Habana Libre, Koda, Marigold, Mulan, Niche, Osteria Di Tramonto, Sage Grille

HABANA LIBRE
Cuban
1440 West Chicago Avenue; 312-243-3303 [$]

A quintessential ethnic storefront, Habana Libre is a spiffy Cuban spot that covers the bases as well as Minnie Minoso covered them for the Sox. With more than a dozen appetizers, eight Cuban sandwiches, plus entrées and a couple of desserts, it’s no problem putting together a homey meal. Mine always includes a bowl of soul-satisfying chicken soup and garlicky, lemony fried pork chunks with black beans and coconut flan.

PRICE KEY
¢ 
$10 to $19
$
$20 to $29
$$
$30 to $39
$$$
$40 to $49
$$$$
$50-plus
[amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

SHOWSTOPPER Papas rellenas, balls of fried breaded mashed potatoes encasing ground beef served with mango sauce

WHO GOES THERE Latinos, West Town hipsters, young guys in suits

TAKE RUM It’s BYO—you’ll have to mix your own Cuba libre.

COMFORT FOOD Five kinds of flaky-crusted empanadas (try the guava paste and cheese); yuca rellena filled with ground beef; shrimp in garlic sauce

JOLT JUICE Cuban coffee so strong you can stand a spoon in it

HINT Speak Spanish and you’ll get better service.
–D. R. W.

 

* * *

Koda Restaurant in Chicago

KODA
French
10352 South Western Avenue; 773-445-5632 [$$]

Photographs: Pete Barreras
a chef prepares a meal at Koda Restaurant

Chef Aaron Browning behind the scenes at Koda
a dish at Koda Restaurant in Chicago
The lyonnaise salad




Beverly’s not the usual destination for a corner bistro, but owners Patrick and Janice Daley took a chance on their neigh-borhood. Everest veteran Aaron Browning has locals swooning over his escargots à la bourguignonne and onion soup. The French wines are well priced, the baguettes warm and chewy, and the steak frites come with a choice of Bercy (a reduction of shallots, thyme, and white wine with veal demi-glace), blue cheese, or peppercorn sauce. Browning also excels at seafood like pan-roasted barramundi with pinot noir sauce and pulled oxtail mashed potatoes. Jean Joho should be proud.

SHOWSTOPPER Grilled shrimp on cannellini bean salad with smoky lardons and hazel vinaigrette

NICE TOUCH Carafe of water left on table

UNUSUAL DISH Two different kinds of tarte flambée (oval French-style pizza)

WHO GOES THERE Multi-culti crowd schmoozing across tables as if it’s a Beverly block party

PLEASANT SURPRISE Tuesdays, half-price wine on selected bottles; Wednesdays, half-price martinis; Thursdays, half-price flambées

OTHER FAVORITES Ratatouille/goat cheese tartlet; sautéed skate wing with caper/brown-butter sauce; softball-size double profiteroles

NEEDS WORK Temperature control. Two meat dishes arrived barely warm.
–D. R. W.

* * *

MARIGOLD
Indian
4832 North Broadway; 773-293-4653 [$$]

Close your eyes and inhale: The spicy aromas say Devon Avenue storefront, but you’re in Uptown. Sandeep Malhotra and James Dragatsis have created a sleek, modern Indian restaurant with fancy cocktails, a serious wine list, and food informed by French techniques. The formula makes for groundbreaking dishes (executed by chef Alan Giles) such as pan-roasted monkfish topped with crispy leeks on a bed of tamarind-glazed cabbage and fingerling potatoes.

SHOWSTOPPER An appetizer of Indian spiced duck leg confit with tomato chutney over tangy green beans stir-fried in a wok-like kadhai—a meal in itself

WHY “MARIGOLD” Remember Monsoon Wedding? The flower is prominently used in Indian celebrations.

WHO GOES THERE Neighborhood folk who can’t get over their good luck; Gold Coasters who don’t want to drive to Devon Avenue

ADDICTIVE SIDE Onion and date chutney

OTHER FAVORITES Garam masala–dusted grilled scallops; lamb shank vindaloo

GRIPE The puffy naan is delicious, but it’s the only Indian bread offered.
–D. R. W.

* * *

Mulan Restaurant in Chicago

MULAN
Pan-Asian
2017 South Wells Street, Chinatown Square, Level 2; 312-842-8282 [$$$]

Photographs: Pete Barreras
a chef plates food at Mulan in Chicago

Chefs plate dishes at Mulan, including a roast pork tenderloin topped with a crab dumpling.




Let’s head to Chinatown for grilled wagyu beef flavored with lemongrass and maybe seafood bouillabaisse served on glass noodles. Huh? Chef Kee Chan is sending out just such kinds of creations made with elegance and originality. Call it New American/Asian. The stylish modern setting seems equally out of place up on the second floor of Chinatown Square’s dingy east end, but after months of enduring an empty dining room, Mulan is beginning to attract the clientele it richly deserves.

SHOWSTOPPER Wild striped bass poached in spicy tomato basil soy broth with a petite salad

WHO GOES THERE Serious foodies looking for the next new sensation

NICE TOUCH The small list of wines from unexpected places like Israel and South Africa, well matched to the food

TREAD WARILY You may be repelled by the smell—or beguiled by the flavor—of the durian cream that tops the chocolate cream cake.

OTHER FAVORITES Kobe burger; maki rolls; spinach udon noodles in crab cream; grilled New Zealand elk topped with panko-crusted scallops; green tea cheesecake with panko banana fritters and wasabi syrup

IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS Tell them that the Chinese characters in the menu’s background design mean mulan, or “magnolia.”
–D. R. W.

* * *

NICHE
Contemporary American
14 South 3rd Street, Geneva; 630-262-1000 [$$$]

In 1987 executive chef and restaurateur Joel Findlay opened 302 West, in Geneva, and it quickly became a dining destination. Following Findlay’s untimely death in 2004, Jeremy Lycan became 302’s executive chef and kept the place on track. When Findlay’s widow called it quits last March, Lycan and wine director Jody Richardson regrouped most of the staff, came up with the name Niche, and moved a few doors down to a soothingly designed new space. At Niche, Lycan pays tribute to his mentor, but has also established his own style. Watch for Latin American touches such as the chorizo- and Chihuahua cheese–stuffed freeform tamale, poblano cream sauce, and mole bolstering fat grilled scallops. Never fear: the huge dessert menu from the 302 days lives on.

SHOWSTOPPER Porcini mushroom crème brûlée topped with an Asiago cheese wafer alongside sautéed honshimeji, porcini, and maitake mushrooms

NICE TOUCHES The women staff all wear silver “N” necklaces; Fancy Dan doggy boxes have a Virginia Woolf quote: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

WHO GOES THERE Old 302 West fans and Fox River valley foodies galore

OTHER FAVORITES Barramundi fillet and lobster simmered in Brazilian-style coconut milk, ginger, and peanut broth; cherry-Kirschwasser tart in butter pistachio short dough crust, topped with pistachio gelato

RAISE A GLASS Excellent selection of boutique American wines

GRIPE Some of the dishes are just too dang busy. Simplify, simplify.
–D. R. W.

* * *

Osteria Restaurant in Chicago

OSTERIA DI TRAMONTO
Italian
Westin Chicago North Shore, 601 North Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling; 847-777-6570 [$$]

Photographs: Pete Barreras
wood-smoked foccacio at Osteria Restaurant in Chicago

Tramonto and Gand enjoy some wine and pizza.




When Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand open a restaurant, people notice. When they open four in one space, people go nuts. That’s just what they’ve done in the glitzy new Westin, and everyone’s gaga for the centerpiece: the glittering, confident Osteria. The menu—full of affordable Italian treasures three meals a day—features topnotch antipasti, crudo, cheese, and a respectable pizza Margherita from a wood-fired oven. The food is good, if not terribly ambitious, but Tramonto and Gand on autopilot are still better than most chefs are at full throttle.

SHOWSTOPPER Apple crostata, a flaky handmade apple tart with a touch of caramel sauce and a scoop of vanilla gelato

NICE TOUCHES Eye-popping décor has a Vegas feel: sky-high ceiling, disco-ball details, and long exhibition kitchen.

INNOVATION Offbeat, affordable wine list includes a page dedicated to female vintners.

WHO GOES THERE Hotel guests, the entire northern suburbs

OTHER FAVORITES Pastas, such as the light orecchiette with Swiss chard, lemon broth, white beans, and gremolata, and the heavy cavatelli with tender red-wine-braised duck, stewed tomatoes, and melted Parmesan

ADDICTIVE SIDE Calabrian potatoes, a mound of crunchy, garlic-tinged wedges 

GRIPE Menu has so many different nooks and crannies and classifications, it’s hard to know how—and how much—to order. Ask your server.
–J. R.

* * *

GRILLE
Contemporary American
260 Green Bay Road, Highwood; 847-433-7005 [$$$]

Chef Greg Darrah does double duty at the handsome Sage Grille, putting out both creative contemporary dishes and exemplary steak-house standards. So if you are up for seared foie gras with a warm Alsatian tart followed by a duo of seared rabbit tenderloin and braised thigh with fava beans and garlic potato purée, you can do that. But if you are in the mood for a caesar salad and a slab of New York strip with an à la carte side of fried potatoes, more power to you.

SHOWSTOPPER Individual beef Wellington with black truffle bordelaise and forest mushrooms

GOOD VALUE Well-priced wine list

INNOVATION Serrano ham and grilled asparagus on flatbread with goat cheese, dried mission figs, and a Dijon cream sauce

WHO GOES THERE Attorneys, physicians, and other 847ers

OTHER FAVORITES Balsamic-glazed quail; Jonah crab cake with curry sauce; lemon tart with lemon sorbet and blue-berry coulis

THE QUESTION At what point will Highwood have more restaurants than residents?
–D. R. W.

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Habana Libre, Koda, Marigold, Mulan, Niche, Osteria Di Tramonto, Sage Grille


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