High Times in Highwood
We’ve noticed a dropoff lately in the quality at Gabriel’s (310 Green Bay Rd., Highwood; 847-433-0031), Highwood’s French/Italian standby, and chef-owner Gabriel Viti apparently got the wake-up call, too. “I’m back here full-time,” Viti says. “I finally found a good management team at Miramar [Viti’s other restaurant] and put everyone in place. It took three years instead of six months.” Viti has also brought in old friend Robert Bansberg, the longtime wine guy at Ambria, to be Gabriel’s full-time sommelier. (Bansberg is also working with chef Pete Balodimas at the soon-to-open Fahrenheit in St. Charles.) “Gabe is a real serious wine chef,” says Bansberg. “I can name only maybe half a dozen chefs in the country who have taken more time to learn about wines.”

P.S.: Bansberg on Pinot
“Pinot is the grape right now. It’s so versatile. I think every white wine wants to be a red right now. But it’s a persnickety grape, very fickle. You have to know the maker, the vintage, when it’s drinking. You really have to understand pinot noir. . . When it’s great, it’s expensive; when it’s bad, it’s expensive.”

Hey, Coffee Snobs
Any place that names its espresso beans has instant credibility. Humboldt Park’s new Star Lounge Cafe (2521 W. Chicago Ave.; 773-384-7827), a 20-seat coffee bar, calls theirs Dark Star. “We cater to true coffee enthusiasts, people who are really particular about their coffee,” says Sam Shaffer, a partner. “We use Superior coffee and have two different house blends plus a featured coffee of the week.” Star Lounge’s baristas, alums of Peet’s Coffee and Nordstrom, experiment with everything from pomegranate to lemonade to loose tea, proffering creations such as a peppermint mocha macchiato, a traditional latte flavored with peppermint and chocolate sauce ($4/large). Most large coffees cost less than $2, and iron-pressed flat sandwiches, named for Chicago neighborhoods, are $5.85. One other bonus: fresh bagels from Lincolnwood’s New York Bagel & Bialy.

“By November I had convinced myself that I had better things to do than read Moby Dick and learn about the Continental Congress. Cook for instance.”
 –Ruth Reichl (b. 1948), from Tender at the Bone (1998)

5 Questions for Christian Delouvrier (Lespinasse, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House), executive chef at the upcoming Brasserie Ruhlmann (500 W. Superior St.), a West Town spinoff of a New York mainstay

D: You’ve been around awhile. How old are you?
CD: Let’s say between 55 and 60. But I have as much passion now as when I started. Maybe even more.

D: What will your role be in Chicago?
CD: A couple of months ago, I was asked to be the executive chef and to put my cooking and my style into Ruhlmann Chicago, which is a beautiful restaurant. I am very excited to be a part of it.

D: How often will you be in the restaurant?
CD: I am going to stay in Chicago. At the beginning, I will be, most of the time, in Chicago. 

D: What can you tell us about the food?
CD: The ingredients will be impeccable. Sauce will be light, confirming the tastes of the meat or the fish or whatever. It’s going to be the artistry of the chef with the ingredients. A lot of steak and a lot of chops.

D: How will this be different from other brasseries?
CD: It will have a taste that is real and seasoned right. That’s what I did at Célébrités and Lespinasse. And with Ducasse. If you worked with Ducasse, you have to know what you are doing.

That’s All?
Exposure Tapas Supper Club (1315 S. Wabash Ave.; 312-662-1082), a massive complex across from Gioco, may have small plates, but it’s got big ambitions. The 16,000-square-foot space includes a dining room, a lounge, an art gallery, and, soon, a music/comedy venue. “The original idea was to create an environment where [owners Julius and Kim Thomas] were exposing talent through food and wine, art, and music,” says exec chef/GM David Wennerlyn (Café Absinthe, Yvette Wintergarden). A Culinary Institute of America grad who also put in time at Bouley and Gotham Bar & Grill in New York, Wennerlyn has free rein with Exposure’s Mediterranean seafood-oriented menu. “They pretty much handed me the keys to the car, so to speak,” he says. “We have a raw bar, and just about any seafood you can think of we are doing or are going to do.”

He Said It
“Give me flour. I can build a mountain. I love flour.” –Gianni Zonca, the chef at La Madia (59 W. Grand; 312-329-0400), set to open mid October

A Passage to Oak Street
We’re interested in anything Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra, Custom House) does, even if it’s just “conceptualizing” the menu for The Drawing Room, the dining element in a new incarnation of Le Passage (1 W. Oak St.; 312-255-0022), in late October. “I just want it to be fun,” he says of the food. “It’ll have a sense of humor: robust food to go with cocktails and match the atmosphere.” Le Passage’s focus will still be more nightlifey than restauranty: Three bigshot mixologists, including award-winning Barrington native Debbi Peek (Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood), will be at the beck and call of thirsty patrons. “It’s tableside service where a bartender actually brings a cart out with everything they need to make a drink,” says Peek. By the way, Peek will be happy to make a Now and Zen, a concoction of  Skyy citrus vodka, green tea, lemon juice, lemon grass syrup, and acai berry juice that won her the national World Cocktail Competition in May.

Wicker Park Sticker Shock
We liked Baccala (1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.), John Bubala’s hearty Piemontese spot that abruptly closed after six months of business. What happened? “It was time to move on,” says Bubala (Timo). “We had a good run. Critically, people who were there really liked the food. But most people were looking for red sauce and meatballs, fried calamari. . . . We will regroup and do something else.” Don’t expect that something else to be in Wicker Park. “I’ve been there over seven years and I’ve seen the neighborhood change a lot,” he laments. “The neighborhood is turning into a big bar.” Expect Bubala to begin hunting for another spot “closer to downtown” early next year.

Smooth Operator
Mohammad Afzal,
longtime owner of Baba Palace (334 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-867-7777), recently opened another Pakistani spot, Village Restaurant (310 S. Canal St.; 312-880-0010). It’s more upscale than Baba, but the prices are right (most platters are under $10), and all the usual stuff can be found on the menu—seekh kebab, keema naan (stuffed with ground beef), matter palau (green pea rice). The kitchen also whips up shardai. Shardai? “It’s a cold drink, like a smoothie,” Afzal says. “It has ground almonds, pistachio, cashew, green cardamom, and sugar. In our country, the people drink it early in the morning.”

Things to Do
1. Have a three-dog night at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap (41 E. Superior St.; 312-266-0400), which has introduced “hot dog flights” (New York–style, Chicago-style, and Cincinnati-style; $8.95).
2. Eat on the (relative) cheap at Le Lan (749 N. Clark St.; 312-280-9100), which offers three-course dinners for $33 on September 10th through 12th to celebrate its third anniversary.
3. If you’re dying to see Jersey Boys at the LaSalle Bank Theatre and can’t score tickets, consider shelling out $160 at Lawry’s The Prime Rib (100 E. Ontario St.) for their dinner/theatre package on selected nights this fall and winter. To order, call Sharon Fine at 312-787-5000, ext. 25.