Restaurants: New Too, September 4, 2008 

Other recent openings

New TooOther recent openings

Hub 5151 W. Hubbard | 312-828-0051

$$Bar/Lounge, American, Global/Fusion/Eclectic| Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Thursday-Friday till 2, Sunday-Wednesday till midnight

As we dithered over half-finished plates in the packed dining room of Hub 51, the restaurant debut of Rich Melman spawn R.J. and Jerrod, my pal and I challenged ourselves to think of one nice thing we could say about it before we'd allow ourselves to escape. And we continued to sit, until our server blinked past the headlights in her eyes and began to twitch. Maybe I shouldn't blame her. It's not a place to puzzle over the unimaginative menu, or even expect a serious recommendation for what's particularly tasty (hummus? really?), but rather a place to direct your eyes around the room and try to spot a celebrity among the conventioneers. But should you actually be here to eat you might have trouble zeroing in on the tiresome and dissipated selection of sushi rolls, soft tacos, burgers, salads, and platters. There's a lot of fish on the menu, and if the serviceable ahi tuna poke—the only plate we had the strength to finish—is any indication, that might be the way to go. Otherwise you're taking your chances with bulked-up bar food like a heaping plate of pulled chicken nachos smothered in cold roasted-tomato salsa and half-melted, half-congealed cheese or an open-faced BLT, an overdressed disaster salad of frisee, bacon cut two ways, tomatoes, and blue cheese atop a thick piece of toast. Meatier plates feature usual suspects like braised short ribs, Chilean sea bass, and pork tenderloin, but grasping for something special, we were defeated by "The Dude," a $35 18-ounce model of stringy, supermarket-quality rib eye. The ramekin of Parmesan-crusted mashed potatoes it arrived with was . . . ummm . . . nice. Check, please. —Mike Sula

Mana Food Bar1742 W. Division | 773-342-1742

$$Vegetarian/Healthy, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

This Wicker park vegetarian spot from Susan Thompson (who also owns De Cero and Sushi Wabi) and Jill Barron (executive chef at De Cero) is small but pleasant, and the closeness of the tables in the outdoor seating area encourages conversations between strangers. While it's always nice to be able to grill the people at the next table about what they're eating, our waiter's suggestions were also good, especially the salad of Thai watermelon with cucumbers, spicy green chiles, mint, and lime. Other favorites were a blue cheese tart with caramelized onion and "sliders" of brown rice and mushrooms, served with spicy pickles that saved them from blandness (the menu also says they're served with spicy mayo, but I didn't notice it). Grilled corn on the cob with lime-chile powder was also good, although the chile powder overwhelmed the flavor of the corn a bit—fortunately, it was easy to brush most of it off. We didn't encounter any major culinary disasters, though the bi bim bop was unremarkable and went mostly uneaten. The option of ordering most menu items in small or large servings is nice—it's easy to taste several things without ordering way too much food, and if one item isn't a hit, it's no big deal. —Julia Thiel

Mexique1529 W. Chicago | 312-850-0288

$$$Mexican/Southwestern | Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch| Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Imagine the intensity of native Mexican ingredients, finessed with French exuberance, and you have an idea of what you can expect at Mexique. Case in point: pescamal, a seafood mousse tamal cooked in banana leaf and stuffed with crabmeat fricassee, the smooth tastes of cornmeal and crab sharpened and brought into focus with lemon confit. A trio of sopes combines escargots and chimichurri butter, avocado mousse and shrimp Provencal, and sweet plaintains with coconut and xico mole, harmonizing Native American and continental European accents. Chef Carlos Gaytan presents finely balanced flavors: pato al tamarindo is duck breast and rich leg confit in a slightly sour tamarind glaze and paired with Swiss chard that supplies a bitter note; the herb-crusted rack of lamb, lush and perfectly cooked, gets a counterpoint from delicately astringent sweet and spicy eggplant. Classic cochinita pibil is moist and luxuriant, perked up with piquant pickled onion, or you can have it Frenchified as rilletes, finely minced, almost spreadable meat, a beautiful example of Franco-Mexican fusion. All dishes show sensitive uses of chile heat, with condiments like mango-habanero couli and garlic-mulato chile essence. For dessert, an avocado pastry cream with crispy tortilla is another successful cross-cultural creation. At Mexique, fusing Mexican and French is no mere gimmick; it works wonderfully. —David Hammond

Mixteco Grill1601 W. Montrose | 773-868-1601

$$Mexican/Southwestern | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch| Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

Based on the name and the looks of the place, you might take Mixteco Grill for a nicer-than-normal diner, acceptable if unambitious. Don't be fooled: this is a restaurant set on greatness. The menu is pan-Mexican, featuring Oaxacan moles, Pueblan salsas, Guerrerense meats, and other regional specialties. One bite into the fish tacos and my dining companion pronounced them her favorite ever. The pollito envinado, a little wood-grilled chicken served with red wine-guajillo sauce, gave me new hope for restaurant chicken, too often drab and tasteless, like tofu with legs. Cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan classic, is pork slow cooked with achiote and other relatively mild spices, then perked up with pickled onions and incendiary habanero salsa. Delicate handmade tortillas add to every dish. Though entrees fall within the $15-$20 range, Mixteco Grill is BYO and that, along with the graciousness of the serving staff, makes dinner here a pleasant, not pricey, experience. —David Hammond

Perennial1800 N. Lincoln | 312-981-7070

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days

Situated in a primo piece of real estate—on the ground floor of the new Park View Hotel, facing the Green City Market—Perennial is for the most part a solid homecoming for chef de cuisine Ryan Poli (formerly of Butter), who's working under the aegis of executive chef Giuseppe Tentori (Boka). There's a rustic and seasonal simplicity that's occasionally sideswiped by some untamed flourishes: a sweet peekytoe crab salad was all but destroyed by a bitterly acid avocado mousse that's in the running for one of the worst things I've eaten all year, and the short-rib cannelloni that accompanied some otherwise beautiful seared sea scallops was a textural nightmare of overmanipulated manky meatstuff. Overall, though, Poli is working excellent ingredients into appealing, often colorful creations, from Roman-style crusty baked cylindrical semolina-beet gnocchi with a thick walnut puree to a portobello carpaccio salad with pickled garlic and diced prosciutto vinaigrette executed in such a way as to make the meaty fungus almost diaphanous. A striped bass fillet with crisp, silvery skin in a bath of Parmesan-tomato jus stirred up happy childhood memories for a tablemate, who compared it to alphabet soup. The simplest dishes were the most impressive: a lamb duo of chops and spicy braised loin with eggplant chutney, a lush foie gras torchon on the charcuterie plate, and a watermelon-tomato-olive-oil salad that should be devastating at high tomato season. This is one of the most boring restaurant neighborhoods in the city, so Perennial ought to be valued by locals as well as hotel guests. —Mike Sula

Piccolo Sogno464 N. Halsted | 312-421-0077

$$$Italian | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Ex-Coco Pazzo chef Tony Priolo and vino pro Ciro Longobardo's Piccolo Sogno, or "little dream" as the name translates, looks great on paper and in person with a range of touchstone though not tired pan-Italian dishes; a thoughtful, affordable regional wine list that spans the Boot; one of the most idyllic outdoor dining areas in the city—and on most evenings, a parking lot packed with Beamers and Lexuses. Good for them, but I'd caution any paying customer to keep dreaming if they expect to be transported to some mythical Italian Eden where the flavors in the margherita pop just as brightly as those in the risotto. Priolo certainly hasn't inherited the Italian talent for moderate portion control, either—his admittedly affordable main courses tip an Olympic scale. And working through flat-flavored but ample meaty dishes like thick slabs of Roman-style porcetta or wine-braised beef brasato takes effort, especially in the aftermath of overpowering earlier courses such as greasy fried fontina-stuffed zucchini flowers, a sprawling plate of drying prosciutto, or a carpaccio with cremini mushroom whose natural earthiness is suffocated with a cruel dousing of truffle oil that hits you halfway from the kitchen. Aquatic creatures are treated little more delicately: a Sicilian-style piece of tuna with vegetables, raisins, and almonds was dangerously overdone, as were the poor pieces of monkfish fish in a cioppino (aka "sapore di mare"). Someone knows what they're doing with pastas though, particularly the house-made green-and-white fettuccine with veal ragu, boiled not a minute too long and sauced with restraint—though a half portion ought to do ya. But if you subscribe to the notion that real Italian food is simple and dependent on superior ingredients for its magic, it's hard to reconcile the meticulous sourcing the restaurant claims on its Web site with what turns up on the plate. Service was well-informed, apologetic, and practically heroic in reaction to a kitchen that was clearly in the weeds. Maybe there's hope Priolo's dishes will sing if his crew learns to keep up with the crowds. But not if the throngs lose patience first. —Mike Sula

Real Tenochtitlan2451 N. Milwaukee | 773-227-1050

$$$Mexican/Southwestern | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | open late: Friday & saturday till 11 | BYO

"Is that Rick Bayless?" my daughter asked as chef Geno Bahena swept through his dining room at Real Tenochtitlan. Although one is ripped and the other rotund, one boyishly tousled and the other continuously kepi-capped, her confusion was understandable: the Bayless spirit hangs heavily upon Bahena's new venture, and it's reinforced by the restaurant's Web site, which cites Bayless almost as frequently as Bahena, who works steadily within the Chicago tradition of higher-end panregional Mexican cuisine. A mole master, Bahena prepares knockout pumpkin seed butter for dry pack scallops and a pleasing plum sauce for venison; his rendition of the now ubiquitous lamb in mole negro expertly balances the meat's aggressive flavor with a complex blend of seeds and spices. Using raw materials from local farmers is now de rigueur (see Frontera Foundation), and Real Tenochtitlan surfs this laudable wave with artisanal products from local producers like Gunthorp and Little Sugar River farms, dutifully credited on a menu studded with Mexican selections like Tarascan corn soup and uchepos from Michoacan. Though the current BYOB policy can significantly reduce the bill, some might balk at being charged for chips and salsa, but oh well—that's the way they do it at Frontera. —David Hammond

Rosa de Lima2013-15 N. Western | 773-342-4557

$$South American, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

Peru gave the world potatoes, so you'd expect the country's signature tuber to be presented here with aplomb, and so it is: causa de camarones is a layered tower of grainy mashed yellow spuds alternating with shrimp salad, a study in subtle flavors and textures; papas a la Huancaina is a mound of potato disks drenched in creamy Peruvian cheese, dappled with olives and parsley in a rich, delicious mess. We eagerly slurped down parihuela, a savory bowl of steamed sea creatures in a complex broth of tomato, onion, and panca-red pepper cream. Belly-worthy chicken is marinated, roasted, and rendered even more delicious with seriously perky onion and tomato salsa. Peruvian beverages are made with care and fresh juices; the passion fruit sour—creamy and cool with egg white and ice—is a winning sip. The dessert combo of pisco-spiked rice pudding with mazzamora, purple corn cooked with sweet potato and fruit, looks and tastes really good. Rosa de Lima has an adventurous, reasonably priced menu worthy of exploration and featuring regional exotica like pumpkin puree with milk and butter and veal hearts skewered with (what else?) potatoes. —David Hammond

Viaggio Ristorante & Lounge1330 W. Madison | 312-829-3333

$$$$Italian | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Monday-Thursday till 11

From a distance Viaggio seems to have lassoed all the cliches of a pricey southern Italian red-sauce joint, beginning with a limited menu of pastas and meats dominated by tomatoes, peppers, ricotta, and bitter greens. I wasn't reassured when I walked in and found two mirrored disco balls hanging among the half-dozen flat-screens, half of which were playing, I kid you not, The Godfather, Part II. But chef Anthony Risoli, a transplant from south Florida, quickly disabused me of those assumptions, beginning with a plate of house-roasted sweet-hot peppers and a basket of Turano's bread to sop up the oil. All four ample appetizers show a bold, but deft touch where things could so easily go off the rails: fried calamari tossed in a tomato sauce were sweetened with a drizzle of aged balsamic, and two tremendous, bready meatballs in red sauce provided a counterpoint to a pile of verdant romaine leaves. Both pastas we tried—the signature rigatoni in "Sunday" pork gravy with enormous chunks of tender pork and an ice cream scoop of ricotta and the linguine with fresh-shucked clams tossed with whole cloves of roasted garlic—were cooked perfectly al dente. Entrees like a gigantic pork chop (plated with more peppers set against nicely bitter rapini) and, Poseidon forgive us, a sea bass Francese special of silky fish in lemon butter sauce and topped with spinach and jumbo lump crabmeat are big enough to feed two. Rissoli is doing relatively few things exceptionally well—the quality of these familiar dishes is so high (and the portions so huge) that everything seems more or less in less in line with what may seem at first to be an excessively high price point. All I'd ask for is a few more southern Italian reds on the wine list. —Mike Sula

Yats955 W. Randolph | 312-820-7930

$Cajun | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Yats, the recently opened West Loop outpost of an Indiana restaurant group, updates its menu online daily, changing offerings based on ingredient availability and what happens to be bubbling in the kitchen. Most menu items are Cajuny or Creole-ish stews of some sort—jambalaya, chili, or etouffee involving meat, beans or corn, and lots of rice; vegetarian and/or vegan options are also usually on deck. Running a marathon? You couldn't pick a better place to carbo load. We liked the red beans and rice with andouille sausage, creamy and smoky, and black beans with caramelized corn, somewhat sweet and like many of the dishes, benefiting from a spritz with one of the hot sauces on the back table. Warning: the chili-cheese etouffee with crawdaddies, reportedly their best seller, is vile, gloppy with a cheeselike substance bearing an artificial note, somewhat similar to the bread, which sports a taste much like movie-theater "butter." Still, the folks who work here are right friendly, and the food is decently prepared and priced; a good ordering strategy is to get a "half-and-half," two half-portions of any two entrees for $6.80. The peanut butter pie—cream filled in an Oreo crust—is yummy. Yats is BYO; beer pairs well with most everything. —David Hammond

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