(Rib-)Eyeing a Steak House Void
Wilmette Chop House (1162 Wilmette Ave., Wilmette; 872-588-2433) opened yesterday after a quick turnaround in the space that housed the short-lived Bluette, but the décor is totally different, with chocolate-brown walls, tapestries, and original artwork. “I do all the paintings,” says Madonna Wallace, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Rob. Steaks include a rib eye, a New York strip, and a filet mignon, all hovering around $30 and coming from Al’s Meat Market across the street, where Al is wet-aging the steaks for 30 days. Typical steak-house sides such as baked, mashed, or Vesuvio-style potatoes, mac and cheese, and sautéed spinach appear on the menu, along with Sicilian nachos, in which the nacho cheese is replaced by a mozzarella-type cheese, red sauce, sausage, and giardiniera. The 44-seat spot will stay BYO only until the liquor license goes through, probably in mid-April. Every time we think the Chicago area couldn’t possibly accommodate another steak house, someone finds a strip that’s just waiting for its New York strip.
“Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.” —Charles Pierre Monselet (1825–1888), French author
Rosebud, Past and Future
Alex Dana, the founder of the Rosebud restaurant chain, announced this past week that he would pass control of the company to a new management team, whose first project would be to replace Eatt with Bar Umbriago (6 W. Hubbard St.; no phone yet), a spot named after the title character in the Jimmy Durante ballad “Umbriago,” the B side of “Inka Dinka Doo.” Michael Ponzio (Spiaggia, Volare) will head the kitchen. Ponzio and crew are aiming for a late-April opening. A few conversational highlights, Dana on the past, Ponzio on the future:
“When I started there weren’t so many restaurants. Agostino’s was in its last throes. There wasn’t a Gibsons. This was 40 years back. There are a lot more seats in town. It’s been a challenge and great one.”
“The simplest things today. People don’t know the basics. If something breaks, you’ve got to improvise. Most young people don’t know how to improvise. When the pasta cooker breaks, all you need is a piece of bread dough and put it in where the hole is, and then you go and fix it the next day.”
“333 Restaurant—that was my first restaurant. I got it from the McCormick estate. [Robert McCormick] interviewed me, and I got nervous. I was only about 28 years old. McCormick said, ‘I want your mother to sign one year on that lease because I know you won’t let her down.’ After that, I did it on my own.”
“[At Umbriago] the idea is to do the great kind of food you see at the little restaurants on the side streets of Verona or at the base of a mountain in Sicily.”
“It is not far-fetched to say that [on Umbriago’s menu] there could be an octopus and potato salad with roasted olives, plates of antipasti, simply prepared local vegetables, farro, beans and other grains, and an abundance of homemade pasta.”
“Not all of the pastas will be house-made. There are some applications where a dry pasta, such as a bucatini or paccheri, is more suitable than fresh.”
Baby on Board
Mark Westcott, who bought South Gate Cafe (655 Forest Ave., Lake Forest; 847-234-8800) and the building housing it in January, tells about his sentimental attachment to the restaurant: “My oldest daughter is now 22, and when she was an infant we went to South Gate Cafe with her in a car seat. It was our first night out after she was born, and it was a special time.”
Westcott closed the restaurant Monday for extensive renovations and a clearer definition as Midwestern—the old menu consisted of a hodgepodge of dishes that never left when the chefs who created them (including John des Rosiers of Inovasi and Wisma) did. One person surely pleased about the temporary closure is Jared Claude, who had been working double duty as the chef at South Gate and its upstairs French neighbor, Bank Lane Bistro, also part of the building purchase. Westcott hopes to reopen the first week in May, keeping the gorgeous elm-lined patio and bringing in a new chef to unburden Clause; he’s even weighing the possibility of a new name for the restaurant—his sentimentality notwithstanding. You know, with the long hours ahead, talk about names, and that infant-car-seat story at top of mind, it’s almost like giving birth all over again.
Gelatte: a latte flavored with gelato instead of flavor syrup. Available at Frost Gelato (617 Central Ave., Highland Park; 847-432-2233), the first Chicago-area location of an Arizona-based gelato chain. Opened in November (“Most of my friends told me I must be crazy for opening an ice-cream store at the beginning of November, but we lucked out with the weather,” says Ed Bruksch, a partner, who operates the business with his son, Kurt, and son-in-law, Steve Rams), the store sells 38 types of frozen treats daily—including 25 gelato flavors, 12 varieties of sorbet, and one type of frozen yogurt—all made in-house from private-label ingredients.
When you’re opening a bar, you’ve got to start somewhere, so why not Square One (1400 S. Michigan Ave.; no phone yet), a bar scheduled to open in mid-May, from the owners Alex Hernandez and Ron Vaisman. They plan a warm-wood, aged-leather wine bar with temperature- and air-controlled wine stations allowing self-service wine pours of any amount. About 60 seats inside and 30 outside on 14th Street have table service for a simple menu of charcuterie, cheeses, and spreads. Hernandez, who also owns Waffles and manages at Japonais, says they hope to adapt according to the needs of what they consider an underserved South Loop. “We want to evolve and see what the neighborhood wants,” he says. “If there is a need for sushi, we will do that, but we want to do it right.” And if they need to go all the way back to square one, at least they already have the name.
New review: Pelago Ristorante
New restaurant reviews, updated to reflect critics’ recent visits, appear each month in Chicago magazine, in Dine, as well as on our website. Listed restaurants are rated from one to four stars, where one is good, two is very good, three is excellent, and four is superlative. Pelago Ristorante previously was not listed.
Pelago Ristorante (Hotel Raffaello, 201 E. Delaware Pl.; 312-280-0700). Italian.
$$$$ ($50-plus per person for a meal, without tax, tip, or alcohol)
Stuffy, self-important, and overpriced, this luxury Italian hotel restaurant nevertheless serves adept and occasionally transcendent food. From Mauro Mafrici’s menu, veal-filled ravioli in a pistachio cream sauce and braised-beef risotto in a red wine sauce with gremolata travel in a higher plane, and homemade love shows in the texture and earthy hum of the pastas. A special fettuccine with shaved black truffles, Parmesan, olive oil, and nothing else demonstrates the value of top-shelf ingredients—if you can stand to pay $28 for a starter. The suffocating waitstaff are impossible to ignore, mostly because they never leave.
For the dishes we liked best, click here.
All They Need Now Is a Cousin Who Knows Franchising
Two sisters, Tongta Ratchatawarn and Chassie Dajativong, found a whole restaurant-opening crew right at hand. Dajativong has front-of-house experience at the Peninsula Hotel and managing at the Oak Brook Oysy. Ratchatawarn is an interior designer. Ratchatawarn‘s boyfriend cooked at Tank Sushi. The result is Namo Thai Cuisine (3900 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-327-8818), now open two weeks in North Center. The menu covers Thai staples from family recipes, as well as some innovations, such as lobster pad thai or roasted duck breast with pineapple and crispy basil or lemongrass-ade to drink. The space used to be Forever Thai, a name that now seems oddly prescient.
- Shoe-leather reporting at Branko’s Sandwich Shop.
- Au Cheval dishes up a pork porterhouse fit to feed a ravenous tribute.
- Dessert at Ada Street, just like wheels on a suitcase.
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Things to Do
1. Rise, shine, and dine at Luxbar (18 E. Bellevue Pl.; 312-642-3400). To kick off the addition of Friday breakfast service and mark the rollout of new menu items, the Gold Coast spot will dish out one free entrée per person, each Friday (through May 4) from 8 to 10:30 a.m.
2. Slurp away at GT Fish & Oyster (531 N. Wells St.; 312-929-3501), which celebrates its first anniversary on Saturday by shelling out up to six gratis oysters per customer from 4:30 p.m. to midnight.
3. Offer up a salud to five years in business at La Casa de Isaac (431 Temple Ave., Highland Park; 847-433-5550), where, for the month of April, the restaurant will honor the milestone by offering four of Mama’s Favorite Enchiladas (chicken, green tomatillo sauce, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, sour cream, and cheese with corn tortillas) and a premium margarita to wash them down for $15. (The enchiladas normally cost $14.95, so the cocktail is a freebie.)
- Felice’s Roman Style Pizza (6441 N. Sheridan Rd.; 773-508-7990), a counter-service pizza joint run by Loyola University students, is open.
- As of today, Brasserie by LM (Essex Inn, 800 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-431-1788) is open for business.
- Dale Levitski’s French spot, Frog N Snail (3124 N. Broadway; 773-661-9166), begins lunch service Friday and dinner Tuesday.
- Bang Bang Pie Shop (2051 N. California Ave.; no phone yet), a brick-and-mortar space from the owners of the former Bang Bang pie truck, opens its doors on Saturday.
- A Toda Madre (416 W. State St., Geneva; 630-845-301), a Mexican spot next door to and from the owners of Bien Trucha, launches April 3.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Kudos to the chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs, and other industry standouts who made Zagat’s first Chicago-centric 30 Under 30 list, written by Dish’s own Carly Boers. . . . Props also belong to Jean Joho (Everest) whom Gayot named the country's best restaurateur for 2012. . . . The bánh mì specialist Ba Le will launch its first Loop location—at 166 West Washington Street—in July. . . . Pizza Rustica relocated operations to roomier digs (at 3908 North Sheridan Road), across the street from its former space. . . . Salerno’s Pizza in Berwyn is transforming into Blue Penguin Bar & Grill but keeping Salerno’s pizza. “Fridays, karaoke for the teachers,” says the owner, Ona Zeller, referring to payday in the public schools. . . . The haberdasherrific Billy Dec tweeted that he plans to open Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ in River North this summer.