Fall Flavors

Blackbird619 W. Randolph | 312-715-0708

F 9.2 | S 8.0 | A 7.4 | $$$$ (7 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

rrr This sterile white-and-steel space would make a lab rat feel at home. But for fine dining with a rotation of top-notch seasonal ingredients, served by a crack cadre of skilled food-service ninjas who would die for your smallest whim, Blackbird’s still at the top of its game. Don’t do what I did last time, succumbing to my basest instincts and ordering course after course featuring a cured pork product. By the time I’d finished my endive salad with poached egg and pancetta, seared diver scallops with guanciale, and braised pork belly, my alimentary canal felt like the Bonneville Salt Flats, and my plan to finish with the bacon ice cream was foiled. You owe it to yourself—and to now executive chef Mike Sheerin—to try, say, sauteed skate wing with sassafras, pickled pear, Parmesan, and rosemary or crispy veal sweetbreads with cashew butter, rye waffle, black mission figs, and black olive honey. Challenges in the area of wine selection are sometimes met by the guidance of your Joseph Abboud-clad waiter, sometimes not. —Mike Sula

Boka1729 N. Halsted | 312-337-6070

F 9.1 | S 8.5 | A 8.7 | $$$ (27 reports)American Contemporary/Regional, Small Plates | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

rrr Giuseppe Tentori, a nine-year veteran of Charlie Trotter’s, was named one of Food & Wine‘s best new chefs of 2008, and his menu pops with startling, enjoyable items. Scallop-stuffed squid with baby spinach, spicy pineapple, and black tapioca was one of the weirdest-looking plates I’ve set eyes on in a while and texturally freaky too—squishes and pops in every bite—but really tasty and fun to eat. A hyperglobal salad of Peruvian tabouli, English cucumbers, haricots verts, Greek feta, and radishes was an interesting combination of flavors, though the saffron risotto (no longer on the menu) took things too far—does anyone ever see flakes of gold leaf on a plate and think, “Mmmm, metal?” But it was sumptuous veal cheeks, topped with a dollop of excellent house-made mustard and served with broccoli hash and cauliflower-Yukon Gold potato puree, that won the day. Service was deft, knowledgeable, and unruffled despite the packed house on a Friday. —Mike Sula

Chalkboard4343 N. Lincoln | 773-477-7144

F 8.3 | S 8.3 | A 8.3 | $$$ (7 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

rrr Walking into the airy, elegant Chalkboard space, it’s hard to believe it was formerly the gloomy Tournesol. But classy as the room is, the menu is decidedly friendly, offering dressed-up versions of classic American comfort food. Daily specials are listed on the restaurant’s namesake, a giant chalkboard, but often also on a paper menu that includes chatty asides from chef-owner Gilbert Langlois, a veteran of Rushmore and SushiSamba Rio. The good old combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup, which appears on the appetizer menu as roasted tomato bisque with grilled blue cheese in brioche, was right on: the soup was silky and rich, with added depth from the roasting, the tasty sandwich thoroughly dunkable. The menu changes frequently, but seasonal vegetables featured prominently at my last visit: the chips in the fish-and-chips were made from sunchokes, a pile of Swiss chard accompanied a pink seared duck breast, and tortellini were stuffed with roasted celeriac. The last were handmade by Langlois’ mother, and if they seemed a little dense and chewy, well, they had the homespun appeal of lumpy mashed potatoes. On Saturdays and Sundays there’s an afternoon tea from 2 to 4 PM. —Kathie Bergquist

Crofton on Wells535 N. Wells | 312-755-1790

F 8.8 | S 7.1 | A 8.6 | $$$ (7 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr Chef-proprietor Suzy Crofton presents a well-balanced and innovative menu in a small, urbane setting. Subdued music playing in the background of the minimally decorated room keeps the conversation level down and the focus on the food. The menu changes seasonally, but staples include appetizers like crab cakes with yellow-pepper butter and lovage oil and wild mushrooms with bacon and brioche. Entrees include chipotle-roasted Amish chicken and a smoked Kurabuta pork belly and grilled tenderloin combo with grits and smoked apple chutney. Half a dozen desserts are offered, for example a goat cheese cheesecake with cracked hazelnuts, blackberry reduction, and an ice wine gelee or Michigan peaches in caramelized puff pastry with pistachios, blue cheese creme brulee, and viognier-peach consomme. One Rater sums the place up with a simple imperative: “Go.” —Paul Schoenwetter, Rater

The Dining Room at Kendall College900 N. North Branch | 312-752-2328

F 9.9 | S 7.7 | A 9.0 | $$ (7 reports)American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | BYO

rrr With a prix fixe option ($28 for a three-course dinner Tuesday through Thursday, $18 for lunch Monday through Friday) and, currently, a BYO policy ($5 corkage per bottle at dinner, free at lunch), the Dining Room at Kendall College is one of the best fine-dining deals in town. A teaching restaurant for advanced students in the school’s culinary and hospitality programs, the Dining Room offers a changing seasonal menu evenly between “surf” and “turf” preparations, with a few veggie options thrown in for good measure. Fall offerings include juniper-seared bison carpaccio, local greens with spiced pumpkin seeds and pumpkin-seed vinaigrette, soy-braised beef short ribs with buckwheat polenta and Swiss chard, and panko-crusted halibut with braised collard greens and smoked ham broth. Monday nights are given over to the Kendall College Dining Series, a five-course dinner for $38 by reservation only. This fall’s theme is cuisine from countries south of the border; see kendallcolleg.edu for more. Note: the Dining Room, closed for a few days between sessions, resumes service October 31. —Martha Bayne

Erwin2925 N. Halsted | 773-528-7200

F 8.1 | S 7.5 | A 7.4 | $$$ (17 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday

rrr Mark Bittman, the New York Times‘s minimalist, would approve of Erwin, the namesake restaurant of chef Erwin Drechsler. The emphasis is on seasonal food prepared simply, to bring out the freshness of the ingredients. Appealing appetizers include an onion tart with Danish blue cheese and walnuts and a spicy crab cake with carrot-daikon salad. Roasted beets paired nicely with a thin crisp of ricotta salata and a red onion marmalade; toasted hazelnuts added texture. Entrees that make the most of that wood grill (you can smell the smoke from down the street) include flank steak, a pork chop with green tomato jam, and a hamburger, served with a heap of fries and house-made pickles and worth every bit of its $13 price. Desserts keep up the homey simplicity—there’s a fruit crisp with pears and dried cranberries served with French vanilla ice cream and a peanut butter mousse cake with a graham cracker crust and chocolate ganache. —Kate Schmidt

Graham Elliot217 W. Huron | 312-624-9975

F 9.3 | S 8.0 | A 7.2 | $$$$ (5 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

rr Cherubic, down-to-earth Graham Elliot Bowles is a homeboy (more or less) who helped make Chicago a draw for big-name chefs. Now at his more casual new place, Graham Elliot, hasn’t he earned the freedom to crank his iPod, outfit his staff in T-shirts and Chucks, and cook with Cheez-Its and ironic cheap beer? Squint past GEB’s not entirely legible handwriting and you’ll find the menu is divided into “cold,” “hot,” “sea,” “land,” and “sweet” courses (with corresponding wine suggestions), which are scattered with artifacts from a late-20th-century history of industrial snack foods. A deconstructed Caesar salad seems to be positioned as a signature dish, but its most original element, a “brioche Twinkie,” is like something pulled from the day-old bag at the neighborhood panaderia. This sort of nostalgic twist was cute in the Pop Rock “foielipop” (conceived at Avenues and available on the bar menu here), but fond memories of indiscriminate drinking don’t make bitter Budweiser foam delicious. Rice Krispies, PBR, malted milk balls, and Nilla wafers also show up in various forms. Sometimes the gimmicks are just jarring—like a scoop of hickory-smoke-flavored ice cream that brought a taste of ashtray to an otherwise delicious Kobe beef tartare. We had better luck with a relatively simple pan-roasted skate wing. But too many dishes seem overearnestly calculated to provoke some nostalgic reaction. As much as I’m pulling for Bowles, I knew there was something wrong when I found myself commenting more on his playlist than on the plates. —Mike Sula

Green Zebra1460 W. Chicago | 312-243-7100

F 9.1 | S 8.5 | A 7.6 | $$$ (27 reports)Small Plates, Vegetarian/Healthy, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days, Sunday brunch | Vegetarian friendly

rrr Sean McClain’s sleek haven for vegetarian dining is all cool earth tones, warm low lights, and bursts of greenery. The seasonal menu is currently featuring fritto misto with oyster mushrooms, pattypan squash, and haricots verts, served with a dipping sauce; roasted beets with wasabi gelee and cocoa nib foam; sweet onion and garlic soup with truffle cream; and a foraged mushroom popover with smoked cippolinis, fresh plums, and manchego. Among the desserts are a honey cannoli with lemon-white chocolate mousse and roasted fig and blueberry crisp with lemon thyme and brown butter ice cream. After-dinner options include French-press coffee and some wildly exotic teas—for example, one that according to the menu was once harvested by monkeys. —Martha Bayne

Jack’s on Halsted3201 N. Halsted | 773-244-9191

F 8.0 | S 7.1 | A 7.1 | $$$ (11 reports)American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

rrr The decor at chef-owner Jack Jones’s namesake place is looking a little dated these days, but the food is as unpretentious and appealing as ever. Appetizers include panko-crusted baked crab cakes with chive oil and spicy mayo; butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter and candied pecans; and braised lamb risotto with mushrooms and asparagus. Entrees range from fusion creations (seared coriander-crusted ahi tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes) to a simple but perfectly prepared roasted free-range chicken to a “pork tasting”: Asian barbecued baby back ribs, grilled pork tenderloin, and Memphis pulled pork on focaccia with maple-whipped sweet potatoes and sweet-and-sour cabbage. Dishes are moderately priced, portions generous. Sit at the bar and you may be offered more than a well-prepared dirty martini—I once had a guy insist that I have a bite of his Door County cherry pie a la mode. —Kate Schmidt

Mado1647 N. Milwaukee | 773-342-2340

$$$Mediterranean | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

By the time you read about what I ate at Allison and Rob Levitt’s minimalist new Wicker Park restaurant, you may have to wait until next year to try some of it. That’s because much of the menu at Mado, in the space formerly housing Barcello’s, reads like a shopping list for the week’s Green City Market. Preparations are simple, with all due reverence given to the superior quality of the ingredients, raised by an A-list of regional agrarian rock stars. The porchetta, a riff on the central Italian boneless roast pig, was presented as a slab of luscious pork with amalgamated crispy bits, dressed with a light salsa verde and some arugula. Raw sunchokes, sliced into small coins and tossed with lemon and parsley, were every bit as memorable—and so uncomplicated it’s a wonder you don’t see this dish everywhere. Trout with walnuts was deftly grilled over wood to yield perfectly lush pink flesh under delicate crispy skin. Desserts were also excellent in their restraint, particularly a rhubarb fool, layers of lightly tart fruit and lightly sweet whipped cream. Don’t overlook the fragile, buttery shortbread, which crumbles at a touch—it’s listed modestly on the menu but it’ll be the last thing I forget about this place. —Mike Sula

North Pond2610 N. Cannon | 773-477-5845

F 8.6 | S 7.4 | A 9.4 | $$$ (25 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday

rrr At North Pond, along with the menu diners are given the mantra of the modern sustainability-minded restaurant: the ingredients, whenever possible, are locally sourced and organic and you will love them; the chef has close partnerships with area farmers and you will benefit. Chef Bruce Sherman isn’t shy about his principles, and it’s hard to eat here and conclude that he’s wrong: the quality of his ingredients is evident, and the cooking is surprisingly adventurous. Current appetizers include slow-roasted pork belly with apple jam and a Beauty Heart radish-apple salad and a poached farm egg with polenta, maple-cinnamon-glazed chanterelles, and a Parmesan emulsion. Hearty fall entrees range from a grilled lamb chop and yogurt-marinated leg of lamb combo with a Beauty Heart-garbanzo salad, Wehani rice (an aromatic brown rice), and pistachios to squab with white sweet potato gnocchi, squab leg confit, chanterelles, brussels sprouts, and huckleberries. Even Sunday brunch has surprises: where else is celeriac-cider soup with a ricotta-fig crouton and fried capers an option at such a meal? —Nicholas Day

Quince1625 Hinman, Evanston | 847-570-8400

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday

At Quince, in the old Trio space, chef Mark Hannon gives upscale American comfort food meticulous, even fussy treatment. Current highlights on the seasonal menu include pumpkin soup, sweetbreads with bacon and sauerkraut tortellini; grilled foie gras with black quinoa, strawberries, black pepper, champagne, and basil; pork osso buco with cassoulet and a confit leg; and an appetizer you don’t want to miss: shaved asparagus salad served simply in a big ol’ bowl with a fragrant truffle vinaigrette. Wine pairings, handled by Alinea vet Joe Ziomek, are also top-notch. A five-course tasting menu, available on request, is $75. —Kate Schmidt

Rhapsody65 E. Adams | 312-786-9911

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

This elegant glass-enclosed dining room behind Symphony Center overlooks a small garden just steps from the el tracks. The seasonal menu under chef Doran Payne is highly eclectic: current appetizers include red snapper sashimi, truffle tortellini with squash, and pan-seared foie gras with caramelized apple and brioche. Entrees are similarly wide-ranging, from Peking duck to Moroccan rack of lamp to a Mediterranean shrimp risotto with artichokes, manchego, and kaffir lime. Desserts include the intense Chocolate Symphony (warm chocolate lava cake, chocolate-raspberry praline cake, white-chocolate-covered raspberry lollipop, and grape truffles). At lunch the service is casual and the food more American, featuring sandwiches, burgers, and salads. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Sepia123 N. Jefferson | 312-441-1920

F 8.7 | S 8.4 | A 9.6 | $$$$ (9 reports) American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch

rrr At Sepia, Emmanuel Nony’s sleek “modern speakeasy,” creative chef Kendal Duque (Everest, Tru, NoMi) runs the kitchen, and out front savvy servers seem happy to be there. The succulent slow-baked veal short ribs on wide, lightly minted noodles with truffle butter quickly became a signature entree not simply by default but because they’re delicious. I also liked the thick Berkshire pork chop with arugula and apple. Flatbreads, which head the menu, should be a natural with cocktails, but I didn’t have much luck: the little one topped with applewood-smoked bacon and seasonal fruit didn’t go at all with the Sepia Mule, which features house-made ginger-infused vodka. Other appetizers include pork rilletes with fig jam, toasts, and pistachio brittle and steak tartare with raw farm egg yolk and pickled shallots; there are four fish selections—including cobia—among the entrees, and tempting sides like brussels sprouts with guanciale. At brunch there’s a bacon Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka and eggs Benedict made with Berkshire pork belly. The eclectic, affordable wine list rounds out an enjoyable experience. —Anne Spiselman

Spring2039 W. North | 773-395-7100

F 9.0 | S 9.1 | A 8.4 | $$$$ (14 reports) American Contemporary/Regional, Seafood| Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

rrr The first restaurant venture of executive chef Shawn McClain, now the overlord of a mini empire that includes Green Zebra and Custom House, Spring’s more than a half-decade old and still fresh. The concept’s simple: clean, clever Asian-influenced seafood dishes, as in appetizers of braised short-rib dumplings with a spiced hot-and-sour broth, cilantro, and shaved coconut or barbecued unagi eel with kimchi, crispy somen noodles, avocado emulsion, and toasted sesame The flavor of the fish is usually kept pure; the corruption’s confined to the splendid sides and sauces. Maine skate wing, for example, comes with artichokes, cipollini onions, tagliatelle, and toasted pumpkin-seed vinaigrette; grilled Hawaiian prawns with delectable pork belly dumplings and a Thai-spiced aromatic shellfish broth. Potato “ravioli” test the structural stability of potatoes, but the single seared scallop that accompanies it is pristine and a pungent mushroom-black truffle reduction is the perfect foil, like a gastronomic good cop-bad cop routine. —Nicholas Day

Think2235 N. Western | 773-394-0537

F 8.7 | S 8.6 | A 8.2 | $$$$ (28 reports)American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11| BYO

rrr Raters remain high on Omar Rodriguez’s Think, which has expanded in recent years to three airy, low-key dining rooms. The Italian-influenced contemporary American menu covers a lot of ground: a half-dozen appetizers, as many salads, and even more pasta and entree options. Raters single out the white asparagus salad with tomatoes and Maytag blue cheese, but my friend went for a plate of arugula, dried apples, and goat cheese in a mango vinaigrette, a nice, teasing balance of flavors. A venison special paired dark, sweet, slightly gamy meat with whipped sweet potatoes, dates, and dollops of foie gras—but its $35 price tag came as a bit of a shock. Another special of grilled bass with mango chutney, served over pearl couscous and topped with two lonely asparagus spears, was unfussy and satisfying. The multigenerational crowd is a testament to Think’s appeal. —Martha Bayne

Vie4471 Lawn, Western Springs | 708-246-2082

$$$American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

Located in Western Springs (well within the known universe, 30 minutes from the Loop), Vie is a restaurant on a kind of a mission, and part of that mission is educational (the menu has a glossary). One theme of this instruction is that there’s great grub grown nearby and you should eat it whenever you can. After working at places like Blackbird (an influence reflected in Vie’s elegant black-white-silver interior design), chef Paul Virant struck out on his own, getting the very first liquor license in his hometown. Virant and his staff “put by” a larder of vegetables and herbs for use during the winter and early spring, and pickles play a supporting role in many presentations, providing a pleasantly tart counterpoint to rich meats and cheeses. My marinated quail was studded with pickled garlic and onions, and the bird was cooked as little as possible to keep it moist and juicy. Brined pork—center cut, wood-grilled and splayed into rich slabs—was luscious, carrying a phyllo purse of subtle house-made choucroute. Lamb is done three ways: slow-cooked leg, roasted loin, and a crepinette pressed through an antique sausage maker passed down by Virant’s grandmother. Preserved strawberries with ice cream were fabulous: deep red and much sweeter and more dense than many fresh-picked berries. —David Hammond

West Town Tavern1329 W. Chicago | 312-666-6175

F 8.4 | S 7.8 | A 8.1 | $$ (19 reports)American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr “Tavern” is a stretch—with exposed brick walls and artfully dressed floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a far cry from a corner tap. Susan Goss’s contemporary American menu emphasizes seasonal ingredients. Starters include mussels, calamari with curried arugula slaw, and a hearty antipasto plate featuring country ham, olives, oven-cured tomatos, a rich herbed goat cheese, and a savory braised white bean paste. Entrees range from pan-seared scallops atop mushroom-leek risotto to a meaty roast trout over braised artichokes and fingerling potatoes in a funky, delicious jus full of house-cured bacon to a grilled pork tenderloin with cheddar mac ‘n’ cheese and herbed pan juices. Husband Drew Goss’s wine list has many by-the-glass options, with suggested pairings listed on the menu. Freestyling with the help of an adept waitress, I matched a zippy Washington State Syrah to my fish; my friend tried the “A Thousand Flowers” blend recommended only to discover that a little gewurztraminer goes a long way. On Mondays Goss offers a $16.95 fried chicken special served with garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed Swiss chard, a house-made buttermilk biscuit made from her great-grandmother’s recipe, and wild mushroom gravy. —Martha Bayne