The "energetically American, French-influenced" Henri is more than an elegant follow-up to its boisterous neighboring sibling, the Gage. It's a smart kick in the dangling prairie oysters of gastropubbery: chandeliers, Laguiole knives, velvet walls (with faux gator skin in the bathroom), salt and pepper shakers, ballotines, bouillabaisse, and escargots de Bourgogne? I'm pretty sure owner Billy Lawless wheels in the gray Gold Coast nobility that occasionally collects here on nights when the elevator ride up to Everest would inflame the gout.
It does seem like Gage executive chef Dirk Flanigan, abetted by chef de cuisine Chris Cubberly (Delacosta, Brasserie Ruhlmann), stopped a little bit short of the canyon's edge, with options for killjoys such as a short-rib-topped burger or a pair of pizzas (pissaldière to you, François) with funky raclette and a crust that beats some of the more recent entries into the wood-fired pizza racket. But listen to your grandpapa: if you want a burger, why don't you just go to the Gage?
Shellfish towers, game of the day, and plats du jour—remember steak au poivre?—are simple and unsullied by pointless reinvention. Dover sole meunière, the dish that made Julia Child fall in love with France, is a crispy, perfectly browned if fat fillet with a supertart sauce of lemon, butter, and capers; it comes with a side of simple buttered baby vegetables. A wild boar special one night, twin Devils Towers of sinewy, almost beefy meat, also arrived with those buttery carrots and haricot verts. A white-bean cassoulet is as old-school as it gets, with the exception of a garnish of crispy fried kale.
But one of the most memorable plates is a lobster and foie gras "Wellington," reimagined with a juicy plug of good spinach inside and a pastry encasement that felt like it should have been lighter and flakier but through some fortunate accident arrived soft and doughy—as good as the very first bite off the dim sum cart when you haven't eaten a thing all day. Along with tweaks like a smoked steak tartare or tuna crudo with salted pineapple sauce, it shows both restraint and imagination.
The sometimes overpresent, earnest staff has been drilled to effortlessly compliment nearly every choice a diner makes. I made the tone-deaf mistake of interpreting "I don't sell enough of that" as an endorsement for a painfully salty rabbit consommé.
A good way to get your bearings in this new-old-world spot is to start with a drink mixed by Clint Rogers (Graham Elliot, Nightwood, the Gage), a confident and engaging presence behind the bar. He's developed a winning cocktail program based on reinterpreted classics and, in collaboration with sommelier Shebnem Ince, a few terrific wine-based cocktails—in particular a mai tai with almond-infused grappa subbing for syrupy orgeat. Ince's largely biodynamic wine list is another smart adaptation to the present.
If the food and drink at a place like this were to suck, we'd call it the whole thing antiquated, inauthentic, or even cynical. I'm going to call it neoclassical—and a pretty fun place to eat. —Mike Sula[Editor's note: Clint Rogers left Henri in 2012.]
Chicago's apparent indifference to the izakaya—the traditional Japanese pub dealing in beer, sake, and shochu in equal importance to small, unfussy, inexpensive plates—has already killed several recent attempts at the form. So now the civically named Chizakaya, from chef-owner Harold Jurado (Sunda, Japonais, Trotter's), has perhaps been unfairly cast by the opening hype as the city's last chance for a concept that's proved reasonably successful in other North American burghs.
It's important to remember that even in Japan, izakaya vary as widely as barstaurants here do. Still, Chizakaya feels less like a comfortable, friendly bar than a small-plates restaurant with a remarkable sake list (curated by former L2O sommelier Chantelle Pabros)—its conviviality is in some ways hobbled by fine-dining touches.
Behind a dark, cheerless front dining room and bar, in a stark room heated by an open kitchen, chef de cuisine Robert Rubba (another L2O vet) executes Jurado's wide-ranging menu before a pair of communal tables, most notably a selection of simple $3 yakitori: skewered fatty chicken skins, squeaky gizzards, steaky ribbons of beef tongue, juicy white turnips, and shisito peppers. Along with bites such as florid, delicate pig ears deep-fried pork-rind style, plates of pickles, and slices of hamachi sashimi layered with rich, fatty bone marrow, these are exactly the sort of alcohol-abetting snacks that keep salarymen drinking and singing without horking (too soon) into their sake boxes.
But other plates aren't quite as effortlessly eaten. Three crispy chunks of pork belly are suspended on a skewer over a deep little glazed bowl containing a gorgeous slow-poached egg, with no clear instructions how on the two components are meant to be integrated. Raw beef liver isn't an uncommon item in izakaya, but I'm not sure Chicago's ready for beef liver "sashimi," so quoted because it's cold-smoked, a process that renders it raw-like but unappealingly pasty. A deconstructed congee with fresh corn to one side and blue crab requires just enough attention to make you forget you came to drink, and the braised pork ramen is so packed with noodles, in relatively little broth, that it requires Hoover-level strength to slurp up.
Sections of miso-crowned Japanese eggplant dissolve between their toughened purple skins, a bowl of clams in beer takes on the taste of burnt coffee from black garlic, and a roasted hamachi collar—really one of the most soul-satisfying pieces of fish you can pick away at—arrives overcooked and mean, like something you'd eat only if nothing else were left.
Whoever controls the restaurant's Twitter feed has at times in its first month seemed sensitive to the suggestions that it's not an actual izakaya. But if the kitchen could consistently execute every dish as well as it does the crispy, greasy-good deep-fried chicken thighs (improved with swipes in a pool of dashi mayo) or the cold soba noodles with feathery shrimp tempura, nobody would care at all how authentic it was. —Mike Sula
In the last decade the capitalism that's spread through Vietnam like a zombie virus has spawned large, comfortable, urban restaurants with carefully diverse menus—particularly in hotels, mostly catering to tourists. But for the most part even casual family spots with exhaustive variations on soup and a dozen different rice plates (like you'll find on Argyle Street here) are in the minority. And places that capitalize on nostalgia for the French-colonial past (looking at you, Le Colonial)? Well, Uncle Ho is still kind of a big deal there, even if he's rolling in his granite mausoleum.
The great majority of prepared food for sale is cooked on the sidewalk or in small street-level restaurants that specialize in one or two things. No food seller in Vietnam touts his use of fresh ingredients—it just goes without saying that it's a priority.
Sawtooth, a three-story Vietnamese lounge in the West Loop, gets that part right. The freshness of its output—down to the ubiquitous salad of herbs, greens, and pickled carrot and daikon that accompanies practically every dish—can't be faulted. But Westerners who assume Vietnamese food is as assertive as more familiar South Asian cuisines such as Thai will be surprised here—not because the flavors are more subtle and nuanced, but because Sawtooth dumbs it down.
Of the handful of well-known soups culled from the universe of Vietnamese bowls, canh chua is the most out of whack: the tamarind-based catfish soup, studded with tomato and pineapple, should have a tartness to balance the cloying sweetness prevalent here. The pho bo (available small or large) has a deep, beefy-flavored broth, but you'll find no meatballs or soft, pliant tendons to add texture to the sliced filet mignon, and only dainty plates of bean sprouts and mint and a few dabs of chile and hoisin sauce to fine-tune it to your liking. Congee is bland by definition, but Sawtooth's tastes like watery gruel, even when loaded with plump sea creatures.
Claypot catfish (ca kho to) is probably the homiest dish represented—sections of fish braised in a caramel sauce with none of the faintly bitter burnt-sugar flavor that should make it deep enough to eat on plain rice. Simpler dishes like bun thit nuong cha gio (grilled pork and plump deep-fried spring rolls over cool rice noodles) or thin fish-sauce-marinated pork chop are a bit less disappointing. Then again, there's no reason you should be paying twice as much for them here as you would around Broadway and Argyle.
Even when the menu stretches, it doesn't reach deep. The turmeric-seasoned freshwater fish dish cha ca is a Hanoi specialty I've never seen on any menu in town. Usually it's fried in oil at the table and eaten family style, but here it's plated ignominiously, without the requisite funky shrimp paste or the wild bouquet of uncommon but not unavailable Asian shrubbery.
Sawtooth has pretensions as a club spot (pretensions not unheard of in Vietnam), and the young staff are probably better-looking than anyone who's eaten there. At a certain late hour on one visit, they seemed to cluster at one end of the bar and stare vacantly over each other's shoulders every time I needed one of them most. If they were gazing at the future of Vietnamese food in Chicago, I don't think I want to be around to see it. —Mike Sula
New Too: Eleven more recent openings
2221 N. Lincoln | 773-698-8456
CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11
Holly Willoughby, formerly a cook at David Burke's Primehouse, applies vaguely French preparations to steak-house-size portions on a stretch of Lincoln Avenue that should otherwise be quarantined to contain the ballcap-wearing adherents of the Dave Matthews cult. In this narrow room adorned with small details of paintings commonly featured in art-history textbooks, preparations include a too-salty duck-confit crepe (or was that a burrito as big as your head?), a deep bowl of fat, leaden gnocchi, ragged slices of duck breast over roasted squash, and a half roasted chicken clumsily swimming in an overly acidic white wine broth with mushrooms, kalamata olives, and potatoes. A lot has been made of Willoughby's commitment to buying from local farms, and I'm curious about where she found one still growing asparagus in September. —Mike Sula
1829 W. Chicago | 312-243-1535
Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Tuesday-saturday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday till 11
One look at the nightly specials menu at West Town's Arami should jar anyone out of his sushi-ordering routine. Sushi chef B.K. Park, a veteran of Mirai, Meiji, and Aria, leaves the spicy-mayo-tempura-crunch frippery to everyone else, instead focusing on the fundamentals of traditional Japanese cooking: rice, fish, soy, seaweed. Park's sushi showcases outstanding quality and character across a wide variety of fish, both familiar (tuna, salmon, yellowtail) and less common (madai, kampachi, shima aji). Even if you don't opt for omakase (chef's choice), pieces arrive in an experience-enhancing progression, starting with the most delicate and ramping up in intensity throughout the meal. The whole aji (horse mackerel)—sliced off the bone into silvery wisps and artfully reassembled and arranged with flowers—is a spectacular beginning. At the top end of the intensity scale is the toro hand roll, in which incredibly rich tuna belly is chopped into smooth submission, fat threatening to melt into the rice—it's an instant candidate for last-meal consideration. Superpremium California Tamaki Gold is the rice of choice here. Cooked and seasoned to exacting specs, the tangy grains barely cling together when formed into bite-size fingers for nigiri. Despite all the attention to tradition, Arami isn't some hushed temple of sushi. The simple space is casual—hipsters, families, and neighbors quickly fill up the small room on any given night. Arami's BYO days are numbered, but I'd expect an interesting beverage program from owners Troy and Ty Fujimora, who also own Small Bar and the Exchange. —Kristina Meyer
2569 N. Milwaukee | 773-358-2569
BAKERY, FRENCH | MONDAY-friDAY 7 AM-7 PM, Saturday 9 AM-6 PM | CLOSED SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Scene: Vincent Colombet stands silently behind the counter making crepes, jaw grimly set while his workers awkwardly explain to one customer after the next that they cannot a sell a single of his exquisitely flaky croissants, pain au chocolate, pain almond, or pain raisin because the coffee shop next door says no. If lack of access to the Parisian-bred baker's pastries wasn't so frustrating, it would actually make a wicked French comedy. Instead Colombet—who after all should have known what he was getting into—must bag them by the dozen (at $27 per) in order to comply with a noncompete agreement in his lease that allows the neighboring New Wave Coffee to sell an inferior specimen that in the end costs more than a dollar more. That's the sad reality, but this Logan Square retail outpost of Colombet's Elston Avenue bakery and cooking school also happens to produce transporting boules, batards, and baguettes—which certain LS denizens have been using as picket-sign posts to wave in front of New Wave. While these wondrous breads are baked and delivered three times daily from the mothership, methodically griddled crepes sweet (passion fuit, chestnut, blueberry) and savory (ratatouille, chicken, ham, cheese and egg) tempt customers along with a with a motley assortment of French imports (sea salts, chestnut puree, snacks and candies). One way around the pastry embargo: customers can pool money and combine orders with others in line. Barring that, the unspoken benefit of having to buy a dozen of Colombet's croissants is that you'll have a dozen of Colombet's croissants. —Mike Sula
1818 W. Wilson | 773-293-2489
DELI | Tuesday-thursday 6 AM-8 PM, Friday 6 am-9 PM, saturday 8 am-6 PM, sunday 9 am-6 PM | CLOSED MONDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Self-described "writer, performer, Jew" Cleetus Friedman got his start on the stage in Chicago, and his long-awaited Ravenswood deli City Provisions is its own kind of arena, with an ensemble cast of fine products from Illinois and three neighboring states. Born of Friedman's catering business and monthly supper-club series, the market and deli has an unprecedented list of local vendors whose products are sold either packaged or prepared in sandwiches, sides, salads, and pastries: Seedling, Tomato Mountain, Snookelfritz, Spice House, Co-op Hot Sauce, North Shore, Death's Door, Koval, Three Floyds, Dietzler Farms, Gunthorp, Metropolis, and many, many more. Any initial fears that the sandwiches are out of proportion to their not immodest price ($7.95-$9.95) should quickly dissolve: as long as you're not trying shove them down your piehole in three bites there's no reason not to be more than satisfied by ample layers of house-made smoked, roasted, or corned meats. (Michael "Pay more, eat less" Pollan would be proud.) Sides such as sweet mashed celery root or curried red pepper polenta, or even the rare creation of distant provenance—say, sweet and snappy (and sustainably farmed) Laughing Bird shrimp salad—all offer some reason to feel both virtuous and gratified. The entire operation, down to Friedman's in-house butchering and processing (yielding precious lardo and three kinds of house-made bacon), showcases the enormous potential of the local-food movement like no place else. —Mike Sula
6 W. Hubbard | 312-494-3288
AMERICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL MIDNIGHT
Housed in the former Vong's Thai Kitchen, this upscale diner from the people behind Rosebud is filled with red booths and generic lighting; the staff, equal in number to customers on a midafternoon visit, make a production about keeping your water glass full to the brim, yet make you languish when it comes time for the bill. The menu is a hodgepodge, with breakfast (served only till 11 AM), escargots alongside a lox platter and a $15.99 foot-long Kobe beef hot dog wrapped in puff pastry, sandwiches and burgers, rotisserie chicken, steaks and chops. A salad Niçoise (also $15.99) came with oddly bland ahi tuna and two fat anchovies, something I welcomed but should probably be noted in the description. That same bland tuna features in an ill-conceived ahi BLT with bacon, hard-boiled egg, lots of red onion, and a barely discernible lemon-dill aioli. Portions are large, but that's not a selling point when the food just merits picking at. —Kate Schmidt
1467 N. Milwaukee | 773-360-7650
Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 2
The food menu here is nothing if not concise: a few appetizers and four sandwich-type items, including chicken on pita. The half-dozen cocktails at this new Wicker Park venture by two veterans of the Matchbox and the Silver Palm are similarly restrained: mostly classics like gimlets and manhattans, well balanced and not overly sweet. The sense of balance extends, unexpectedly, to the Hog's Boss sandwich, consisting of pork loin with bratwurst and chipotle mayo, the richness cut by bacon-laced sauerkraut. Crispy french fries were beautifully studded with coarse salt, but the house-made rosemary potato chips were a little lacking in that department. Intended more as bar snacks than entrees, sandwiches are on the small side, which means that at $8 the most expensive ones aren't exactly cheap. Still, they do come with fries, chips, or onion rings, and the Gunner's Burger with bacon and egg was worth the price. There's no beer on tap; the selection of bottles is undistinguished. Bell's Oberon is pretty much all there is as far as craft beer goes, and the imports don't get much more interesting than Sapporo. —Julia Thiel
1133 W. Granville | 773-761-9700
AMERICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY; dinner: tuesday-saturday | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | closed Monday | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED | byo
The sister restaurant of Andersonville's überpopular brunch spot M. Henry, M. Henrietta offers pretty much the same menu with one major addition: dinner. Overall it's executed as well as the fare that induces fans to wait hours for a table at M. Henry, though it can be a bit pricier if you're doing appetizers and dessert. Our crab and shrimp cakes and pancetta-wrappped baked polenta were both excellent but seemed on the small side considering that they were about $8 apiece. An entree of potato-rosemary flatbread with poached eggs, prosciutto, and pesto was equally good and much more generous portionwise. The only real miss was bone-dry and oddly spiced roasted pork shoulder served shredded on a bed of equally dry jasmine rice. Still, service was friendly and very competent, and there are free refills on the fresh-squeezed lemonade. —Julia Thiel
1725 W. Division | 773-697-9535
ASIAN, JAPANESE | Lunch: Saturday & Sunday; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30
Makisu Sushi Lounge & Grill is a great place for people who like to eat sushi in a loud club, prefer vodka over gin, and enjoy techno at dinner. The new Wicker Park outpost, in the former Fuel space, is the city cousin to the original Skokie location of the same name. Though there are a few teriyaki dishes that utilize the grill, the menu skews more towards sushi—specifically giant maki rolls stuffed full of so many different fish they could stand in as the turducken of the sea. What makes the unfortunate combination of yellowtail, salmon, tuna, asparagus, and pico de gallo warrant the moniker Hama Chi-town Maki is unclear, but it's probably the same logic that went into naming the Wicker Park Roll, which consists of lobster tempura, barbecue eel, shiso, tobiko, and spicy mayo. There's enough use of sweet soy, "mercy" mayo, cream cheese, and deep-fried crunchies to ensure that no one can tell a Kamikaze roll from a Rock and Roll. In fact, you can't really taste any of the fish in these rolls—which might not be a bad thing. Unadorned nigiri and sashimi reveals fish that's mediocre at best, about the same quality you'd find in the refrigerated case at your local supermarket. —Kristina Meyer
3281 W. Armitage | 773-252-9652
BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, BURGERS | LUNCH: SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | open late: saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
The decor at this new Logan Square spot seems set on smacking you upside the head with a bag full of—well, I'll give you one guess. Surrounded by ominous orbs and strange-looking planets hanging from the ceiling, perched on the booths, and painted on the walls, I suspected I'd been removed to the set of a 1950s sci-fi horror movie, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. You have to look past the mesmerizingly gaudy interior to get to what matters: fried, greasy, cheap (and do I mean cheap) bar food. Opened by the former owners of Cleos, Marble features a menu chock-full of burgers, wings, hoagies, pita pizzas, salads, and whatever else gets better once cheese and ranch dressing are involved. The burgers are just four bucks (half-price on Wednesday) and feature a slew of topping options, like adding avocado and/or Italian beef for 50 cents a pop. A triple-decker turkey club is a mere five dollars, and an order of 20 wings will run you $5.50 ($2 on Thursday). Combine those specials with a nice beer selection and a good-size outdoor patio, and you've got yourself a pleasant Logan Square weeknight destination. —Kevin Warwick
50 E. Walton | 312-573-1600
BAKERY | MONDAY-SATURDAY 9 AM-7 PM, SUNDAY 10 AM-6 PM | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
"Please keep door closed. This helps us maintain the freshness of our cupcakes," says a sign on the door at Sprinkles, the Gold Coast import of the Beverly Hills cupcake shop. In the storefront alcove—dotted with their signature cupcake pasties—are TVs with Access Hollywood surprising Victoria's Secret models with the treats before they head down the runway. They lick the icing. A sweet smiley face asks me what I want and I tell her, forking over my whole week's lunch money—the cupcakes are $3.25 each, $36 for a dozen, in flavors that range from black-and-white, dark chocolate, and red velvet (all available daily) to chai latte, ginger-lemon, and seasonal specials like caramel apple. I ride the train home with my box full of cupcake action; my wife is giddy to see me with my package. So much icing, but definitely not too much. Bliss. —Fred Sasaki
1059 W. Belmont | 773-868-9900
Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday; dinner: seven days | Open late: Thursday-Saturday till 11
Matsuyama has morphed into Ukai, a deep storefront with a sit-down sushi bar; held over from the old place is a policy of offering smaller maki for lower prices (most are five pieces for $8, though you can get full size for $6 extra). Among the innovations: sushi chef-partner Choong J's rolls dedicated to Chicago sports teams and executive chef Paul Chant's fusion-y hot tapas. On our visit, fin fish were limited to salmon, yellowtail, tuna, and super white tuna. While we enjoyed them as nigiri and sashimi, we were wowed by a "raw" small plate of hamachi jalapeño, four slices of very fresh yellowtail with just enough sriracha, ponzu, and mustard seed oil, topped with a little grapefruit, jalapeño, and cilantro for a perfect balance of flavors and textures. Gomae reinvented as a spinach-wrapped maki stuffed with minced cucumber and kampyo also was a winner, enhanced by a fine powder called "cracked sesame and soy yuzu air." The tempura-fried Cubs roll (unagi, shrimp, mozzarella) won more points with us than the Sox one (super white tuna, cilantro, kampyo; inside-out and coated with black tobiko to match the team's colors). The best of our hot plates was rare-as-requested lamb loin with hummus; the worst, two tiny bites of foie gras with mushrooms. First-rate house-made chocolate lava cake came with green tea ice cream on the side. A prix fixe five-course meal ($25) changes monthly. —Anne Spiselman
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