Dining Out: New Sensations

The Lula duo takes Pilsen, Kleiner takes Old Town—and everyone else takes notice

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From the top down: peach butter cake, raspberry-lemon curd, and assorted cookies at Nightwood

Before Nightwood came along, I headed to Pilsen for only one thing: Mexican food. Now, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds have spun off from their much-loved Logan Square Lula Cafe to open a sophisticated modern American restaurant on South Halsted. Feels strange; guess I gotta get used to it.

It shouldn’t be hard. Jason Vincent, the sous-chef at Lula for four years, is the chef de cuisine at Nightwood, and his organically inclined daily menu is irresistible. One minute you bite into big hunks of marinated cucumbers that startle with their fresh juiciness; next you taste the accompanying sweet apricots and realize how well the combination goes with the rich olives and tart house-made yogurt. Later, you graze on lusty lamb liver pâté spread on wood-grilled bread with marinated baby turnips and carrots, or perhaps patties of rustic pig trotter torchon topped with stinging nettle pesto. (Our charming Welsh waitress said she was stung by nettles as a kid. Sweet revenge.) A fleshy, jammy 2007 southern French Mas des Bressades syrah-grenache blend ($29) seems made for savory offal.

Nightwood’s carefully plotted casualness looks just right for a purveyor of über-trendy localism. Dining on the rustic wood-walled patio is best, as long as weather permits, but inside the deep corner storefront, swivel leather chairs flank tight banquettes, and hordes pack the convivial counter seating that faces the kitchen in back.

Nightwood always has a good wood-grilled cheeseburger, along with spit-roasted chicken and a grilled whole trout with whatever catches Vincent’s eye at the farmers’ market. Reliable all, but I like the foray into what’s new tonight. Maybe it’s ravioli filled with sweet corn and amaretto-flavored goat cheese, the best thing I’ve seen done with Midwest corn this year—outside of eating it just-picked, boiled, and buttered. And when Vincent moves the chicken off his spit-roaster, watch out: The smoky slab of roasted pork loin with shallots and white anchovy will knock you to the floor, where you’ll find your companion who just tucked into the suckling goat with artichokes and pancetta alongside exotic garden-fresh purslane.

Speaking of fresh, grab any of Melissa Trimmer’s seasonal fruit desserts. I’ve tried her blueberry mascarpone cream tart and her clever apricot upside-down cake, and I’d be happy with whichever got plopped down in front of me next visit. Even with no refried beans or salsa, Nightwood is already the best restaurant in Pilsen.

* * *

If there are any ghosts haunting the old Harold R. Zook Building in downtown Hinsdale, longing for the days when it housed a silent movie theatre, they must be really bummed out. The space is now occupied by Il Poggiolo, a new Jerry Kleiner–designed hot spot so noisy all the patrons have to shout to be heard over their meatballs and tiramisù. If you’ve been to any other Kleiner venues—and what Chicagoan hasn’t?—like Marché, Red Light, Carnivale, or Park 52, you’ll instantly recognize that it’s his baby, what with the signature huge red-fabric ceiling-light fixtures, quirky chairs with cutout backs, and red upholstery. Kleiner must have a warehouse full of this stuff—maybe he keeps building restaurants just to use it up.

Il Poggiolo means “the balcony” in Italian, and, of course, this place has one looming over its vaulted dining room. Dining up there puts the giant lampshades almost on top of your head—some evening, someone is going to be giddy enough to stand up and mimic dancing while wearing one. I didn’t quite get that far, but I loved the view of the room and the packed bar with a big mirror and glass shelves. Bussers habitually block the glorious panorama by leaning on the steel railings to survey the scene below. I guess that’s not a bad thing, if it means that someone on the staff is on top of things. Our waiters were as prone to glitches as they were well intentioned.

Executive chef Jim Kilberg (formerly exec chef at Coco Pazzo, Bice, and Gioco) certainly knows his way around the Italian terrain. There’s a decent thin-crust pizza adorned with fine prosciutto and arugula. Appetizers include such quality Italian stalwarts as beef carpaccio and meatballs in a lively tomato sauce and, a few notches up, a salad of peeled celery with dates and pecorino jazzed with sherry dressing. Best are the arancini (rice balls) oozing with mushrooms and gooey taleggio cheese, and the smoky fried baby eggplant and fresh mozzarella with cherry tomatoes melting into a garlicky sauce.

That taught me to order eggplant anytime I spotted it, like the shimmering ravioli filled with eggplant purée and topped with dollops of pesto—a flavor revelation. Pan-roasted branzino (sea bass) with a restrained anchovy sauce tastes superb, but the accompanying rapini is a bad choice for the mild fish: far too bitter. A better green would have been the à la carte side of spinach with garlic and olive oil—great concentrated stuff. Look to the carne del giorno for specials such as rabbit poached and then braised with olive oil in its own juices to a rich lacquered appearance and a confit-like succulence, served atop a rosemary-toned fava purée. A pleasant fruit-forward 2008 Fontanafredda Barbera Briccotondo ($32) snuggled right up to the bunny.

Pass on the respectable tiramisù and go straight to a Campari-glazed cheesecake served with an unusual melon-lemon sauce for a new twist on sweet treats. At the outset, I thought Il Poggiolo was a Kleiner rerun, stodgy behind the swagger. But after a few visits, I can say that the entrepreneur—lampshades and all—hasn’t lost his touch.
 

THE SKINNY

NIGHTWOOD
2119 S. Halsted; 312-526-3385

MODEL MEAL Pig trotter torchon, wood-grilled trout, blueberry mascarpone cream tart

TIP No bread service but enjoy the complimentary still or sparkling water.

HOURS Dinner Tuesday to Saturday; brunch Sunday

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $40

 

IL POGGIOLO
8 E. First St., Hinsdale; 630-734-9400

MODEL MEAL Fried eggplant and mozzarella, branzino with anchovy sauce, Campari-glazed cheesecake

TIP The whole room is noisy, but upstairs at least has a view of the action.

HOURS Lunch Monday to Saturday; dinner nightly

TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $40

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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