La Dolce Vita

Just when you thought hotel dining was on the downswing, a new restaurant is poised to open November 1 in the upscale Radisson Blu Aqua, located in the MacArthur genius Jeanne Gang’s Aqua building. Filini (Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, 221 N. Columbus Dr.; 312-565-5258) will seat 150 diners, eating Italian classics (filling a geographic-culinary nexus recently vacated by Cibo Matto) such as vitello tonnato, spaghetti scoglio, and braised rabbit with polenta, made by the chef Christian Fantoni (New York’s Le Bernardin and Le Cirque, Chicago’s Bice). Desserts include a budino and tiramisù in a martini glass. A bar downstairs will serve Neapolitan pizzas baked in a coal-burning oven and offer veal meatballs, mini eggplant Parmesan, bruschetta, and other bites at a stuzzichini bar. Management hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls of hotel dining. “People don’t want to go through the hotel,” Fantoni says. “We will be straight in the front. We are on the first floor. You will be seen there.” In addition to describing the restaurant’s location, that last sentence could also be a hope for its popularity.


Pollack's Dinner at the Pump Room in 167 Words alt text
We wonder if Ian Schrager has insured the Pump Room phone with Lloyd’s of London.

“Had you been to Pump Room before?” asked the manager, politely acknowledging my age. That would be yes, but, other than knowing to turn left from the hotel lobby, I wouldn’t have recognized the place (Public Chicago, 1301 N. State Pkwy.; 312-601-2970). Exquisitely and expansively furnished with bleached-oak tables and lush leather chairs under glittery spheres, the sweeping creamy-colored space looks like the middle of the Milky Way. The cocktail list is whimsical—I particularly loved The Library, with beer and espresso—and at $12 per, a relative bargain. With a nod to the restaurant’s glorious past, chicken-liver toast heads the classic appetizer list, but my group went with the eggplant toast and crab toast, and we would again. Salt-and-pepper shrimp disappointed, as did the simply prepared roasted walleye. But then the wiener schnitzel hit the table. If ever there was a rationale for living in the past, this dish is it. I’ll be back, and next time I won’t have to stop and take a picture of the famous phone from Booth One.



“Conversation is the enemy of food and good wine.” —Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), British film director and producer.


That's "Melt," Like Your Heart

Dion Antic made his name with late-night hot spots such as Iggy’s and Harry’s Velvet Room. Now, in his second career phase, he seems to have mellowed. To wit: “We’re gearing it toward the moms and kids around here,” he says of his new grilled-cheese restaurant, Melt Sandwich Shoppe (1840 N. Damen Ave.; 773-292-6358), which he plans to open around October 1. “A place where we can go to eat, with a kid-friendly menu, and find something for ourselves that isn’t chicken tenders,” he says. In addition to grilled cheese, sandwich offerings include a pastrami Reuben, an Italian sub with mortadella, coppa, sopressata, and prosciutto, and a BLT with pancetta and truffle aïoli, all with meats from the California-based Zoe’s Meats. Each sandwich pairs with a soup: Choices consist of chicken noodle, Yukon Gold potato and Cheddar, and tomato bisque. Beverages include Benjamin tea, Alterra coffee, Jarritos sodas, and Mexican Coke. Bulk candy bins provide dessert. A new, family-friendly Dion Antic? Maybe he’s just hooking his future nightlife customers early.


What You'll Find at Vapiano

Vapiano (2577 N. Clark St.; no phone yet), a fast-casual Italian chain restaurant that started in Germany, soft-opens September 28 in Lincoln Park. Here’s what you’ll find there.
• Radio-frequency identification cards, which customers carry to food stations. Chefs make each customer’s food to order and then swipe the card to track the purchase.
• Several pasta stations featuring house-made pastas
• A pizza station with thin-crust pies made in a Cuppone electric oven
• A full bar, plus Illy coffees and espresso
• Desserts such as tiramisù, panna cotta, mascarpone mousse, and chocolate mousse
• A space completely transformed from its previous occupant. “I believe it was a Blockbuster,” says Anthony Felli, a vice president of operations for Vapiano.


Buyers' Market

Part store and part café, Urban Orchard (5212 N. Clark St.; 773-754-7235) opened September 10 in Andersonville. The store sells farmers’ market goods all year long, from standbys such as Mick Klug Farm, Q7 Ranch, Black Earth Meats, and Kilgus Farmstead and less familiar vendors, such as Michigan’s The Pierogi Place and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm. The café seats 20 and serves sandwiches, salads, and Metropolis coffee. A partner in Urban Orchard, Jim Machniak, says a second location is near opening at 688 North Milwaukee Avenue, with a full commercial kitchen and outdoor space for a market atmosphere, weather permitting. Weather permitting? C’mon, it’s not a real farmers’ market unless there’s a farmer soaked to the bone and dripping on the kale.


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Things to Do

1. Hit up the ATM (conveniently, there’s one just across the street) and head to Zocalo (358 W. Ontario St.; 312-302-9977) for a cash-only $20 prix fixe deal offered every Monday from 5 to 10 p.m. The three-course meal includes your pick of an appetizer (we’ll take the lamb and pork empanadas), a main course (ancho-and-guajillo-marinated tilapia, please), and a dessert (those cinnamon-sugar buñuelos sound tasty).

2. Embrace autumn at the Evanston Harvest Celebration, where chefs from Quince, The Publican, Chef’s Station, and others will whip up seasonal dishes in the name of charity (proceeds benefit Friends of Evanston Farmers Markets) tomorrow from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Now We’re Cookin’ (1601 Payne St., Evanston; 847-570-4140). Tickets cost $75 and include tastes of the chefs’ creations and two drinks.   

3. Sink your teeth into what the Chicago magazine restaurant critic Dennis Ray Wheaton calls “hands-down the best barbecue chicken I’ve had in Chicago”: the dry-rubbed, slow-smoked bird at Smokin’ Woody’s (4160 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-880-1100).


Dot Dot Dot . . .

He’s wowed us in the kitchen for years, and in March, we’ll see if Rick Bayless can hack it as a stage actor, when he stars in Cascabel, a circus show—complete with a three-course meal prepped at Frontera Grill and served to the audience—produced specially for the chef by Lookingglass Theatre. . . . Erin Mooney (Trio, Green Zebra) has been passed the spatula at Custom House Tavern; the new pastry chef picks up where Bryce Caron left off before heading to Blackbird. . . . Patrón’s Hacienda (316–318 W. Erie St.; 312-642-2400), a sister restaurant to Alejandra’s in Northlake, brings much of the Alejandra’s menu, plus marinated steaks and build-your-own tequila flights with sangrita chasers, to River North when it opens Friday. “We would like to see ourselves as the first Mexican steak house,” says Luís Corona, a partner. The steak marinade grew out of a Corona family recipe, enhanced by Miguel Nava, a friend of Luís’s father and the chef at both Patrón’s Hacienda and Alejandra’s (which is named for Luís’s mother). . . . Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta Express, the mini-chain’s first takeout- and delivery-only storefront, opens Friday at 800 North Dearborn Street. Owner Rudy Malnati Jr. says they’ll crank out pies from this location until 4 a.m.