The Food Issue: The Best New Restaurants of 2009 

From Browntrout to Zebda

Chervil crepe at Browntrout

Chervil crepe at Browntrout

Tammy Green

I hate the casual arrogance implied by those two words—the best—particularly when they're applied to the infinite universe of food, but really when they're applied to anything at all. You could spend a lifetime reading, listening, watching, eating, and chances are you still wouldn't have read, heard, seen, or eaten nearly enough to know what's "the best." And in a year when the relentless tide of new restaurant openings barely slows despite the crappy economy, it only becomes more improbable that anyone could definitively identify some platonic ideal of Best New Restaurant.

On the other hand, you don't need to spend too much time on Yelp to figure out that mediocrity loves a mob. There's something to be said for informed consensus. So, in consultation with the Reader's regular restaurant contributors, we've compiled a list of our favorite—the best, if you will—new restaurants . . . of the year . . . so far.

We've also come up with a list of places we really like but for various reasons not enough to call "the best." Second best, maybe. Better yet, honorable mention. —Mike Sula

Browntrout The unfortunate name (see urbandictionary.com) in fact commemorates a simply prepared rod-and-reel-caught fish that sustained chef Sean Sanders and his wife while they honeymooned in remote New Zealand. Sanders, a Bin 36 vet, doesn't have that particular species on his menu, but his signature golden trout is done "New Zealand style": a crispy crushed-walnut armor protects the luscious fillet, which is pan seared in brown butter and served with fresh peas and mint. It's an incredibly satisfying piece of fish, and emblematic of nearly everything I've sampled on Sanders's simple and easily navigable menu, which you can expect to change with some frequency.

A seemingly bottomless ramekin of light and fluffy brandade studded with sweet corn could have used a bit of salt, but for $5 it's hard to complain. Simple salads, like one of superfresh pea shoots and pea leaves gilded with an outstanding house-made ricotta, were as refreshing as morels and ramps with French breakfast cheese and potato gaufrettes were rich and intense. And Sanders's preference for simplicity doesn't rule out unorthodox presentations. The menu features a "pasta of the moment," which on one visit was a light, feathery pappardelle rolled upon itself with meatballs made of beef and pork and served with wild mushrooms—more like a messy dumpling than a plate of noodles, but very tasty. Silky sliced Amish chicken thigh with smoked pistachio mousse on polenta was among the most memorable poultry dishes I've tried recently, and grilled lamb sirloin sat atop an unforgettable celery root risotto, a saucy mound of starch also available as a $5 side.

Sanders has set grand goals for going green; to that end the restaurant features house-filtered tap and sparkling water, battery-powered votives, a rooftop garden, and a logo in which three leaping trout form a recycling symbol. We're at a point in time where these notions, like claims about the locality and seasonality of one's menu, are so common among new restaurants that a place like Browntrout runs the risk of getting lost in the stream. But it would be a shame to let that happen.  4111 N. Lincoln, 773-472-4111, browntroutchicago.com. $$$ —Mike Sula

Chilam Balam Twenty-three-year-old Chuy Valencia is only the latest—but possibly the youngest—graduate of the School of Bayless to come out of the Frontera/Topolobampo kitchens and stake his own claim. After a pit stop as chef de cuisine at Adobo Grill, in late August he opened Chilam Balam, a cramped but not claustrophobic subterranean spot offering a small-plates menu along with a list of monthly seasonal specials—mostly more antojitos plus a few larger plates.

It was a dish from the latter list that would crush my heart: a plate of roasted scallops in sweet corn chilatole, garnished with the year's last cherry tomatoes and wax beans. It disappeared from the menu the day after I ate it, as did a salad of the freshest, most vibrant tomatoes of the summer—with queso fresco, sunflower greens, and a chile-avocado dressing—and a mulatto chile-and-chocolate mole, so multidimensional with its shifting notes of bitter and sweet that I barely noticed the slices of lamb leg it was meant to accent.

Happily, not all the good stuff is so ephemeral. The braised mushroom-and-cheese empanadas remain, pockets so light and flaky I'm at a loss to explain how they can contain the earthy fungus, braised with pipian verde and epazote. Even something as mundane as a grilled hanger steak transcends itself, plated on a lava field of guajillo sauce. Solid but not quite so mind-blowing efforts include a cross-stacked plate of pasilla-glazed pork ribs accented with radish and queso fresco and a chocolate mousse with a tangy goat cheese core. But I'm scratching my head over the dessert empanadas stuffed with peanut butter and figs, as tough and leaden as the savory ones were miraculous. Still, in a crowded field of new upscale-Mexican, small-plate, and farm-to-table menus, Valencia's managed to distinguish himself in combining all three.  3023 N. Broadway, 773-296-6901, chilambalamchicago.com. $$$ —Mike Sula

Cibo Matto The name's Italian for "crazy food," but there's nothing inherently kooky about what's being served at Cibo Matto, the third and most anticipated of the new restaurants at the Wit Hotel. Still, compared to State and Lake, its relatively safe and boring downstairs neighbor, it is pretty remarkable—especially considering both are operated by the 16-unit empire Concentrics Restaurants. In fact, Cibo Matto could pass as Spiaggia's more playful, easygoing younger sibling.

What does an Atlanta-based operator know about how to play restaurant in Chicago? For one thing, it enlisted chef Todd Stein, who racked up a lot of goodwill in his time at MK and makes an impressive departure from the contemporary American he focused on there, shifting to irreverent upscale Italian with a slight preference for sea creatures. It's on the pricey side, with most antipasti and pastas ranging from $11 to $16 and entrees hovering around $30. So it helps that many of these dishes have compelling stories a server can sell: the grilled octopus gets simmered with a wine cork; the bone-in halibut fillet is custom cut by the purveyor to maximize flavor; mascarpone creamed spinach was repeatedly and unironically touted by one waiter as "off tha hook." In most cases the plates lived up to their pitches—that octopus, abetted by salsa verde and pickled pearl onions, might have been the most tender and perfectly cooked cephalopod I've preyed upon in recent memory, and the grilled halibut yielded all the promised flavor.

What's more, for every marquee item that delivered, I probably enjoyed two unheralded but quietly excellent dishes, beginning with a bowl of peppery bucatini carbonara with cured tomatoes, chiles, and a brilliant orb of duck yolk mixed in at the table—one of the greatest riffs on the classic I've ever had. The spaghetti alla chittara was every bit as good in terms of the quality of the noodles, just undercut by slightly overcooked shrimp. Crispy sweetbreads cross sectioned with fried lemon chips, juicy roast chicken exuding gusts of lavender, roasted chicken livers on polenta crisscrossed by slices of crispy duck "bacon," salty but rich quivering roasted scallops on celery root puree, and crispy seared trout all more than redeemed the loud, crowded atmosphere. 201 N. State, 312-239-9500, cibomatto.therestaurantsatthewit.com. $$$$$ —Mike Sula

click to enlarge Duck breast with Szechuan hot bean sauce at Han 202
  • Duck breast with Szechuan hot bean sauce at Han 202
  • Jonathan Tam

Han 202 This unusual Bridgeport Asian restaurant from the folks behind Evanston's late Restaurant Guan offers a prix fixe dinner of five expertly turned-out courses for $20—one of the best deals in town. Like any self-respecting chef, Guan Chen winces at the term fusion. But his judgment is too sound and his touch too deft for any of the excesses that dated label conjures.

Julienned green apple is dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, and two of the most aggressive ingredients you can think of—capers and truffle oil—applied with a master's restraint. For his beef and lemongrass salad Chen simply builds on the apple salad, adding the herb and tender glazed chunks of beef; it's completely different from the base but no less memorable. And a bowl of romaine laced with wakame seaweed, a harmonious preparation, is head-slappingly simple.

To say Chen makes things look easy, though, would be to overlook his facility with sea creatures, like a special of baby scallops, luscious, perfectly cooked, and served in spicy miso broth, or the just-over-wobbly scallops and shrimp he pairs with firm vegetables in a red seafood curry. Fourth courses move from sea to land with dishes like spicy lamb chops in bonito-plum sauce with sprigs of thyme and Chen's takes on Chinese-American classics like General Tso's chicken and orange beef. Light desserts—vanilla ice cream with a sphere of mango-tomato sorbet or an unpitted poached peach enrobed in green apple sorbet and sprinkled with poppy seeds—serve as a proper punctuation mark. 605 W. 31st, 312-949-1314, han202restaurant.com. $ —Mike Sula

click to enlarge Heirloom tomato salad at Nightwood

Nightwood The Pilsen venture from the Lula talent trust of Jason Hammel, Amalea Tshilds, and chef Jason Vincent, in tandem with designer Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler (Bar DeVille, etc), had the loyal Lulaphile base licking its lips for months in advance of its opening. When Hammel finally made it official in late May, the news practically took over my Facebook feed. This place could serve stale Cheetos and still have 'em lined up down Halsted.

So it's a testament to the team's creative vision that Nightwood is a lot more than just Lula South. Heisner's sleek design, simultaneously spare and luxe, sets the tone, from the clean cubism of the outdoor patio to the surprisingly comfortable modern squiggles of the chairs. The vibe is minimalist but polished, right down to the unnervingly attractive staff. The main dining room is both warm and airy, its dark walnut and iron tones set off by light-colored ceiling beams and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. On the other side of the central bar, a long counter runs the length of the open kitchen, where the crew, clad in casual gray T-shirts, tends the wood-fired grill that anchors the ever-changing menu.

The simple yet sophisticated seasonal food mirrors the elegant surroundings. I went with a party of five, so we managed to eat our way through half of that night's handwritten list. Some standouts included delicate grilled Wisconsin trout; half a juicy roast chicken complemented by peppery mustard greens; devastating pork belly; and a duck potpie whose rich flavors were teased out with a restrained, confident hand. Appetizers included a nicely balanced arugula and steak salad starring some flavorful roasted beets and a terrific duo of silken, miso-cured pork tenderloin and savory shank. My only complaints were with the desserts. The blueberry sour cream cake was pedestrian. And while a cup of fresh cherries and some milk chocolate dipping sauce was delicious—and you can't fault the purism at work—$8 sure seemed steep.

There's a changing menu of creative house cocktails and a roster of craft beers, though Pabst Blue Ribbon ("Wisconsin, lager") also makes the cut. The extensive wine list is weighted toward sustainable and/or biodynamic small producers and, like the menu and the restaurant design, demonstrates an abundance of taste, consideration, and savvy planning. The upshot? Go—and take your friends so you can eat off their plates. 2119 S. Halsted, 312-526-3385, nightwoodrestaurant.com. $$$ —Martha Bayne

Taxim Seems like Chicago's been waiting since the Bronze Age for someone to challenge the gimmicky orthodoxy of Greektown, a place to take tourists more than a place to take expectations of a memorable or original meal. But at Taxim, former caterer David Schneider, with the help of sous chef Jan Rickerl (Green Zebra, Scylla), has raised the bar for what passes as serious, interesting regional Greek food. The brass lanterns in this Byzantine lounge, a dramatic scrubbing of the late Wicker Park dive Big Horse Lounge, (dimly) expose some of some of the freshest yet oldest ideas in village cuisine: humble, seasonal ingredients in simple, wonderful dishes like fresh-shelled favas with yogurt and lamb confit, a recipe from a mountain region where the traditional use of animal fat reflected a scarcity of olive oil.

That's not to say Taxim is a bastion of tradition. Pomegranate-glazed duck gyros are an updated nod to street food, dressed in a thin, unstrained house-made yogurt that's deployed with amazing results in a number of savory dishes—from sauteed baby eggplant to a brawny (if dry) minced goat kebab—as well as on its own for dessert, accented with some tart candied kumquats. The moderately sized selection of hot and cold mezzes and large plates—which also includes supersweet roasted peppers, capers, and kefalograviera cheese and a phyllo-clad goat feta and ramp pie—just hints at Schneider's repertoire, which includes hundreds of recipes from Greece and Asia Minor. The all-Greek wine list (including several by the glass) is affordable and interesting; add to that a daytime yogurt bar in the front of the house and outdoor dining in season.  1558 N. Milwaukee, 773-252-1558, taximchicago.com. $$$ —Mike Sula

Xoco Anyone putting off a visit to Xoco because of the daunting lines that have become an unintentionally ironic hallmark of Rick Bayless's "quick-serve" Mexican street-food joint should know that the Chef Who Can Do No Wrong provides plenty to think about during the wait: The chalkboard menu lists half a dozen caldos and nine or ten tortas (from the wood-fired oven or the griddle), all made with bounty from the local boutique farms Bayless has championed throughout his ascent as well as his own considerable tillage. And action fans can thrill to the battery of line cooks frenetically constructing meals a few arm's lengths away. Still, there's a certain variety of grump who no matter what is going to stand in line, arms folded, and ask himself, Dammit, is there nowhere else in town to turn for a comparable ham-and-cheese torta under $11.50?

The answer is no. There is nothing like Xoco's jamon torta, griddled flat and layered with La Quercia prosciutto, seasonally variable organic Wisconsin cheddar, black beans, avocado, and chipotle mustard. The prices are justified by a singular dedication to superior products. An extreme but appropriate example: Xoco's headcheese and smoked tongue torta, made with naturally raised pork supplied by Wisconsin's Maple Creek Farm. The warm, crusty bread coddles thin, alternately chilled and warm sheets of offaly bits, dressed with spicy-sour pickled vegetables, tart creamy goat cheese, and earthy black beans.

Caldos, served only after 3 PM, are all more than meals in themselves, deep and substantial soups brimming with the same sort of meats available on the tortas but also vegetables, chile, avocado, and lime and maybe noodles or dumplings to boot. The brick-red short rib chile soup is filled with potatoes and chayote, and the tender chunks of braised beef just hold their integrity in the ballsy, well-balanced broth. The pork belly fideos, nutty vermicelli with thick squares of fatty pork, are too rich to slurp down in one sitting.

The third wave in Xoco's attack are the fresh-fried churros, best accompanied by bean-to-cup hot chocolate lightly spiced with chile or spiked with cow or almond milk. Though these are available all day long, they're the reason I still haven't gotten too deep into the breakfast menu, which may be the most varied set of offerings all day—empanadas, pastries, breakfast tortas, savory bread pudding. The dining area is cramped and awkwardly arranged, and a good number of seats face directly into a wall. But takeout is now available at breakfast and after 3 PM; if you want to eat in, mid-to-late afternoon is a relatively expeditious window.  449 N. Clark, 312-334-3688, www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.html. $$ —Mike Sula

Zebda The North African-leaning "modern Mediterranean" take-out partnership between Tassili Cafe owner Mohammed Djeddour and former Mundial Cocina Mestiza chef Katie Garcia still seems to be in a state of evolution, going from very good to better and better. Pastry offerings—such as fresh savory stuffed bastilla, which come with distinctly different fillings—offer one lucky surprise after another. One is stuffed with vermicelli, green olives, and fish; another, looking something like a cinnamon bun, is laced with carrots, zucchini, sauteed onions, and a spicy mix of turmeric, saffron, and cumin. A square phyllo pocket packed with shredded chicken, carrots, and raisins ("a Moorish thing," says Garcia) emits a fragrant burst of cinnamon when its flaky exterior is breached. Sandwiches on baguette or light, flaky m'smene flatbread feature bright herbal notes, yogurt tang, and fresh vegetables and meats in an intersection of colonial and Northern African influences. And everything else I've tried—from the salads to full entrees including tagines and kebabs—has been prepared with a comparably admirable degree of and attention to detail.  4344 N. Elston, 773-545-7000, zebdadeli.com. $$ —Mike Sula

Honorable Mention

Abuelo's Mexican Grill Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos, and tortas are well conceived and delicious: The chorizo sope, for instance, is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with piquant meat and artfully mounded with colorful cabbage. Shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with flavorful but not too hot salsa (imported from Canada!). The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak, medium rare and juicy, is served with sweet bell pepper, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you'd expect. Do drink the water: it's kissed with basil and lime. Afterward, tequila mousse and red velvet cupcakes. 2007 S. Damen, 312-733-0329. $ —David Hammond

Birchwood Kitchen There's not a shortcut to be found at this ambitious sandwich shop from former Pastoral cheeseman Daniel Sirko and partner Judd Murphy (also of Pastoral). Like every new venture these days it intones the mantra of local, seasonal, and sustainable. But here those words have real meaning, with ingredients on the menu of hot and cold sandwiches (including a make-your-own option with house-roasted meats) largely sourced in the midwest and served on Labriola and Red Hen breads. The prices reflect that commitment, with most sandwiches in the $6-$9 range, including hand-carved beef with wonderful funky brandied blue cheese, half melted on toasted sourdough; a club laden with juicy roasted turkey breast and thick-cut bacon; and grilled Gruyere with sweet caramelized onions. And if the braised lamb baguette comes off a bit dry all it needs is a dip in the jus. Burgers, offered after 5 PM, include a turkey burger with chipotle-sage aioli, a hamburger with bacon and Grafton aged cheddar, and a grilled salmon burger with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger. The additional selection of small plates, soups, and sides is augmented by a weekend brunch menu with items like a croque madame, Belgian waffles, and polenta and eggs. 2211 W. North, 773-276-2100, birchwoodkitchen.com. $ —Mike Sula

Ciao Amore A place with lots of ambition and space to grow, Ciao Amore is still getting its act together—but it promises to be quite a show. The cardboard-stiff Italian bread we started with and the cold coffee we closed with were sad, but what came in between was consistently delicious and at times exceptional. Chef Cesar Pineda responded enthusiastically to our request to just bring whatever was looking good. A salad of green beans, mozzarella, oregano, and garlic dressed in balsamic had marvelously simple flavors. Ciao Amore's zuppa Barese—the chef's mother is a native of Bari—was a rich and substantial cream soup of hard-boiled egg, noodles, and potato. Vegan-friendly minestrone was more like a dense vegetable stew infused with roasted garlic, a particularly savory take on a classic. Ethereal house-made gnocchi with cheese and pesto were draped in a fantastically lush spinach cream sauce. Osso buco had a delicate texture and sturdy taste and, laid on a bed of cavatelli splashed with a light vegetable-studded tomato sauce, was beautifully balanced. With most entrees between $16 and $22, Ciao Amore offers a high-value, high-quality dining experience; it's even BYO with no corkage fee.  1134 W. 18th, 312-432-9090. $$$ —David Hammond

Elate I'm a sucker for unexpected amenities, so when our server at Elate noticed we were wearing dark clothing and switched our napkins from white to black, I was already hooked. And the offer of free sparkling or still water (from the house's Natura filtration system), with bottles of each left on the table, sealed the deal at this restaurant in the eco-friendly Hotel Felix. It didn't matter that the small dining room spread around the bar felt a bit schizophrenic, with chandeliers hanging from the black-flocked exposed-beam ceiling and couches in several styles flanking the black-stained tables. The noise was a bother, but we ignored it as we tried to decode the one-page seasonal menu's categories: oysters, snacks, pizzas, fruits and veggies, plates, small plates, and charcuterie.

What we learned by sampling at least one dish from all the categories except oysters is that executive chef Randal Jacobs (DeLaCosta) favors deconstructions, fruit in his savory creations, and flat parsley. Fruit showed up in our charcuterie choice, smoked duck breast, which turned out to be six crostini topped with mascarpone, melon, frisee, and smoky, rosy poultry. Jacobs's spinach-salad skewer skewed the salade Lyonnaise deliciously, with more baby spinach than frisee, a featherlight chicharron replacing lardons, an egg "molten" instead of poached, and crema for even more richness. The octopus pastrami with mustard greens and rye consomme was less successful—it didn't conjure up the classic deli sandwich at all, despite the pastrami spice rub on the handful of tender tentacles. We liked the cracker-flat pizza with diced roasted beets, fennel, and ricotta salata, but too much salt marred both a snack of fried dough blobs with an oddly tart pesto and a "plate" of dainty pieces of halibut fillet with meaty chanterelles and shriveled mussels in a bacon-studded broth.

Frozen peach souffle on lemon pound cake in passion-fruit soup sounded better than it tasted, but moist flourless chocolate cake with a smear of cake batter, whipped cream, bananas, and burnt-caramel ice cream left us . . . elated. 111 W. Huron, 312-202-9900, elatechicago.com. $$$ —Anne Spiselman

Fianco Fianco is one of those low-key neighborhood Italian joints that often fly under the foodie radar. With its photo-lined exposed-brick walls, butcher-paper-covered tables, and high exposed-beam ceiling, the spacious storefront feels like a throwback. The modestly priced one-page menu showcased some atypical ingredients like saba (a sweet grape-must syrup), but little in the words suggested chef Matt Troost's considerable talent.

Then his chicken liver paté arrived—a dense, ultrasilky slab intriguingly paired with sharp grain mustard, salty-tart olives, sweet house-made strawberry preserves, and crostini. Delicately fried fontina-filled arancini on rapini pesto showed his skill with Italian mainstays, as did black mussels in buttery white wine spiked with herbs and chile flakes. Artful handmade pastas currently include heirloom squash ravioli with mascarpone and duck confit and black-pepper pappardelle with wild boar bolognese.

Troost's Achilles' heels are a heavy hand with the salt, which on one visit marred sweet, beautifully cooked sea scallops, and a tendency to use one too many ingredients—the moist trout on his summer menu was draped with assertive green olives, fennel, arugula, orange segments, cherry tomatoes, and escarole. But I loved the mocha and masala gelati—flavors change daily—and fans of bread pudding should not miss the gooey-rich chocolate version with caramelized bananas. The all-Italian wine list is small, carefully chosen, and affordable. Considerate service completes the picture. 3440 N. Southport, 773-327-6400, fiancochicago.com. $$$ —Anne Spiselman

Jam The fussed-up Ukrainian Village brunch spot Jam, which launched in mid-July in the tight, airless Damen Avenue space where Dodo expired, is a radically different animal from owner Jerry Suqi's nearby Chickpea. This time it's not Suqi's Palestinian mama in the kitchen but Jeffrey Mauro, formerly of Trotter's and North Pond (he also teamed with Suqi on the ill-fated La Pomme Rouge). Mauro, along with sous chef Mike Noll (Schwa), commands the open-air kitchen while Suqi prowls and expedites in the L-shaped dining area; and while the place is perfectly welcoming, it's the antithesis of Chickpea, with its kitchen-table vibe.

Early notices touted Mauro's sous vide malt custard French toast and eggy plates fashionably loaded with pork cheeks and belly, which gave me the impression that this was going to be the sort of brunching meant for blanketing uneasy stomachs and pounding heads. And indeed Mauro's egg sandwich, a French roll with slabs of meaty braised pork cheek covered in a lava flow of egg yolk, has a restorative quality, marred only by a cloying sweet-and-sour peach ketchup—a rare case of sugar failing to help the medicine go down. Buckwheat crepes stuffed with braised lamb are plated more successfully, with perfect spheres of Asian pear, but biscuits and gravy with satisfying chunks of rough-cut cotechino sausage are nearly undone by a gray shiitake gravy that looks far less appetizing than it actually is.

Some plates, particularly those categorized as lunch, are downright dainty and overcomposed, like the octopus: a few tentacles, a tuft of frisee, and a radial arrangement of pink grapefruit sections alternately dabbed with yellow ginger icing and crenellated with coins of dehydrated chorizo chips. Meals start with imaginative amuses, such as intensely anise-y fennel sugar-lemon custard doughnut holes, and you can wash it all down with Metropolis coffee or a juice du jour. 937 N. Damen, 773-489-0302, jamrestaurant.com. $$ —Mike Sula

Los Moles Vagabond chef Geno Bahena, one of Rick Bayless's most renowned (and elusive) disciples, returns to ply mole in this modest Lakeview spot. It's sparsely decorated by his usual peacock standards, and the menu isn't radically different from what we've seen before, with lots of moles in pretty presentations—like sliced duck breast cooked to exacting specifications in a mild pumpkin-seed mole, or the conceptual mar cielo y tierra, a combo of sea (shrimp), sky (quail), and land (lamb), each bedded on distinctly flavored, wonderfully complex green, white, and red sauces meant to symbolize the Mexican flag. But the dedicated tortillera who emerges in the dining room to press masa to order is a nice touch. Desserts were likewise well done, particularly house-made strawberry ice cream atop a chewy, rustic coconut pie and a light white dulce de leche cake special. In a city increasingly cluttered by average-to-disappointing Mexican fine dining, Bahena—despite past unpredictability—is still one the city's most talented chefs in this arena. I hope this time he hangs up his saddlebags and stays put.  3140 N. Lincoln, 773-935-9620, losmoles.net. $$$ —Mike Sula

Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar The main attraction at Humboldt Park's Rootstock, not surprisingly, is the list of small-batch beverages put together by a trio of Webster's Wine Bar vets. There are a good many interesting selections—including a passel of wines from Greece, Austria, and unusual spots like Slovenia—among the more than 60 bottles and 18 available by the glass. But executive chef Remy Ayesh's tight, well-curated menu of small and midsize plates, cheese, and charcuterie is no afterthought, peppered with items engineered to trigger Pavlovian gushes of saliva. Bar plates include a few sweet and savory duos, including bacon toffee with spiced mixed nuts. Deep-fried items—particularly the frites—are less well executed, and a trio of "crusts" were flimsy disks of topped naan, though the bourbon-glazed mushroom version, blanketed with gooey Vivace cheese, transcended the delivery system.

Among the generally solid larger plates, the loosely packed burger with bacon-scallion aioli is super, and the cognac-lamb sausage with braised chard and fresh celery hearts was a beautiful plate of complementary textures. This is a fine spot to take sip or two, dark and comfy with an outdoor patio that in warm weather brightens an otherwise stark intersection. 954 N. California, 773-292-1616, rootstockbar.com. $$ —Mike Sula

Shokran Renamed Shokran—meaning "thank you"—earlier this year, the former Blue Line Moroccan Grill & Bakery is an off-the-beaten-path ethnic restaurant destined to be dubbed a find. And with good reason: The nondescript storefront's back room, painted a vibrant burnt sienna with a scarf-festooned ceiling, photos of Fez on the walls, and fabric-covered banquettes, is a winsome setting for generous portions of exotic fare at affordable prices. The friendly, helpful service and BYO policy are icing on the cake. I'd return just for the bastilla—crisp baked phyllo layered with shredded chicken, crushed almonds, and hard-boiled eggs, then finished with powdered sugar and cinnamon—and the lamb Fez, my favorite tagine, here made with big chunks of honeyed lamb, prunes, and almonds and halved hard-boiled eggs.

Among our appetizers, spicy little meatballs in tomato sauce weren't thrilling, but the veggie sampler plate offered a nice introduction to the cold (too cold) dips: roasted pepper and tomato taktouka; the similar zaalouk, mellowed by eggplant; surprisingly mild spinach bakola supposedly spiked with green olives and preserved lemon; and tart carrot salad featuring big slices of the almost flavorless vegetable. Moroccan chicken, our other tagine, melded caramelized onions, green olives, preserved lemon, and saffron blanketed by house-made potato crisps, but the heavily cooked boneless, skinless chicken breast was less satisfying than authentic bone-in whole chicken.

House-made merguez sausage shows up in both the couscous and grill sections of the menu. The couscous side dish, topped with chickpeas, tiny lima beans, and golden raisins, could be a meal in itself. Bites, flaky fruit-filled mini pastries meant as morning snacks, were a perfect finish with the minty Moroccan tea. But if you're in a really indulgent mood, try the chocolate baklava. 4027 W. Irving, 773-427-9130, shokranchicago.com. $$ —Anne Spiselman

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