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Mix-and-Match Meals, High-Drama Rice Balls, and Sports-Bar Sushi

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Chef Jacky Pluton's new restaurant is one of the most beautiful rooms in the city. The curved entryway opens into a cream-colored dining area with brown and green banquettes and striking red chairs, with rocks and gravel around the floor's perimeter. PLUTON serves only prix fixe meals--four courses for $60, five for $70, six for $80, or ten for $110--but you still have plenty of options, since you can pick your courses from any of the menu's categories: appetizers, seafood, meat or poultry, cheese, and dessert. If you wanted, you could choose ten starters, or even ten entrees. A starter worth a try is the wild mushroom soup with mini oxtail ravioli and grilled mushrooms--served thick as a sauce, it had a rich, earthy flavor. The black-squid-ink vinaigrette and seaweed that top the lobster salad are pleasantly acidic, but the claws were so undercooked that it could have been a sashimi course. The Chilean sea bass was likewise undercooked and so thick and tough that I couldn't get a fork in it. But the bone-marrow-crusted beef tenderloin with a seven-spice reduction came cooked to the requested medium rare and was tender and flavorful. The highlight of the ambitious menu was the oven-roasted winter fruit served with rich vanilla ice cream melting on top. The wine list is extensive, with lots of Burgundy and Bordeaux labels and vintages. Pluton is at 873 N. Orleans, 312-266-1440.

For the past decade restaurants have gone to great lengths--showy food, exposed kitchens, gimmicky menus--to add drama to their dining rooms. But when the theatrics overshadow the food, a restaurant and its diners are in trouble. At Market District newcomer MOTO, the show starts with waitstaff dressed in black lab coats, continues with aromatherapeutic flatware threaded with sprigs of fresh herbs (listed as a course on the menu!), and hits a peak when servers approach the table with six-inch syringes to inject a single rice ball with sweet-and-sour sauce. And if you think Charlie Trotter's servings are small, wait till you see what chef Homaro Cantu calls a salad: a teaspoon of tiny spinach gelatin cubes and another of frisee. A bite-size portion of scallops came sitting atop a plastic box (constructed by Cantu himself), where a small but tasty filet of black bass was steaming in "Pacific Oceanic products" (water FedExed in from the Pacific). If the minuscule portions of white-truffle ice-cream spaghetti and smoked-watermelon soup tasted good I'd be more forgiving, but they didn't. It goes on like this through the 13th course--you'll wish you'd opted for the five- or seven-course meal or, even better, that you'd gone next door to Folia instead. Moto is at 945 W. Fulton, 312-491-0058.

Chen's owners Bing Zhou and Sandy Chen teamed up with Lettuce Entertain You veteran Robert La Pata to open KOI, a combination Chinese/sushi restaurant and sports bar (with the obligatory plasma-screen TV) in Evanston. The full menu is available at the bar along with small plates of Asian appetizers and an array of sushi. For more substantial dining, there are dozens of Chinese standards served in generous portions: moo shu wraps, General Tsao's chicken, glazed orange beef, and crispy duck. The preparations are as traditional as they come, full of sodium and flavor. A long list of nigiri, maki, and chef's specialty sushi are precisely and artistically prepared by sushi chef Gosan Yu. There are a few choices for vegetarians too, like Shanghai green beans and Szechuan eggplant. Koi is at 624 Davis, Evanston, 847-866-6969.

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

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