Aigre Doux, Blu Coral, Chalkboard, Chiyo, DeLaCosta, Erba, Ginger Asian BistroAIGRE DOUX
230 West Kinzie Street; 312-329-9400 [$$$]
Aigre Doux is this year’s red-hot River North dining destination. Restaurant veterans Mohammad Islam and his wife, Malika Ameen, remodeled the old Pili.Pili space with Brazilian cherrywood slats and copies of original Edison soft-glow light bulbs—where they cook in the mighty shadow of the Merchandise Mart. Exec chef Islam has a light, deft hand on contemporary cooking, jazzing his maple-glazed duck breast and duck sausage with cardamom and cinnamon spiced jus, while pastry chef Ameen has already made her mark with sticky toffee pudding. Aigre Doux is a smart introduction to Chicago’s newest culinary “It” couple.
SHOWSTOPPER House-made focaccia
OTHER FAVORITES Braised artichoke soup; hamachi and avocado salad with brûléed yuzu
BIGGEST SURPRISE A terrific red wine from Lebanon, the 2004 Massaya classic from Bekaa Valley ($36)
TWO-FER Bakery/café under the same roof
WHO GOES THERE Opening-night scenesters
CONUNDRUM Despite having the best waiter in town (see Q & A), service in the front of the house needs work.
MORE THAN WE WANTED TO KNOW Manager told us that the Niman Ranch meat for the excellent ham-burger was from an unneutered 17-month-old male calf.
–D. R. W.
* * *
6320 South Route 53, Suite 100, Main Street at Seven Bridges, Woodridge; 630-719-8808 [$$]
In the unfinished, upscale Seven Bridges shopping plaza, David Yi and Andy Park’s glowing ocean-blue sushi lounge delivers fishy goodies galore. The sushi bar chefs can take you from fatty yellowtail nigiri to “snake eye” maki of freshwater eel over snow crab, while waitresses ply you with fine sakés. And the 7,600-square-foot space’s slick lounge area has its own late-night martini scene. (City dwellers: another Blu Coral recently opened in Bucktown.)
RAW SHOWSTOPPER California sunset maki, a gorgeous, aptly named circle of salmon and salmon roe over snow crab meat with sweet miso sauce
COOKED SHOWSTOPPER Short ribs braised in soy saké ginseng with caramelized onion
INNOVATION “Dynamite in shell,” scallop shells filled with chopped scallops, green and red peppers, and chili sauce, topped with quail eggs
WHO GOES THERE The post-movie crowd
MOST UNEXPECTED DETAIL A charming Brazilian waitress
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR Ask for the off-menu tamago (omelet nigiri), intricately carved and tucked under a band of nori.
–D. R. W.
* * *
4343 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-477-7144 [$$]
“I eat here. My wife eats here. My baby eats here,” says chef-owner Gilbert Langlois, who moved into the apartment above this comfy Lincoln Square storefront. He’s not kidding. On one of our visits, Langlois was holding his daughter while taking reservations at the host stand. The casual vibe works, and the room is usually packed, its tables loaded with crowd-pleasers like a grilled brioche and blue cheese sandwich with roasted tomato bisque and fennel salad.
SHOWSTOPPER Cast-iron skillet pork tenderloin with apple-cider-creamed corn and fingerling potato/celery salad
INNOVATION Menu includes chef’s personal notes about each dish and the reason it appears on the menu.
WHO GOES THERE Hipsters, families, hipster families
WHO MAKES THE PASTA Langlois’s mom
OTHER FAVORITES Wild-caught-crab cakes with mustard sauce; fried chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes, collard greens, and white sausage gravy
BEST RECOMMENDATION Our waiter suggested the rich mac and cheese with smoked Gouda as a side for the table rather than an appetizer.
GRIPES Too noisy; desserts not yet up to snuff
* * *
DE LA COSTA
465 East Illinois Street; 312-464-1700 [$$$]
Douglas Rodriguez brings his New York Patria-style Nuevo Latino cooking to the River East Art Center in an oh-so-flashy harlequin-motif setting. Most of the plates are small, but many of the flavors are big, as in the seviche bar’s Ecuadorian white shrimp seviche with charred tomato sauce, avocado, and a side of corn nuts. The scene is as much glitzy nightclub as restaurant, with poptails (fruity martinis with Popsicle garnishes) and muddled drinks like mojitos from a special “muddle bar.”
SHOWSTOPPER Chocolate mousse cigar with edible ashes and a cookie-candy matchbook
WHO GOES THERE The same scenester crowd that hung out at SushiSamba Rio and Japonais when they opened
PARTY-HEARTY TOUCH Riverside solarium with four cabanas, each with its own bar and bartender
OTHER FAVORITES Chorizo in a blanket, cocktail-size sausages wrapped in corn arepas with anise and green olive tapenade; guava molasses lamb ribs with vigorón, a Nicaraguan pickled cabbage relish
GRIPE Some of the tables are so dimly illuminated that seeing the food is a strain.
THE QUESTION Will DeLaCosta survive when the next hot thing opens and the trend-followers move on?
–D. R. W.
* * *
3800 West Lawrence Avenue; 773-267-1555 [$$$$]
The ultimate hidden gem, Chiyo quietly churns out Chicago’s best Japanese food from an Albany Park storefront that looks (from the outside, anyway) like any other Albany Park storefront. A sleek makeover of Matsumoto, Chiyo is “real” Japanese food. Dishes revolve around things like lotus root and monkfish liver, so you’ve often got to open your mind before you open your mouth—but chef-owner Isao Tozuka is a stickler for freshness, flying in wagyu beef from Japan to his often-empty room. It’s the best restaurant you’ve never heard of.
SHOWSTOPPER Kobe beef sukiyaki, cooked on a burner at your table
NICE TOUCHES Serious saké list; helpful hints for Japanese-food novices
INNOVATIONS Chef Tozuka makes his own soy sauce in house.
WHO GOES THERE White Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, food bloggers
OTHER FAVORITES Tatsuta-age, delicate deep-fried marinated chicken; perfectly breaded pork tonkatsu; green tea anmitsu, a small glass housing Jell-O, ice cream, red bean paste, and a creamy rice cake steeped in juice
GRIPE Gracious servers have one blind spot: they seem never to refill water glasses.
THE QUESTION How long can it continue to operate at this level before the secret gets out—or it goes belly-up?
* * *
4520 North Lincoln Avenue; 773-989-4200 [$]
There are plenty of cozy Italian restaurants where the food is brawny and everyone is happy, but few display as much skill as Erba. Executive chef Alan Pirhofer churns out inventive dishes such as a potato-wrapped Atlantic salmon with slow-roasted fennel and broken blood-orange oil, and homemade pastas with a sense of adventure. Even desserts—flaky apple crostata, airy ricotta cheesecake—are terrific. As if Lincoln Square didn’t already have an embarrassment of riches.
SHOWSTOPPER Pappardelle with spicy house-made sausage chunks, sweet peppers, and escarole
NICE TOUCHES Terrific service; amusing menu (“discombobulated pasta”?)
INNOVATION The 15-seat patio doubles as an herb garden.
WHO GOES THERE First dates, big parties, neighbors
PLEASANT SURPRISE The owners have fulfilled their promise to keep most entrées under $20. We feasted and took two ridiculously large bags of leftovers, which lasted days.
OTHER FAVORITES Erba crespelli with chunks of Maine lobster and blood-orange vanilla butter sauce; bone-in double pork chop with caramelized “Michigan.org apples” and potato cakes
GRIPE Still no reservations? Come on.
* * *
GINGER ASIAN BISTRO
15700 South Harlem Avenue, Orland Park; 708-633-1818 [$$]
Asian fusion often fizzles, but this place sizzles. It looks like an upscale coffee shop, but never mind: when the food of Kelvin Cheung—the son of Eddy Cheung, owner of Phoenix in Chinatown—comes to the table, palates snap to attention. The flavors of Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan mingle with Western conceits in spicy Korean buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese dip, panko-crusted crab cake with Thai green curry and spicy rémoulade, and coffee-braised Japanese-spiced baby back ribs.
SHOWSTOPPER Juicy pan-roasted pork chop with black bean sauce, taro root latkes (pancakes), and braised napa cabbage
OTHER FAVORITES Sesame/soy-glazed sirloin rolled with enoki mushrooms and scallions; lavender panna cotta with boba (giant tapioca)
WHO GOES THERE South suburbanites excited about fusion
NICE TOUCH Unexpected, well-matched wines like a 2005 South African Fairview Pinotage ($38)
ADDICTIVE SIDE Szechwan green beans
–D. R. W.
Aigre Doux, Blu Coral, Chalkboard, Chiyo, DeLaCosta, Erba, Ginger Asian Bistro
Habana Libre, Koda, Marigold, Mulan, Niche, Osteria Di Tramonto, Sage Grille
Sam & Harry's, Sequel, Sol de Mexico, Tay Do, Tepatulco, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood, Xel-Há
Rest of the Best - Wine Bars, One-Dish Wonders, New & Notable, What's Hot & Not
Q&A with Rich Dyer, a Great Waiter
On the Radar