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Despite the Skokie location and the mostly older crowd, KARIZMA, a new contemporary American bistro, feels like a hip River North eatery. The simple, sleek space is divided in two by a blond-wood-and-glass partition, with a dining room on one side and a bar on the other. The chic black-and-blond color scheme gets a splash of color from purple window swags and tall vases of fresh flowers in two corners. Executive chef Marty Rogak (Provence, Kiki's Bistro) and chef de cuisine Jared Scott Wentworth (Park Avenue Cafe)--both Kendall College graduates show their refined style right from the start. A complimentary basket of three artisan breads comes with a sectioned plate holding a quenelle of pureed but firm white beans on one end, a garlicky kalamata olive tapenade on the other, and simple butter pats in the center. The cuisine combines classic French techniques with innovative ingredients and preparations, as in an appetizer of pan-roasted calamari stuffed with a satiny smooth shrimp mousse, set on a pool of slightly smoky eggplant puree, and surrounded with a ring of vibrant (but mild) orange chili oil and a pine-nut-heavy cilantro pesto. Entrees are a variety of meat and seafood dishes, like rare-seared tuna with a fricassee of porcini mushrooms, green and white beans, tomato confit, and black olive and rosemary oil, and pan-seared venison loin with white-truffle-infused risotto, roasted corn, wild mushrooms, and a sherry reduction. In addition to the regular menu, there's a $50 five-course tasting menu of the daily specials. One night, it included an exquisite seared wahoo (a thick whitefish steak that's similar in shape to mahimahi but closer in texture to swordfish) in a bouillabaisse broth redolent of fennel and saffron. It's served with a fine dice of carrot, red pepper, and fennel and topped with a few delicate stalks of white asparagus tempura. The value-driven wine list is well researched, with many strong, creative American selections and a few pricier imports. The lunch menu offers a handful of modest salads, pastas, and sandwiches, and they pull out the stops for Sunday brunch, with a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar and dim-sum-style service of everything from eggs Benedict and bagels to jambalaya and sushi. Karizma, 4741 Main, Skokie, 847-674-6163.

NICOLINA'S CUCINA, a new Taste America Group enterprise in the NBC Tower, has changed only slightly since its previous incarnation as Mantuano Mediterranean Table. The room is still over-the-top, with brightly colored walls, massive murals, and a bustling casual bar area that's the best option for dining. The main dining room, while spacious, is more formal and fills up early with conventioneers and postwork diners. Chef Jeffrey Begina, whose previous experience was primarily as a chef aboard private yachts, has taken over the kitchen from Tony Mantuano, but the menu remains much the same Mediterranean cooking with an Italian emphasis. To start, there are spicy garlic shrimp bathed in ouzo then set ablaze table-side and a roasted pistachio-crusted scallop dish with slender French green beans and new potatoes in a flavorful chili oil that was elegant despite the overbrowned nuts. There's also brick-oven pizza, cooked in true Mediterranean style, with a soft, thin crust. The varieties are limited to a few classics like roma (tomatoes, prosciutto, pesto) and margherita (fresh basil and mozzarella). The several pasta dishes are all quite rich, especially the earthy and filling gnocchi in a mushroom and veal broth. House specialties include cioppino, a stew of shrimp, lobster, and other shellfish in a spicy tomato broth; osso buco, a tender, braised veal shank served with couscous; and several mesquite-grilled meat dishes. It's decidedly downtown dining short on local color and corporate in ambience. Nicolina's Cucina, 455 N. City Front Plaza, 3 12-832-2600

THE STATE ROOM, a new Rush Street venture from nightlife king Demetri Alexander (Alexander's, Lola's) is nothing if not swank. Two huge crystal chandeliers hang in the front bar area, sheer white cloth drapes across the windows and down the walls, and a two-tiered glass minibar hangs from the ceiling over the main bar, shielding the main dining room from view. The dining room is clubby, loud, and festive and the food matches the mood. The oversize menu--it must be 12 by 16 inches--is epic, not to mention awkward. The first two pages are devoted to cocktails while the other three cover predictable appetizers like bruschetta, fried calamari, and carpaccio, along with salads, pasta, "spa" fare, and seafood. Flip over the back page and there's a broad selection of meats--ribs, prime rib, steaks, and chops--that are all fairly pricey. This isn't the place to go for conversation--it's strictly for the see-and-be-seen crowd. If you arrive past ten, you'll wait in a line out the door. The State Room, 1212 N. State, 312-951-1212

THE DISH Debbie Sharpe's Con Fusion has closed temporarily for renovations, but chef Sandy Beckett can be found at Sharpe's newly opened Tanzy.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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