Romanian Kosher salami Credit: Eric Futran

In the course of a year the Reader‘s restaurant critics eat many things we end up wishing we hadn’t—we do it so you don’t have to. Of course we eat a lot of very good things too, and of those a few are so wonderful they change our perspective on food and what it means to us. It’s those rare bites that make the added pounds, occupational indigestion, and occasional bout of food poisoning worth it.

These are some of the things we ate (or drank) in 2009 that we’ll keep eating (or drinking) even though we don’t have to. For a much longer list from just me, see our Food Chain blog at chicagoreader.com/food. —Mike Sula

Mike Sula

The Hard Sell at Bar DeVille Brad Bolt created this magical cocktail with Chicago’s native wormwood spirit, Malort, a bitter liqueur so notoriously fierce that its enduring presence on the bottom shelf can be attributed only to its popularity as a macho rite of passage. But mixing it with gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and lemon juice with a grapefruit twist yields a nuanced, layered potion that evolves on the palate. This drink opened my eyes to new possibilities for bitter flavors.

Headcheese-and-smoked-tongue torta at Xoco Made with naturally raised pork from Wisconsin’s Maple Creek Farm, this symphony of dueling flavors (tart pickled vegetables vs. earthy black beans), textures (creamy goat cheese vs. crusty bread), and temperatures (warm and hot slices of fatty meat) rivaled in complexity and harmony a perfect Vietnamese banh mi. It’s no longer on the menu.

Hand-dripped coffee at Asado Kevin Ashtari, proprietor of this tiny Lakeview coffee shop, didn’t invent hand-dripped coffee—that’s probably as old as the beverage itself. But applied to his small-batch, house-roasted, fresh-ground beans, this simple, slow technique produces a perfectly balanced cuppa so full-bodied you can almost chew it. Inspired, I bought my own ceramic dripper, and my automatic machine has been collecting dust ever since.

House-made yogurt with young favas and lamb confit at Taxim This seasonal, simple, brilliantly fresh dish was the first thing I tasted in David Schneider’s regional-Greek-revival restaurant. Inspired by like recipes from Greece’s mountainous northern Thraki region, where the use of animal fat reflects the scarcity of olive oil, it harks back to a time and place when necessity bred perfection.

Rosemary bacon from E & P Meats A simple rosemary-rubbed slab of cured meat from these now-dormant suburban underground charcutiers filled my house with a porky herbal perfume and prompted me to try my own hand at making bacon, a process so easy and satisfying everyone should do it.

Julia Thiel

Buttermilk biscuit at Hot Chocolate Like a sausage McMuffin with exponentially better ingredients, this was one of my all-time favorite brunch items: an enormous, flaky, buttery biscuit loaded with a Gunthorp Farms sausage patty, scrambled egg, and melted aged cheddar. Despite a pretty healthy appetite I never managed to finish more than half of one—maybe because I don’t consider any meal at Hot Chocolate complete without the assorted pastry platter and a mug of decadently rich cocoa. Sadly, the combo’s now served on an English muffin.

Cochinita pibil at Mixteco Grill Shredded pork, marinated in achiote and orange juice and slow roasted till delicately smoky and impossibly tender, is served with a side of incendiary habanero salsa so you can make it as fiery as you like. It not only convinced my pal that she liked pork after all but also nearly ended our friendship as she kept stealing bites off my plate.

Lemon-and-basil pasta with corn and asparagus at Grocery Bistro I wasn’t nostalgic for summer until this assignment brought to mind this dish I had at the Grocery Bistro in July. The sweet smokiness of the roasted kernels was a perfect complement to the lemony, creamy sauce, speckled with petite pieces of asparagus and bits of fresh basil. Unfortunately the responsible chef, Monica Walters, is no longer at the restaurant, which is on its third chef in less than a year.

Almond croissant at Alliance Bakery These croissants are not only stuffed with almond paste but also topped with a thick, sugary glaze that drips off the pastry and caramelizes as it bakes. I know that sounds like gilding the lily, but the end product’s not as tooth-achingly sweet as you might expect.

Guacamole with pomegranate at Estrella Negra I’d never had pomegranate seeds in guacamole before I tried Estrella Negra’s, and since then I’ve been wondering why not: the little bursts of fruity sweetness contrast beautifully with the creaminess of the avocado, the tang of the lime, and the saltiness of the fresh-fried tortilla chips.

Chorizo at Folklore Made at sister restaurant Tango Sur from a 60/40 mix of pork and beef, it’s crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and deliciously garlicky throughout. I thought it couldn’t get any better—until I dipped it in the even more garlicky chimichurri sauce it’s served with.

David Hammond

Dominguero burrito at Abuelo’s Mexican Grill Burritos are usually low on my list of must-try menu items, but the ones at Abuelo’s blew the lid off my notions of just how good this northern Mexican creation can be. The Dominguero is made with carnitas, griddled crisp without oiliness and browned without a trace of burn. Iceberg lettuce, one of the last leaves I usually want to see on any sandwich, is just one of several well-placed greens countering the richness of the meat and adding a light, fresh crunch to break up the doughy density of the flour tortilla.

Salami from Romanian Kosher Sausage Company Arrayed prettily against the back wall like a line of high-kicking chorines, organized from youngest to oldest, are some of the tastiest old-school kosher (glatt, even!) salami you’ll find in the city. They’re all made in-house; though the older ones are a little more expensive, they’re chewier and tastier, and if you’re going to eat your salami straight they’re worth a few dollars more. Hung in your kitchen, they continue to dry and get more delicious until you’re ready to enjoy them. And enjoy them you will.

Zuppa Barese at Ciao Amore I’ve seen zuppa Barese presented several ways, including as a fancy-pants seafood-saffron broth, but chef Cesar Pineda (whose mom is a native of Bari) prepares a rich, substantial, and superbly gentle cream soup of hard-boiled egg, noodles, and potato. It’d be criminal to tart up its noble simplicity with more than a turn of the pepper mill.

Mexican hot dog at Delicias Mexicanas The Mexican dog has many variations, but here it’s swaddled in bacon and griddled, allowing the juiciness of the sliced pork belly to saturate the sausage. Then it’s dressed with onion, jalapeños (pickled and fresh), mayo, mustard, and (gasp) ketchup, which beautifully sets off both the crunchy sweetness of the griddled onions and the heat of the peppers. To get this wiener at its best, stop by late in the evening, when patrons of local cantinas stream in and Doña Blanca Diaz keeps a fresh mess of links bubbling in lard on her stove.

Financier at Restaurant Michael Though I tasted it months ago, Michael’s financier still haunts my dreams, buttery soft and spongy—a pleasant contrast to the crunchy cookie it was served with, which held ginger ice cream whose slightly stinging sweetness was intensely magnified by vanilla-scented blueberries in a honeylike syrup. There’s a lot going on in this grand finale, which satisfies more than just a sweet tooth.

Anne Spiselman

Pide at Istanbul Restaurant In the past, Yasar Demir made great bread wherever he cooked—including A La Turka, Cafe Demir, and Cousin’s—so I was delighted to learn that he’d returned from an extended trip to Turkey and opened Istanbul Restaurant in Lakeview this summer. The pide—often called “Ramadan pide” because that’s when Turks love to eat it—is as good as ever: a round, sliced, sesame-seed-topped loaf about the thickness of focaccia, it usually arrives warm from the oven with a dish of herbed olive oil for dunking. It’s almost impossible not to fill up on this freebie, but I try to save room for one of the boat-shaped stuffed pides, a meal in itself.

Ribollita alla Delfina at Piccolo Sogno Chef/co-owner Tony Priollo loved the twice-cooked vegetable and bread soup at Da Delfina restaurant in Artimino, Tuscany, so he decided to prepare his ribollita in the same style. More like a pancake or savory bread pudding (depending how much the edges are crisped on any given evening), it’s rustic and deeply soul satisfying. I admit, though, that it competes for my affection with Piccolo’s wondrously moist wood-fired whole fish baked in a Sicilian salt crust—at least when the fish is branzino.

Salmon crudo at Roof I didn’t expect much from the food at the Wit Hotel’s 27th-floor bar, which was all the buzz this spring, but on a quiet, drizzly weekday afternoon I fell in love with chef Todd Stein’s salmon crudo. The five slices of buttery-rich raw salmon were deftly complemented by the lemon emulsion, pine nuts and, especially, little pieces of hot, red cured Calabrian chiles.

Chicken liver paté at Fianco Paté isn’t supposed to be an Italian restaurant’s forte, but the thick slab of chicken liver paté here was the smoothest, silkiest, most beautifully seasoned I’ve had all year. It came with grainy mustard, sweet strawberry preserves, two kinds of olives, and grilled crostini for an intriguing contrast of flavors and textures. These days the menu just lists house-made paté, but if it’s chicken liver, don’t miss it.

Pork porterhouse at SepiaCredit: Eric Futran

Crispy poached duck egg and Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse at Sepia The foodie world was all aflutter when Andrew Zimmerman replaced Kendal Duque as chef at Sepia earlier this year, but once I tasted his breadcrumb-coated crispy poached duck egg, oozing sunny yolk onto a bed of lightly sauteed morels, asparagus and ramps, I knew all would be well. This dish, the essence of spring, isn’t currently on the menu, but the juicy, flavor-packed Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse (which I had with bourbon, cherries and cheesy grits) is, and it’s almost as delicious.

Buckwheat honey from Some Honey Most honey is too sweet for me, so I was flabbergasted by the bold, earthy bite of the raw, natural, unfiltered buckwheat honey from Some Honey in New Lisbon, Wisconsin. Owner Jim Lato says the mineral-loaded honey, which comes from the extremely delicate little white blossoms of buckwheat groats, is popular with eastern Europeans and with marathon runners, who mix it with bee pollen into little balls they take on the road for a quick energy boost. I prefer it with Fage Greek yogurt or spread on fresh challah from La Farine Bakery. It’s available at Whole Foods and Green Grocer Chicago.

Parmesan and Lambrusco at A TavolaCredit: Eric Futran

Parmesan and Lambrusco at A Tavola My year’s most memorable food-and-wine pairing was a simple hunk of imported Parmesan and a glass of chilled Lambrusco at A Tavola. The brightness of the sparkling red wine, which was dry yet fruity, complemented the robust saltiness of the cheese perfectly—not that surprising, since both are specialties of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. You can re-create the experience retail or ask for it at the restaurant, where you might want to follow up with the ultramoist chocolate-walnut torte with soft whipped cream, one of my all-time favorite desserts.

Bite Finder
Where to find our critics’ picks

A Tavola

2148 W. Chicago | 773-276-7567

$$$

ITALIAN | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED: SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED

The dining room at A Tavola is dimly lit and intimate, with only ten tables. The menu is equally tiny, enough so that strict vegetarians may have a difficult time making the most of it. I went with the halibut, lightly dusted with seasoned flour and panfried, accompanied by a lemon and caper sauce—very simple, but perfectly moist and light. An appetizer of grilled portobello and sauteed oyster mushrooms stood out for its surprisingly complex flavor. There are also three small pasta dishes, including the best gnocchi I’ve ever had, swimming in sage butter and topped with fried sage leaves. The “vanilla-scented” panna cotta (sorry, but that’s a descriptor best left to candles) looked like flan and tasted like marshmallows, which fortunately I like. I’m also one who believes there are few more wonderful things you can do with food than bake it with a crisp crust of Parmesan cheese, so the polenta, thick and gooey, may have been my favorite. There was one bite left at the end of the night, and I seriously thought about having it wrapped up. —David Wilcox

Abuelo’s Mexican Grill

2007 S. Damen | 312-733-0329

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | BYO

Brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have transformed a grungy storefront across from the Damen Pink Line stop into a sparkling sandwich shop wallpapered with Latin American record jackets and National Geographic covers. Sopes, tacos, burritos and tortas are well conceived and delicious, demonstrating fine attention to detail. The chorizo sope is a beautiful construction, a soft masa platform topped with piquant meat, artfully mounded with colorful cabbage; shrimp in tacos are fried to tempura laciness, splashed with crema, and dabbed with not-too-hot-but-flavorful salsa (imported from Canada!). The menu is pan-Mexican: the Gomezes are from Cuernavaca, in central Mexico, and they serve cecina from their native Morelos as well as burritos in the flour tortillas of northern Mexico, dressed with the pickled red onions of southern Mexico. Entrees, served with griddled vegetables, have a lot of personality. A torta of marinated steak is griddled medium rare and juicy with sweet chile morron, and cochinita pibil yields cinnamon hints and more dimension than you’d expect. Do drink the water: it’s kissed with basil and lime. —David Hammond

Alliance Bakery

1736 W. Division | 773-278-0366

$

BAKERY, COFFEEHOUSE | SUNDAY 7 AM-9 PM, OTHER DAYS 6 AM-9 PM

Formerly a Polish bakery, Alliance was sold to a French pastry a few years back and is now turning wonderful-looking (and affordable) French pastries in addition to offerings like quiche and, in a nod to the neighborhood, kolacky (not always on the menu). Strong Intelligentsia coffee and espresso drinks are available, in addition to Naked juices, apple cider, and a few upscale sodas. The well-maintained 1930s interior is warm and charming, and the coffeehouse space next door has free WiFi. —Claire Dolinar

Ciao Amore Ristorante

1134 W. 18th | 312-432-9090

$$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: TUESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Ciao Amore, a place with lots of ambition and space to grow, is still getting its act together, though it promises to be quite a show. The cardboard-stiff Italian bread we started with and the cold coffee we closed with were sad, but what came in between was consistently delicious and at times exceptional. Chef Cesar Pineda responded enthusiastically to our request to just bring whatever was looking good. A salad of green beans, mozzarella, oregano, and garlic dressed in balsamic had marvelously simple flavors. Vegan-friendly minestrone was more like a dense vegetable stew infused with roasted garlic, a savory take on a classic. Ethereal house-made gnocchi with cheese and pesto were draped in a fantastically lush spinach cream sauce. Osso buco had delicate texture and sturdy taste and, laid on a bed of cavatelli splashed with a light vegetable-studded tomato sauce, was beautifully balanced. With most entrees between $16 and $22, Ciao Amore offers a high-value, high-quality dining experience, and is BYO with no corkage fee. —David Hammond

Delicias Mexicanas

4148 W. 26th | 773-522-5009

$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 6; SUNDAY, THURSDAY-FRIDAY TILL 5; MONDAY-WEDNESDAY TILL MIDNIGHT

For eight years, Guerrero-born Blanca Diaz sold Mexican hot dogs from her cart at 26th and Saint Louis, attracting a devoted neighborhood following. The street food, whose origins are disputed, consists of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and griddled (see Best Bites for a more detailed description). Diaz took out a lease on a bricks-and-mortar place beginning in August, and now the hot dog con tocino has pride of place at the top of her taqueria’s menu. Other offerings include tacos (including al pastor, cecina, and barbacoa), tortas, burritos, sopes, and soups, among them a killer posole available on weekends in red, green, or white versions. Though alcohol is prohibited at Delicias Mexicanas, its late-night hours and breakfast offerings (huevos, chilaquiles) make it a good candidate for a final stop after last call. —David Hammond

Estrella Negra

2346 W. Fullerton | 773-227-5993

$

LATIN AMERICAN | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 12:30 | BYO

Day of the Dead-themed paintings by local artists decorate the walls, tabletops, and even the sombrero-wearing mannequin in the corner at this Latin eatery, making it hard to know where to look first. Focus instead on the menu (also decorated with Mexican folk art); service is friendly but can be a little slow, so there’ll be time to check out the art later. Traditional offerings including tacos, tamales, and burritos are joined by cheese fries, hamburgers, and sandwiches jazzed up with additions like guacamole and goat cheese. The same attention to detail is evident in the freshly fried tortilla chips­—some star-shaped­—and the pomegranate seeds in the excellent guacamole. The tamales and empanadas were good, but it was the side dishes that really stood out: chicken posole and a cheesy jalapeño bean dip that we fought for the last few bites of. The music, like the food, is Latin-influenced but includes plenty of western fare, and while owner Otoniel Michel plays in the Latin alternative band StankStar, most of the tunes are lighter stuff like Manu Chao. —Julia Thiel

Fianco

3440 N. Southport | 773-327-6400

$$$

ITALIAN | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | CLOSED MONDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Fianco is one of those low-key neighborhood Italian joints that often fly under the foodie radar. With its photo-lined exposed-brick walls, butcher-paper-covered tables, and high exposed-beam ceiling, the spacious storefront feels like a throwback. The modestly priced one-page menu hinted at a hip aesthetic with atypical ingredients like saba (a sweet grape-must syrup), but little suggested chef Matt Troost’s considerable talent. Then his chicken liver paté arrived—a dense, ultrasilky slab intriguingly paired with sharp grain mustard, salty-tart olives, sweet house-made strawberry preserves, and crostini. Delicately fried fontina-filled arancini on rapini pesto showed his skill with Italian mainstays, as did black mussels in buttery white wine spiked with herbs and chile flakes. Artful handmade pastas currently include heirloom squash ravioli with mascarpone and duck confit and black-pepper pappardelle with wild boar bolognese. Troost’s Achilles’ heels are a heavy hand with the salt, which on one visit marred sweet, beautifully cooked sea scallops, and a tendency to use one too many ingredients—the moist trout on his summer menu was draped with assertive green olives, fennel, arugula, orange segments, cherry tomatoes, and escarole. But I loved the mocha and masala gelati—flavors change daily—and fans of bread pudding should not miss the gooey-rich chocolate version with caramelized bananas. The all-Italian wine list is small, carefully chosen, and affordable. Considerate service completes the picture. —Anne Spiselman

Folklore

2100 W. Division | 773-292-1600

$$$

LATIN AMERICAN, SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH: SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 1, OTHER NIGHTS TILL MIDNIGHT

A cozy, dimly lit place with exposed brick, tall candles on the tables, and Argentine paraphernalia like mate gourds decorating the walls, Folklore offers a steak-centric menu of authentic Argentine fare very similar to that of its sister restaurant, Tango Sur. The squeamish may not love the authenticity, though: sweetbreads and blood sausage make up half of the parrillada, a mixed grill that also includes steak and chorizo, and there are no substitutions allowed. But there are also plenty of other options on the large menu—even several vegetarian ones and a few fish dishes (listed as pez and otro pez, or “fish” and “other fish”). A creamy risotto with asparagus, spinach, and shrimp was slightly gummy, but baked eggplant layered with spinach and cheese and topped with tomato cream sauce turned out to be one of the highlights of the meal. Empanadas of moist ground beef in a flaky shell were even better with the excellent house-made chimichurri sauce. Still, steak is what Argentina’s best known for, and Folklore offers several imported cuts of lean grass-fed beef as well as fattier domestic steaks; our bife de chorizo (strip steak) was perfectly cooked to medium rare as requested. The chorizo was also a real standout, one of the best renditions I’ve had. Because the portions were so big, it turned out that we’d accidentally ordered an overwhelming amount of food; this didn’t escape the notice of our friendly server, who brought us a complimentary flan—rich, creamy, and topped with dulce de leche—for being the “customers of the day.” We managed to find room for it. —Julia Thiel

Hot Chocolate

1747 N. Damen | 773-489-1747

$$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH: WEDNESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, THURSDAY TILL 11 | CLOSED MONDAY

Mindy Segal was initially known for her stints as pastry chef at MK, MK North, Marché, Charlie Trotter’s, and Spago, but at her restaurant Hot Chocolate executive chef Mark Steuer oversees a small, perpetually rotating dinner menu of locally grown and seasonally inspired creations—roast Gunthorp Farms chicken, roasted rack of lamb with baby artichokes, fiddlehead ferns, and spring garlic barigoule, Israeli couscous, and Green Acres sorrel butter. Of course, Segal’s credentials guarantee an impressive dessert list, with confections such as a warm chocolate souffle tart served with house-made chocolate-caramel ice cream and pretzels. At brunch there’s brioche French toast and an egg sandwich made with fresh ricotta. There’s hot chocolate as well, offered in four varieties along with “black and tans” (two-thirds hot chocolate, one-third hot fudge) and “half and halfs” (half espresso, half dark hot chocolate). Segal swears she wasn’t thinking of cocoa when she named the place, but the decor is pure Hershey’s—even the occasional white accents in the warm brown room evoke lush marshmallows floating in a mug. —Anne Ford

Istanbul Restaurant

3613 N. Broadway | 773-525-0500

$$

MEDITERRANEAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: Friday & Saturday TILL 11 | BYO

This oddly arranged, snug three-room Lakeview BYOB is the latest Anatolian effort from Yasar Demir, whose resumé stretches back to Cafe Demir, A La Turka, and Cousins. Among them all it might be the most comfortable and satisfying across its lengthy menu of home-style kebabs, hot and cold mezes, and meaty and vegetarian entrees. Be warned that even appetizer portions are pasha size: a trio of vibrant red ezme (chopped pepper, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, and walnuts), patlican salata (grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and onion), and a nearly insurmountable mountain of fried liver and potatoes is enough to subdue three eaters, and would leave you powerless in the face of larger, commendable entrees like cheesy lamb moussaka or perhaps the most delicate and delicious manti in town, stuffed with mushrooms and swimming in marinara-dabbed yogurt. But Demir really excels at house-baked items, such as the black-and-white-sesame-studded flatbread that comes to each table and the remarkable calzonelike pide, oval shaped, crosshatched, and stuffed to bursting with lamb and beef, vegetables, or cheese. —Mike Sula

Mixteco Grill

1601 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. 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

Restaurant Michael

64 Green Bay | 847-441-3100

$$$$

FRENCH | LUNCH: FRIDAY | DINNER: Seven Days | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 PM

Forget foams, gels, pellets, and powders. At Restaurant Michael chef Michael Lachowicz and his crew carry on the French culinary tradition he acquired under Jean Banchet and Roland Liccioni at Le Francais, spinning out traditional preparations with the occasional lighter sauce typical of nouvelle cuisine. A traditional paté presentation includes an orb of velvety chicken liver and a rich, rough country paté with cornichons—no surprises but surpassingly pleasing. Spring pea soup with fresh favas and a crab cake (not currently on the menu) is a sweet double blast from land and sea, and salade Lyonnaise, with perfectly poached egg and crunchy lardons, reflects time Lachowicz spent cooking in Lyon. Sea bass arrives in small fillets, flash fried crispy in butter and arranged around a central mound of cheesy potatoes. Terrifically tasty plump quail breasts repaid the effort it took to gnaw small bones. —David Hammond

Roof

201 N. State | 312-239-9501

$$

BAR/LOUNGE, SMALL PLATES, PIZZA | LUNCH: FRIDAY-SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, MONDAY-FRIDAY TILL 2, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

It’s hard to know exactly why SRO crowds have been lining up to get onto the glass-walled patio of Roof, the industrial-sleek black-and-gray lounge on the 27th floor of the new Wit Hotel. But safe to say it’s more for the scene than the food. And what a scene! Soul music pulsates insistently as pretty waitresses in short black outfits navigate among booths, living room-like areas, and long communal stone tables (with fires down the center) bearing cocktails like the Londoner in Bangkok (Beefeater gin, mango, basil) and the cucumber ginger mojito (a perfumy-medicinal mix of Bacardi rum, ginger, lime, and mint). There’s also a decent selection of bottled beers and mostly European wines by the glass or bottle. Truth to tell, chef Todd Stein’s 20 small plates ($5-$16) are more enticing than they need to be. I loved the salmon crudo, and a salad of oven-roasted baby red and golden beets, chopped marcona almonds, and ricotta salata would have been delicious if it hadn’t been ruined by inedibly salty frisee. Lamb chops “scottadito” likewise should have been called “saltadito” given their salty crust, but the meat was rare as ordered, juicy though chewy, and complemented by minted yogurt and fried parsley. Anyway, three thick little chops for $16 seemed like a better deal than the best-selling trio of mini lamb burgers for $15. Salsicia, one of three pizzas, was a bad buy at $16 for a smallish oval that was more like a flatbread; the house-made sausage was bland, the cured tomato tasted canned, and the ribbons of raw fennel on top were just plain odd. I also wish I’d passed on a special of grainy duck paté that looked like a messy-minimalist child had smeared it on the crostini, but mini whoopee pies were a fun finish. Two tips: arrive around the 3 PM opening time if you want to eat in relative quiet, and if it’s not reserved for a private party, check out “the hangover,” a table for eight on a smaller patio that has the best views in the whole place. —Anne Spiselman

Sepia

123 N. Jefferson | 312-441-1920

$$$$

AMERICAN, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: Seven Days | RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED

Losing a talented chef is cause for concern, but Sepia couldn’t have found a better replacement for Kendal Duque than Andrew Zimmerman (Mod, Del Toro, NoMi). On my recent visit his subtly playful seasonal menu brought the familiar litany of “natural, organic, sustainable, local” to life in an appetizer of a gently poached and crisply fried duck egg on a bed of sauteed asparagus, ramps, and morels. The charcuterie combo, perfect for sharing, featured a rich country-style duck paté, fine-textured rabbit rillettes, and a house-made pistachio-studded mortadella that put store-bought to shame. And it was hard to pass up the English-pea-and-mascarpone agnolotti or the sea scallops with sunchoke so highly touted by our proficient waitress. She also raved about the Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse, which almost everyone in her station obligingly ordered—and she was right. Given a southern slant with bourbon, a salad of greens and cherries on top, and smooth cheese grits underneath, the thick “steak” was perfectly grilled, moist and delicious. Panfried rainbow trout strewn with black-eyed peas, candied bacon, pecan bits, red onions, and skinny green beans also sang “Dixie,” as did a takeoff on chicken and buttermilk biscuits that subbed in rabbit. Warm flatbreads still head the lineup, but though the one with merguez sausage, eggplant puree, and fresh mint was fine, it paled in comparison to the rest of the meal. First-rate desserts ranged from light cornmeal cookies sandwiching sweet goat cheese cream set off by blueberry compote and coconut sorbet to a gooey pan brownie with almond toffee, brandied cherries, chocolate caramel sauce, and chai ice cream (which I’d replace with a different flavor). Fancy cocktails, interesting beers, and well-chosen wines are among the beverages, but I wish new wine director Scott Tyree (Tru) would add more by-the-glass selections for less than $11. I also wish the stylish room—decorated with mirrors and dominated by Mylar-shaded chandeliers—weren’t so damn noisy. —Anne Spiselman

Taxim

1558 N. Milwaukee | 773-252-1558

$$$

GREEK | LUNCH, DINNER: Seven days | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Seems like Chicago’s been waiting since the Bronze Age for someone to challenge the gimmicky orthodoxy of Greektown, a place to take tourists more than a place to take expectations of a memorable or original meal. But at Taxim 29-year-old former caterer David Schneider, with the help of sous chef Jan Rickerl (Green Zebra, Scylla), has raised the bar for what passes as serious, interesting regional Greek food in a dramatic scrubbing of the late Wicker Park dive Big Horse Lounge. The brass lanterns in this Byzantine lounge (dimly) expose some of some of the freshest yet oldest ideas in village cuisine: humble, seasonal ingredients in simple, wonderful dishes. That’s not to say Taxim is a bastion of tradition. Pomegranate-glazed duck gyros are an updated nod to street food, dressed in a thin, unstrained house-made yogurt that’s deployed with amazing results in a number of dishes, from sauteed baby eggplant to a brawny (if dry) minced goat kebab, as well as on its own for dessert, accented with some tart candied kumquats. The so-far moderately sized selection of hot and cold mezzes and large plates—which also includes supersweet roasted peppers, capers, and kefalograviera cheese and a phyllo-clad goat feta and ramp pie—apparently just hints at Schneider’s repertoire, said to include hundreds of recipes from Greece and Asia Minor. The all-Greek wine list (including 11 by the glass) is affordable and interesting; add to that a daytime yogurt bar in the front of the house and the promise of rooftop dining amid native Greek verdure from Schneider’s grandparents’ village. There’s a late-night menu served till 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant will be closed from 1/3 to 1/7. —Mike Sula

Xoco

449 N. Clark | 312-334-3688

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MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY, MONDAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Anyone putting off a visit to Xoco because of the daunting lines that have become an unintentionally ironic hallmark of Rick Bayless’s “quick-serve” Mexican street-food joint should know that the Chef Who Can Do No Wrong provides plenty to think about during the wait: the chalkboard menu lists a half dozen caldos and nine or ten tortas (from the wood-fired oven or the griddle), all made with bounty from the local boutique farms Bayless has championed throughout his ascent as well as his own considerable tillage. And action fans can thrill to the battery of line cooks frenetically constructing meals a few arm’s lengths away. Still, there’s a certain variety of grump who no matter what is going to stand in line, arms folded, and ask himself, dammit, is there nowhere else in town to turn for a comparable ham-and-cheese torta under $11.50? The answer is no. There is nothing like Xoco’s jamon torta, griddled flat and layered with La Quercia prosciutto, seasonally variable organic Wisconsin cheddar, black beans, avocado, and chipotle mustard. The prices are justified by a singular dedication to superior products. Caldos, served only after 3 PM, are all more than meals in themselves, deep and substantial soups brimming with the same sort of meats available on the tortas but also vegetables, chile, avocado, and lime and maybe noodles or dumplings to boot. The brick-red short rib chile soup is filled with potatoes and chayote, and the tender chunks of braised beef just hold their integrity in the ballsy, well-balanced broth. The pork belly fideos, nutty vermicelli with thick squares of fatty pork, are too rich to slurp down in one sitting. The third wave in Xoco’s attack are the freshly fried churros, best accompanied by bean-to-cup hot chocolate lightly spiced with chile or spiked with cow or almond milk. Though these are available all day long, they’re the reason I still haven’t gotten too deep into the breakfast menu, which may be the most varied set of offerings all day—empanadas, pastries, breakfast tortas, savory bread pudding. The dining area is cramped and awkwardly arranged, and a good number of seats face directly into a wall. But there’s now takeout at breakfast and after 3 PM. If you want to eat in, mid-to-late afternoon is an expeditious window. —Mike Sula

Also

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Green Grocer Chicago
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Piccolo Sogno
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312-421-0077piccolosognorestaurant.com$$$
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Romanian Kosher Sausage Co.
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Sunday 8 AM-3 PM Monday-Wednesday 8 AM-5 PM Thursday 8:30 AM-6 PM Friday 8 AM-2:30 PM

Crispy poached duck egg and Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse at Sepia The foodie world was all aflutter when Andrew Zimmerman replaced Kendal Duque as chef at Sepia earlier this year, but once I tasted his breadcrumb-coated crispy poached duck egg, oozing sunny yolk onto a bed of lightly sauteed morels, asparagus and ramps, I knew all would be well. This dish, the essence of spring, isn’t currently on the menu, but the juicy, flavor-packed Gunthorp Farms pork porterhouse (which I had with bourbon, cherries and cheesy grits) is, and it’s almost as delicious.

Buckwheat honey from Some Honey Most honey is too sweet for me, so I was flabbergasted by the bold, earthy bite of the raw, natural, unfiltered buckwheat honey from Some Honey in New Lisbon, Wisconsin. Owner Jim Lato says the mineral-loaded honey, which comes from the extremely delicate little white blossoms of buckwheat groats, is popular with eastern Europeans and with marathon runners, who mix it with bee pollen into little balls they take on the road for a quick energy boost. I prefer it with Fage Greek yogurt or spread on fresh challah from La Farine Bakery. It’s available at Whole Foods and Green Grocer Chicago.

Parmesan and Lambrusco at A Tavola My year’s most memorable food-and-wine pairing was a simple hunk of imported Parmesan and a glass of chilled Lambrusco at A Tavola. The brightness of the sparkling red wine, which was dry yet fruity, complemented the robust saltiness of the cheese perfectly—not that surprising, since both are specialties of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. You can re-create the experience retail or ask for it at the restaurant, where you might want to follow up with the ultramoist chocolate-walnut torte with soft whipped cream, one of my all-time favorite desserts.