High on Merlo

In late September, Giampaolo Sassi and Luisa Silvia Marani, who own Merlo Ristorante and Merlo on Maple, plan to unveil La Trattoria del Merlo, a simple 99-seat Bolognese restaurant, at 1967 North Halsted Street. “The concept in general is ‘like it is in Italy,’” says Marani, also the chef. “That means I prepare things with ingredients more simple and less expensive.” Such as: fresh pastas like rigati semola al ragù bolognese, homemade fresh striped maccheroni with bolognese beef ragù and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and a specialty caponata stocked with everything in the garden plus almonds, pine nuts, and raisins, with homemade potato bread. And it all gets served on vintage Italian plates that Sassi and Marani found at antique dealers. Sounds charming, but with her smooth Bolognese accent, Luisa had us at ciao.

Domo Arigato, Ms. Robata

Japonais (600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-822-9600) plans to expand its lounge along the river walk to introduce a lounge offering robata items. For the uninitiated, a robata is a small Japanese charcoal grill, and robatayakis have been popping up in various parts of the U.S. in recent years. “The robata grill is a bar where you sit in front of the grill,” says Miae Lim, a partner at Japonais. “We will have about 15 dishes including homemade gyoza—plus a DJ, and an atmosphere that feels a little clubby but without the attitude.” ETA: December.


“The fricassée with dumplings is made by a Mrs. Miller whose husband has left her four times on account of her disposition and returned four times on account of her cooking . . . ” –Rex Stout (1886-1975), American writer

South of the Loop, South of the Border

Ed and Jim Hebson, owners of Hackney’s on Printer’s Row (733 S. Dearborn St.; 312-461-1116), this week unveil Flaco’s Tacos (725 S. Dearborn; 312-922-8226), an authentic quick-serve taquería just up the block in an old printing house. “The menu is going to be like if you went to 18th Street, Little Village,” says Ed Hebson of the 30-seat BYO (for now) spot. “Tortas, tacos, fish tacos, vegetarian tacos, burritos.” Flaco’s kitchen staff has an interesting back story. Hebson says his staff at Hackney’s was all Mexican, and he didn’t want to take them out of Hackney’s, so he hired their wives for Flaco’s.

McClain Goes Vegas

Shawn McClain, who still turns heads nightly at Spring, Green Zebra, and Custom House, will open a 185-seat restaurant next year in Las Vegas’s upcoming CityCenter. MGM Mirage’s 76-acre, $9 billion “mini-city” on the Strip has been called the largest privately funded project in U.S. history (Um…Disney World?), and its Web site humbly refers to the project as destined to be “one of the great urban places of the world.” The name and concept of McClain’s restaurant are still TBD—as are the other chefs who will open restaurants on site—but McClain’s heart remains in Chicago. “There is no time commitment for me in Vegas, so I will be able to concentrate on what I have in Chicago,” he says. “That was key for me.”

Rx: Pastries

Sweet Thang, a French bakery that lost its lease on North Avenue, has changed ownership and moved from Wicker Park to Roscoe Village (2142 W. Roscoe St.; 773-935-4166), where it has expanded into a café. “All of the pastry chefs who have been at Sweet Thang for ten years are now with us,” says David Crawford, the new proprietor. “Everything is still made by us, by hand, with premium ingredients.” This means chocolate croissants, turtle brownies, cookies, and individual mousses—plus four to six quiche selections every day and a larger sandwich/soup menu. Crawford is in the pharmaceutical industry, but says Sweet Thang “is quickly becoming my focus.”


When the sun sets, Butt’ry (1137 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette; 847-256-1133), a modest soup/sandwich/pie spot with homemade bread, morphs into 153 Akira, a Japanese restaurant with sushi, teriyaki, golden lobster, and the like. “We change the table settings, some red napkins and chopsticks,” says Kelly Yang, the owner. “We have a small sign in the window that says ‘153 Akira’ and that we are happy to serve Japanese food at dinner. Next year we will probably take down the Butt’ry sign.” What’s 153? “It’s from the Bible,” says Yang, who was born in Korea. “Peter was a fisherman who obeyed Jesus and they caught a full net of fish. It was 153 fish. I’m a Christian and God gave me this business.”

Things to Do

  1. Drink Consentino wine and enjoy a lunch buffet at the Italian Village (71 W. Monroe St.; 312-332-7005); then, if you’re lucky, get a ride in one of the Ferraris parked on Monroe during the Ferrari Festival on September 7th. Your $25 donation goes to Children’s Memorial Hospital.  
  2. Look into this fun-sounding event on September 7th at Kohl Children’s Museum in which 11 good chefs cook versions of childhood favorites. (Chicken nuggets by John Bubala! PBJ by Michael Tsonton! Root beer by Gale Gand! Et cetera!)
  3. Eat your way around the globe on National Geographic’s Foods of the World, a glossy new site that offers artisan treats from more than 30 nations.

Dot Dot Dot . . .

An outpost of Orange, the brunch spot with locations in Lake View, Roscoe Village, and Printer’s Row, is planned for Lincoln Park at Clark and Fullerton. “We get requests to open more Oranges every day: Hyde Park, Evanston, Pennsylvania,” says Darryl Jendrzejak, the general manager. “It’s a family-owned business and they want to keep it close where they have control over the quality.” Meanwhile, Orange’s lease on West Harrison is being renegotiated. . . . The opening day of McCormick & Schmick’s 8,000-square-foot Rosemont outpost (5320 N. River Rd.; 847-233-3776) is September 6th. . . . MetraMarket, a massive retail/restaurant development planned for the West Loop’s Ogilvie Transportation Center (near Clinton and Madison Sts.), will include a 15,000-square-foot gourmet French market. . . . Coffee Drinks (Ten Speed Press), a cute new book by Michael Turback full of signature barista recipes, includes recipes from Intelligentsia’s Matt Riddle, Kristin Marks of Metropolis, Adam Seger (Nacional 27), and Debbi Peek (Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood).