Mado, Mana Food Bar, Mercat a la Planxa, Mexique, Mixteco Grill
Chef Rob Levitt and his wife, Allie, lean to the green in their brick Bucktown BYO, from bamboo tables to locally procured organic produce. They even butcher their own animals, and nothing is wasted: The meat platter might include savory rolled pig’s-head meat cured in chili flakes, fennel and mustard seeds, and spices, along with terrific Tuscan chicken liver pâté and rich pork confit terrine. Even something as innocuous as a frisée salad features pickled pork tongue (and a fried egg). Vegetarians, take heart: Order delicious green lentils with pickled red onion and risotto with Barolo wine and grana cheese. Carnivores, of course, can order a rare grilled beef heart. –D. R. W.
The name is Polynesian for a supernatural life force, but Mana is no cosmic tiki bar. It’s a tiny, Zen-simple room for diners who crave stylish meatless fare with a saké cocktail. Chef-partner Jill Barron (De Cero) paves a plate with colorful beets under arugula and julienne apple salad splashed with raspberry vinaigrette. She grills Japanese eggplant and tops it with sweet miso sauce, and serves adorable mushroom/brown rice sliders with spicy mayo and house pickles. Her avocado pineapple sorbet is definitely infused with some kind of magic. All told, Mana is a rarity: a veggie haven that a meat lover wouldn’t scorn. –D. R. W.
These days, it’s exciting to see a restaurant packed midweek, and this flashy Catalán tapas restaurant is still rocking and rolling. Sure, the sangría sloshes freely, but what anchors Mercat is Michael Fiorello’s emphatic tapas from the glass-tiled open kitchen. Eating the little fried Padrón peppers dipped in salbitxada (roasted almond sauce flavored with red wine, tomato, and olive oil) is like playing Russian roulette, because about one in a dozen is incendiary. (Notice whose face turns red.) Spicy guindilla peppers also get your attention in the tomato basil stew holding meatballs and Catalán sausage. For seafood, avoid the inept paella de mariscos and go for grilled barramundi marinated in garlic, parsley, and olive oil. –D. R. W.
In dining circles, the word “fusion” has gone the way of “gastropub” and “foam.” But this understated West Town storefront’s mix of French and Mexican cuisines proves there’s no shame in fusion when it’s done right. And the chef, Carlos Gaytan, does a trio of mini sopes right: one with escargots in chimichurri butter; another with shrimp provençal and avocado mousse; and a third with sweet plantains, “young” coconut, and xico mole. Don’t even get us started on the mejillones, tremendous Prince Edward Island mussels in tomato-saffron beurre blanc/white wine broth with dried chorizo chunks. A wall near Mexique’s kitchen is covered with scrawled messages from gushing patrons, and it’s running out of room, fast.
Raul Arreola, a veteran of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, does amazing things with chilies at his funky Lake View BYO ($3 corkage). His earthy uchepos gratinados—Michoacán fresh corn tamales baked with creamy poblano sauce and dry Jack cheese—are every bit as good as Rick Bayless’s, and his entrées are swathed in a bounty of moles he learned from the mole maestro, Geno Bahena. Mixteco’s meats and fish are wood grilled and all the better for it: Just try not loving the grilled mahi-mahi in Oaxacan green mole. If the Aztec gods are smiling, you’ll have brought a six-pack of Bohemia and the daily flan will be mango. –D. R. W.