Restaurants: What Else Is New, August 7, 2008 

Sixteen more recent openings

What Else Is New

Bull-Eh-Dias Tapas Bar3651 N. Southport | 773-404-2855

$$Tapas/Spanish | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Wednesday-Thursday till 1, Sunday-Tuesday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

You may think Chicago needs another tapas restaurant about as much as it does another fire, yet despite the inexplicable name, Bull-Eh-Dias (a close-but-not-quite-phonetic spelling of bulerias, a flamenco rhythm) is a welcome newcomer along a stretch of Southport heavy with sushi joints and boisterous bars. Chorizo empanadas with red pepper and avocado vinaigrettes were a tangy complement to a pitcher of reasonably priced sangria (we prefer the sweeter, fruitier white version). A salpicon of crisp sweet peppers and seafood leveraged Spain's signature style: fresh Mediterranean produce, light spice, brilliant color and texture. Misses were the Styrofoam-like bread; thin, watery olive oil; a tortilla that lacked the requisite custardy quality; and chunks of spud in garlicky mayo that were disconcertingly woody and undercooked. Still, lamb chops with peppery sauce were quite delicious, as was the paella, available in three versions (vegetarian, seafood, or mixed) and baked in a pan that creates a caramelized crust on the edges. For dessert the crema Catalana had a texturally tantalizing crunchy, sugary surface, and like most of the rest of the menu it was reasonably priced ($5). —David Hammond

Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen4911 N. Kedzie | 773-267-4200

$Mediterranean, Middle Eastern | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, Sunday-Thursday till 11

I'm never going to say that Kedzie Avenue has too many Middle Eastern restaurants, especially since some of the best are distinctive. But with the familiar menu of shawarma, kebabs, hummus, falafel, fattoush, etc, what does Dawali have that's going to draw customers from the others? For one thing, every day the alluring aroma of baking bread blasts across the parking lot, issuing like a siren's call from its next door neighbor, the grocery and bakery Pita House. Ordering at the counter and getting our own drinks, we sat down to an appetizer sampler of pretty basic baba ghanoush, heavily emulsified hummus, grilled vegetables (masaka'a) and crispy though oddly herbaceous and wet falafel. Galaya, a tomato-onion-beef saute, was richly seasoned but tasted like it had been held (and arrived fast enough to indicate it), and lamb shish kebab was fine, tender enough and not overcooked, but nothing spectacular. But the shawarma, with very clearly defined layers of beef and fat-streaked lamb, showed some potential, its exterior bits crispy and nicely charred, though despite the aforementioned fat, it still seemed a bit dry. And yes, the bread comes from Pita House—one of the guys at the counter went over for a couple fresh bags during our meal. —Mike Sula

Galapagos Cafe3213 W. Irving Park | 773-754-8265

$$$Japanese, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30 | BYO

For a long time I didn't have the heart to file a report on this odd, dark, and claustrophobic little Ecuadoran-Japanese hybrid. It had the stink of death about it in its first perpetually empty couple of months, and I saw no reason to piss in the karmic waters about a place I was sure wouldn't be around much longer. There was a handful of interesting things on the menu, but the restaurant's ability to get them out of the kitchen even when the place was empty—which it always was—was seriously handicapped. But now business has picked up even if the otherwise friendly and earnest service hasn't. Meals start promisingly with a basket of hot fried plantain chips and a small ramekin of smooth orange salsa made from the tamarillo, or tomate de arbol, a tree fruit common in Ecuador but rarely found here. If you're ordering from the Japanese side of the menu it's strange to follow this with a bowl of miso soup, but that's what happens prior to the arrival of the saucy sculpted maki of chef Albaro Perez, formerly of the late Pacific Cafe. More interesting is the Ecuadoran selection dominated by soups—including one with steak-stuffed plantains—and platillos of grilled and fried meats and fish with mounds of starchy sides, such as the bandera (combo) of stewed goat and guatita, a tripe, potato, and peanut-sauce stew that's probably better in the dead of the winter, or pescado encocado, a surprisingly good tilapia fillet in a mild coconut sauce reminiscent of an Indian curry. Tuna and chicken tamales and the little cheesy little potato pancakes llapingachos, among others, lead things off, along with a handful of ceviches, bringing the cold fish connection full circle. —Mike Sula

Graham Elliot217 W. Huron | 312-624-9975

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Cherubic, down-to-earth Graham Elliot Bowles is a homeboy (more or less) who helped make Chicago a draw for big-name chefs. Now at his more casual new place, Graham Elliot, hasn't he earned the freedom to crank his iPod, outfit his staff in T-shirts and Chucks, and cook with Cheez-Its and ironic cheap beer? Big windows, wood pillars, and exposed brick and ductwork mark this declaration of independence, but there's a thread of narcissism woven throughout the place that becomes distracting. Squint past GEB's not entirely legible handwriting and you'll find the menu is divided into "cold," "hot," "sea," "land," and "sweet" courses (with corresponding wine suggestions), which are scattered with artifacts from a late-20th-century history of industrial snack foods. A deconstructed Caesar salad seems to be positioned as a signature dish, but its most original element, a "brioche Twinkie," is like something pulled from the day-old bag at the neighborhood panaderia. This sort of nostalgic twist was cute in the Pop Rock "foielipop" (conceived at Avenues and available on the bar menu here), but fond memories of indiscriminate drinking don't make bitter Budweiser foam delicious. That's an accent on a spicy buffalo chicken dish with competitively aggressive hot and blue cheese sauces. It's expensive for what it is, at $13, and it lacked balance, as did a cheddar-apple risotto with a predominant bacon flavor (from "powder") that a sprinkle of Cheez-Its did nothing to enhance. Rice Krispies, PBR, malted milk balls, and Nilla wafers also show up in various forms. Sometimes the gimmicks are just jarring—like a scoop of hickory-smoke-flavored ice cream that brought a taste of ashtray to an otherwise delicious Kobe beef tartare. We had better luck further down the menu: a relatively simple pan-roasted skate with caper-raisin chutney and an insurmountable but tasty double-cut Berkshire pork chop with barbecue sauce and a crunchy watermelon chutney. But too many dishes seem overearnestly calculated to provoke some nostalgic reaction, and it gets mawkish fast. As much as I'm pulling for Bowles, I knew there was something wrong when I found myself commenting more on his playlist than on the plates. Mike Sula

Harry Caray's Tavern3551 N. Sheffield | 773-327-7800

$Bar/Lounge, American, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Do Cubs fans even remember that Harry Caray spent 11 years covering White Sox games—not to mention his 24 with the archrival Saint Louis Cardinals? Nah, they claim him as their own, and they're packing into this namesake sports bar across the street from the statue commemorating his "Bud man, Cubs fan" days. It's a palace of kitsch, and a place with more than 50 flat-screen TVs and a mass of deluded souls convinced that this is the year the Cubs will win the World Series (just 100 years after their last victory) is about as far from my idea of fun as could be possible. The food's not bad, though—mostly bar bites and burgers, with upscale options like Wagyu and Tallgrass beef. There are also a few items from the downtown Harry Caray's, including, inevitably, chicken Vesuvio. A shamelessly pandering gift shop promotes all manner of Harry memorabilia like "Holy Cow!" T-shirts. Cubs fans like that sort of shit. —Kate Schmidt

Ja's Jerk Chicken2806 W. Lake | 773-533-5375

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

When CHIC grad Johnetta "Ja-Ja" Martin-Smith set out to open a jerk joint, she found a sweet spot right under the Green Line stop at California, where she's been running it with the help of another sister, Tonya. Adherents of texturally "hard" jerk chicken will immediately notice a difference in Martin-Smith's. It's less dry, more stewy, and little less smoky than some of my favorites, but that's a deliberate stylistic choice. She starts the rubbed chicken in the aquarium smoker over lump charcoal, then finishes it in the oven to avoid drying it out—not necessarily inferior, just different. Her jerk sauce is thin, heavily vinegared, and dominated by allspice, but has a respectable burn as it seeps into the rice and beans on the bottom. We also ordered oxtails and a bony but tender curried goat, which won the day. The sisters are putting out up to 19 sides daily—stewed cabbage with carrots was terrific, and greens, cooked with smoked turkey rather than pork, were pretty salty but nicely textured, with a lot of life left in them. Their mother is on dessert duty, and her sweet potato pie had a nice understated sweetness. And her soft, gooey peach cobbler, with plenty of caramelized brown sugar, is exactly the sort of thing that reduces me to a helpless drooling infant. —Mike Sula

Little Brother's818 W. Fullerton | 773-661-6482

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

Of the slew of Korean fast food joints to open in the last few years, this effort by CHIC grad Christian Oh might be putting out the tastiest, most basic food while still maintaining a noninsulting level of accessibility to non-Koreans. The setup is simple: order a "Little" or "Big Brother Meal," a choice of lemon-and-garlic-marinated chicken, boneless short ribs, or fried tofu. Choose a sauce—the thick, red, sweet-hot "Raging Bul," a mild teriyaki-style brown sugar sauce, or the "Sweet Chilantro," less cloying and with a bit of a bite. Then choose a salad: house green salad, cucumber onion, or a simple and wonderful raw slaw with a kiss of wasabi, and add sides like crispy vegetable dumplings or steamed edamame, capping it off with a house-made flavored lemonade. This isn't even close to hard-core authentic Korean food—they don't even serve kimchi (yet)—but for a quick, interesting fast-food option it's pretty good. —Mike Sula

The Little India1109 W. Bryn Mawr | 773-728-7012

$$Indian/Pakistani | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11

The puzzling take-out menu at this three-month-old storefront by the Bryn Mawr Red Line stop shows a fork bearing a spaghetti strand and carries the label "Indian Fusion Cuisine." In fact, there's no pasta on the menu, though fusion of some sort turns up in dishes like a grilled vegetable and paneer wrap (served with fries) or a green salad with cranberries, walnuts, carrots, bell peppers, olives, corn, and chickpeas. Apart from that, Little India offers a fairly extensive selection of straightforward Indian standards, from appetizers like pakoras and samosas; dals, curries, and biryanis; a range of tandoori-baked breads; and desserts including house-made orange kulfi. All meat is zabiha halah, but that didn't much help the mildly spicy lamb vindaloo, whose chunks were by turns fatty, gristly, and just right. Chicken boti, designated a "premium item," was desiccated; it might be best to stick to vegetarian and fish preparations here, though I'd take the bhel puri over the less-than-crisp samosas. A word of warning: alcohol is prohibited at Little India, so if you want a beer it's carryout or delivery. Kate Schmidt

L2O2300 N. Lincoln Park West | 773-868-0002

$$$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Seafood | Dinner: Sunday-monday, wednesday-saturday | Closed tuesday

High-profile restaurants have been opening in an unceasing succession lately, but none has been as keenly anticipated as Laurent Gras' dreamy undersea sanctum L2O. Given a ghetto pass from Rich Melman and the old Ambria space to work in, the impeccably pedigreed Gras—who worked under the titanic Alain Ducasse in Paris before making his name in New York and San Francisco—has executed an encompassing vision (documented since December on an absorbing blog, l2o.typepad.com), orchestrating everything down to the most minuscule element to provide a thoroughly transporting dining event. Architecturally, the latest Lettuce Entertain You project evokes a twilit submarine fantasy world where the creatures at the top of the food chain are rewarded with the finest little fishies, many shipped at great expense from where they're pulled from Japanese waters (see your check) and all prepared using an integrated battery of classic techniques and modern innovations. One could go on and on listing the ways L2O has advanced the cause of eating in Chicago. There's the in-house bread (and butter) program, featuring a half dozen varieties, the ultimate achievement among them the buttery, light anchovy brioche I'd devour even if they were attached to fishhook and line. There's the 26-year-old sommelier prodigy Chantelle Pabros, whose unguarded passion for her selections is breathtaking (ask her about the sakes). There's the flawlessly professional service that's simultaneously relaxed and relaxing. And then there are the chef's creations. Whether you order the four-course prix fixe menu ($110) or the dozen-course tasting menu ($165), the progression begins with raw courses and moves on to warm and cooked ones in increasingly dramatic presentations. (There are also "singular" items available a la carte.) I tried the tasting menu, and in general I preferred the early raw courses and amuses, usually exceedingly fresh pieces of fish judiciously accented with brilliant but not overpowering flavors: for example, a touch of the Basque chile powder Espelette with a crab ceviche, or a bite of tuna tartare and a slice of cured foie gras kissed with a bit of chocolate and tomato gelee. Not that I wasn't awed by the later courses, but those were the only ones in which I could find anything I didn't like, and in most cases I was reaching. Among the most enjoyable: a textural duel between madeira-marinated morels and a fat diver scallop and a halibut fillet with a side of a rich, cheesy aligot drizzled by the server with a zesty tomato-Chablis bouillon. Like that halibut, many courses are finished tableside on wheeled gueridons, the delicate broths and sauces applied with a flourish-just some of the many gestures calculated to maximize the intimacy of this most rare of experiences, one that continues to haunt me. —Mike Sula

Mexique1529 W. Chicago | 312-850-0288

$$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, 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

Texas de Brazil51 E. Ohio | 312-670-1006

$$$$$Latin American, Steaks/Lobster | Dinner: seven days

Everything's larger than life at the Chicago outpost of this national chain of churrascarias, from the ten-foot-tall mirrors on nearly all the walls to the gargantuan plants to the three-story wine storage area, which boasts Chicago's first "wine angels," girls who retrieve bottles of wine while doing flips in the air, suspended by cables. The theme of excess carries over into the food as well: the salad bar alone offers several types of cheese, salami, prosciutto, marinated mushrooms, peppadews, seared tuna, smoked salmon, and my two favorites, strips of thick-cut, crispy bacon and a mammoth bowl of roasted garlic cloves. There's also a table with hot dishes like rice and beans, potatoes au gratin, and fish, a soup of the day (we had an overly salty lobster bisque), and a sushi bar, which we didn't brave after trying the entirely tasteless seared tuna. Meat is served in traditional churrascaria style by servers who walk around with giant skewers of it, hot off the grill, and carve it directly onto your plate; it's served with garlic mashed potatoes and fried bananas. The tableside service ensured that the meat arrived hot, but ours varied wildly in quality, some so salty it was almost inedible. A couple things, like the sausage and filet mignon, were outstanding; most of it was pretty good but unmemorable, and there was one grainy, dry piece of lamb that's been haunting my nightmares ever since. And the wine angel? We couldn't really see her from our table, but I checked on her at the end of the evening; she was hanging from her harness looking bored, reminding me more of a baby in a bouncer than an acrobat. —Julia Thiel

Las Tortugas de San Luis2105 S. Laramie, Cicero | 708-656-0214

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

There aren't many eating options within walking distance of the ultimate stop of the Pink Line and Cicero Stadium. But about four months ago the humble Las Tortugas de San Luis opened a block south of the stadium, specializing in a particular variant of the common Mexican torta. LTDSL makes seven varieties in the style of the north-central state of San Luis Potosi. These sandwiches are smaller than your typical torta and made with sturdier ovoid-shaped "Portuguese" rolls, which look and taste suspiciously like those Cuisine de France sourdough mini baguettes found in supermarkets and convenience stores (you could do worse). Filled with ham and cheese, grilled chicken, rib eye, pork, chorizo and egg, queso fresco, or the breaded steak milanesa, they're dressed with lettuce, tomato, jalapeño slivers, mayo, mustard, and avocado. I like these dainty, compact little tortas (hold the mayo), which come with thick seasoned wedge-cut fries and are priced between $4 (for the queso) and $6.25 (for the rib eye). The rest of the menu is dominated by buffalo wings, mozz sticks, burgers, hot dogs, and for breakfast, pancakes and eggs, but on weekends there's menudo and that other famous San Luis Potosi dish, enchiladas potosinas—ancho chile-infused masa pressed into tortillas, stuffed with chicken and cheese, folded over, and fried. —Mike Sula

Trattoria Pizzeria I Monelli5019 N. Western | 773-561-8499

$$Italian, Pizza | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 11 | BYO

I watched a doddering elderly couple shuffle out of this Lincoln Square trattoria when they were told the pizza comes out of a conventional oven. At this stage in our evolution, with Chicagoans accustomed to a wood-burning oven within walking distance of every bus stop, you have to wonder how smart it was to open a pizzeria without one. Here the pizzas are served Roman style, pizza rustica, shaped into rectangles, and square cut, with a thickish, breadlike, aerated crust fired at an intensity that doesn't do much to distinguish it. On my visit, though, half of ours was cut, unbidden, into extrasmall pieces out of respect for a toddler in the group. It's that sort of thoughtfulness, and an easygoing tenor, that might win over the neighborhood. Water and soft drinks are served without ice—just like in Italy!—and the operators, with ties to Pizzeria D.O.C. and Pizza Metro, can be observed bustling about the place, chattering with each other in uncensored Italiano and flirting with the stroller moms (careful boys—some of them might know what vafanculo means). Unremarkable but ample antipasti, panini, pasta plates, and salads round out the menu. —Mike Sula

Veerasway844 W. Randolph | 312-491-0844

$$Indian/Pakistani, Small Plates | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Thursday-Saturday till 11

Angela Hepler Lee, co-owner of Sushi Wabi and De Cero, has expanded her multiethnic Randolph Street miniempire with Veerasway, an airy storefront specializing in a mix of traditional Indian and Indo-American cuisine. Lots of light wood, curry-yellow and lentil-brown walls, and hanging glass lanterns set a modern tone, along with mood-mellowing cocktails (you'll need 'em—it's noisy) such as the Bengali tiger (vanilla-bean-infused vodka, green and black cardamom, tamarind-date puree, ghost peppers, and pineapple) that go well with the free pappadam chips and three accompanying dips. Appetizers "from the streets" include vegetarian samosas and stuffed banana peppers—basically spicy Indian chiles rellenos, filled with lentils and paneer, fried in chickpea batter, and served with coriander chutney. My favorite dish was a salad, or actually two salads: shredded green papaya laced with toasted peanuts and grape tomatoes side by side with ripe mango slices tossed with puffed rice, chopped tomato, and a few golden raisins, both in tamarind-lime dressing. The contrast of flavors and textures was terrific. One of the traditional meat and vegetarian choices I tried, moist chicken tikka in a complex tomato cream sauce, was solid if unexceptional, but it surpassed the surprisingly dull Indo-American coconut scallops, an overcooked trio (one of which was undersize) in individual pools of coconut milk. An a la carte side of sauteed spinach, mustard greens, and fingerling potatoes with garlic and onions was so jarringly tart it clashed with everything else. Decent naan and a milk-shake-thick coconut-mango lassi rounded out the meal; spiced chocolate cake with chile-dusted cashew brittle and coconut sorbet ended it on a high note. —Anne Spiselman

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

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Galleries & Museums
Works by Ed Paschke, 1969-2004 Ed Paschke Art Center
July 03
Music
Steve Earle & the Dukes Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music
July 25

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