The old adage that says "Nothing succeeds like success" still holds. For confirmation, take a look around at Chicago's newest restaurants. You've got Tru's Rick Tramonto making antipasto plates at Osteria Via Stato; there's Gabriel Viti in jeans welcoming his loyal Gabriel's clientele to the casual Miramar; Spring's Shawn McClain is flexing some new muscles at the veg-happy Green Zebra. Le Lan-the best new restaurant of the year-is a French-Vietnamese collaboration between two of Chicago's true heavyweights, Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat. So many of the year's best arrived with impressive pedigrees, it was easy to overlook promising rookies, such as Paul Virant's dazzling Vie in Western Springs, which seemed to materialize so fully formed it felt as if it had been around for years. Virant's work at Vie has earned him the golden toque for best new chef, but, knowing this year's field, we half expect Virant to be opening another restaurant by the time this hits newsstands.

Photography by Nathan Kirkman

Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

[¢] $10 to $19
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49

Le Lan

749 North Clark Street
312-280-9100 [$$$]


Le Lan's roast duck breast draped over creamy polenta and a disk of seared foie gras, stacked on duck rillette flavored with lemongrass and kaffir lime

There was so much buzz around the opening of this beautiful restaurant, it seemed destined to disappoint. Early on, the collaboration of Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat (with their chef de cuisine, Andy Motto) was better in theory than in practice. Not now; dubious creations have been jettisoned for more blissful dishes, and the execution is almost flawless. From an amuse of a delicate noodle-filled spring roll with watermelon relish and crispy shallots all the way to a dessert of sheep's-milk flan topped with crystallized cilantro and garnished with tropical fruit compote, Le Lan is luscious. In between choose a spring roll duo: One is cold and packed with slow-roasted pork and shrimp with sweet and spicy shallot vinaigrette; the other is a warm beauty filled with chicken and vermicelli with four-pepper vinaigrette. Then move on to a Le Français–worthy entrée of roast duck breast with green cardamom jus next to a stack of seared foie gras, creamy polenta, and lemongrass- and kaffir lime–scented duck rillette. A bottle of vivid 2003 Seresin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($60) off the diverse list answers the call of such bold food. When my party raved about dinner to the manager, Terry McNeese, he smiled and said: "We're tightening up and getting better." Damn right. It's the best new restaurant of the year.
–D. R. W.

Green Zebra

1460 West Chicago Avenue
312-243-7100 [$$]

Even the most carnivorous among us can stand to eat a little less meat and a lot more great-tasting vegetables. Chef Shawn McClain's veggie-oriented Green Zebra was an instant hit when it opened last spring, hyped all over the country. Chicago hasn't seen such green-revolution virtuosity since Charlie Trotter innovated his vegetable tasting menus, although McClain's garden creations deliver finesse at much lower prices. While he specializes in intricate presentations of organic vegetables, his GZ is not strictly vegetarian and cleverly avoids preachy health and environment messages. Why worry about labels with entrées as good as a foamy celery-root soup with black walnuts and black truffle essence, a Gruyère soufflé with endive and apple salad, or a Canadian wild rice and barley cake with huckleberry gastrique and braised Tuscan kale?
–D. R. W.

Les Deux Autres

462 North Park Boulevard, Glen Ellyn
630-469-4002 [$$$]

There's an air of exotica at Les Deux Autres. Yes, it's in a strip mall and the place is full of stodgy wood paneling, but listen to the staff speak and you know it's different. Louisa Lima, the charming pastry chef/owner, is a Bermuda native; our gracious waiter was from Luxembourg. Disappointing by comparison, chef Greg Lutes hails from Malden, Illinois-though his modern French menu has roots in distant settings. Gentle-but-rich dishes such as a flaky napoleon enclosing escargots and wild mushrooms in a garlic-wine sauce showcase the same skills Lutes had displayed at south suburban Courtright's. His entrées are unpretentious but packed with flavor, such as the gorgeous silky scallops encrusted with shiitake dust and set atop lobster-and-potato-stuffed ravioli. Lima's wonderful crème brûlée trio (hazelnut, espresso, and vanilla) is a fresh take on an old warhorse; a smoky 2001 Gigondas Domaine Raspail-Ay ($44) served in elegant Riedel stemware more than holds its own. And service is so smooth that even your leftovers get the royal treatment: in lieu of a doggy bag, leftovers go home in aluminum foil shaped like a swan.
–J. R.

De Cero

814 West Randolph Street
312-455-8114 [$$]


BEST NEW DISH: De Cero's shareable taco platter

Randolph Street's modern taquería-the brainchild of Sushi Wabi's owners-has its problems. The place is too loud; it charges for chips and salsa; the stylized décor is best described as Roadhouse Chic. But you'd have to be an insufferable grump to fault Jill Rosenthall-Barron's food, a savvy mix of regional Mexican flavors, à la Frontera Grill. The name De Cero means "from scratch," and the queso-oozing chiles rellenos with smoked tomato salsa prove it. Even better is the selection of eight diverse fresh tacos (containing everything from braised duck with sweet corn salsa to sautéed salmon with cilantro and pesto) accompanied by three house salsas and warm corn tortillas for $26. It gets my vote for best shareable new dish. Entrées are secondary, but there's a smoky boneless grilled chicken mole, and wonderful cheese enchiladas with queso anejo alongside tomatillo salsa. Desserts are terrific, even the simple bowl of fresh berries in Mexican lime honey. Don't ignore the big tequila list, but go easy on the hibiscus margaritas-one bolsters the smart menu, two obliterate it.
–J. R.



Price Key [amount a diner can expect to spend on dinner without wine, tax, or tip]

[¢] $10 to $19
[$] $20 to $29
[$$] $30 to $39
[$$$] $40 to $49
[$$$$] $50-plus

Indie Cafe

5951 North Broadway
773-561-5577 [$]

This charming BYO spot takes pride in its service, its décor, and-especially-its food. Our solemn waitress was delivering a "crunchy" maki roll (an elaborate deep-fried yellowtail, scallion, and asparagus construction) when a carefully balanced asparagus spear fell from its perch atop the sushi. Distraught, she appeared to be scanning the sushi bar for something sharp to plunge into her gut when one of my companions consoled her. "It's OK," she said. "We saw it." This seemed to please her. Indie's half-Thai, half-Japanese menu pleased us: think delicious buttery tom kha kai (coconut milk soup), outstanding Penang curry flavored with kaffir lime leaves, and wonderful maki named for everyone from Metallica to Popeye. Even desserts, such as a coconut-and-sesame-informed taro root custard with raspberry sauce, are several cuts above usual storefront fare. Every night, it seems half the residents of Edgewater are crammed into the glossy, narrow space, opening their own bottles of wine to toast their good luck.
–J. R.

Kaze Sushi

2032 West Roscoe Street
773-327-4860 [$$]


Kaze's lump-crab roll

A proud waiter tells me that the offerings of the three chefs Chan-Macku, Kaze, and Hari, all relatives-are "fine dining fusion." I'm wary until I taste the delicious rare seared bison with red-wine reduction garnished with yamamomo, a flavorful red berry with a cherrylike pit. All doubts vanish when the waiter brings delicately fried scallops atop a "salad" of greens with kiwi dressing wrapped in cucumber and sliced maki-style. Three more hits: unagi (eel) topped with cheese and chives, saké-marinated salmon garnished with crisp salmon skin under white onions and truffle oil, and hamachi (yellowtail) with banana peppers and spicy Japanese black pepper. At the far reaches of nouvelle Japanese lies a signature creation: batter-fried lobster served as inside-out maki topped with sliced strawberries and red tobiko (flying fish roe) on a creamy strawberry purée with enough wasabi to balance the sweetness. After experiencing all that, I was willing to try anything the Chans could dish out.
–D. R. W.

Miramar Bistro

301 Waukegan Avenue, Highwood
847-433-1078 [$$]

Last June, right after Gabriel Viti opened this casual French spot near Gabriel's, his namesake haute restaurant, the waiting crowds spilled out of the lounge and into the street. You would have thought Cartier was giving away jewelry. The no-reservations policy created the mother of all jams-but seats at the best bistro on the North Shore are worth hanging around for. The masses go for generous appetizers such as a platter of saucisson, prosciutto, salami, and cheese; a heaping bowl of mussels marinière; artichokes in vinaigrette; and the roasted half lobster with herb butter. Then they move on to skate grenobloise, a memorable bouillabaisse, and perfect herby-seasoned lamb chops. Once diners exchange promises to hit the gym and confess to their personal trainers, they may indulge in Miramar's rich chocolate mousse with whipped cream and raspberry purée.
–D. R. W.

Prairie Grass Cafe

601 Skokie Boulevard, Northbrook
847-205-4433 [$$]


Prairie Grass Cafe's rasberry crêpe

As cheery as cherry pie, this venture by Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris is way down-home compared with their haute years as Ritz-Carlton chefs. The spacious setting teems with boisterous groups gathered around bare wood tables chowing down on terrific housemade lamb sausages with ratatouille and goat cheese, the best moussaka hereabouts, and honest steaks with twice-baked potatoes laced with caramelized onions and Gruyère. For such heartiness, I vote for a peppery, fruity 2001 Lock "Ecluse" Paso Robles Syrah ($44). And if you are in a meat-versus-veggie group, the bottle won't go to waste: it drinks equally well with a dynamite crisp phyllo strudel crammed with mushrooms and Gruyère jazzed by balsamic-braised onions and served over creamed spinach. To start a meal, order crab cakes with roasted sweet-pepper sauce and zesty corn relish or pâté with port wine reduction; then finish with cherry pie, baked by Stegner's mom, Elizabeth.
–D. R. W.


1952 North Damen Avenue
773-227-2995 [$$]

Scylla, tucked into a snug Bucktown brownstone, may remind you of Shawn McClain's Spring. Stephanie Izard, the 28-year-old chef/owner, is a veteran of the seafood paradise down the road, and her appetizer of creamy whitefish bisque swimming with lobster and sweet English peas is evidence that she soaked up a lot in her two years there. Izard doesn't go overboard with potentially complex dishes such as prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with buttery cauliflower purée, toasted hazelnuts, and pomegranate sauce. And her presentations are quirky: the crisp skate wing looks as though it were in its natural habitat, hiding a treasure of grilled calamari, explosive roasted cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, and spiced tomato aïoli. An eggy lemon custard has a delicious cheesecake consistency and came with an understated olive oil–thyme ice cream that one of my companions said "tasted like something I would rub on my face at a spa." (I assume that's good.) Servers are sharp and pleasant, considering the tight quarters, but the real revelation here is Izard, who seems primed for stardom of her own.
–J. R.



4471 Lawn Avenue, Western Springs
708-246-2082 [$$$]


Paul Virant's pan-seared salmon brushed with herbs and butters nestled on barley, greens, and sherry sauce

Near the center of a suburb Norman Rockwell would have loved, chef Paul Virant serves up the good life. And he does it as naturally as possible in this French-appointed restaurant. His salad of Bibb lettuce, fresh Hawaiian hearts of palm, and avocado with a citrusy yogurt dressing makes the drive from the city worth the effort. So do dishes such as herb ricotta gnocchi with braised rabbit and salsify, and pan-roasted fluke with mustard jus de poulet on lentils with glazed root vegetables, which show the influence of Virant's mentors (Messrs. Trotter, Joho, and Kahan). But a wood-grilled organic hanger steak with shallot confit and potatoes puréed in olive oil with Tuscan kale and Picholine olives is pure Virant-and it went well with an A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir ($33) from a list selected by Virant and Ambria's brilliant sommelier, Bob Bansberg. The "gooey" butter cake with coconut sorbet, vanilla-roasted pineapple, and macadamia brittle could make the pastry chef, Mary Bodach, a household name.
–D. R. W.


1747 North Damen Avenue
773-489-1747 [$$]


Milk shakes at HotChocolate (vanilla;mint and chocolate chip; stout and caramel; milk chocolate malt), with raspberry crumble, fudge brownie, and pecan pie

This is the sharp urban café you wish were in your neighborhood. The creation of the supremely talented pastry chef, Mindy Segal, HotChocolate is an homage to desserts: even the décor comes in shades of milk and dark chocolate. And, trust me, the desserts are fantastic, bursting with intense flavors and never cloying. As she did at MK, Segal teases your inner child with productions such as a milk chocolate–malt mousse with layers of salted peanuts and caramel that's a Snickers bar with a halo, embellished with a Reese's takeoff. And then there's "chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate," Scharffen Berger fashioned into an extreme chocolate experience, and rhubarb pot pie-think cobbler-a transcendent warm compote topped with raspberry jam ice cream and garnished with lemongrass sorbet. And desserts are only the tip of the iceberg. Segal's soul-satisfying chicken soup, extraordinarily bright goat cheese–beet salad, gently spiced steamed green curry mussels, and seared Kobe-style beef skirt steak prove she knows her way around every station of the kitchen. No reservations are taken and the crowd gets younger as the night gets older. Naturally, chocolate drinks abound, and there's a HotChocolate martini on the menu, too.
–D. R. W.

Osteria Via Stato

620 North State Street
312-642-8450 [$$$]


Cured olives at Osteria Via Stato

"Sit back and relax," our waiter says. "The olives, chunks of Parmesan with balsamic vinegar, and roasted beets with orange zest are pre-antipasti. Then come four antipasti. For the pasta, we have pappardelle with meat ragù and Parmesan rigatoni with cauliflower and spinach. For your entrée you get a choice from this chalkboard." The onslaught is awesome at this rollicking spot-the brainchild of impresario Rich Melman and his partners, executive chef Rick Tramonto (Tru) and chef-on-the-spot David DiGregorio-and second helpings are yours for the asking. All you have to choose is the entrée (no seconds here), and the whole shebang is $36 per person. After house-cured salmon, chopped radicchio salad, prosciutto, and much, much more, I could have called it a day before hearty entrées such as braised pork shank and seafood stew arrived. Desserts are $5 each; a pomegranate granita perked me up after the feast. And the "just bring me wine!" menu of Italian tastings from sommelier Belinda Chang (pick your price point and don't be surprised by refills) are almost necessary to wash it all down.
–D. R. W.


1441 West Fullerton Avenue
773-883-8722 [$]

I can't stop thinking about chawan mushi. No, that's not the latest Asian starlet, although just as alluring. Usually, it's egg custard. Here at Tsuki, it's three saké cups filled with steamed egg and scallop custard-one topped with tiny mushrooms and salmon roe, one with shrimp, and one with crab. Entrancing. The chef, Toyoji Hemmi, presents elegant interpretations of Japanese cuisine at the frosted-glass sushi bar and at high-backed secluded booths with copper tables. Hamachi kama-grilled yellowtail cheek served still attached-is fabulously strange. Go on a weekend when Tsuki has specials just flown in from Japan, and you'll find more exotica, such as a platter of aji (horse mackerel) sashimi served in three styles: traditional, a thicker cut topped with grated ginger on an ohba leaf, and a chopped mound mixed with red miso. When you finish, the bare bones are taken back to the kitchen and deep-fried crisp so you can eat the whole fish.
–D. R. W.

Trio Atelier

1625 Hinman Avenue, Evanston
847-733-8746 [$$$]


Trio Atelier staff Jin Ahn, Lennie Dietsch, and Mike Adaniya

Innovative owner Henry Adaniya-looking dapper patrolling the room in his suit and spiky hairstyle-is in the groove again at his reborn Trio space. It's easier to swallow the highfalutin "Atelier Artistic Vision" menu spiel now that the creative cooking of the chef, Dale Levitski, has become so polished (even the formerly disorganized service has smoothed out). My hands-down favorite small course is rillettes of potted rabbit, pork, and duck, and a fine savory-sweet medium course is a Parmesan cheesecake made with grape focaccia and pine nuts flavored with rosemary. The large course of grilled venison loin with a fruity, spicy "glögg" sauce and cauliflower-chestnut purée is completely original, and it scores-so does the pear tart with brown butter sauce and almonds from the gifted pastry chef, Mary McMahon. Avoid the too-cute lab flasks used as small carafes, and order a bottle of supple Red X from Napa Valley's X Winery ($39) instead. I don't even notice the peculiar décor-stacks of salt bags, intentionally unfinished floors, and ragged looking ceilings-when I dine this fine.
–D. R. W.



3441 North Halsted Street
773-348-9696 [$$]


X/O bartenders Danny Garcia and Adam Gibbs

"My mother would hate me if she knew how much I like the meringue here," says our waiter as he sets down the lemon tart. I can empathize. Even an expert farm-raised cook like my mom would have given the nod to this lovely dessert from the pastry chef, Jordan Rappaport-especially after savoring the cooking of chef Bob Zrenner, a veteran of Tru and Tournesol. Dishes such as seared scallops and pumpkin dumplings with sage hazelnut brown butter cross almost as many borders as does the Vietnamese spicy duck leg with roasted Korean sweet potatoes and Thai chilies. Folks slightly more hip than my teetotaling mother pour into this chic Lake View spot late in the evening; it's open till 2 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 3 a.m. on Saturdays. This crowd doesn't blink at the wonderful $50 flight of 25-year-old Cognacs, nor at the de-scription of the Kelt XO, which "spends three months on a ship touring the world, adding to its unrivaled richness."
–D. R. W.

Bistro Maisonette

109 Franklin Street, Bloomingdale
630-924-0930 [$$]

Bistro Solitaire might be a better name for this charming "small house" in quaint Old Towne Bloomingdale. Except for the ebullient owner and host, Franco Serafini, the cozy bi-level dining rooms connected by a big winding staircase were practically vacant on our visits. Not for much longer, I trust. Chef Famous Jefferson's food-French with lots of Italian input-is lusty and fun. I admired his cooking at Cochon Sauvage, and the pâtés at Maisonette brought back fond memories. Serafini recommended a glass of pinot blanc by Hugel (2001) with them, a heavenly pairing. Grilled lamb sausage barese with roast peppers is almost too hearty an opener if you are moving on to major productions like the flavor-packed bouillabaisse provençale or the seared duck breast and braised leg with port-ginger sauce on braised sweet-and-sour red cabbage. Desserts soar, especially two: the crème brûlée chock-full of fresh orange segments and the buttery bread pudding in rum butter sauce.
–D. R. W.

Thyme Cafe

1540 North Milwaukee Avenue
773-227-1400 [$$]

In 1998 John Bubala opened Thyme in River West and proved that he could do classy. Now, with equal aplomb, he's taken on drop-by casual in a Wicker Park café. His chef de cuisine, Armando Cabrera, is often visible through the front window making the daily ravioli, which on a recent visit were filled with mushrooms and aged Cheddar in a rich corn sauce. I was surprised to see artichoke fritters with béarnaise sauce on the short, eclectic menu-everybody's favorite appetizer back when Gordon Sinclair ruled River North-until the waitress explained that the sous-chef, Pedro Benitez, used to work at Gordon's landmark restaurant. Pepper steak in red wine sauce with whipped potatoes is a winner, as is the playful dessert of chocolate croque-monsieur with hazelnut filling and warm raspberry jam. The wine list is small, and the drink list is unusual: a Scotch-loving friend was impressed that such a casual café carried six kinds of Bowmore single malts.
–D. R. W.

Charlie's on Leavitt

4352 North Leavitt Street
773-279-1600 [$$]

Charlie Socher and his sister, Susan, have a hit with their smart-looking Lincoln Square gamble. In a surprise move away from the focused French cuisine of their fine Cafe Matou in Wicker Park, they've set their sights on American favorites punched up with Mariano Aguirre's big doses of bold global flavors. For starters, oysters come bathed in lemongrass-ginger sauce with a zippy red onion relish, and grilled merguez lamb sausage teams up with herb-dressed Belgian endive and avocado. Entrées continue the international beat, and the one I never miss is the tender grilled "burnt chile" pork chop with "tres chiles" coulis, an intense blend of three kinds of Mexican chilies. The à la carte fries served in a paper cone can wave any flag they want-I can't resist 'em. Wines run to selections from small producers such as a 2002 Australian Four Sisters Shiraz ($32) that match the chef's striking dishes, all the way to little strawberry and pineapple tartlets with chipotle cream.
–D. R. W.

Q&A with Best Chef Paul Virant of Vie

BEST NEW CHEF: Paul Virant of Vie

Paul Virant, 35, a St. Louis native, has worked in some great restaurants-Everest, Blackbird, and Ambria, to name a few-and now that he's ventured out on his own at Vie, in Western Springs, he's officially become the past year's brightest new star.

Q. How did you get interested in "cheffing"?
A. I grew up on a farm, not a working farm, but in a family where food was very important. We always sat down for dinner. We always had a big garden, so I understood the importance of seasonality. Kids like to blame their parents-and I blame my parents for my job.

Q. What was your early training like?
A. I started working in an upscale place in St. Louis, late in high school: Malmaison. I majored in nutrition at West Virginia Wesleyan College to get the food science background and then went to CIA [the Culinary Institute of America].

Q. After working at Blackbird, how did you end up in Western Springs?
A. I lived in Ukrainian Village, but my wife is a doctor and she took a job in Downers Grove, sowe moved to the western suburbs. I learned that Western Springs was small and charming, and they were looking for a restaurant to have a liquor license. They had been dry since Prohibition. I liked the idea of being the first.

Q. How would you categorize your food?
A. Western European–inspired seasonal American. I see influences from all the different chefs I've worked with. I have an affinity toward sauerkraut-braised meats. Acidity and pickled items are a big part of our food.

Q. For example?
A. We just put choucroute on the menu. We made sauerkraut from local vegetables-a traditional one with cabbage, and we did some with rutabaga and turnips from Henry's Farm, in [Congerville,] Illinois. We prepare it like sauerkraut and serve it with Lake Superior whitefish that we poach in duck confit fat.

Q. What "foodie" things do you particularly enjoy doing at Vie?
A. I'm proud of preserving things that we use a couple of months down the road. We made a bunch of pickled beets from Kinnikinnick Farms [in Caledonia, Illinois] that we used as a garnish on a borscht. We just received 50 pounds of Meyer lemons from a friend's tree in Santa Cruz [California], and I've preserved those for an asparagus soup in late May.

Q. What is best about owning your own restaurant?
A. Just being able to finally do exactly what I want. One of the ex–sous-chefs from Blackbird turned Paul Kahan and me on to a guy who has a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse and he sends us all sorts of microgreens every week. And I don't have to ask anyone's permission to call him up and order stuff.
–Penny Pollack



Best of the Best
Best Restaurant: Le Lan
Best Chef: Paul Virant
Best Dish: De Cero's shareable taco platter

Godzilla rolls
flatiron steaks
Roscoe Village
Sardinian wines
cooking schools
raw food
wasabi mashed potatoes
Gold Coast
pinot grigio

Loftiest Goal
Chuck Hamburg, partner in the tie-dyed pizza joint Flourchild's, on their business plan: "We want to do for pizza what Ben & Jerry's did for ice cream."
(185 Milwaukee Ave., Lincolnshire; 847-478-9600).

Most Surprising Closings
Fuse, Saiko, Papagus, and Biggs.

Most Euro Cheese Shop
Pastoral, an "attitude-free zone" packed with salumi, sausage, pâté, and American farmhouse cheeses.
(2945 N. Broadway; 773-472-4781)

Most Versatile Chef
Shawn McClain conquered seafood at Spring and vegetables at Green Zebra. Now he's going after meat at the Custom House, due to open this summer.
(500 S. Dearborn St.).

Most International Staff
The crew from Lincoln Square's Essence of India, who hail from Brazil, Morocco, Bulgaria, Nepal, and Mexico.
(4601 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-506-9343)

Spiciest New Burger
The Southwestern Sizzle burger at Sizzle, a half-pound beast with beef and chorizo chopped up together.
(6157 N. Broadway; 773-465-9500)

Quickest Morph
While you were sleeping, MK North, a contemporary American charmer, became A Milano, a contemporary Italian charmer.
(305 Happ Rd., Northfield; 847-716-6500).

Most Disappointing New NYC Import
China Grill, a glitzy, overpriced spot in the Hard Rock Hotel that has made more of a dribble than a splash.
(230 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-334-6700)

Two high-profile restaurants that are the current box-office buzz around town did not open in time for consideration in this feature: Blue Water Grill (520 N. Dearborn St.; 312-777-1400), the spinoff of a Manhattan celeb magnet in the old Spago space, and Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-0110), Grant Achatz's ambitious foray into micromanaged 30-course meals.