A Mano, Anteprima, Brasserie Ruhlmann Steakhouse, Café 103, Fahrenheit
The natural comparisons here are Quartino and Osteria Via Stato, other big-budget River North claimants to "real" rustic Italian dining. A Mano, from the folks who brought you Bin 36—and tucked neatly underneath it in Marina City—may be the most promising of the three, but it's also the most maddening. The giant space doesn't feel especially Italian (unless you count meat hanging in an open kitchen), and the handmade pastas disappointed across the board. But details like ample piles of fresh salumi served on a marble slab and a thin pizza dotted with roasted clams still in the shell are spot-on. And the extensive menu holds plenty of wonderful surprises, such as a meaty grilled quail appetizer with smoky poached pear and watercress in passito wine vinaigrette, and a rosemary-tinged, 16-ounce bone-in New York strip on a mound of warm arugula.
IT SHOULD BE MANDATORY The construct-your-own anti-pasto plate, particularly when heaped with wild mushrooms, grilled baby octopus, roasted peppers, and Capra honey goat cheese
REVELATION "Mud & Grass," an interesting side dish of escarole and fava bean purée
BONUS Executive chef John Caputo was sent to Bologna to study at Carpigiani Gelato University and brought back intense flavors, as in the puckery blood orange sorbet and mascarpone gelato.
TASTING NOTES After enduring a shameless upsell from the waiter, we opted for a 2004 Trescone Lamborghini blend: flowery, intense, full-bodied—and affordable ($37).
UM, YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE NOT RUBES The menu goes overboard with Italian translations: "Buon Appetito [Good Appetite]."
There's a great Yiddish word my mother uses to describe something that's ridiculously overdecorated: ungapatchka. Every time I walk into Andersonville's insanely popular Italian spot, the word pops into my head. The cluttered décor jumps from rustic to kitschy to weird—but that's part of the charm. And the food, fortunately, is laser-sharp in its focus. The countryside Italian cooking includes hearty pasta such as a spicy orecchiette with amazing crumbles of house-made lamb sausage, dandelion greens, and pecorino, as well as brawny entrées such as slices of New York strip steak in a seasoned mixture of olive oil and lemon juice. When you spend this much time looking at your plate, the ambiance is immaterial.
SHARE IT An assortment plate gives you ample bites of eight starters, including roasted sweet and sour cipolline onions and a crunchy Sicilian caponata.
TWO SPECIALS THAT SHOULD BECOME REGULARS Lamb chops scottaditi with grilled eggplant and garlic "confit"; grilled crispy arctic char scattered with fregola (a Sardinian pasta similar to couscous) on a willowy bed of braised leeks
WHO FIGHTS FOR THE LAST BITE OF POLENTA? We do. Anteprima's is mild and buttery with a slightly crunchy top.
CITY'S BEST Panna cotta: It's creamy with an almost invisible lemon zest.
TASTING NOTES Small Italian wine list includes about 30 selections by the quartino.
Modesty took a hike in the design of this lavish art deco-inspired creation in the old Montgomery Ward headquarters building, which merges a classic brasserie with a modern French steak house. Amid the glory of a handlaid mosaic floor and grand alabaster chandeliers, diners shell out $125 for the shellfish platter (Le Plateau Royal) and $82 for the two-person porterhouse with three sauces and irresistible Yukon Gold potatoes sautéed in butter. Or they can be pampered by star chef Christian Delouvrier's slightly less extravagant creations such as braised endives au gratin with Swiss cheese and chopped ham, duck à l'orange, and raspberry napoleon. Either way, they'll be happy.
SHOWSTOPPER Puffy cheese soufflé, well worth a 20-minute wait
INNOVATION French doors open to one of Chicago's largest café-style alfresco patios, complete with full bar.
OTHER FAVORITES Duck rillettes; steak tartare; lamb navarin; chateaubriand for two; chocolate marjolaine
TASTING NOTES Wines are predictably pricey, but those offered as half bottles and carafes take a bit of the sting out of it.
GRIPE Almost dislocated a shoulder trying to spoon up the bouillabaisse from its awkward deep cast-iron cauldron.
—D. R. W.
The South Side Beverly neighborhood is known for a lot of things, but until Koda opened two years ago, upscale food wasn't one of them. Now the neighborhood's got another destination for its scene: Café 103, a boldly colored dining room full of the aromas from Thomas Eckert's Indian-influenced cuisine. His peerless cream of parsnip soup, with a fried oyster breaded in white polenta, incorporates mace raita and chorizo, flavors he must have picked up as Vermilion's sous-chef. Tandoori arctic char comes on potato gnocchi, spinach, and diced ham hock surrounded with white wine chicken broth and topped with tart red orach leaves (a variety of spinach). Beverly has arrived as a restaurant destination.
SHOWSTOPPER Superthick grilled pork chop marinated in Mysore marinade with buttermilk-brined, flour-dusted fried onion rings served on wild mushroom ragoût and spätzle
PLEASANT SURPRISE Enjoyable soundtrack is so eclectic you may hear Willie Nelson followed by Judy Garland.
OTHER FAVORITES Skate wing in a soupy Indian-spiced saag sauce with honey vinegar-pickled red onions and fennel; hazelnut craquant of hazelnut mousse and chocolate hazelnut cake with blood orange sabayon
RAISE A GLASS Permanent BYO status ($4 corkage) means no ridiculous wine list markups.
—D. R. W.
UPDATE: Fahrenheit closed its doors in late April, after this issue of the magazine hit newsstands.
1890 West Main Street, St. Charles;
Lobster poached in coconut broth with red Fresno chilies and topped with ginger-lime foam is a great start at Fahrenheit. That foam—not to mention the red granite, dark woods, and trendy orange details—gives you an idea of the modern route chef Pete Balodimas (former chef de cuisine at Spiaggia and Tin Fish) is pursuing out along the Fox River. It's no surprise when he deconstructs mole into an amazing arrangement of beignet, banana powder, marcona almonds, smoked onion, pickled raisins, and cocoa nibs to accompany a grilled venison chop. And what he calls "lemon meringue" is really a lemon tasting: Meyer lemon curd, sour lemon sorbet, toasted meringue infused with basil essence, and delicate lemon cotton candy.
SHOWSTOPPER Wood-roasted trout topped with chorizo gnocchi, sweet potato purée, pecan butter, and mustard vinaigrette on watercress
WHY "FAHRENHEIT" Named after the insanely hot custom-built wood-burning oven
OTHER FAVORITES Buttermilk-fried quail with maple-beer jelly and spicy vinegar foam; charcoal-grilled tuna with deconstructed sushi of seaweed and wasabi on a crispy rice cake
CLINCHER Veteran sommelier Robert Bansberg consulted on the wine list—not a cliché in the bunch.
—D. R. W.