The faux-Polynesian empire Vic Bergeron started in Oakland, California in 1934 has reestablished a Chicago beachhead after vacating one of its oldest outposts, at the Palmer House Hilton, four years ago. I find it impossible to dislike Trader Vic’s—home of the original mai tai—though even as I write that I realize it’s going to be a hard sell after my visit to the new Viagra Triangle location. Despite a few terrific bites, it’s not a great place to eat, and worse—despite the extensive list of exotic cocktails—it’s not even a particularly good place to drink. I suspect that many of the 70-some cocktails, including the mai tai, are concocted with the company’s branded mixes and syrups—they certainly show a lack of depth and complexity. Sure, it’s a hoot to slurp up a giant Tiki Bowl with a friend, but recognize that it’s nothing more than a giant icy Sweet Tart. And the little rubber islander that wades in the Menehune Juice is cute as hell, but the drink itself is indistinguishable from the storied mai tai.
As for the food: a giant egg roll stuffed to bursting with chicken and char siu (roast pork) was about as flavorful as a car seat, and the curries—all accompanied by sunflower seeds, currants, cucumber, banana, coconut, chutney, chow-chow relish, and tomatoes—are relics of deflavored 50s-style exotica. It’s rare that I’ll complain that a pork chop is too juicy, but the giant double-cut here is so slick, wet, and salty I imagined it going straight from butcher to brine and bathing there until it was hung in the signature wood-burning oven. But the spare ribs are remarkably lean, juicy, and smoky, the coconut-flavored peanut butter sauce that comes with the bread service is irresistible, and a spicy, gingery slice of barbecued pineapple with a scoop of coconut ice cream is a fantastic dessert. I can’t believe the toxic-looking Bongo Bongo soup—a vivid green spinach-and-oyster slurry that tastes strongly of the sea—survived the focus groups, but it’s delicious as well. The space is of course swell, all bamboo, wicker, carved wood, and clamshells; the service is tight; and despite significant disappointments in the food and drink department, it’s a fun place to kill a few hours. —Mike Sula
Home of prosciutto di Parma, balsalmico di Modena, and Parmigiano Reggiano, Emilia-Romagna is the gastronomic ivory tower of Italy. Its residents are among country’s richest, and so is its food, particularly in the capital city of Bologna. Natives Luisa Silvia Marani and Giampaolo Sassi have twice credibly imported fine Bolognese dining to Chicago, at Merlo Ristorante and Merlo on Maple—neither place compromises on ingredients or execution. But La Trattoria del Merlo, Sassi and Marani’s attempt at a more casual and affordable spot, modeled on Italy’s simple neighborhood restaurants, in some ways faces greater challenges.
The dishes I tried were certainly simple enough, and for the most part delicious. Seasoning was gentle, allowing the ingredients speak for themselves, beginning with antipasti such as two cubes of milky stracchino cheese with a nest of arugula and a few pieces of house multigrain bread; a few nuggets of exquisitely textured house-cured tuna alongside a bundle of French green beans; and marinated shredded rabbit on crostini. The house-made pastas in particular were outstanding, and so was the restraint with which they were sauced: long hollow-tubes of bucatini lightly dressed in San Marzano amatriciana, chewy rigati in classic chunky ragu, and, most remarkable, a creamy pine-nut-sauce with spaghetti made from nutty farro, an ancient grain that also shows up in the bread and in a shrimp and cannellini bean salad. Stewy meat and fish courses tasted aggressive by comparison but were still wonderful, particularly the stufato, tiny veal meatballs with peas and potatoes cooked in hen stock, and squid stuffed with Parmagiano Reggiano, parsley, and bread crumbs atop planks of white polenta. Desserts return to the more subtle approach: the outrageous-sounding “chocolate salame” was a log of fondant, nuts, dried and candied fruit, and crumbled biscotti—about exciting as fruitcake. But amaretto-soaked, vanilla-laced torta di riso was much more successful.
I’m sympathetic to restaurateurs who source ingredients so religiously, but the day hasn’t yet come where this approach can be affordable for everyday eating. The portions are moderate, as actual Italians might want them, but the prices are only fractionally less expensive than at the other members of the Merlo family—which is to say it ain’t cheap. —Mike Sula
Farmerie 58 got off to an inauspicious start. Early notices late last year were mediocre, and mere weeks after Jeff Zhang and Sandy Yu (Jia’s, Shine/Morida, Rise) transformed the former Republic Pan-Asian and Sushi Restaurant into this contemporary American local/sustainable spot, executive chef William W. Alexander quit. Now Nathan Kosakowski runs the kitchen, and on my recent visit at least half the food was on track. A full dinner menu was available, along with a separate sushi menu and a long drinks list. One of the specialty maki, Ocean’s Bounty, with lobster, salmon, shrimp, avocado, and tempura crunch, was an enjoyable nibble alongside a lychee fizz, a refreshing mix of Ketel One citron, sparkling wine, lychee, and lime. Duck confit spring rolls arrived hot and crispy with a colorful garnish of curry aioli and spiced edamame. They were twice as good as, and half the price of, the short rib ravioli, reasonably delicate pasta ruined by a bland, grainy filling and dull tarragon broth. Wild mushroom-barley salad turned out to be the highlight of my meal, the nutty grain set off by sauteed mushrooms, slightly melted Brie, celery root, and a subtle sherry-bacon vinaigrette. Sauteed trout buried under a mountain of spiky arugula (sissy-mild compared to the peppery stuff I grow) was agreeably moist, and I liked the julienne root vegetable hash, but the too-firm truffle polenta didn’t have much flavor. Mushy cranberry stuffing marred the Indiana pork chop, which was glazed with sweet apple chutney and accompanied by nicely roasted fingerling potatoes (white and purple) and sauteed rapini. Door County cherry pain perdu, custardy brioche bread pudding with tart cherries and hazelnut ice cream, and a rich chocolate tart paired with chocolate ice cream and espresso sauce ended the evening on a positive note. —Anne Spiselman
Care to comment? Find these reviews at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.