Mixologist Mike Ryan at Sable
Mixologist Mike Ryan at Sable Credit: Eric Futran

What makes for a destination restaurant? I kept turning this question over in my mind during a good but not great three-hour meal at Sable, the bar and restaurant in the Kimpton Group’s new Hotel Palomar in River North. Chef Heather Terhune has headed two other Kimpton kitchens: she ran the Atwood Cafe, in the Hotel Burnham, for ten years, and before that 312 Chicago, at the Allegro, and if I were a guest at the Palomar I’d be thrilled to find the chic but cozy Sable lurking just off the lobby.

The menu, designed for sharing, runs the gamut of haute comfort food: pork belly BLTs, bacon-wrapped dates, short-rib sliders with a root beer glaze, chicken and dumplings. Fried smelt, an appetizer, were plump and addictive, dipped in a crispy batter shot with lemon zest. And two creative vegetable concoctions delivered as well: a crispy red lentil cake, which was nutty, surprisingly light and fluffy, and topped with a fresh fistful of zucchini, and the “corn brulee,” a creamy corn pudding surface-torched to a crackling crisp—though frankly that one might have been more at home on the savory end of the dessert menu.

But simple misfires kept the food from really flying. Fried artichokes tasted suspiciously like they’d shared oil with the smelt, thick slices of duck prosciutto were too big a challenge, and some flash-pickled vegetables were overpowered by sweet vinegar. Most disappointing, the cherry clafouti was dry and doughy, almost a quickbread rather than the flanlike ideal. On the other hand, the drinks—which a sunny, professional server made sure to keep coming—were tremendous. Overseen by Violet Hour vet Mike Ryan, the cocktail program gives classic cocktails a workout with concoctions like the War of the Roses, a perfect balance of Pimm’s, St-Germain, Tanqueray, mint, and house-made grapefruit bitters. The Pisco Sour was possibly the best I’ve ever tried, just sweet enough and bracingly strong, topped with a stiff cap of egg white. Even the Bridal Shower proved to be a stiff, refreshing cooler of Campari, vodka, rhubarb syrup, and plenty of fizz. The cocktails could be what make Sable a destination. —Martha Bayne

I guess there really aren’t enough steak houses around to serve the needs of the legions of jowly blazered conventioneers that hajj through the city every day. Now Volare impresario Benny Siddu has thrown in with Benny’s Chop House, transforming the former home of Jazz Record Mart into a clubby, stuffy warren of rooms subliminally sound-tracked with boomer-friendly classic rock (unless it’s Saturday, when there’s live jazz in the bar).

The slabs, dry aged or not, are fat and competently fired, and come with a cute little Yorkshire pudding that entertainingly bleeds red wine reduction all over the plate when prodded. But nothing blasphemous will challenge the average wayfarer—or amuse seasoned locals, notwithstanding some imaginative but ultimately off-kilter cocktails like the disastrous Aviation, made with sweet Old Tom Gin and Lillet.

The house makes a big deal about flying in its seafood daily, though overcooked giant Madagascar prawns, a miserly and overseasoned halibut steak, and a mushy tempura-fried soft-shell crab special undercut the boasts. The sides, appetizers, and salads seem alternately competent and underwhelming—the merits of steak tartare with ruffled potato chips are suspiciously obscured by an abundance of horseradish seasoning, and the so-called “liver and onions” seems nothing more than an attempt to make seared foie gras as boring as possible.

A handful of perfectly serviceable pastas are available in appetizer or entree portions—the Bolognese with tagliatelle is particularly robust—and in general the most pedestrian things are the most enjoyable—a grilled sheaf of romaine, bright green creamed spinach, a crispy discus of hash browns. But overall there are far less conventional steak houses around to splurge or spill an expense account on. —Mike Sula

Skeptics might see the moniker izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, as the latest faddish effort by certain restaurants to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, but Masu Izakaya has the right spirit—even if it didn’t yet have a liquor license on my visit. Tucked in the little building that used to house Minnie’s, this often boisterous two-room spot from Steven Song (of the now-shuttered Tsunami) is simply done in light woods—perhaps to suggest a masu, the cube-shaped cup traditionally used for sake. We got two menus when seated: the array of designer maki on the sushi list mercifully was kept to a minimum, and the knowledgeable, friendly server was eager to explain that the small-plates lineup—organized mostly by cooking style—was the real focus. A few were finds I haven’t seen elsewhere, among them kimpira, threads of crunchy burdock root glazed with slightly sweet soy-mirin sauce, and kawakimono, matchsticks of chewy dried file fish, marinated squid, and dried squid with a dab of flavored mayo.

Every fish we tried was a winner, including chunks of raw tuna paired with avocado in a piquant house sauce; deliciously rich barbecued freshwater eel with refreshing julienne cucumber; silken gindara saiko, miso-marinated grilled black cod; and one of my favorites, hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail collar so succulent we picked the last bits off the bone with our fingers. Of the variations on tempura, crisp, hot moriawase turned out to be a fine value; for $6, we got three shrimp and five pieces of vegetable, including Japanese pumpkin and lotus root. We also enjoyed grilled items priced by the dainty wooden skewer: negima, smoky chicken thigh set off by green onions; tsukune, a mini sausage of ginger-scented ground chicken; and gyubara, very flavorful beef short rib.

There are three pork belly preparations, and kakuni katsu, panko-breaded and deep-fried morsels of it, practically melted in my mouth. It was worlds apart from the dry, gristly, soggy pork katsu on the katsu don, mushy rice, onion, shiitakes, and beaten egg with dashi soy sauce. Next time I’ll try one of the other five donburi or the sole noodle bowl, tempura udon, though the braised pork belly and salt-grilled mackerel beckon more. —Anne Spiselman

“Shit,” muttered the scattered server, struggling to recall an ingredient in the risotto of the day at Aldino’s, the partnership between 312 Chicago’s Dean Zanella and Italian imperialist Scott Harris (of Francesca’s). Since merda didn’t appear in the glossary of culinary terms on the back of the menu—a concession to recovering shut-ins?—I felt reasonably secure that poo wouldn’t be perfuming the rice that day. Still, I couldn’t fault the confusion—the menu in this chummy if mawkish neighborhood spot is all over the boot. Such scattered surveys of complex regional cuisines always give me the willies. When you do so many different things, how many of them are going to be done well?

On the other hand, situated on the outskirts of Little Italy, it has the most interesting and varied menu in that red-sauce monoculture, offering arancini and beef tongue agrodolce as well as Bolognese and amatriciana. Who else has the stones to offer Tuscan ribollita, a typically bland vegetable and bean bread soup traditionally made from leftovers (here goosed with a sunny-side up egg), on the same page as a grilled pheasant sausage paired with tart carrot-and-cauliflower giardiniera (see glossary)?

The familiar—soft veal meatballs dressed with tomato and ricotta, lightly breaded shrimp and calamari frito misto—shares table space with thick, fat, chunky slabs of country pork paté, nubby Stygian-colored squid-ink chittarra, calamari served humbly with toasted bread crumbs and tomato; and fried skate wing Sicilianized with raisins, olives, tomato, and escarole. But execution is as variable as a simple arctic char fillet jazzed up with just the right amount of preserved lemon followed by a dull if fork-tender lump of braised pork shoulder sinking like a boulder in a gummy green polenta. It’s up-and-down even on the same plate, as with a boring veal scalloppine upstaged by its own meaty mound of trumpet mushrooms. It seems like the kitchen that produces the wonderfully mellow fig-infused grappa and the bombolini filled with hot, sugary lemon curd and custard and served with a bitter chocolate sauce is on a completely different planet than the one that turns out the hard gelato that bears about as much resemblance to the real thing as anything found in the supermarket display case. Still, with a takeaway market next door and its mix of the familiar and the regional, Aldino’s probably has enough going for it to win over a conservative clientele—and maybe some of the rest of us. —Mike Sula