the list of premium tequilas. Fish seviche tostadas, chimichangas, and chorizo tacos are great starts. Marinated skirt steak smothered in grilled onions or camarones al mojo de ajo (jumbo shrimp swathed in caramelized garlic sauce) followed by a hunk of Mexican bread pudding with pecans, raisins, and coconut in white peach sauce won’t set you back a fistful of dollars.
–D. R. W.

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus


Sola
3868 North Lincoln Avenue (entrance off Byron Street); 773-327-3868
Contemporary American
[$$]

The chef/owner, Carol Wallack, over from Deleece, takes a Hawaiian and Asian perspective on American cooking. Sola is a sleek and noisy bi-level space done in shades of brown, beige, and ocher—down to the brown butcher paper on cream-colored tablecloths. Waiters are sharp in describing the tasty trio of tuna tartares accompanied by ginger confit and Thai cucumber salsa. Purely Western and simply delicious, puffy artichoke fritters come with a soy dipping sauce and white truffle honey aïoli. Wallack grows mangoes, pineapples, and bananas in the backyard of her home in Hawaii, so watch for fresh fish paired with those fruits. The braised short ribs rock, but even better is the five-spice duck breast with brandied cherry ginger demi-glace, wonderfully matched by a complex 2002 d’Arenberg Footbolt Australian Shiraz ($38). Mainland American flavors come to the foreground in a fine pecan molasses cake with bourbon caramel, pecan brittle, and buttermilk ice cream.
–D. R. W.

Mizu
315-317 West North Avenue; 312-951-8883
Japanese
[$$]

This glamorous double storefront in Old Town has more than high-quality sushi and sashimi going for it. Its more unusual specialty is yakitori, or skewers, of grilled beef, fish, poultry, and mushrooms, and they couldn’t be a better prelude to raw fish. More delicate than Thai satay, and served with soy-based sauces, hot mustard, salt, pepper, and seven spices rather than with peanut sauce, they’re offered in two-bite portions so diners can try many kinds. We especially liked the juicy dark-meat chicken version, the stuffed mushrooms, and the scallops. Exploring other parts of the menu, we encountered a remarkable mushroom sumashi soup, its heady broth chock-full of oyster, shiitake, eringi, and enoki mushrooms. We also dug the tuna tataki, a glistening slab of barely seared fish encrusted with sesame seeds and black peppercorns, served cold. Gracious servers patiently answer questions about anything the least bit unfamiliar. (At press time, Mizu was BYO.)
–J. T.

Emilio’s Sunflower Bistro
30 South La Grange Road, La Grange; 708-588-9890
American bistro
[$$]

As the rest of the dining world flocks to small plates, tapas king Emilio Gervilla has segued, countertrendily, into large-plate cookery. Good for him, and good for La Grange’s bustling business district, where his Sunflower Bistro attracts crowds with its wide-ranging menu of pan-cultural specialties. Strong starters include asparagus and truffle ravioli in a delicate garlic Brie sauce, East and West Coast oysters, and a de-skewered pork tenderloin brochette with apples, parsnips, and sherry aïoli. Among entrées, we especially liked the pan-roasted duck breast with wild rice and a sauce of balsamic vinegar and dried cherries. And our pan-seared cavatelli—tossed in white wine/rosemary cream sauce with Jerusalem artichokes and topped with Italian sausage—was blissful. For dessert, cheeses are a bargain at four for $10.95, nicely accessorized with walnuts, honeycomb, crackers, and seasonal fruits and jams.
–J. T.

 

 

Copperblue’s lobster poached in beurre monte paired with whitefish roulade and warm caviar gelée is Chicago’s best new dish.

Copperblue
Lake Point Tower, 505 North Lake Shore Drive (enter off Illinois Street); 312-527-1200
French, Mediterranean
[$$$$]

Named after a rock album, this hard-to-find haven serves up sophisticated, often exotic Mediterranean fare. Amid luxurious appointments, the talents of chefs Michael Tsonton and Victor Newgren impress with a starter of ravioli filled with braised veal and mostarda di Cremona (candied fruit flavored with mustard oil) alongside grilled veal kidney with pancetta cream. A North African take on bistro duck features breast with foie gras–black pepper foam and confit leg seasoned with ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mixture that often includes orris root—which is considered by many to be an aphrodisiac. It was a turn-on with a spicy 2001 Ferrand Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($54). But the knockout dish here—or anywhere—is lobster poached in rue-scented beurre monte (an aromatic Mediterranean herb added to stabilized butter) paired with herb-filled whitefish roulade and warm caviar gelée. We finished with passion fruit bombe and vanilla Bavarian on kiwi with chardonnay sauce—an apt ending for a beguiling dinner.
–D. R. W.

Custom House
500 South Dearborn Street; 312-523-0200
Contemporary American
[$$$$]

Talented chef and entrepreneurial restaurateur Shawn McClain is three for three. His seafood-focused Spring made our 2002 list of the best new restaurants, and McClain scored with us again in 2005 with the vegetable-oriented Green Zebra. Now he’s added to his growing empire with Custom House—a restaurant for diners after serious red meat. And that’s exactly what McClain and his chef de cuisine Richard Camarota are turning out for Printers’ Row diners in a bustling exhibition kitchen off a sleek dining room framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. The historic neighborhood used to be called the Custom House Levee District, and cocktails with monikers like Mickey Finn evoke the area’s former reputation as a red-light district. But there’s nothing disreputable about starters such as roasted quail next to a terrific onion beignet or a fine beef tartare with quail eggs. Ditto the entrée of dry-aged New York strip served with a cup of creamed spinach (really a savory soup), and the equally meaty braised short ribs that come with stellar horseradish crème fraîche puffs. For a winning dessert, order the rhubarb upside-down cake with ginger ice cream and caramel sauce.
–D. R. W.

Blue Water Grill
520 North Dearborn Street; 312-777-1400
Seafood
[$$$$]

When this Manhattan seafooder dropped anchor in Chicago last spring, it seemed to be treading water, but under the new executive chef, Mark Chmielewski, the kitchen has found its sea legs. Mahi-mahi with sweet potato purée and caramelized root vegetables justifies its inclusion in the “simply grilled fish” section of the menu; seared sea scallops get a beefy boost with red-wine-braised oxtail and wonderful lemon gnocchi. Oddly, the sushi bar has also improved, although it’s the same sushi chef, Hiroshi Takaishi. Now I look forward to delights like big eye tuna sashimi prettily arranged with apple slices, mint, ginger, and green tea salt. A lovely 2004 Loire Fouassier ‘Clos Paradis’ Sancerre ($48) also makes for smooth sailing. Even desserts taste better thanks to sweets such as the pear crostata with lemongrass-basil ice cream.
–D. R. W.

Duck, seared tuna, and beef with pommes frites and truffle aïoli: burgers and fries, May Street Market–style.

May Street Market
1132 West Grand Avenue; 312-421-5547
Seasonal American
[$$$]

Not a market and not even, officially, on May Street (it’s the side street), this oddly named but usually polished spot gives more than lip service to the idea of supporting regional producers and sustainable farming practices. Chef Alex Cheswick’s dishes are unabashed homages to their impeccably credentialed ingredients. Lemongrass carrot soup sided with a generous heap of steamed black mussels makes a bright start to a meal. Forest mushroom velouté (roux-thickened white sauce) is more mellow but equally pleasing; the adorable hedgehog mushrooms on its accompanying arugula salad were a new one on us. Zesty entrées included, on our visits, a straight-ahead flatiron steak with grilled buffalo sausage, forest mushrooms, and Pecorino Romano polenta, and superb sautéed walleye pike with beluga (black) lentils. Everything’s as pretty as can be—when we saw the chocolate fondant dessert, with its puddle of passion-fruit sauce flecked with pomegranate seeds, we thought we’d like pillowcases in that pattern. Service can crumble under pressure, especially on weekends.
–J. T.

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus


Block 44
4365 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-868-4404
Contemporary American
[$$]

Good riddance to the goofy, glowing, color-shifting bar. This corner spot, just off Lincoln Square, formerly Acqualina, has been warmed up with a mahogany bar, rich red walls, and comfortable chocolate-hued banquettes and chairs. The owner, Brian Storey, plays on the address with the name of his restaurant and with a four-course prix fixe “44 menu” of smaller portions and four half glasses of matching wines ($44). It’s a good deal, but the regular menu is fine in its own right. Short rib is the new darling appetizer and the version here by chef Rick Spiros—tender pulled meat in veal reduction with potato and goat cheese gratin—is one of the best. Grilled salmon comes with leek risotto and a lemon dill fondue sauce so delicious you’ll scrape up every last drop. Seared duck breast in port and tarragon gastrique with fig compote sports an equally delicious sidekick of corn and scallion cake, enhanced by a smooth red 2003 Lyeth Sonoma County Meritage ($36). Before leaving this new spin on the block, have a lovely bread pudding with sherry crème anglaise and chopped pineapple.
–D. R. W.

Sushi Ai
710 West Euclid Avenue, Palatine; 847-221-5100
Japanese, sushi
[$$]

Another strip mall sushi joint. Yawn, you say. Not so fast. Co-owners Andy Park (Starfish) and David Yi have outfitted this pretty spot with cozy booths and comfy banquettes and turned it into a raw-fish gem with good grill options to boot. You could delve into the big menu from the sushi bar over many visits without exhausting it: besides fine nigiri and a glamorous-looking sashimi platter, there are more than 40 maki choices, from simple classics to complex creations like the black light—a roll of blue crab and black rice over tuna and super white tuna with red and white miso. A highlight appetizer, the flaming dragon, is soft-shell crab, eel, and asparagus wrapped with tuna, splashed with chili sauce, and flamed at the table with Bacardi 151. The fire dies down quickly and there are fine sakés to quench the spice. From the grill, a Dijon-marinated and charbroiled veal chop with blackberry sauce shows off the kitchen’s prowess with more Western flavors. BTW: The name means “sushi love.” Works for me.
–D. R. W.

Francesca’s Forno
1576 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773-770-0184
Italian
[$]

With the successful Francesca famiglia behind it, Francesca’s Forno hit the ground running when it opened at the epicenter of hipster heaven, Bucktown/Wicker Park, last summer. We admire how the cozy-kitchen décor, on-the-ball servers, and confident cookery, much of it done in a wood-fired oven, arrived with the kinks worked out ahead of time. Terrific antipasti might include carciofi alla romano (a lemony slaw made with fresh artichokes) and fluffy ricotta hand-dipped in acacia honey. We were also impressed with the way-fresh carpaccio, the casually perfect pizzas, and every pasta dish we tried, especially the “naked ravioli”—rich ricotta-and-spinach gnocchi inflected with sage. For dessert, mascarpone and dates made us forget all about tiramisù, with no regrets. Mostly Italian wines, with many bottles under $40.
–J. T.

Saltaus
1350 West Randolph Street; 312-455-1919
Contemporary American
[$$$]

Minimalism at its finest, this glass-walled haven is a handsome makeover of an early 20th-century corned beef factory that boasts a wall of backlit brushed acrylic wine shelves and late-night hours. Chef Brad Phillips infuses his contemporary stylings with Middle Eastern and Asian flavors, starting with a global dim sum mix that includes a fine vegetable spring roll and a lamb turnover with yogurt sauce. The wild striped bass in lemongrass broth with braised artichokes, hearts of palm, and watercress is a delightfully lighter alternative to the indulgent braised veal cheeks with roasted sunchokes, almonds, and picholine olives, whose richness was subdued by a 2002 David Bruce zinfandel ($42). The chocolate hazelnut cake with vanilla ice cream was more brownie than cake, but so good, I won’t quibble.
–D. R. W.

A rare quiet moment: bartender Lauren Blalock at Landmark.

Landmark
1633 North Halsted Street; 312-587-1600
Contemporary American
[$$$]

Landmark’s dramatic décor and ambitious menu are bringing some real night-on-the-town glamour to Steppenwolf/Royal George territory. Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, the team that brought us Boka (just up the block), are behind this vast and swanky place, and it looks like another hit. We loved everything from an appetizer of seared Maine scallops with escabeche sauce to a resonant mushroom risotto to an inspired pairing of grilled Alaskan halibut with spring vegetables and a warm pancetta vinaigrette. And we were glad we went for broke with the grilled tournedos of beef and cheesy potatoes; cabernet sauvignon sauce provided the perfect grace note. Keep an eye out for the moist carrot cake sandwiched around cinnamon ice cream—it’s a showstopper. And the list of “50 Under $50” bottles of wine is an excellent idea.
–J. T.

La Casa Del Gordo
2104 First Street, Highland Park; 847-266-1411
Mexican
[$$]

The “Fat Man’s House” has plenty of room for you and your amigos. The owners, Gerry and Steve Geffen (the father-and-son team behind Once Upon A Bagel and Once Upon A Grill), have relocated and reinvented their original cantina in a larger space with a full bar and a newly sophisticated menu. Unlikely as it sounds, authentic Mexican touches are everywhere, from the dazzling custom tile work on the bar and in the bathroom sinks to painted pottery serving pieces. As for the food, the Geffens flew in Florencia Nava (their general manager’s mother) from Huitzuco, Mexico, to create dishes with chef Fructoso Sandoval. Great idea. I loved the spicy Acapulco-style jumbo shrimp cocktail and the thick quesadillas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and squash blossoms on tomatillo sauce. Mexican pizza has always struck me as a bad idea, but that was before Gordo’s grilled steak pizza with chipotle barbecue sauce served with guacamole and sour cream came into my life. Main courses excel, especially garlic-marinated grilled scallops and asparagus on poblano cream sauce and a robust “rico suave” grilled hanger steak marinated in chile ancho sauce, topped with grilled knob onions, and served with chipotle mashed potatoes. Try the Lover’s Margarita, made with pomegranate juice—perfect for shared sipping.
–D. R. W.

(Above) Il Mulino New York: The Manhattan legend eases into the Gold Coast.
(Below) Scampi alla romana of jumbo shrimp, white wine sauce, fontina cheese, and spinach.

Il Mulino New York
1150 North Dearborn Street; 312-440-8888
Itallian
[$$$$]

No mistaking the pedigree of this cost-and-calories-be-damned newcomer. The quarter-century-old original has long been one of the most esteemed Italian restaurants in Manhattan. The owners, brothers Fernando and Gino Masci, made a brilliant move by snagging the old Biggs mansion for their Chicago venture, where it immediately took on a time warp Italian patina, and the overly solicitous waiters look just right. It’s old-school Italian to a T, with an emphasis on the garlicky, rich dishes of the Abruzzo region. Meals begin with a swarm of complimentary antipasti of Parmesan shaved directly from the wheel, bruschetta, black mussels, house-made salume, and more. After that, the thought of porcini-filled ravioli with black truffle Champagne sauce, langostini with excellent risotto, or a $50 double cut veal chop may sound utterly ridiculous. It’s not. The most spectacular entrée is the $48 branzino, an Italian sea bass stuffed with rosemary and garlic and baked in a thick crust of Sicilian sea salt; it’s brought to the table for your admiration and then whisked away for a quick fillet job. The Italian wines are as good as they are pricey. So far, it’s been easier to snare a Chicago reservation than a New York one, but we imagine that gap is shrinking by the second.
–D. R. W.

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus

 

Photography by Nathan Kirkman

 

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