Table Fifty-Two, Takashi, Tallulah, Uncommon Ground, Zak’s Place
Let's forget for a moment that Art Smith is Oprah's former personal chef and just focus on the food at his 13 insanely popular linen-covered tables. It's not envelope-busting molecular cuisine but rather approachable modern interpretations of sturdy Southern classics. His mildly spicy crab cakes are chock-full of lump crab and graced with fennel and Georgia peanut slaw; the ancho-chile-crusted Berkshire pork chop oozes charm with Bosc pear salad and figs. He makes a 12-layer chocolate cake from a recipe that has been in the Smith family for 160 years: Count 'em, there are 12 thin layers—but it's actually white cake drenched in chocolate fudge icing. Whatever. We want more.
SHOWSTOPPER Art's buttermilk fried chicken: juicy, skinless, and boneless with a flavor-packed crust, served with roasted-garlic mashed Yukon Gold potatoes. It's available only for Sunday supper, which somehow makes it even better.
NICE TOUCHES Glasses of free Fuji bottled water are refilled often; meals begin with terrific deviled eggs and goat-cheese-and-Parmesan biscuits.
OTHER FAVORITES Low-country shrimp and grits; pan-seared catfish with cheese grits and hush puppies; hummingbird cake
ART'S SIDELINE Selling and signing his cookbooks and posing for photos with adoring patrons
GRIPE Wine list desperately needs more modestly priced options. A $50 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot d'Alsace practically qualifies as a bargain.
—D. R. W.
1952 North Damen Avenue;
When a restaurant comes out of the gate as strongly as Takashi, the complaints border on ridiculous. "That second-floor bathroom is a little too public"; "This dish is great, but he ripped it off from Shawn McClain"; "I don't like the forks"; et cetera. Takashi Yagihashi, an immensely focused chef who returned to Chicago after triumphant stands in Detroit and Las Vegas, has gotten pretty much everything right in this Bucktown brownstone. For one, his servers are polished without being stiff. It helps that the food they're bringing out is playful and inventive. The paper-thin house-smoked salmon with a garlic chive/Jerusalem artichoke galette is a brilliant homage to a lox plate; an impeccable New York strip gets a tiny rub of high-quality wasabi; and the tropical fruit brunoise is a wondrous bowl of deep-flavored lemongrass-infused broth harboring papaya, kiwi, pineapple, and passion fruit sorbet. The criticisms and praise all add up to this: Takashi is Chicago's best new restaurant, and we're shocked by how much we already like it.
SHOWSTOPPER The amazing, pillowy braised beef short rib on a Roquefort cheese spätzle with glazed pearl onion and port wine/black vinegar sauce
SMART MOVE The undesirable area under the stairs where Scylla once crammed a table is now the bar.
OTHER INSTANT CLASSICS Crisp veal sweetbreads with braised Swiss chard, roasted chestnuts, and arimasansho (Japanese green peppercorn) sauce; roasted breast and leg confit of Indiana duck with kumquat marmalade
LOVE IT OR HATE IT Wine list organized by characteristics—"Exotic and Aromatic," "Medium Weights with Muscle," "Big Boys"—instead of varietals
SURPRISE, SURPRISE Desserts, such as an impossibly creamy sheep's yogurt panna cotta served in a porcelain teacup with gooseberries, yuzu gêlée, and a green tea macaroon, are every bit as good as the rest.
Tallulah, the newest arrival to Lincoln Square's crammed restaurant scene, defies the law of diminishing returns. If anything, the imaginative, bold dishes of Troy Graves (last seen at Meritage) cement the neighborhood's rep as a dining destination. Even at a hefty seven bucks a pop, his spicy lobster deviled eggs are destined to be the signature starter. Or maybe it will be the incurably addictive buffalo tartare mixed with horseradish-maple aïoli. Lightning strikes almost every plate, from the grilled harissa-marinated jumbo prawns straight through to the delayed kick of ancho chile in the chocolate mousse cake. The only downside to this charmer is that Lincoln Square's parking problem just got worse.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE Between the crab/andouille fritters and the bulgogi-style pork belly, you might stay in appetizer mode for the whole meal.
BONUS Free BYO Tuesdays save you enough for a $6 Calvados.
NEEDS WORK Meyer lemon risotto would be a winner if the topping of slivered artichokes didn't have the texture of twigs.
PLEASE Cook the calf's liver beyond almost raw. Then the combo plate with sweetbreads, fingerling potatoes, and caramelized onions would be heaven.
CAN'T WAIT . . . to try the Tallulah Benedict with lobster on the Sunday brunch menu.
—D. R. W.
Uncommon Ground packs enough attributes into its homey Edgewater space to fill a dozen storefronts, instead of the one it occupies: classic art deco bar, cushy lounge, roaring fireplace, great craft beers, a whole page of coffees and teas, an eco-friendly design, open mic nights, weekend brunches. And Brian Millman's menu is organic, locally produced, and family farmed. But is it any good? Yes, it is. Dishes as simple as a vegetarian French onion soup with portobello mushrooms and melted Gruyère are deep-flavored and sweet, and those as hearty as brick-oven-braised short rib with organic celery root purée, wild mushrooms, and natural jus have nuanced flavors. Uncommon indeed.
SHOWSTOPPERS Duo of duck: a wonderland of duck confit, seared duck breast, braised cabbage, and crunchy Gorgonzola potatoes; buttery jumbo sea scallops with tasso ham chips, pear sauce, and heirloom squash purée
BONUS Live music includes eclectic acts like a Japanese drum band.
WHO? The terrific ice creams and gelati—such as the salty peanut gelato with the amazing warm apple cobbler—are by Black Dog Gelato's Jessica Oloroso, ID'ed by our waiter as "a lady who lives a few doors down."
TASTING NOTES Skip the overpriced wine list and focus on beer.
DEFENSE We've heard gripes that the prices are high for a neighborhood restaurant, and maybe they are. But this is not a neighborhood restaurant: It's a serious, professional place with real subtlety in the kitchen.
Not edgy but expertly executed, chef Marc Stein's food can't help but attract followers in the western suburbs. Wood paneling, mirrors bordered by burgundy curtains, and comfortable banquettes provide the right setting for good crab cakes with spicy cayenne aïoli or a dandy selection of pâtés—recently, duck, venison, pork, and pheasant. You want something light? Pan-roasted scallops with a vanilla, Key lime, and coconut sauce. Hearty? A Kansas City bone-in strip with green peppercorn and Armagnac sauce. And a moist, rich bread pudding with burnt caramel ice cream will prompt you to raise your wineglass to Zak, whoever he is.
SHOWSTOPPER Free-range chicken stuffed with prosciutto, roasted peppers, spinach, and goat cheese served with garlic mashed potatoes and broccolini
OTHER FAVORITES Steamed mussels with white wine and melted leeks; horseradish-crusted pan-roasted salmon with grainy mustard sauce; caramel mousse; grilled romaine ignited with blistering smoked chipotle ranch dressing and pico de gallo
NICE TOUCH Yamandu Perez, the GM/partner, was once sommelier at Gabriel's, and here his intelligent 300-plus bottle selection contains unusual gems like a 2005 Napa Lang & Reed cabernet franc ($50).
OK, WE'LL TELL YOU Zak is Perez's departed dog.
—D. R. W.