1357 W. Chicago
Karen Gerod was a photo stylist when she started baking cakes and cookies for her friends. Small surprise, then, that Swim Cafe, her new breakfast-and-lunch joint, is magazine pretty. Awash in mild, bright shades of aqua and sea foam green, the uncluttered room is filled out by three curved wood benches that resemble waves. They were designed and built by Gerod's husband, who also fashioned the white-topped tables. But though everything here looks just fabulous, the focus at Swim is on how it tastes. Gerod serves fresh, organic foods from local and socially conscious vendors--Ineeka Tea, Red Hen breads and croissants, Naked juices and smoothies, and java from Just Coffee, a fair-trade roaster based in Madison. She also uses them in her sandwiches, salads, quiches, and sweets. I can think of no more perfect treat for kids who've worked up an appetite across the street in the Eckhart Park pool than a PB&J on Red Hen's scrumptious chocolate bread. A tuna sandwich on pumpernickel gets a kick from capers, cucumber, and lemon, and a ham-and-cheese panini uses Jarlsberg cheese. All are served with your choice of green salad or seasonal fruit lightly accented with mint. Desserts vary, but with any luck the chocolate bread pudding will become a staple--served hot with whipped cream and berries, it's one of the most luscious chocolate concoctions I've had in some time. The tiramisu bread runs a close second: Gerod spreads two slices of chocolate bread (obviously she's a fan of the stuff) with a layer of mascarpone, cocoa, and espresso and accessorizes them with whipped cream, strawberries, and chocolate syrup. Gerod also bakes her own muffins and cookies, which she keeps diminutive by design--"small but rich" is her motto. As it happens, they also bundle nicely into lunch boxes decorated with vintage illustrations of swimmers, available for $8 empty or stuffed with cookies for $15. Bring one back and you'll get a 10 percent discount on the next meal you take away. --Susannah J. Felts
1576 N. Milwaukee
Francesca's Forno makes a significant departure from the Francesca chain's reliable if conservative fare with a menu dominated by small plates that cost less than $10 and cover virtually the entire Italian culinary landscape: Sicilian tuna, Calabrese-style potatoes, a half-dozen salami and cheese platters, four pizzas, octopus salad, an asparagus gratinati, and oven-roasted wild mushrooms, to name just a few. The flavors in an antipasto of roasted beets with Gorgonzola and a scattering of crushed hazelnuts worked beautifully. Sausage-style salami and sheep's milk cheese were also excellent, though portions were stingy even by small-plate standards. Squid-ink linguine in an aromatic chile-tomato sauce contained a decadent mass of lump crabmeat. We also ordered one of the few large plates, a grilled swordfish with roasted artichokes and a balsamic reduction. Though a bit dry, the fish was a nice example of the kind of thing Francesca's can do so well--simple and delicious peasant food. The space is where Soul Kitchen used to be, so you have the light coming in from both Damen and Milwaukee. And like all of its sister restaurants, this new Francesca's is really packing 'em in. --Chip Dudley
1745 W. North
Before I visited this latest one-named Bucktown eatery, I wondered: can comfort food be successfully paired with a high-design concept meant to attract fast-living foodies? Press materials claim Parlor will "trigger a familiar sense of comfort as if visiting a friend or family member's home." I don't know about you, but the clean lines and dun-colored palette of this handsome space are a far cry from my mama's kitchen. Parlor closes the gap by tweaking the food, mostly very well: meat loaf is rich and juicy, topped with apple-onion marmalade and shredded onion rings and bedded on creamy, unfussy mashed potatoes. The southern-fried chicken wings, buttermilk breaded, are a standout appetizer, served with blue cheese and roasted garlic, honey mustard, and smoked tomato mayo dips. There are retro cocktails--sidecars, Singapore slings--and other American classics like shrimp cocktail, burgers, mac 'n' cheese, and fried chicken and waffles. But the star of the show is the smoked pork, which shows up in a double-cut chop entree, a grilled cheese with bacon, and a side of pork and beans. Chefs Kevin McGuinnis and Tim Small smoke their own meat out back, where they'll add al fresco seating eventually. I'd almost brought a vegetarian friend, and I'm glad I didn't: she would've had to make do with appetizers and sides like chilled cucumber-mint soup and broiled tomatoes or settle for that ubiquitous sop to veggies, a grilled portobello sandwich. The pan-seared salmon entree, though nicely cooked, lacked the flavorful seasoning of everything else I tried, and the sweet potato cake it sat on had a disappointingly stringy texture. Parlor should realize that you can't be all things to everyone and proudly present itself as a carnivore's paradise. --SJF
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.