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A veggie-friendlier communal table, a great Greek leap, and a so-so bistro in a spectacular space

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click to enlarge Duo of tuna, tomato salad, salmon sashimi, and roasted beet salad at Grocery Bistro

Duo of tuna, tomato salad, salmon sashimi, and roasted beet salad at Grocery Bistro

Eric Futran

If you're trying out a hot new restaurant these days, odds are good that, seated at a communal table in a room so loud you have to yell to be heard, you'll order organic, locally sourced food—possibly including some part of a pig you never thought you'd consume—from a menu that changes seasonally. The Grocery Bistro is that hot new restaurant without the snout-to-tail devotion that defines the menus at similar concepts like the Publican and the Bristol: there's no shortage of meat here, but it comes in comfortably familiar cuts, and seafood and vegetarian dishes are equally prominent on the menu.

Chef de cuisine Andre Christopher (Pops for Champagne, Japonais) is a vegetarian, but judging from a special of silky seared foie gras served over poached strawberries with chocolate sauce and crumbled Heath bar, it hasn't impeded his ability to prepare nonvegetarian dishes. The ingredient combinations in many of the offerings, though hardly groundbreaking, are interesting enough to make decision making difficult—I empathized with the woman sitting next to me who steadfastly resisted several successive attempts to relieve her of her menu, insisting, "I need it."

Appetizers are served with ten-inch forks, ideal for reaching across the table to snag a bite of something and making sharing practically mandatory. (You'd best hope your neighbors have good self-control, since they'll be sitting near enough to reach your plate as well.) Salmon sashimi was fresh but slightly overwhelmed by its fried-egg-and-caper topping, while flavorful strips of baked pancetta were the star of a velvety, creamy potato-leek veloute. Gorgonzola polenta outshone the sausage-stuffed chicken thighs it was served with: though the meat had a nice char, a couple bites where we came across unpleasant bits of cartilage had us pushing it aside to get to the rich polenta, which was complemented by poached tomatoes and (too few) cloves of roasted garlic.

All the desserts flirt with savory flavors: there's a PB & J with peanut butter mousse and a "chocolate-chip cookie dough" risotto; even the banana tiramisu has bacon in it. We only got through the Monte Cristo, a heavy "sandwich" of breaded, deep-fried chocolate with a raspberry dipping sauce. The Grocery Bistro is BYO, but Perman Wine Selections next door offers suggestions for menu pairings. —Julia Thiel

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 29-year-old 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 in a dramatic scrubbing of the late Wicker Park dive Big Horse Lounge. The tin lanterns in this Byzantine 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. (And Schneider has already changed it by subbing in tender unshelled bean pods that were unavailable a few weeks ago.)

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 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 so-far 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—apparently just hints at Schneider's repertoire, said to include hundreds of recipes from Greece and Asia Minor. The all-Greek wine list (including nine by the glass) is affordable and interesting; add to that the promise of rooftop dining amid native Greek verdure from Schneider's grandparents' village and a daytime yogurt bar in the front of the house and I'm looking forward to watching him live up to his lofty ambitions on many future visits. —Mike Sula

Nab a table in the glass-roofed rear atrium of Branch 27 and behold a case study in rehab done right. Under the management of Howard Natinsky (Fat Cat, Five Star) and Cary Michael (Rockit Bar & Grill), the former Eckhart Park branch library at the corner of Chicago and Noble has been stripped to its bare-brick bones and thoughtfully retooled as three airy, graceful spaces. Rough-hewn floor planks have been repurposed as wall facing; old press machinery hangs as art. OK, the front bar is noisy, and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the main dining room afford a great view of the #66 bus stop, but overall the space is balanced and lovely and invites a lingering dining experience. So it's too bad the food can make you want to skedaddle.

Chef Bob Zrenner (of the short-lived Graze and before that Lakeview's popular X/O) has implemented a menu of American bistro standards—flat iron steak, plank-grilled salmon, mussels and fries—that shouldn't be hard to mess up. But a boneless roasted half chicken wore a flabby, glutinous skin, and an ahi tuna burger, ordered medium rare and served on brioche with wasabi aioli, pickled cucumbers, and ginger, was grilled to a gray, mushy puck.

There were successes as well: my friend's pork chop was thick and juicy, glazed with a smoky-sweet chipotle jus and served with a side of buttery mashed potatoes. (Those same spuds had saved the chicken plate when I'd ordered it a few days earlier.) And while the seafood salad seemed hastily assembled, full of ungainly chunks of bell pepper and cucumber, it could have stood on its own as an entree, loaded with fresh calamari, mussels, and shrimp on a bed of mesclun spiked with unexpected hits of basil and mint.

Overall, though, the menu feels formulaic—safely unremarkable in both content and execution. Witness, for example, the "mozzarella egg roll": a run-of-the-mill log of melted cheese in a bland wonton skin. It's too bad the TLC so evident in the room has yet to reliably manifest itself in the kitchen—because, did I mention, it's really pretty? —Martha Bayne

New Too

Amelia's Bar & Grill

4559 S. Halsted | 773-538-8200$$Mexican/Southwestern | Lunch: Monday-Friday, Dinner: seven days, Saturday and Sunday brunch | BYO

Amelia's Bar & Grill occupies a lonely industrial corner a few blocks south of the storied stockyards' gate, and nothing about the facade would indicate that anything more exotic than menudo lies within. But classics like lush quesadillas—made with chewy handmade tortillas, mild Oaxacan cheese and dark, funky huitlacoche—or Garcia's signature grilled salmon with green papaya, mango, and avocado creme fraiche share the page with Mediterranean fusion creations like pan-seared, risotto-crusted halibut on a bed of tomato, anchovy, and fennel ragout. Lomo de puerco, an entree of grilled pork tenderloin, was terrific—thick medallions of pork painted with a tart, sweet tamarind glaze and seared till crisp. Plated with a handful of sauteed purslane, a smear of roasted quince, and a tangle of grilled onions, it could have come out of a far more pretentious kitchen. A plate of oysters on the half shell topped with ceviche looked fantastic, and if the ceviche was disproportionately heavy on octopus, and the bivalves themselves a little blah, it was all still fresh, and punchy with lime and peppers. But while the strong, tricky flavors of that ambitious halibut dish were masterfully balanced, they were no match for the beyond-briny smell of the fish. And little things like the teensy shavings of avocado garnishing the ceviche led me to think that Garcia and the tiny, effusive staff are trying to do a whole lot with very little. —Martha Bayne

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