Hoisin glazed quail with rice fritter, mushroom ragoût, and lemon puree at Saigon Sisters Restaurant.
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Chicago Lights Up

Barbara Revsine - August 28th, 2013

Modernists, meatheads, mixologists, and even Melman’s sons are energizing the restaurant scene.

Chicago’s restaurant scene is blazing hot, but the protracted economic downturn has definitely left its mark. While concepts and price points vary, menus reflect diners’ concerns vis-à-vis value and the bottom line. Haute burgers and sandwiches are in, along with budget-friendly specials, Sunday suppers, breakfast, organ meats, and all things artisanal and sustainably raised.

Much of the early spring buzz was about Grant Achatz’s (Alinea) adjacent newbies Next and Aviary, both opened at the end of March. At Next, the menu shifts to a different time and place every three months, beginning with Paris 1906 (an era dominated by Auguste Escoffier), followed by Thai street food. And then who knows? “We really want to do Mad Men New York—what was it like to eat in New York City in the 1960s?” he says. Think lobster Thermidor and Martinis. If this sounds like a difficult concept, Achatz says he wanted a challenge.

To top it off he plans to sell tickets to the restaurant instead of taking conventional reservations, with prices varying according to the time. “Saturday at 8 p.m. will be more expensive than Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.” he explains.

Aviary, meanwhile, features an artisanal cocktail lounge with table-only seating and a small lower-level bar serving pre-Prohibition era cocktails made with single-note tinctures. Todd Stein left Cibo Matto, last year’s Italian headliner, to open The Florentine, this year’s Italian headliner, in the new JW Marriott Chicago hotel. Musts include bucanti carbonara and New York sirloin tagliata in a Barolo sauce.

Jimmy Bannos (Heaven on Seven, etc.) and Scott Harris (20 Francesca’s and counting) opened Salatino’s (red sauce) and Dough Boys (lotsa pizza), side-by-side venues in University Village. A few blocks away, Harris and partner Luigi Negroni opened Davanti Enoteca (wine-friendly Italian), a cozy spot that celebrates the synergy between Italian food and wine and serves a knock-out cheese-filled focaccia.

Pizza gets a new spin at redFLAME Pizzeria (grilled pies) in Lincoln Park, where the crusts are grilled before they’re topped. Meanwhile, BOKA alum Giuseppe Scurato is both owner and top toque at Ceres’ Table (seasonal Italian) in Uptown, where the gnocchi tossed with pesto and rabbit gets raves.

Steakhouses still rule, especially when the food and ambience are A-list all the way, which is definitely the case at River North newbies Benny’s Chop House (steak/fish/pasta), Chicago Cut steakhouse (boffo beef), and Mastro’s Steakhouse (très swank). The latter has a dynamite dry rub and a swoon-worthy warm vanilla cake.

In an unusual twist for the genre, Chicago Cut taps into another trend by serving breakfast. Some a.m. options, such as Meli Cafe & Juice Bar (great eggs) in River North, close after lunch, while others, including Chicago Cut and Eatt in River North, are primarily lunch and dinner spots that also do a great breakfast. On the other hand, M. Henrietta (lotsa hotcakes) in Edgewater recently added dinner to its repertoire, in contrast to older sib M. Henry, which eschews dinner.

On the meat beat, Mado alums Rob and Allie Leavitt opened The Butcher & Larder (mega meat) in Noble Square, an artisanal butcher shop that serves sandwiches, soup, and one communal dinner a month. Also in Noble Square, Ruxbin Kitchen (eclectic) does meaty dishes such as hanger steak with kimchi/potato hash and braised short ribs with gremolata and goat cheese grits.

Wood-oven roasted pig face is the way chef/partner Stephanie Izard lists one of the headliners at Girl & the Goat (trend-setting), but squeamish diners can opt for the pan-roasted redfish and green beans in fish sauce instead. At GT Fish & Oyster (seafood), the BOKA Restaurant Group’s other newcomer, chef/partner Giuseppe Tentori does lobster rolls, crab cakes, and a smoky clam chowder.

Chalk up two more for the “high-end chefs goin’ casual” trend. Fish Bar (fishy), Michael Kornick’s newest venue, does lobster rolls, crab cake patties, and beer-battered cod, as opposed to the meat-centered menu at his adjacent DMK Burger Bar.

Indoor seating is limited to a single communal table at grahamwich (superwiches), chef Graham Elliot Bowles’ top-tier sandwich shop in River North. Don’t miss the daily soft serve and the coffee served in a disposable cup with a built-in French press and the optimal “plunge-time” noted on the side.

Food “truckies” braved last winter’s storms to follow faves, notably Lockwood alum Phillip Foss’ Meatyballs Mobile (lotsa balls), Matt Maroni’s Gaztro-Wagon (naanwiches), and Cary Taylor’s The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. Expect barbecued pork balls brushed with a schmear of cola/Bourbon barbecue sauce at the first, naan rolled around wild boar at the second, and creative mac and cheese at the third.

Among the new crop of barbecue spots, the cookin’ is low and slow, the dry rubs varied, and the sauces a mix of vinegary, hot, and sweet. Heading the list is Lillie’s Q in Bucktown, Rub BBQ Company in Rogers Park, Q on the Gold Coast, and Pork Shoppe in Avondale. Killer sides are the norm at all four.

Chicago’s dining options are increasingly diverse. Regional Mexican street food paired with snazzy Tequilas are featured at Taco Joint in Lincoln Park, while Chizakaya (sushi-free) in Lakeview does premium sakes paired with modern Japanese fare. Chef/restaurateur Tony Hu opened his fourth venue in China­town, Lao You Ju (modern chic), a sleek nightspot with a sophisticated menu, and Saigon Sisters (Vietnamese) in French Market opened Saigon Sisters Restaurant in the nearby West Loop.

Cumin (Indian/Nepalese) in Wicker Park does naan stuffed with chiles, goat meat seasoned with coriander and cumin, and potatoes and green beans partnered with tomatoes and onions. Meanwhile, Del Seoul (Korean-plus) in Lincoln Park garners kudos for tacos and bánh mì sandwiches filled with Korean barbecue.

Hearty Belgian cuisine calls for hearty Belgian beers, and both are available at Leopold (mussels à la Brussels) in Bucktown. Going Dutch is a must at Vincent (as in Van Gogh) in Andersonville, and so are the mussels and frites. Categorizing Homaro Cantu’s creative fare is virtually impossible, at either Moto or ing, his Asian-tinged spot in the Market District. The only certainty is that his food is never boring.

Mixologists rule at nightspots like Gilt Bar (comfy casual), Arami (craft cocktails/Japanese), and Maude’s Liquor Store (French accent). Meanwhile, pubs with two names created their own niche, from Owen & Engine in Logan Square to Blokes & Birds in Lincoln Park and Bangers & Lace in Wicker Park.

Chicago’s hotels have always been home to good restaurants, and Tribute (contemporary American) in the Essex Inn in South Loop and Hoyt’s (American tavern fare) in Hotel 71 continue the tradition. A third location for Michael Jordan’s Steak House will open in late summer in the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile.

River North newbies Paris Club (contemporary Parisian) and Bistronomic (emphatically French) have Francophiles smiling. The first, a joint venture that includes chef Jean Joho and brothers RJ and Jerrod Melman (yes, their dad is Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises founder Rich Melman), offers a “now” ambience paired with updated classics, while at the second, chef/owner Martial Noguier serves French cuisine with his signature flourish. France shares the culinary spotlight with Spain and Italy at Hubbard Inn (small plates), where the menu explores the favorite dishes and cocktails of author Ernest Hemingway.

Named for famed Chicago-based architect Louis Henri Sullivan, Henri (cuisine moderne), like its sibling The Gage, combines a primo location across from Millennium Park with spot-on cooking, this time with a French accent. Truffle poached lobster and smoked steak tartare are featured.

Restaurants slated to open after press time and before the National Restaurant Association show include Del Toro (Mexican) in Pilsen, Delish Diner & Bakery (1950s-style) in Wicker Park, and The Black Sheep (seasonal American) in West Loop, where a locally sourced bar is paired with a stylish dining room serving black hen thighs with bacon puree, bone marrow Yorkshire pudding, and heirloom beets with goat’s milk chips and lemon curd.

All in all, it’s turning out to be a banner year for Chicago.