Open the door to MADO and a smoky aroma grabs you, almost like an inhalable amuse. Chef Rob Levitt deploys his grill and rotisserie to fine effect in this modest new Bucktown spot, where he cooks Italian/Mediterranean food, equal parts rustic and contemporary. He and his wife and co-owner, Allie, fly the green flag of sustainability. Their chalkboard menu lists local farmers’ markets and artisanal growers whose ingredients make up Mado’s offerings.
Allie, like her husband a grad of the Culinary Institute of America, handles the pastry chef duties, and the restaurant’s name signals the closeness of their working relationship. Mado was the great chef Fernand Point’s nickname for his wife, Marie-Louise, who, the story goes, had to approve every dish before it was allowed to leave the kitchen of La Pyramide. A former environmental biology major, Allie ensures that the restaurant uses green cleaning supplies and serves filtered water. Even the furniture in the exposed brick storefront comes from sustainable materials: A recycled farmhouse table is used for large parties and communal family dining; bare bamboo tables with red leather chairs await smaller parties. Allie also often patrols the room, helping out when the well-intentioned but erratic servers need backup.
Except for beef, Rob butchers whole animals—"out of respect," he says—and uses the odds and ends for house-cured meats. Order the $15 meat platter and your party will get a pig-shaped wood slab with four kinds of top-notch charcuterie. There might be guanciale (dry-cured pork jowls), rough-textured pâté, testa (head cheese), rabbit galatine, mortadella, or pork rillettes. The chef is a purist and doesn’t serve mustard or bread other than crostini for the guanciale—but something sweet or pickled would cut the fat and snap the palate back between bites. At any rate, the meats would be right at home at Avec.
Sliced scallop crudo with grapefruit supremes and espelette pepper may be a little meager, but the bright flavor refreshes. Bruschetta topped with braised baby octopus and Calabrian chilies has more heft. Credit an early-morning trip to a farmers’ market for the delicious watercress/radish/mint salad. Rob also makes a fresh nightly pasta, available in appetizer and entrée portions: Hooray for the ramp-filled ravioli finished with more ramps and pecorino.
From the short entrée list, wood grilling enhances both the whole rainbow trout dressed with walnuts, coriander, and marjoram and the beefy hanger steak served with Gorgonzola polenta. The best entrée, rotisserie porchetta, is inspired by the Italian way of stuffing a whole pig with fennel fronds and cooking it over an open fire. Mado’s rotisserie isn’t big enough for the whole hog, so Rob wraps thick pork belly around pork loin with a layer of fennel, rosemary, and garlic and gives that the rotisserie treatment. The result is wonderful—juicy, full-flavored, tender pork, served with Spanish salsa verde and fresh arugula. Get it with a side of creamy polenta or rosemary-roasted potatoes and you’ll be happy.
Mado is BYO for now, but it serves cups of rich Metropolis organic coffee, the perfect accompaniment for Allie’s softly satisfying shortbread cookies. Or enjoy coffee in your dessert: Her dates, cooked in coffee-and-cardamom sauce, are sprinkled with walnuts and served atop buffalo ricotta. Either way, the Levitts make political correctness taste great.
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First Sixteen opens in an unfinished skyscraper; now TOPAZ goes the hard-hat route in the middle of Burr Ridge Village Center, an unfinished shopping and residential complex. I half expected to see diners packing tool belts and downing Polish sausages and beer. Hardly. The crew at this smart space looks like the suburban bourgeoisie ready to snap up the luxury condos going up next door and then hit the Kohler Waters Spa across the street for a massage.
Branko Palikuca, the owner of Amber in Westmont, has an instant hit on his hands with Topaz—no big shock once you find out that Giuseppe Scurato, the mastermind behind Boka’s early success, is in the kitchen. He skillfully blends Spanish, French, and Italian, avoiding the slippery slope of hodgepodge flavors, to deliver sleek contemporary American with international flourishes.
Scurato makes his spicy Med intentions clear from the outset. A thick appetizer crab cake gets a bold dose of Spanish piquillo pepper coulis and garlic chips. The combo of frog legs and gribiche (a sauce of mashed hard-boiled-egg yolks, capers, herbs, and chopped egg whites) couldn’t be more Gallic. And smoked sable carpaccio shines amid grapefruit segments and macerated lemon, garnished with red onion and tangy Sicilian capers.
Entrées come on equally strong—and fast. Service is almost too efficient, with scant pause between courses. Maybe the kitchen figures you are eager to dig into your seared day-boat scallops in lemon-cream sauce with a dynamite ragoût of organic spring onions and crumbled Spanish chorizo. The second time I ordered it, I certainly was. I predict the most popular entrée will be the succulent pan-roasted New Zealand rack of lamb with rosemary sauce. The robust flavor, nudged along with multicolored orzo with niçoise olives, baby zucchini, and fiddlehead ferns, goes beautifully with a peppery 2005 Australian Rosemount Show Reserve Shiraz ($36).
Hands down, the best dessert is the rosebud shortcake (rose petals are mixed into the shortcake batter) with flamed Cognac strawberries and mascarpone whipped cream. I was less enthused by the light but gooey tiramisù, so soupy the pastry component had dissolved. All in all, desserts lag behind savory courses.
Topaz feels like a downtown Chicago restaurant. True to its name, the high-ceilinged space is illuminated in warm golden hues, from the wine cases separating two dining areas to the beautiful wood pillars and a glassed-in exhibition kitchen. But hints abound that you’re not in River North: for example, the proliferation of children early in the evening or the lively party of four senior couples who held hands and prayed together between their cocktails and food. If such a scene occurred in the city, the chef would just assume they were praying to him.
MADO 1647 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-2340 Tip Some coveted entrées sell out early, so order quickly if you spot a must-have. (I missed crispy braised lamb belly with preserved lemon.) Hours Breakfast, lunch, dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $25 to $30
TOPAZ 780 Village Center Dr., Burr Ridge; 630-654-1616 Tip Burr Ridge Village Center is a maze of shopping streets. Once you’re inside the matrix, call for directions. Hours Lunch Monday-Saturday; dinner nightly Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $40 to $50
Photography: Kendall Karmanian