Cream of the Fresh Crop | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Cream of the Fresh Crop 

The year's best new restaurants, from down-home to high-end

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Aigre Doux230 W. Kinzie | 312-329-9400

F 7.7 | S 6.0 | A 6.8 | $$$$ (5 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Mohammad Islam and Malika Ameen, the married couple in the kitchen at Aigre Doux, have celebrity chef pedigrees (the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Jean Georges, Balthazar, Craft), and the promise of their new restaurant earned it blurbs in glossy magazines months before it opened. Given the boldface print, it's gratifying and somewhat surprising to discover that the food isn't crying for attention: it's simple, elegant, and good, full stop. Islam's dinner menu on my last visit offered graceful variations on New American ideas—for example, rack of lamb with truffled grits and fennel, an artichoke soup with Nantucket Bay scallops, mussels with a coconut curry sauce and butternut squash that are almost ethereally light. And Ameen's desserts should not be skipped: sticky toffee bread pudding with candied kumquats and Devonshire cream ice cream was shameless, over-the-top, and irresistible. —Nicholas Day

Al Primo Canto5414 W. Devon | 773-631-0100

$$$$South American, Italian | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Thursday-Saturday till 11

Georges Elbekai, a former partner in Semiramis, spent two years developing this Brazilian galeteria specializing in galeto al primo canto, marinated young grilled chicken (the stunning stainless steel churrasco was imported from Brazil). The menu reflects Brazil's multiethnic composition, starting with rich, silky baba ghanoush served with warm Lebanese-style pita and cheese bread. For $29.95, an all-you-can-eat "endless feast" comes to the table, beginning with a delightfully crisp polenta frita topped with Parmigiano Reggiano and pasta with three sauces (funghi, marinara, and aioli). Then comes the meat: crisp-skinned, flavorful chicken, tender grilled beef tenderloin, and luscious marinated lamb. Salads are nicely composed, and sides include cloud-light cheese puffs, seasonal vegetables, and crunchy double-cooked potatoes with an addictive Gorgonzola sauce. Under talented Brazilian-born chef Luciana Godoy desserts are a highlight as well: classic vanilla flan, warm guava cake with mascarpone sauce, and nutmeg-dusted acorn squash with cinnamon ice cream and caramel sauce, the topper. There are no sword-toting tarted-up gauchos to trouble you, and in all Al Primo Canto offers the churrascaria experience in a significantly more civilized manner than the downtown chains for a lower price. Items are also available a la carte. Gary Wiviott

Azucar2647 N. Kedzie | 773-486-6464

$$Tapas/Spanish | Dinner: Sunday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Monday, Tuesday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2; Sunday, Wednesday-Thursday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

Every dish on the tapas menu at Azucar sounded good, so among the four of us we tried nearly all 20 or so, along with a bottle of wine from the reasonably priced all-Spanish list. To start there was a salad of arugula and baby spinach with fennel, orange, and cherry tomato, supplemented by a cheese plate, two wedges of manchego served with almonds and fig jelly. Standouts as the evening progressed included beef empanadas on a fire-roasted pepper puree and albondigas—meatballs in a spicy-sweet piquillo pepper sauce with garlic jam—we ordered seconds of both. Four juicy lamb chops were redolent of vanilla, and a cheese-stuffed red pepper atop a chickpea puree was especially tasty. Our server spread clean napkins over our messy tablecloth before bringing dessert: a cinnamon-laden creme Catalan and a chocolate terrine with salted almonds, which reminded me of a dense Italian torta. Kathie Bergquist

The Bluebird1749 N. Damen | 773-486-2473

$$Bar/Lounge, Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Want some bacon with your porchetta? On the menu at the Bluebird, a late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar, it's hard to find anything not spiked with smoked pig. An otherwise relatively sane addition to the nightlife corridor stretching up Damen from the Wicker Park crotch, Bluebird's a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great—lots of cured meats and funky cheeses, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. But heartier main plates were something of a mixed bag. There's a deeply satisfying bowl of beer-braised rabbit with shallots, mushrooms, and (surprise) bacon over fettuccine. But the brined and smoked "baconed pork chop" tasted of nothing but smoke and salt—though maybe my taste buds were just numb by then. The wine list is organized by "climate"—IMHO a fairly useless conceit—but the by-the-glass options we tried were excellent. The extensive beer list is sophisticated and heavy on the Belgians, and the kitchen stays open till 2 on Saturdays, other nights till 1. —Martha Bayne

The Brown Sack3706 W. Armitage | 773-661-0675

$American, Ice Cream | Breakfast: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Lunch: seven days; Dinner: Tuesday-Friday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

It's a long way from Malaika Marion's first Chicago job at Planet Hollywood to her "soup, sandwich, and shake shack" on the western fringe of Logan Square. Most recently a manager at Lula Cafe, Marion's lived in the neighborhood for years and when she saw the teeny Armitage storefront she knew the time was right to break out on her own. She's turned the space into a sunny, six-table destination for hearty down-home standards like a gooey grilled peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich and beefarific chili laced with head-clearing handfuls of cumin and chile (a vegan version is also available). The daunting Reuben—a popular choice based on an unscientific peek at the other tables—comes piled with thick folds of corned beef topped with the traditional Thousand Island dressing and melted Swiss, plus grilled onions. There's also rich mac 'n' cheese, meatball subs, Goose Island root beer floats, and daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials. Martha Bayne

CJ's Eatery3839 W. Grand | 773-292-0990

$$American, Southern/Soul Food, Mexican/Southwestern | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Thursday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | BYO

Bright, spacious, and friendly CJ's Eatery might do for west Humboldt Park what the original Wishbone did for another desolate stretch of Grand Avenue in the 90s: grow into a vital community hub while serving solid southern and soul-inspired comfort food. Charles Armstead and Vanessa Perez have filled a couple deep voids already, providing a Lavazza-dispensing coffee bar and sit-down table service for three squares in a neighborhood where the only other viable eats are at Jimmy's Red Hots around the corner. Breakfast is a steal: an egg-and-chorizo burrito or biscuits and gravy are just $3.50; French toast and a hangover-blanketing sausage casserole don't go much higher. Sandwiches predominate at lunch, along with a few entrees (barbecued pork steak, four-cheese mac), soups, salads, and a handful of appetizers (crab cakes, spinach dip) that pull a double shift at dinner. Entrees include a chile-rubbed sirloin with southern-fried corn and a "BBQ Meatloaf Tower" crowned with mashed potatoes and fried onions. At a recent lazy Sunday brunch, carb loading was accomplished with a special of shrimp and creamy grits and a banana bread pudding with peanut butter creme anglaise that could've raised Elvis off the bathroom floor. —Mike Sula

Coalfire1321 W. Grand | 312-226-2625

$$Pizza | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Hotly anticipated since it was first announced, Coalfire—Chicago's first east-coast-style coal-oven pizzeria—opened to a flood of buzz and business, catching owners J. Spillane (a longtime bartender at the Matchbox) and Bill Carroll off guard. Was the frenzy warranted? It is, after all, just pizza (almost literally—besides the pies, the menu offers calzones, a few salads, and a selection of soft drinks; anything stronger is BYO for now). But as pizza goes, it's pretty great. The thin, blistered crust is sooty and crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy toward the center of the pan, with a dense, toasty flavor. The sauce, applied sparingly, is fresh and slightly sweet; toppings include buttery prosciutto, hot Calabrese salami with fennel, and a terrific spicy Italian sausage. The margherita, with ovals of melting mozzarella each topped by a sole basil leaf, was a bit bland, but the white pizza was tangy and complex, thanks to a last-minute substitution of goat cheese when the kitchen ran out of ricotta. And while in pizza, to each his own, I agreed with my friend who, four pies in, declared the simplest to be the best: sauce, cheese, one topping, perfection. Now if only someone would open a wine store next door. —Martha Bayne

The Depot5840 W. Roosevelt | 773-261-8422

$American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations for large groups only

There's a nostalgic vibe at this new space occupying a longtime diner—52 years and counting—in the far-west-side enclave called the Island. The menu offers egg creams—the east-coast specialty made with heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, and seltzer water—and other homey standards like open-faced roast beef sandwiches and chicken salad, and blue plate specials such as meat loaf or grilled pork chops with country gravy. The chicken noodle soup is obviously homemade, with fresh chunks of carrots and celery, and it's a real deal at "$2:34" (in a bit of gimmickry, all the prices are styled like arrival and departure times). The pot roast sandwich is mounted on a substantial bun custom-made by a local bakery and heaped with fried onions. It comes with coleslaw, gravy fries, and a pickle for $6.59. Lasagna had a ricotta filling so fluffy it was practically a light pasta dish; a club sandwich was stacked high with fresh roasted turkey and bacon. For dessert the crowd-pleaser is red velvet cake, a mild, not terribly sweet, deep red chocolate cake with cream-cheese frosting ($3.56). David Hammond

Gloria's Cafe3300 W. Fullerton | 773-342-1050

$$South American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Reopened under new ownership (with an actual Gloria at the helm) this little Colombian joint is putting out lovingly made home-style plates, along with more casual coffeehouse-oriented bites and drinks (sandwiches, juices, smoothies). If that seems like they're spreading their supply lines thin, they're doing a helluva job in spite of it. My admittedly limited experience with arepas (corn cakes) had me believing they were dry, lifeless pucks, but here the cheese and sweet corn (choclo) arepa appetizers both were moist and cakey—a lesson well learned. Empanadas with mild chimichurri were swell, particularly the spinach, garlic, and potato variety, as was a "Colombian Hummus" with no identifiable South American traits. Among Caesar and house salads there's an unusual rice and shrimp ensalada with sweet plantains, chile flakes, and a sweet-and-sour sauce that wouldn't be out of place on a Thai menu. Rotisserie chickens are marinated, blazed well, and available in various sums of their parts. The traditional and steak dishes come with ample starchy and fibrous sides (rice, cassava, plantains, beans). I'm particularly partial to the bandeja paisa (country platter), a manly pile of sides, chicharrones, chorizo, grilled flank steak, and a fried egg. Mike Sula

Kuma's Corner2900 W. Belmont | 773-604-8769

F 7.8 | S 7.5 | A 8.0 | $$ (5 reports)Bar/Lounge, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 2, Friday till 1, Monday-Thursday till midnight, Sunday till 11

The menu at this gussied-up corner tap has been completely revamped: gone are most of the bistro standards like strip steak and bacon-wrapped scallops. The focus is now squarely on bar food—but finger-lickin' bar food it is. Kuma's serves whopping hunks of juicy, lightly seasoned meat on delicious, chewy pretzel rolls in 18 metal-themed iterations (the Motorhead, the Mastodon, etc), each also available as a chicken sandwich or garden burger. My Iron Maiden burger, topped with a sinus-clearing load of cherry peppers, chipotle mayo, and pepper jack, was filling yet oddly clean-tasting—refreshing, even, for meat. It was so good I almost forgave the kitchen for running out of avocado. There's also a make-your-own mac 'n' cheese option, appetizers like the mussels cooked in Allagash white ale with garlic and chiles, and an excellent beer list. Next time I'm trying the Slayer: a pile of fries topped with a half-pound burger plus chili, cherry peppers, andouille sausage, onions, jack cheese, "and anger." —Martha Bayne

Maya del Sol144 S. Oak Park, Oak Park | 708-358-9800

$$Mexican, Latin American | Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In the beginning there was Bayless, who did beget . . . well, it's a long story, the most recent chapter of which is being written at Oak Park's Maya del Sol, where Frontera alum Ruben Beltran serves pan-Latin offerings in a space balancing a laid-back low-lit dining room and a more extroverted bar space festooned with flat-screen TVs. Like his mentor, Beltran employs fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes finely shaded with south-of the-border spicing. Flavors in a tuna ceviche, one of three, popped cleanly and were satisfyingly simple. Our salmon was moist, almost sashimi-like at the center, and seasoned with restraint to let its naturally beautiful taste come to the surface. Nachos are quirkily but successfully crowned with pot roast braised in honey and cider vinegar. Moist and savory, cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of achiote-marinated pork, is perked up by the traditional accompaniments: red pickled onion, house-made habanero salsa, and handmade tortillas. Mojitos, caipirinhas, and pisco sours are, like the food, well-balanced and pleasingly proportioned. —David Hammond

Nazarlik1650 W. Belmont | 773-327-5800

$Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Ahmet and Zeliha Askoy have created a Turkish restaurant that seems like extension of their own home, specializing in food from the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, known for a great variety of kebabs and pastries, and also for the spiciness of its cuisine, fueled by the sun-dried isot red pepper. This means dishes like the dangerously scarfable lahmacun, thin, wide disks of freshly rolled dough slathered with minced meat and vegetables and fired in the giant oven behind the counter; fat cheese and fresh spinach pies (gozleme); and a spicy, tender lamb kebab over chunky roasted baba ghanoush smothered with yogurt (ali nazik); plus mujver, fried zucchini fritters, and antep, a salad of chopped tomatoes and onion. But the real surprise on the menu is cig kofte, raw minced beef and spices kneaded with bulgur, sometimes for hours, then shaped into meatballs and eaten with fresh lettuce and strong drink. Instead of the traditional mutton, Ahmet Aksoy uses lean beef he cuts, trims, and grinds himself. He prefers to keep his exact recipe a secret, but I saw him add sumac, fresh garlic and onions, chopped green garlic tops, ginger, and four different red pepper pastes, including a dark, fiery isot paste imported from Turkey. It's so labor intensive that the Aksoys need a day's notice to make it on weekdays, and two hours' notice on weekends. Mike Sula

Nhu Lan Bakery2612 W. Lawrence | 773-878-9898

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday | Reservations not accepted

Banh mi, the miraculous French-inspired Vietnamese sub, has an assured place in the Sandwich Hall of Fame as a classic example of cross-cultural pollination. Cheap, fresh, and filling, it's something that should be available on every corner—but isn't. Nhu Lan Bakery, a Vietnamese bakery in Lincoln Square, is a pioneer, striking out relatively far from the Broadway/Argyle intersection. It's a risky business plan, but a treasure for the neighborhood. Demi baguettes are baked fresh daily to cradle nine different fillings (only five were available on my last visit), typically accented by pickled, julienned carrot and daikon, cucumbers, mayo, cilantro, thinly sliced jalapenos, and dressed with spicy-sweet nuoc cham, a potent fish sauce. Among my favorites is the "special," a meat-lover's sub with a schmear of rich paté, headcheese, ham, and a fried pork sausage called cha hue. The ham banh mi is piled with jambon and a generous wipe of paté, a simpler version that highlights the textural contrast between the two. There's also a meatball filling, sweet and messy like a sloppy joe; a lemony shredded chicken; grilled pork; and an all-vegetable variety filled with undressed breaded, fried, dry vegetable matter, the only one I can't recommend. These sandwiches run a mere $2.50 to $2.95; buy five and you get one free. There's also a large selection of Vietnamese snacks for takeaway: spring rolls, yellow house-made mayo, Western pastries, and a rotating variety of sweet rice and pudding desserts in challenging flavors—corn, mung bean, sweet potato, sausage. You can take away vacuum-sealed sausage, paté, ham, and headcheese too. Mike Sula

Old Town Brasserie1209 N. Wells | 312-943-3000

$$$French | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Bob Djahanguiri, the impresario behind celebrity-magnet boites of yore (Toulouse, Yvette), returns with Old Town Brasserie, a jazzy, boisterous nightspot specializing in classic French food with a few tweaks. Veteran chef Roland Liccioni came up in legendary European kitchens (the Parisian brasserie Bofinger and London's La Gavroche) before conquering Chicago at Carlos', Le Francais, and Les Nomades, and while this assignment might seem a step down from the high-end nouvelle cuisine he's known for, it's modest in name only. Appropriately, a trio of patés leads off the menu, including a creamy slab of "chicken" liver that might have rejiggered my opinion of the bird's potential had a server not hinted it was made from the outlawed organ of another species. Duck consomme with a single truffle ravioli was a paradigm of clear, dark amber purity, and escargots were broiled in a tomato confit, funky with Roquefort, that begged for the bread basket. Lemongrass-seasoned poached salmon and lobster ravioli with a wasabi-based foam show that the Vietnamese-born chef is not enslaved by tradition. For better or worse, that is—the veal was presented with a mound of crinkle-cut frites that momentarily conjured up unhappy associations with Ore-Ida. But not everything is meat and potatoes: an oil-poached lobster with seared scallops is a delicate option, and for dessert, Grand Marnier and chocolate souffles are fluffy and light. Mike Sula

Pasticceria Natalina5406 N. Clark | 773-989-0662

$Bakery, italian | Sunday 11 AM-7 pm; Wednesday-Friday noon-9 PM; Saturday 9 Am-7 PM | Closed Monday, Tuesday | Reservations not accepted

Since opening their pastry shop on Valentine's Day, Natalie Zarzour and her husband, Nick, have labored to the point of exhaustion to introduce their customers to the culture of Sicilian dolci, where there are no shortcuts, the cannoli are filled to order, and it's appropriate to indulge in something sweet anytime but dessert. In addition to more common items, Zarzour's been rolling out an exotic, ever changing selection: orange blossom or rosewater rice puddings; a boozy rum baba; zeppole, deep-fried fritters filled with custard and sour amarana cherries, traditionally served for Saint Joseph's Day; spicy iced fig cookies called cuccidatti; shell-shaped, ricotta-filled Neapolitan sfogliatelle; and delicate, savory fazzoletti ("little handkerchiefs"), puff pastries filled with combinations like peas, prosciutto, and mint or artichoke hearts, capers, raisins, and pine nuts. You can also get exotica like cassatine, or miniature cassata, the elaborate glazed and fruit-bedecked Sicilian Easter cake. Choosing among the offerings can be agonizing, and they're expensive—the special-order pistachio cookies go for $30 a pound. But that's the price you pay for quality ingredients and painstaking, labor-intensive authentic recipes. Mike Sula

Pupuseria Las Delicias3300 W. Montrose | 773-267-5346

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Simple, nutritious, and filling, pupusas—tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings and slapped on the griddle—are so beloved in El Salvador that they're honored every year with a holiday, Dia Nacional de la Pupusa. Las Delicias owner Hugo Gutierrez Jr. grew up in a family that traded in the thick masa cakes, and almost a decade ago started up a restaurant devoted to pupusas and Guatemalan cuisine. This summer, when a larger space opened up in Albany Park, he seized on the opportunity, opening the new place in September. The focus is still on pupusas, with an array of fillings beyond the usual—chicharron, chorizo, chile and cheese, ham and cheese, fish, chicken, shrimp, zucchini, the herb chipilin, the loroco flower blossom. There's still Guatemalan food as well: tamales; their smaller cousins, chuchitos; taquitos; and dobladas, tortillas filled with meat and vegetables, folded, and fried. But Gutierrez has also expanded, adding fruit drinks, chicken soup, and atole de platano, a thick, sweet drink made from plantains. On Fridays there's a special of chow mein, which is popular in Guatemala. And he's added the option of pupusas made with rice flour, which gives them a chewier texture and a milder flavor that puts the focus on what's inside. The supersize pupusa loca—a seven-incher stuffed with the customer's choice of five fillings—goes for five bucks; all other pupusas run between $1.75 and $2.50. —Mike Sula

Sepia123 N. Jefferson | 312-441-1920

F 8.8 | S 8.0 | A 9.6 | $$$$ (5 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch

rrr Opening hype can strain any restaurant, but Emmanuel Nony's Sepia, just around the corner from Blackbird, is holding up quite well. Creative chef Kendal Duque (Everest, Tru, NoMi) runs the kitchen, and out front savvy servers seem happy to be there. The succulent slow-baked veal breast on wide, lightly minted noodles quickly became a signature entree not simply by default but because it was delicious. I also liked the thick Berkshire pork chop. Flatbreads, which head the menu, should be a natural with cocktails, but I didn't have much luck: the little one topped with applewood-smoked bacon and seasonal fruit didn't go at all with the Sepia Mule, which features house-made ginger-infused vodka. At brunch there's a bacon Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka and eggs Benedict made with Berkshire pork belly. The eclectic, affordable wine list rounds out an enjoyable experience. The lounge remains open till midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, other nights till 11. —Anne Spiselman

Shikago190 S. LaSalle | 312-781-7300

$$$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Saturday till 11

On a relatively slow Saturday night at Shikago, the most recent venture from Kevin Shikami (Kevin), we were rendered breathless by dish after memorable dish. Roasted quail with braised radish, hazelnuts, garlic chives, a maiitake mushroom ragout, and Shaoshing wine sauce was remarkable, but even commonplace appetizers like tuna tartare and salmon maki with avocado and cilantro were brought to life by a caring hand and premium ingredients. The pan-Asian fusion entrees on the constantly changing menu created subtle harmonies: red snapper in a sweet galangal sauce balanced slightly bitter Chinese broccoli and earthy chanterelles; sugary bulgogi was paired with delicately sharp daikon, peppery arugula, and scallion pancake straws; Alaskan salmon, sweetened with papaya, was perked up with lemongrass and peekytoe crab slivers in flowery jasmine rice. Flavors amplify one another in a lime semifreddo served with a nectarine tart, and the pineapple trio displayed variations worthy of a Bach fugue: vanilla-poached and soy-caramelized pineapple, a cinnamon-sugar pineapple "doughnut," and a refreshing pineapple-cinnamon sorbet. Though sophisticated, this place puts on no airs: tables are cross sections of centuries-old trees and the decor is Zen-like. There's a take-out counter at lunchtime. —David Hammond

The Violet Hour1520 N. Damen | 773-252-1500

$Bar/lounge | Sunday-friday 6 Pm-2 am, saturday 6 PM-3 am | Reservations not accepted

Wicker Park's hidden Violet Hour is a dark, sumptuously appointed retreat from the harsh world outside, attended by nattily dressed barkeeps who exhibit a balletic facility with jigger, shaker, and glass. "Head intoxicologist" Toby Maloney in particular is a blast to watch, building his complicated potions with aggressive grace and dexterity, his showmanship tempered by a chef's palate and a historian's depth of knowledge. His seasonal cocktail menu employs house-made bitters, fresh juices and garnishes, and eight types of ice in different shapes, sizes, and temperatures. The bartenders are warm, well-versed in cocktail culture, and happy to guide you through the drink list. Mike Sula

Wings Around the World321 E. 35th | 312-326-6930

$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Seafood | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till midnight, Monday-Friday till 11:30 | Reservations not accepted

Takeout-only operation Wings Around the World opened in a neighborhood with an inordinate concentration of fried chicken franchises, and though it's far more imaginative, ambitious, and wonderful than any of them, the potential for a wildly successful chain is obvious. Owner Abeng Stuart does wings grilled or fried in about 50 different sauces or rubs, more or less representing nine different cuisines: Jamaican, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Greek, "Canadian," and "American." The wings themselves are steeped overnight in a base seasoning and cooked unbattered in fresh, clean oil, leaving the meat an unadulterated vehicle for these intense flavors—also applicable to shrimp or fish. The "Maple Twist," filed under Canadian, is a light syrup-and-butter potion meant to evoke pancakes, or more appropriately, chicken and waffles. The Greek lemon-and-garlic wing is bright, citrusy, and smothered in roughly minced garlic, while my favorite, the Parmesan-garlic, is crusted with real cheese. The jalapeno is smothered in whole sliced chiles, and the rum and bourbon barbecue sauces are unmistakably spiked. Several were designed with the pleasure/pain principle in mind: the Kamikaze is a powerful multichiled blast that flooded my skull with endorphins. These aren't prepackaged assembly-line concoctions but house-made dressings dreamed up by someone who understands proportion and balance and has a knack for conjuring up vivid associations. Mike Sula

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