The nearly concurrent openings of Revolution Brewing and Longman & Eagle, along with a handful of other new ventures in the neighborhood, have inspired more than a few predictions that Logan Square is in the looming shadow of a development and gentrification tsunami. As if to prove the point, both places have been mobbed since day one by disposable-income-dropping hipsters.
Legions of beer geeks waited longingly through the well-chronicled epic struggle by Handlebar principal Josh Deth to open Revolution Brewing, and now that the taps are flowing they’re draining the house brews faster than brewer Jim Cibak can produce them. Lines of stoic bearded dudes stream in and back out again with biceps curled around growlers of hoppy IPAs, roasty stouts, and spicy Belgian-style brews, barely glancing at the beautifully designed room, with its barrel-stave fixtures and full view of the brewery’s raw industrial operations.
Meanwhile chef Jason Petrie does battle in a half-concealed kitchen, struggling to feed the masses inspired yet beer-friendly food and striving to appease both carnivores and the vegetarians migrating from the more plant-eater-friendly Handlebar. So far the results are mixed.
House-made charcuterie is becoming the chicken breast of new restaurants. But cured meats actually make a lot of sense in a brewpub—just not Revolution’s mushy sausages, pale fatty hams, and cured pork belly inexplicably drizzled with truffle oil, or for that matter the hilarious vegan rye bread they’re served with. On paper a bowl of bacon-fat popcorn sounds like a perfect beer companion, but in practice it’s a top-heavy mass with chunks of bacon and clods of shredded Parmesan—the antithesis of finger food. Petrie has a tendency to gild the lily like this: see also his 16-ounce cold-smoked-and-grilled rib eye, slathered in a thick oxtail “sauce” that contains a nearly comparable portion of braised oxtails.
The simplest efforts—tangy, plump smoked buffalo wings, crispy ale-battered scrod—come off the best. Pizzas are offered in a few interesting variants, like duck confit or a corned beef special, but though the outer edges are respectably crispy, the centers tend to get overwhelmed by toppings. Beef patties are served on large misshapen buns, accessorized with toppings like pepper jack and pulled pork or Gorgonzola with cremini mushrooms and crispy shallots; a corned beef Reuben special (not to be confused with the regularly offered tempeh Reuben) made better use of that vegan rye. And the kitchen has a way with spuds, offering them three equally successful ways: long crispy fries, blue cheese potato salad, and fluffy garlic-cream cheese mashed. The last comes in a deep bowl of Flemish stew with an ale and balsamic gravy. Just give me some of that—but hold the tough, gnarly slabs of brisket—and I’ll be happy.
At Longman & Eagle, a tavern fronted by Empty Bottle pooh-bahs Bruce Finkleman and Peter Toalson, the throngs so far have been as apt to tie up the tables early Monday evening as they are late Friday night. I hope designer-partner Robert McAdams (whose work here is reminiscent of what he did at Branch 27) has soundproofed against the din that will otherwise bleed into the rooms of the B and B planned for upstairs. The food is executed by Jared Wentworth, who after decamping for Seattle from Andersonville’s fish-centric Atlantique a few years back became yet another proponent of snout-to-tail eating. He seems as determined to ward off vegetarians and those of timid taste as he is to draw in fearless fellow chefs, who’ve taken advantage of the late hours to gather round the plates of onion-jelly-topped tall roasted marrow bones that fly out of the open galley.
Wentworth’s meat challenge goes on and on: Kobe meatballs, duck rillettes, fat slabs of salty bacon-armored paté—squab one night, rabbit another, woodcock on a third—and a recent special of tete de cochon, not a whole pig’s head but a crispy headcheese croquette atop a bed of stinging nettles (which don’t sting once braised). Even the fish dishes can’t escape mammalian adornments: catfish is topped with ham-hock relish, and seared tuna swims in foie jus.
Whether all of these ought to be braved regardless of your disposition toward adventure is another matter. The brat-size house-made sausage on a bun is dry and underseasoned, but the wild boar sloppy joe is a scarfable Tuscan ragu sandwich topped with crunchy frazzled onions and, more questionably, a whole fat fuck-you of a pickled jalapeño. A sunny-side up duck egg layered on a beef tongue hash is a satisfying late-night breakfast, and might even inoculate you against the dozens of whiskeys behind the bar. The sprinkling of perfect crispy-fried Ipswich clams on an oversize block of toasted brioche, though, is sure to provoke frustration in anyone who’s ever dropped a few bucks at an actual clam shack. Even on a single plate execution can diverge to extremes—beautiful braised rolled veal breast is a meaty paragon, but its partner, a short rib stuffed in undercooked manicotti, just looks embarrassed for itself. That and a huge undercooked candied apple in a pool of bourbon anglaise with a squibble of pureed butternut squash say to me that sometimes things are coming out of the weeds before they’re ready.
To be fair, it’s possible that the unrelenting crowds have affected both places’ ability to execute. They may need even more than the customary breaking-in period before they’re worth the wait. —Mike Sula
In the church of sustainability, chef Sarah Stegner is a saint. A founder of the Green City Market and proprietor, with partner George Bumbaris, of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, she’s been advancing the cause of local, seasonal cooking for almost 20 years, ever since her award-winning days at the helm of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. With their new Prairie Fire, which opened last month in the former Powerhouse space just north of the Ogilvie Metra station, she and Bumbaris seem determined to demonstrate just how accessible eating locally can be—the menu features no weird cuts of pig, no organ meats, no threatening-sounding weeds. Instead there’s a little local something for everyone: Tallgrass steaks, Mint Creek Farm lamb, Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese.
Everything’s cleanly prepared, and one dish—an ancho-marinated skirt steak served over black and white beans and a ragout of braised greens—was absolutely stellar. With an exterior seared to a tangy, even char and the interior a juicy, tender medium rare, it oozed with big, messy, rustic flavor. An entree of wild Atlantic striped bass, served lightly grilled over a rich, nutty celery root puree with a side of farro tossed with diced root vegetables, was more delicate but beautifully balanced—when my friend maneuvered a perfect bite, with a bit of every element, into his mouth, his face lit up.
Up until the entrees, though, we were having a hard time feeling Prairie Fire’s groove. Appetizers of duck paté and a “farmers’ salad” were pro forma, the salad a disappointing tangle of little greens topped with dessicated bits of roast parsnip and maybe three pomegranate seeds. Our waiter anxiously described a braised lamb appetizer variously as a “spring roll” and a “strudel” (it turned out to be more of an egg roll); he seemed overwhelmed and disappeared about halfway through the meal. A rowdy happy-hour crowd at the bar made conversation difficult. And the room itself, while tricked out with some nice Prairie School touches, also bizarrely features large flat-screen TVs showing videotaped nature porn of soaring cliffs at sunset and baby deer in the snow. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was dining in a hotel lobby. It’s a bummer when mainstream has to mean middle-of-the-road. —Martha Bayne
The extensive menu at Karyn’s on Green, the raw food guru’s new Greektown spot, reads like a midnight meat lover’s delight: chorizo sliders, sausage pizza, crispy chicken legs . . . wait, isn’t this supposed to be a vegan restaurant?
It is, of course: that chorizo and the chicken are all soy and wheat protein. Yet while cheese is called out on the menu as vegan, and other items are marked as raw or gluten free, there’s no indication that the meat is faux. Just as we were trying to figure out how to broach the question without sounding like utter fools, a gallant server swept to our aid, and from then on, dinner at Karyn’s on Green was one of the most graceful, pleasant meals I’ve had in a long time.
The airy dining room’s warm and elegant, aglow with caramel-colored wood and glittering crystal. Our server fielded our endless questions (Does the “chicken” taste like chicken? Should we try the raw soup?) with good-natured aplomb and warned us when she worried we’d overordered. Of the five small plates we tried, the ones that made no pretense of being meat were the best: butternut squash soup made with coconut and guajillo puree was packed with taut flavor, and I’d pay good money for a snack pack of the crispy fried chickpeas that came sprinkled over the top. Wild mushroom risotto was rich and hearty, prepared with an ample portion of smoky ‘shrooms, and the eggplant cannelloni with ratatouille and rosemary cream packed a woodsy, earthy punch. The sausage pizza—a crispy flatbread topped with sauteed broccoli rabe, white bean-sage puree, and knobs of spicy “sausage”—was equally well conceived, though I’d suggest finishing it while it’s hot—vegan cheese doesn’t travel well. And while the crispy “chicken” legs didn’t taste anything like chicken, the moist, tender bites made a nice foil for the accompanying sweet potato hash and braised Swiss chard.
Karyn’s has a creative cocktail program in line with the restaurant’s healthy philosophy, featuring locally made beer and spirits and a refreshing “green mojito” with ginger syrup and a shot of spirulina. And with no meat to drive up the bill, you can walk out of Karyn’s with your wallet not much slimmer than when you came. I’m no vegan, but I’ll be back. —Martha Bayne
New Too: Eleven more recent openings
1050 N. Milwaukee | 773-489-8888
MIDDLE EASTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, OTHER NIGHTS TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO
Two people can feast for less than $20 at this lemon yellow storefront with a takeout counter and eight tables. Start by sharing the vegetarian plate, which brings together hummus, baba ghannouj, crunchy falafel patties, rice-stuffed grape leaves, and refreshing tabouleh that’s heavy on parsley but light on cracked wheat and onions. Then go for the “combination feast” of three tasty kebabs: big chunks of moist marinated chicken breast, surprisingly tender beef, and well-seasoned ground-beef kifta. They come with plenty of fluffy rice, three little pieces of grilled vegetable, forgettable iceberg lettuce salad, and the kind of pita bread you can sink your teeth into. —Anne Spiselman
1252 N. Damen | 773-772-2243
Coffee shop | Breakfast, lunch: seven days
A tiny, sunny storefront at Damen and Potomac, Bagel on Damen trades mainly in carryout, though there are a few small tables and stools that offer seating for about a dozen. The bagels come from New York Bagel & Bialy, the coffee from Stumptown, and the small selection of grocery items from “many independent grocers and producers.” Most of the menu is dedicated to bagel sandwiches, which range from breakfast options with eggs and bacon to vegetarian creations to meat-and-cheese sandwiches. Both the Lox and the Shroom (portobello mushroom, greens, onions, roasted red peppers, and shiitake and rosemary cream cheese) were tasty, if structurally unsound—I managed one bite of the Shroom before it collapsed entirely. Curried butternut squash and Granny Smith apple soup was pleasant but a little bland, the curry flavor almost nonexistent; I hoped I’d fare better with the barley beef short rib soup on a return visit, but it was salty enough to float lead, and all but inedible. —Julia Thiel
35 W. Ontario | 312-870-6773
BREAKFAST, AMERICAN, BURGERS | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: 24 HOURS DAILY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
This large River North diner, the first Chicago location of the suburban chain, is almost frighteningly cheery, decorated in buttercup yellow with touches of sky blue and grass green and enormous displays of colorful fake flowers. Open 24 hours, it focuses (as the name would suggest) on breakfasts that feature eggs, though it also offers lunch-oriented sandwiches, wraps, salads, and burgers. Portions are enormous, and everything we tried was more than decent: the pancakes were fluffy, the hash browns crispy, and the skirt steak in a “super skillet” tender and flavorful. Despite the extensive menu, vegetarian options are severely limited on the lunch side of things, though the breakfast menu has several more choices. Juices are fresh squeezed and smoothies are excellent. —Julia Thiel
112 W. Hubbard | 312-222-4940
CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, monday-friday TILL 2
The name Epic aptly describes the proportions of this industrial-chic restaurant with 14,000 square feet on two floors (plus a 3,000 square foot rooftop deck opening in spring). But epic doesn’t extend to the portions of high-priced food from executive chef Stephen Wambach. Our gnocchi appetizer had seven thumbnail-size pillows of pasta and five coins of salty lamb sausage in creamy fennel beurre blanc—for $15. From the raw bar, the $17 selection of east- and west-coast oysters turned out to be three Wellfleets and three quarter-size kumamotos. Steaks get their own section on the one-page menu, but our ten-ounce seven-pepper-crusted hanger steak ($23, the cheapest) had a streak of tendon running through the chewy beef. Spiced lamb shank with a little preserved lemon in russet lamb jus was hefty but surprisingly bland. Our favorite entree was four smallish seared sea scallops on a fricassee of salsify and black trumpet mushrooms. Executive pastry chef Christine McCabe (Sugar) turns out complicated creations like milk chocolate-hazelnut crunch with chocolate mousse, acai emulsion, and huckleberries, but they had one too many flavors for me. —Anne Spiselman
58 E. Ontario | 312-202-0808
ASIAN, JAPANESE, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: THURSDAY-SATURDAY
The latest salvo in owner Jeff Zhang and Sandy Yu’s (Jia’s, Shine, Rise) campaign to support Sushi Taiyo is to turn the second floor into Izakaya Hapa and capitalize on the Japanese tapas trend. (Vancouver’s similarly named Hapa Izakaya is so popular it has expanded to three locations.) But don’t expect the head-and-tail-on fried fish, beef intestine stew, and other exotica Japanese businessmen share while downing sake, shochu, and beer after work. The big menu is geared to Americans, with variations on tempura and teriyaki, accessible stir-fries and noodles, and familiar appetizers and salads. For sushi and such, you can order from the Sushi Taiyo lineup. Instead of beak-to-feet chicken parts, “yakitori” here refers to a wide range of grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables on skewers; our spongy fish balls were tasty, but the short ribs we tried to order were unavailable, as were onigiri yaki, broiled rice balls the menu says are “great to combine with sauce.” They would have come in handy for the bland Japanese curry with puny, chewy shrimp and the spicy, much better green curry hot pot with succulent scallops and vegetables in coconut-milk broth. Desserts are the same as downstairs, among them decent green tea creme brulee and orange mousse cake that only hinted at orange. Pitchers of mojitos and alcoholic lemonade are among the drinks, along with martinis and other cocktails, more than a dozen sakes, wines by the glass or bottle, and a handful of beers. —Anne Spiselman
4835 N. Western | 774-745-5672
EASTERN EUROPEAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | open late: every night till 11 | BYO
This Serbian grill in the epicenter of Balkan Chicago distinguishes itself from the many cafes and hangouts in its orbit with an outwardly friendly vibe (no tinted windows, no cold stares from regulars), and though the interior is as bare-bones as it gets, once the crowd fills in you won’t even notice. Apart from the signature sausages of Serbian meats—the unencased cylinders of minced beef known as cevapcici (in both pork and lamb mixes)—there’s a large selection of animal proteins such as pljeskavica, the substantial cevap in burger form; various chicken parts including bacon-wrapped breast and bacon-wrapped livers; snappy paprika-spiked sausages; and pork schnitzel, all culminating in the house specialty, the leskobacki opanak, sort of a Balkan Bacon Explosion, a 500-gram bacon-wrapped cevap with a core of ham and Swiss. Carnivores attempting to convert their vegetarian friends might find their efforts frustrated by starters such as roasted red pepper ajvar, a tangy chile-cheese spread, and a clean vinegar-based slaw, all augmented with baskets of lepinya, a fresh, puffy bread, and a selection of sweet and savory crepes. —Mike Sula
2910 W. Armitage | 773-489-6277
VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY NOON-8 PM | CLOSED MONDAY
No doubt about it, Life on Mars has the city’s all-vegan take-out racket covered. But the unassuming Logan Square spot offers a rotating menu of cafeteria-style, vegan comfort food made to appeal to the masses, herbivores and carnivores alike. The menu of sides on the day I visited read like a vegan-style Thanksgiving buffet (mac ‘n’ cheese, barbecue baked black-eyed peas, garlic mashed potatoes), with an intriguing okra-peanut stew featured as the soup of the day. The exceptional tofu ricotta lasagna particularly stood out; other highlights included the mac ‘n’ cheese, a root vegetable medley, and a rich and hearty helping of coconut greens. The few sandwich options feature seitan, among them a barbecue rib and a well-seasoned sliced seitan sandwich, and there are a variety of soy shakes, smoothies, and fresh-baked cookies and brownies available. With affable service and a chill environment (improv jazz sound track included), Life on Mars will assuredly lure in its fair share of vegans and vegetarians. Hopefully the meat eaters won’t be too bashful to give it a whirl as well. —Kevin Warwick
1024 N. Western | 773-451-5625
BAR/LOUNGE, AMERICAN, burgers | lunch, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY TILL 3, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2
Kitty-corner to the Empty Bottle, this bar-cum-restaurant differentiates itself from other burger zones with an incarcertation theme and Disney-like prison decor. There’s a higher ratio of flat-screens to humans than you’ve probably encountered elsewhere, but despite all the noise, the food shows a sure hand in the kitchen. “Cruelty to Animals” is an absolutely delicious hamburger crowned with chorizo, prosciutto, and bacon and served on a pretzel bun garnished with arugula and red onion. There are even some respectable vegetarian options like the house-made hummus and baba ghanoush appetizers (inexplicably called “White Collar Crime”). The fresh, hand-cut french fries are a worthy mate to fine draft and bottle beers, many reasonably priced around $4 and served in frosty mason jars. To help pass the time while you’re waiting out your dinner sentence, there’s a changing repertoire of concert videos featuring much metal. —David Hammond
2932 N. Broadway | 773-549-5700
ASIAN, VIETNAMESE, THAI | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO
The name may be an allusion to The King and I, because half the menu at this bright, simply decorated storefront consists of Thai standards. In fact, variations on Vietnamese pho are limited to three: beef, chicken, and vegetarian. Unfortunately, our pho bo—with brisket and medium-rare round steak—suffered from wan beef broth and clumpy rice noodles, and the add-ins (bean sprouts, basil, lime) didn’t include the usual green chiles to perk it up. Coconut-milk curries fared better: the red curry with avocado, vegetables, and basil was nicely spicy, though the tail-on shrimp (you also can opt for chicken, beef, or tofu in any curry) were small and overcooked; piquant green curry had lots of tender sliced beef but alas none of the customary Thai baby eggplant. Bun, room-temperature Vietnamese rice noodles with salady vegetables, might be a tasty summer meal, as long as you don’t choose spongy fried tofu and dull vegetable rolls as your topping. I’d also say skip the appetizers, judging by rubbery rice-paper rolls (goi cuon) packed mostly with iceberg lettuce, shrimp in blankets that tasted of old frying oil, and bland shrimp on sugarcane. —Anne Spiselman
1467 W. Irving Park | 773-975-8226
MEXICAN | LUNCH, dinner: SEVEN DAYS | open late: friday & saturday till 3 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
The food at this lively-looking storefront decorated with jazzy graffiti murals is somewhat perplexingly billed as “nontraditional yet very authentic,” but we started strong with flautas, “flutes” of good-quality fried tortillas filled with chipotle chicken or potato and cheese. The al pastor and fajita veggie tacos were tasty if not mind-blowing, but the al pastor-style spices and pineapple slivers on the tofu taco slipped toward the unpleasantly sweet. Tacos are obviously menu mainstays; there are also several hot dogs, though the generic wieners and buns lack personality. You’ve got to admire the ambition of the owners—trying to improve upon Chicago’s Mexican food and hot dogs takes brass cojones. Still, Rockin’ Taco is a fun place: the horchata is fresh-tasting, BYOB is a nice touch, and on Friday nights at 7 PM you can sit down to a flight of “10 Tacos from Hell,” five pounds of food, smothered with tongue-blistering house-made salsa; finish all this and a drink in under an hour with one napkin and you’ll be reimbursed for your dinner (which is $16.66). —David Hammond
3755 Grand, Brookfield | 708-290-0082
MEXICAN | monday-thursday 4-9 PM, friday-saturday 2-11 PM | closed sunday
Recently relocated from a desolate stretch in Cicero to a busy corner in Brookfield, Xni-Pec aims to enlighten patrons about Yucatecan cuisine while avoiding, in the words of owner Antonio Contreras, becoming “more a museum than a restaurant.” That’s a concern because Xni-Pec studiously avoids offering many Mexican standards, instead aiming to open eyes to the Mayan-influenced culinary canon. You can get a bowl of guac, sure, but servers go out of their way to explain the ancestry behind their more distinctive dishes, and the focus is on authentic fare. Cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork, is a prerequisite for those new to the cuisine; tikin xic is a beautifully prepared fish seaoned with achiote and sour orange, then steamed with vegetables in a banana leaf, which lends it distinctive notes of fruit and grass. Papadzules, tortillas soaked in pumpkin seed sauce, filled with chopped egg, and draped with tomato salsa, are a lightweight dish with lots of flavor. Other plates you won’t find at most other Chicago Mexican spots include pan de cazon, a stack of tacos filled with black beans and baby shark, and Mama Contreras’s mole rojo with a proprietary paste of chiles, almonds, and a wisp of cocoa. When you visit, be sure to ask if they’re serving any off-menu specials; we inquired and were rewarded with capirotada, a traditional Lenten bread pudding, full of raisins and memorably delicious. —David Hammond