“LISTEN UP!” “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” I was saying, “There are a pair of cool new restaurants in town ideal for everyday dining.” Fortunato and West Town Tavern are part of a flourishing of stylish, moderately priced neighborhood spots ten minutes or so from the Loop. Only a few dishes break through the $20 roof, and the eating is delicious.
But it hasn’t taken long for the madding crowds to catch on-a stealthily employed noise meter recorded an awesome 83 decibels in the dining rooms of both places. That’s smack-dab between a kitchen garbage disposal and a lawn mower.
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Halfway through my first meal at Jennifer Newbury’s Fortunato on the burgeoning restaurant row along West Division, I shouted to a companion, “Great to have this talent back at the stove!” Two decades ago, at 23, Newbury won accolades as the chef-owner of Amérique, which morphed into Chez Jenny. At both places-and then in partnership with the late Dennis Terczak at Sole Mio-she broke ground with the melding of culinary sophistication and approachability that Chicagoans appreciate. She burned out in the early nineties, somewhere between developing Club Lucky and Paladino’s, and quit cooking for a while. Lucky for us, Newbury’s back. “I’m in love with Italian food,” she says. “I think in another lifetime I was Italian.” At Fortunato her cooking is straightforward yet polished, and there’s a running joke in the kitchen: “No calamari, no tiramisù, no pizza.”
The casual dining room is an echo chamber of hard surfaces-exposed brick walls, pressed-tin ceiling with chrome chandeliers, metal-bead chain curtains swaying over floor-to-ceiling windows, and a glass-walled kitchen. I swear the bowl of kumquats on the table was vibrating.
Waiters hustle over with Red Hen Bakery bread (anybody out there not serving Red Hen?) to go with a bowl of savory tomatoes stewed in olive oil, basil, and garlic. I cannot imagine eating here without ordering the handsome mound of grilled baby octopus. Finished with lemon and olive oil and perfectly mated with a snappy salad of favas, peas, and green beans, the smoky tentacles are tender and delicious. Roasted mussels paired with roasted tomatoes in fennel cream are also thoroughly satisfying, while mellow baby artichokes seasoned with mild sliced boiled lemon, almonds, and honey-thyme vinaigrette bring a world of bright Mediterranean notes to the palate. And rustic Italian magic beguiles in a simple plate of excellent prosciutto di Parma, charentais melon (a small European variety), and roasted Mission figs with balsamic syrup.
Newbury’s flair naturally extends to pasta. Mezzalune (half-moon ravioli) filled with mortadella and prosciutto are swathed in a light Parmesan cream with fresh peas. Hearty whole wheat trenette ribbons glisten with olive oil and are crammed with flavors of pancetta, asparagus, and house-smoked chicken and mozzarella. And you’ll like the moderate prices on the all-Italian 50-bottle wine list, especially when the waiter uncorks charmers like a zin-kin 1998 Apollonio Primitivo from Puglia ($28; $6 per glass).
Seriously good fish and meats get even better with the addition of distinctive combinations of fresh vegetables and seasonings. Here, rich wood-grilled ivory salmon comes with agreeably bitter red rib dandelion greens, pancetta, and shallot marmelata; lemon vinaigrette sparks crispy-skinned branzino (Mediterranean bass) fillets, which are stacked on top of a sublime leek-and-sweet-onion risotto cake. A brace of bronzed quail nestles on pennette with pancetta, braised celery, and quail jus. Just as bold in flavor, juicy roasted pork loin is enlivened with prosciutto di Parma, spinach, and fragrant rosemary potatoes.
Newbury courted pastry chef Megan Kehoe away from Gale Gand’s right hand at Tru, and Kehoe’s imaginative sweets feature wild touches like Michigan sour-cherry granita and bay leaf gelato. I flipped over her maple torrone (here, frozen mousse) with hickory nut praline, maple syrup, and blueberries so much that I shouted, “Yeah, baby!” Good thing no one in the earsplitting room could hear me.<
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West Town Tavern in emerging West Town-on the corner of a recently gentrified strip of Chicago Avenue-is the new lower-rent site for the talented husband-wife team of Susan and Drew Goss. They closed their larger and snazzier all-American Zinfandel after a distinguished nine-year run in River North, and now chef Susan and manager Drew are running a more eclectic bistro, but maintaining strong American roots. Zinfandel diehards mix with a growing ‘hood clientele drawn by modest prices-not to mention the friendly touch of keeping a water bowl out front to refresh the local pooches.
The din in West Town Tavern comes from the all-too-familiar décor: pressed-tin ceiling, exposed ductwork, raw brick walls. One wall, however, has a massive wooden restaurant cooler door, and is oddly sheathed in old wood paneling with window spaces opening directly to the brick-to be used as display cases as soon as they figure out what to put in them. Around 8:30 the lights dim and the music gets cranked so loud it ricochets off the bare black tables.
Some of the food is hip downscale stuff, like the beer cheese made with spiced Cheddar and Parmesan that tastes far better than the gut-busting Wisconsin cheese ball it resembles. It’s a dandy starter with a Michigan Bell’s Amber Ale or another of the fine beers listed on the menu. But consider opening with an unusual spirit such as a complex and aromatic martini with Junipero gin distilled by the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco.
It’s worth a visit here for the wild rice and duck confit soup alone. Exuding the earthy soul of Native American cooking, it would fit right in at a Chippewa wild-rice harvest powwow, even with its herby chervil notes. I also loved the mussels seasoned with strong California bay leaves, long Thai chiles, sweet garlic, and bird peppers and roasted in an iron skillet. First time I had them, several of the mussels were stringy-second time was the charm.
Susan Goss wisely reprises her Zinfandel signature dish, the marvelous zinfandel-braised pot roast with garlicky Yukon gold mashed potatoes and pungent Pennsylvania Dutch black vinegar sauce. Duck leg confit takes center stage in a thyme reduction with caramelized shallots and mashed parsnips-bang-up bistro fare. So is the pan-seared salmon with zesty orange-tarragon butter over French lentils. Wild rice returns to enhance an exceptionally tender maple-cured pork chop with creamy mustard sauce and a crown of spicy barbecued onion strands. A jammy Rhône-style California 2000 Joseph Phelps Pastiche ($30) was the ultimate bistro red for Goss’s hearty food.
Desserts are less enjoyable than earlier courses, but we found solace in s’mores of graham crackers and marshmallow-both house made-with Scharffen Berger chocolate, and in a blueberry tart with orange-tinged mascarpone, blueberry ice, and blueberry sauce. Alas, the bourbon pecan tart was done in by a leathery crust. The Tavern can be very good, although it’s a step down in sophistication from Zinfandel, and there are service problems. On one visit our waiter was a woefully overextended bartender, and we suffered from his awkward predicament-an issue that can be fixed with adequate staffing. Now, if only the tables at these otherwise delightful restaurants came equipped with mute buttons . . .