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Chicago's First Taste of Venezuela

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Chicago's first Venezuelan restaurant is easy to miss--CARACAS GRILL is a small space sandwiched between an upholstery store and a gas station on North Clark. It's worth searching for, if only to discover specialties unlike the Argentinean or Peruvian dishes offered at other local South American eateries. There are empanadas, but they're big and fluffy, made with superfine white corn flour imported from Venezuela. The arepas aren't the pancakelike disks Chicagoans might be used to but come stuffed two inches thick with smoky ham, tender and earthy roasted pork, shredded chicken, fish, or vegetables. Even the tostones (green plantain fritters) are unusual, with the starchy bananalike fruit sliced lengthwise rather than mashed and topped with a savory mixture of chicken and vegetables stewed in a tomato sauce. The cochino frito con cacapa special was a pancake of mashed sweet corn filled with cheese, folded over omelet style, grilled, and served with large chunks of pork. Another dish, pabellon, is shredded beef stewed for hours in a rich tomato and onion sauce, served with pork-laden black beans and rice along with slices of fried plantains for a sweet contrast. The marigold-colored room is cheerful but poorly ventilated, an issue owners Eleadia Solano and Arnold Vanderdijs (who also runs the specialty-foods importer El Chamo del Pan) are working on. The colorful paintings by local Venezuelan artist Jhonmar Castillo are all for sale. Caracas Grill is at 6340 N. Clark, 773-743-3593.

It's hard to suppress a smile when Jack Chen's White Dragon Roll arrives at the table. Snaking across a rectangular platter, the creation--nori and rice wrapped around tempura shrimp, avocado, and cucumber, topped with white tuna and yellow tobiko--has salmon roe for eyes, a scalloped shiso collar, and a shrimp tail sticking out the end. It tastes as good as it looks. Chen, who's been making sushi professionally for ten years (most of those in Canada and California), is executive chef and manager at MATSU YAMA, a spacious new Japanese place in Lakeview. His menu includes 27 creative maki along with a broad selection of sushi, sashimi, and tempura, plus sharing portions of grilled dishes like toro with tangy ponzu sauce or ocean-fresh jumbo shrimp with sweet, chunky mango salsa. "I like to blend new style with traditional Japanese style," says Chen. His specialties include a tuna tataki--thin slices of raw tuna marinated in ponzu sauce, then rolled around bell pepper, onion, and avocado, sliced, and drizzled with a chili sauce. Chen's version of shrimp cocktail is diced chilled lobster tail in a sake-miso sauce topped with red tobiko. He also serves hot dishes like jumbo shrimp with a garlic-cilantro sauce on a bed of tomatoes and peppers, and scallops and shrimp in a spicy ginger sauce. The highlight of my meal was a simple king crab salad on a tangy bed of seaweed, dressed with a citrus-sesame vinaigrette--a bargain at $6. Most dishes cost $10 or under, though house specialties like the grilled lobster and steak dinner or the sashimi platter can cost up to $26. The place is BYO for now, but 1000 Liquors down the block had an Austrian Riesling that was just the foil for the vinegary maki and its pickled-ginger and soy sauce accompaniments. Matsu Yama is at 1059 W. Belmont, 773-327-8838.

GRANDE NOODLES AND SUSHI BAR would easily blend into a trendier area like Lincoln Square or Wicker Park but stands out in the space that used to be Cam Ranh Bay, an unassuming Vietnamese restaurant, amid the Mexican bakeries and taquerias of West Rogers Park. The stylish lavender and orange walls are hung with kitchen utensils and a black-and-white photo montage of flowers; the cuisine is a Japanese-Thai hybrid. Platters of fresh, generously cut sushi, maki combination plates, and bento boxes are reasonably priced, as are relatively standard but nicely prepared Thai specialties (all under $9) like the mildly seasoned Seafood Delight with shelled mussels, squid (scored with a knife to make it more tender), shrimp, and crabmeat stick tossed with fresh red and green peppers, napa cabbage, pea pods, and baby corn. For lighter appetites there's a salad with warm ground chicken, beef, or pork served on greens; cold cabbage and shredded carrots topped with peanuts; close to 50 individual nigiri sushi; and some interesting maki like the sweet potato tempura roll (with green onion, cream cheese, and wasabi mayo). Grande Noodles and Sushi Bar is BYO indefinitely. It's at 6632 N. Clark, 773-761-6666.

Other Recent Openings

Aqualina, 4363 N. Lincoln, 773-770-4363. Tizi Melloul owners Steven Ford and Quay Tao have teamed up with Alex Fournier to open this Cal-Mediterranean place in Lincoln Square.

Brownstone, 3937 N. Lincoln, 773-528-3700. Bar and grill from the owners of Gaslight and the Schoolyard Tavern and Grill, with an eclectic menu of bar food and more-substantial American favorites like seared tuna, lamb chops, and steak.

10 Pin, 330 N. State, 312-644-0300. This renovated bowling alley at the House of Blues Hotel now has a full-service restaurant and lounge with decent American fare, run by the Harry Caray Restaurant Group.

Tsuki, 1441 W. Fullerton, 773-883-8722. Six-thousand-square-foot Lincoln Park newcomer serving Japanese food including sushi and maki, plus mochi for dessert.

Moved

Little Bucharest, from 3001 N. Ashland to 3661 N. Elston, 773-929-8640. The restaurant continues to serve the same Romanian and eastern European fare at its new location, and has added live music.

Closed

Bella Domani, 4603 N. Lincoln; Biggs Steakhouse and Wine Cellar, 1150 N. Dearborn; Bundoo Khan, 2501 W. Devon; Cam Ranh Bay, 6632 N. Clark; D. Kelly, 623 W. Randolph; Gin Goi Gae, 5433 N. Lincoln; Zaky, 5204 N. Clark.

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

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