Dining Tidbits

Upscale & BYO, Southern Charm, Hangout, Budget Beat


>> UPSCALE & BYO
A longtime South Sider, I’m somewhere between stunned and elated that seriously good restaurants have finally opened hereabouts. Last year there was Koda; now Beverly has a nifty BYO called Café 103. Chef Thomas Eckert (former sous-chef at Vermilion and Monsoon) has turned his skills to a globally influenced seasonal American menu that really works in this small space. The crisp walleye appetizer with lemon custard presented with heirloom tomatoes and English peas and pea aïoli made me wish I had brought a grander wine than I did. 1909 W. 103rd St.; 773-238-5115. –Dennis Ray Wheaton


>> SOUTHERN CHARM
Maybe it’s because the man behind this Gold Coast spot happens to be Art Smith (a.k.a. Oprah’s chef), but the hype has been overwhelming for Table Fifty-two. Then again, Smith delivers. His restaurant début in the former Albert’s space takes Southern hospitality and antebellum charm to a new level. The menu nods to down-home fare with an upscale twist: Deviled eggs topped with caviar; shrimp over stone-ground grits; fried green tomatoes towered with goat cheese and bacon. And Smith’s attention to detail—from urns of fresh lilacs to gorgeous fruit displays—is nothing short of spectacular. No wonder Oprah has kept him around for more than a decade. 52 W. Elm St., 312-573-4000. –Kim Conte


>> HANGOUT
“Wine bar meets gastropub,” says Tom MacDonald of his new Bucktown spot, The Bluebird Bistro & Wine Bar. Since he and his wife, Janan, have run Webster’s Wine Bar for more than a dozen years, MacDonald has the wine-bar gig down pat. If gastropub means some tasty salumi, Euro cheeses, and fresh mussels steeped in an ale sauce to enjoy over an Argentinean malbec or a Belgian ale, he’s got that right, too. It looks as though a lot of old barns gave their lives to build this superdeep storefront, and the effect is cozy as can be. 1749 N. Damen Ave.; 773-486-2473. –Penny Pollack


>> BUDGET BEAT
The menu at El Sueño (“the dream”) sneaks in under the radar, looking, at first, like hundreds of other menus in modestly ambitious Mexican restaurants. Enchiladas, fajitas, tacos, Corona—OK. We get it. But this plane can fly. Our first clue was the complimentary cup of chicken soup, its firm pinto beans and vegetables richly infused with the flavors of bacon. Lovely, light-textured pumpkin tamales ($4.50 each) came next, their slight sweetness balanced with roasted tomatillo sauce and guajillo sauce. Duck tacos (three for $7.75) were another hit; among the familiar fillings on the do-it-yourself platter was a luscious relish of mango, raisins, and peppers. Everything we sampled was homey and heartfelt, from the cochinita burrito ($8.50), chock-full of tender marinated pork that had been baked in a banana leaf, to the shrimp mojo de ajo ($12.95) in guajillo sauce with grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes. We finished with flan and reflected on the fact that this space once housed a Burger King. 9850 Milwaukee Ave., Des Plaines; 847-298-9090. –Joanne Trestrail

Photography: (café 103) tyllie barbosa food styling: christina zerkis (bluebird) thomas chadwick

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