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Sunda, Tocco, Topaz, Urbanbelly, Veerasway

Best new dish: Devil's basket of soft-shell crabs at Sunda

110 West Illinois Street; 312-644-0500 [$$$]

Nobody saw this coming. Billy Dec’s nightlife team (Rockit, The Underground) is behind this modern Asian lair, so we knew it would be a scene, and the cosmetically fickle women blithely sipping Wasabi H2O martinis in the slick lounge confirmed that. We just didn’t expect the food to be so good. At communal tables, a huge sushi bar, and everywhere else in Tony Chi’s stunning space, chef Rodelio Aglibot’s creative Eastern gems are on display. Our favorite—and the year’s best new dish—is the “Devil’s Basket,” a metal bucket filled to the brim with fiery red chilis, toasted garlic, and transcendent soft-shell crabs. And the servers are every bit as polished as the food. Sunda is the nicest surprise of the year.  –J. R.


Wood-oven-fired pizza from Tocco

1266 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773-687-8895 [$$]

Bruno Abate, the king of Italia schmooze at the ultrachic Follia for the past seven years, charmed a whole new demographic when he opened this trattoria in Wicker Park: hipsters with less money. But the guy knows not to mess with success, so Tocco’s wood-oven pizzas are just as masterful as Follia’s and they’re cheaper; the boutique wine list is price friendly, too. The gnocco frito (hollow bread fritters) with bresaola, prosciutto, and speck takes a fascinating peasant dish from Modena upscale. But it’s the spaghetti carbonara and the pan-roasted red grouper over wilted spinach with yellow pepper purée that prove Abate has the golden touch.  –D. R. W.


Topaz's day boat scallops with chorizo and Spanish paprika-lemon sauce

780 Village Center Drive, Burr Ridge; 630-654-1616 [$$$]

Giuseppe Scurato is a chef in love with the rustic flavors of Spain and France—not to mention his native Palermo. He wields them with finesse into zesty dishes from the exhibition kitchen of this smart topaz-toned space. Lucky diners can latch onto Spanish-style grilled shrimp with piquant romesco sauce and chili-garlic oil or house-made Italian sausage with olives and grilled peppers in red pepper–tomato sauce. Pan-roasted mahi-mahi luxuriates in tomato-brandy velouté alongside rich lobster grits. But if all this seems a little too precious, finish with the all-American cherry bread pudding with bourbon anglaise and candied pecans.  –D. R. W.


Urbanbelly's udon with shrimp in sweet chili lime broth

3053 North California Avenue; 773-583-0500 [¢]

So much praise has been thrown at Bill Kim’s strip-mall BYO that it seemed destined to disappoint us. Instead, it thrilled us. Kim learned his lessons of perfection from Charlie Trotter, even if he is applying them only to humble noodles and dumplings. But Urbanbelly’s lamb-and-brandy packets are consistently translucent and wonderful, and the delicious soba noodles hide bay scallops and oyster mushrooms in a Thai basil broth. Service is bare-bones, chairs are wooden planks, and dessert consists of tooth-testing ginger candies, but when you’re eating melt-in-your-mouth short-rib-and-scallion fried rice—Chicago’s best $8 meat dish—you tend not to care about anything else.  –J. R.


$10 to $19
$20 to $29
$30 to $39
$40 to $49
[amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

844 West Randolph Street; 312-491-0844 [$$]

What with its minimalist look and exotically spiced cocktails, Veerasway fits in perfectly on Randolph Street, a.k.a. Chicago’s dining weathervane. Angela Lee scored with Sushi Wabi next door and De Cero down the block. Now she’s got Steven Hubble, her new executive chef, doing terrific street snacks like fried slivered okra tangled around hot-sour chat masala spices, and organic green papaya and mango salad invigorated with tamarind-lime dressing and methi (fenugreek) chutney. Veerasway’s delicious excursions into Indo-American territory—chili-rubbed and tandoor-braised vindaloo pork ribs—are so spicy you’ll keep the soothing charred pineapple topping close by, all while looking forward to the next fiery bite.  –D. R. W.

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