Park 52, Perennial, Piccolo Sogno, Province, The Publican, Sugartoad
Jerry Kleiner and Marc Brooks brought the red lampshade flash Kleiner patented at Marché and Red Light south to Hyde Park, and it turns out that was just what this underserved neighborhood needed. Along with rumpled University of Chicago professors, a sharply dressed and diverse crowd jams this clubby oasis for icy martinis and solid comfort food, such as diver scallops and short rib ragoût with mashed potatoes, or pork chops with onion gravy and collard greens. On the wall is a big lithograph of Michelle Obama, a onetime customer, who looks awfully content. Must have just had a slice of the strawberry shortcake.
–D. R. W.
Sometimes two chefs can mind-meld to create compulsively tasty food. Giuseppe Tentori (Boka) and Ryan Poli (at Butter before it melted) do just that in Perennial’s handsome space across from the Green City Market. Charcuterie is big at the moment, and the chefs prove their street cred with duck and pork rillettes, rosemary-thyme herbed country pâté, and duck liver mousse. There’s nuanced sophistication in the seared striped bass on caramelized onion consommé with a ragoût of kale, salsify, beets, and smoked onions, and sweet delight in passion fruit cream and berry gelée with chocolate croquants and madeleines. –D. R. W.
The surprise at this handsomely outfitted “Little Dream” is that there is no surprise—not if you know traditional Italian cooking at its best. Chef Tony Priolo, seasoned at the helm of Coco Pazzo, does it simple and smart. Armed with a wood-fired oven and grill, he turns out spot-on pizza Margherita, thick grilled boar sausage with white beans, and whole branzino drizzled with fennel-citrus-caper-infused Ligurian olive oil. Come to think of it, from the antipasti display to the all-Italian wine list to the Averno Amaro digestif, Piccolo Sogno nails it. Now, if only it could fix the service problems. –D. R. W.
Randy Zweiban’s striking restaurant fearlessly does its own thing, whether it be serving tiny Cuban pork bocadillos and winter squash taquitos, or hanging an eight-foot petrified tree sculpture from the ceiling. Not everything works, such as the unwieldy Spanish blue cheese fondue (or the laughably small water glasses, for that matter), but Province’s ambitions are so pure, you’re willing to forgive. And the menu, while confusing at first glance, contains offbeat treasures such as a Seedling Farms apple salad with candied olives and toasted almonds—and showstoppers like a fork-tender braised lamb with eggplant, chorizo crumbles, and corn bread crumbs. Province will soon be LEED certified, which means the only thing here that’s not green is the chef. –J. R.
THE PUBLICAN BEST NEW RESTAURANT
837 West Fulton Market; 312-733-9555 [$$]
Ah, The Publican. The big wood-clad beer hall is so loud and packed so tight, Paul Kahan could let loose a live pig in the massive dining room and no one would notice. The swine is king at this timely spot—from top-notch artisanal aged hams and potted pork rillettes to colorful porcine paintings on the textured walls—but The Publican’s talented team also butchers other organically raised animals in-house. You can get miscellaneous innards, such as spicy sautéed veal brains topped with strips of white anchovy, or duck hearts with oyster mushrooms and pine nuts. Indulgences other than meat are treated with equal devotion. Beer, for one. Michael McAvena, the suds guru, oversees one of the city’s premier beer lists, boasting nearly 100 of the world’s finest lambics, abbey-style ales, and microbrews. And under the soft globe lighting, long communal tables overflow with überfresh oysters, grilled country ribs, and smoked trout. Over the top? Maybe. But it all adds up to Chicago’s best new restaurant. –D. R. W.
If you are chef Jimmy Sneed, how do you follow up the success of a restaurant in Virginia called The Frog and the Redneck? Easy: Open SugarToad in Naperville. A sugartoad, Sneed loves to explain, is a delicious puffer fish, and however he wound up with them in this charming setting, he’s got a bona fide hit. After the signature amuse of fried sugartoad, head for Sneed’s always-terrific soups, such as smooth red pepper with crabmeat. And the only downside to the hefty braised lamb shank topped with zippy tomato relish is that it may not leave you enough room for the fine apple tart à la mode. –D. R. W.