The Gage, La Casa De Isaac, Maijean, Old Town Brasserie, Otom

PRICE KEY
$
$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]

LA CASA DE ISAAC
MEXICAN
431 Temple Avenue, Highland Park;
847-433-5550 [$]

What, no pork or shrimp on a Mexican menu? The Isaac who runs this casa, Isaac Nava, may be from Guerrero, but he's also Jewish. He closes up shop from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday so he can keep the Sabbath. He also cooks his mother's recipes—in fact, he brought her from Mexico to help out—and the fine mole poblano comes from his sister-in-law. Start with vegetarian picaditas estilo Huitzuco—masa boats layered with red or green salsa, sour cream, onion, and fresco cheese. If you're feeling traditional, order the chiles rellenos or classic tampiqueña—broiled skirt steak served with an enchilada. Isaac's casa is the new darling of the North Shore.

SHOWSTOPPER Salmon enchiladas with chopped grilled salmon and green tomatillo salsa

WHAT'S A MUSHROOM LIKE YOU DOING IN A FONDUE LIKE THIS? Up the ante on queso fundido with a version that adds portobellos to a pot of bubbling white cheese and poblano strips to be eaten with tortillas.

NICE TOUCH High-energy Isaac is everywhere: mixing margaritas, pouring Vida Blanco tequila, and shaking hands with regulars.

NICE TRY Sorry, but pozole without pork is just chicken and hominy soup.

 

MAIJEAN
FRENCH
30 South Prospect Avenue, Clarendon Hills;
630-794-8900 [$$$]

Chef/owner Nadia Tilkian's comfortable art nouveau bistro is named after her grandmother, and it's obvious the lady would have approved. Maijean brings traditional French and slightly eclectic cooking to a lovely suburb, and locals have welcomed it with open arms and eager bellies. Instant gratification arrives with savory rabbit and chicken liver pâtés alongside pork rillettes, and with citrus-crusted seared scallops on fennel-citrus broth. Entrées can be as classic as a creamy blanquette of veal or as creative as spice-rubbed duck breast with smoked shallot sauce. And that peanut butter bombe will bring out the inner Reese's-loving child in you.

SHOWSTOPPER You don't see coq au vin too much these days, but Maijean's is authentic, picture-perfect, and delicious.

OTHER FAVORITES Warm Pont L'Évêque cheese and baby frisée salad; salmon carpaccio with cucumbers and radishes in chili broth; sautéed calf's liver with crisp onions, smashed potatoes, and sherry sauce

MISSING IN ACTION The hazelnut flavor in the warm hazelnut cake

GRIPE When asked if there was a cocktail list, the waiter said no. An hour later the dessert menu arrived bound with a two-page list of martinis and cocktails.

 


Coconut Soufflé

OLD TOWN BRASSERIE
FRENCH
1209 North Wells Street;
312-943-3000 [$$$]

If you enter this handsomely outfitted restaurant expecting unfussy brasserie fare, you'll be disappointed. That's because you are about to be regaled with near-haute creations by star chef Roland Liccioni (Le Français, Les Nomades). Grin and bear it. Liccioni is a master of terrines, like his appetizer house-smoked salmon wrapped around king crab and seared salmon with dill sauce. His Vietnamese roots show up in lobster ravioli with poached shrimp and lightly pickled cucumber salad with a Vietnamese-spiced foam. Sautéed loup de mer delights on wild rice sauce blanquette, and a duo of roasted rack of lamb and Kobe beef fillet with a spicy sauce merguez and ratatouille finished with marinated shallots and pine nuts is stellar.

SHOWSTOPPER Any dessert soufflé—chocolate, hazelnut, coconut, or Grand Marnier—will be magnifique.

OTHER FAVORITES Artichoke and hearts of palm terrine; duck consommé with truffle ravioli; oil-poached lobster and seared scallop in lobster sauce; chocolate and mixed berry tart

HINT Look to "This Evening's Wine Offerings" for a selection of 20 bottles under $40.

GRIPE Arriving on time for our reservation, we stood around until someone finally noticed us: the coat-check person.

 

OTOM
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN
951 West Fulton Market Street;
312-491-5804 [$$$]

Are the chemistry and physics experiments at Moto too precious for you? Then try its sibling Otom (clever name, pronounced "autumn") a few doors down, where the former Moto sous-chef Daryl Nash uses a bit of molecular gastronomy sensibility to good effect with comfort food. It's a cool space—bright stripes, exposed brick, and purse hooks on the tables. But the menu is equally cool, with standouts like a cast-iron pot of macaroni and cheese with truffled white Cheddar and double-smoked bacon or a cubed salmon seviche on won ton chips with citrus bubbles. Move on to seared quail with sesame puffs and maple-soy glaze. Not exactly comfort food, but who cares?

SHOWSTOPPER A "banana split" of puréed banana squares coated with chocolate and impaled on three sticks, each topped with roasted pineapple, house-made maraschino cherries, or peanut praline

SURPRISE Orange plastic chairs turn out to be quite comfortable.

MEANWHILE The tables are too small.

ANOTHER FAVORITE Thai curry mussels topped with snap pea froth and toasted coconut

BOTTOMS UP Stellar cocktails, especially the Trabucchi de Verona martini made with homemade huckleberry vodka, Valpolicella, and lemon juice with mulled huckleberries.