Mondo Nouveau

Opened in the last six months


1723 N. Halsted | 312-867-0110
Not Rated $$$$


Discreetly located in a town house spitting distance from chef Grant Achatz’s first employer, Charlie Trotter, Alinea is marked only by a valet’s sandwich board at the curb. Inside, a dining room and glass-walled kitchen share the first floor; up a set of glass stairs covered by metal mesh mats are two more small, luxurious- ly spare dining rooms. Tables are set with white napkins atop small round steel-and- copper disks—and nothing else, until a waiter appears and deposits a large chunk of ginger root pierced by three long nee- dles as a centerpiece. The menu has changed since I went there in June, but the concept remains the same: three prix fixe tasting menus of Achatz’s wildly experimental cuisine in 6 ($75), 12 ($110), or a daunting 24 ($175) courses. My party of three went for the happy medium of 12, with wine pairings, which add about $90 to the bill. The meal started with the by- now-notorious PB&J amuse: a peeled grape slathered with peanut butter and wrapped in brioche and served, with stem, atop a wicked-looking wire contrap- tion. The small courses that followed drew choruses of oohs and aahs and the occa- sional grateful moan: fresh Dungeness crab on a creamy bed of sweet raw parsnip, garnished with coconut, raw cashews, and saffron vinaigrette; a quin- tet of hearts of palm, bite-size cylinders on china pedestals, stuffed with progres- sively savory fillings; tender medallions of rabbit served with spring lettuce, a rich, smoky morel sauce, a swoosh of gelled red pepper, and a crunchy morel puff. Desserts, under the direction of pastry chef Alex Stupak, were equally formida- ble: I was enchanted by the trio of pineap- ple sponge, foam, and gel, served in what looks like an upside-down top hat with flakes of angelica, Iranian pistachios, and chartreuse puree. The whole experience was tightly controlled, with specific instructions as to how certain dishes should be eaten, so you never forget who’s in the kitchen pulling your strings. Under less-polished conditions this would be annoyingly pretentious, but the sooth- ing rituals of fine dining can take the edge off the edgiest of cuisines. The weirdest thing about dining at Alinea is that it’s really not that weird after all. Martha Bayne

1633 N. Halsted

Near the bottom of the menu here is a quote from Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century British diarist and chronicler of the plague: “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.” Thus the owners of Boka hope to imprint an atmosphere of fellowship on their new venture, LANDMARK, a noisy and for the moment crowded barstaurant at the epicenter of the neighborhood once voted Most in Denial of the Housing Project Next Door. There’s a Cartesian divide between dining sections: the full menu’s available only on the south balcony; the lower level and the catwalk overlooking it are serviced by the bar’s menu of pizzas and little plates. The rubberneckers crowding these areas aren’t likely to be too bothered by the unfocused and inconsistent menu by the otherwise capable Giuseppe Scurato (Postrio, Spago, MK). In the restaurant’s first week the pizzas, fired in the prominent wood-burning oven, sounded great and looked good but were undercooked in the center and overcheesed. The heirloom tomato pizza (a margherita) feinted with some chili heat that was ultimately batted down by cheese; the duck sausage with shiitake pie was topped with slices of what may soon be available at your finer Jewels as Hormel Duck Loaf. The latkes, crowned by whitefish roe and dill cream, are one of a few preciously nostalgic dishes, which include the abominable Wedge, an enormous hunk of iceberg lettuce buried under an avalanche of blue cheese dressing; little grape tomatoes and lardons perch atop waiting to be rescued. With so many varied offerings on the full menu, nobody at my table had much hope for the baby back ribs, but we ordered them just the same–and got them caked with too much rub, dry and flavorless. Among our favorites was a large roasted prime rib, set on a ballsy red-wine marrow sauce with caramelized but still snappy root vegetables, and a fantastic lobster club with what appeared to be some kind of boutique bacon and more of those end-of-the-season heirlooms on toasted walnut bread. (At $20 it ought to be good.) There’s no telling whether the scene-obsessed crowd this place is aiming for will hang around long enough for the kitchen to work out its kinks. Though as a friend put it, with that kind of mob, “if the food’s any good at all, it’s better than it has to be.” Or if you prefer Samuel Pepys: “the greatest businesses are done so superficially.”—Mike Sula

1307 S. Wabash

“Well, it looks pretty,” said my companion, regarding his $11.95 steak burrito dressed with a zigzag of chipotle cream sauce. And the taste? He shrugged. “It’s fine.” That about sums it up. ZAPATISTA, located in the South Loop in the old Saiko space, is the upscale Mexican venture from the supergroup of Matthew O’Malley (Chicago Firehouse), Luis Meza (Platiyo), and Chef Dudley Nieto (Adobo Grill). I had to work the next day, so I refrained from tequila, the restaurant’s drinks specialty, instead opting for a bottle from the modest but fairly priced wine list, which features many South American selections. Guacamole, which is supposed to be prepared tableside, arrived fully prepared, but it was tangy with lime juice–a good thing in my book–and we did get to specify the level of heat. The Zapas platter consisted of four taquitos–mushroom, beef, spicy al pastor, and chicken. A full-size version is available, but the small plate was itself quite filling. The three of us could have happily stopped there; alas, we did not. Entrees are margarita-hut fare plus more ambitious dishes under the heading “Dudley’s Menu”; these include salmon, shrimp, chicken, pork, and steak preparations. Our pork arrived a little on the tough side in a surprisingly mild chili sauce alongside grilled apples and peaches and what were described as spicy sweet-potato fries (they weren’t spicy). Enchiladas, which came with soupy black beans, weren’t quite the comfort-food version I’d hoped for–one of the risks you take when humble, homey fare gets fancied up. For dessert our server recommended the chocolate tamale and the caramel crepes. The tamale was bliss, gooey chocolate cake served in a corn husk. The crepes were slathered in caramel and stuffed with grilled tropical fruit, which they’d be better without–the fruit tasted musty compared to the caramel-crepey goodness. —Kathie Bergquist

Mrs. Murphy’s and Sons
3905 N. Lincoln

MRS. MURPHY’S AND SONS, a new upscale Irish bar and restaurant in a rehabbed Lincoln Avenue funeral home, is big. Really big. The cavernous first floor, with high pale-green ceilings and tasteful eggplant banquettes, is dominated by a brawny horseshoe-shaped bar flanked by broad flat-screen TVs. The intimate, dim dining room off one corner seems an afterthought, but upstairs three more dining rooms and a bar and lounge bring the capacity to 300. (There’s also a fourth room upstairs for meetings and private parties.) The menu, by executive chef Rick Hall, is a mix of British Isles standards like shepherd’s pie and creative, contemporary Irish bistro fare–and get those cabbage jokes out of your system now. Entrees, which change frequently, range from a New York strip and a braised lamb shank to grilled salmon with sweet corn salsa and a selection of brick-oven pizzas. On a recent visit my appetizer of pleasantly light lamb sausage came on an aromatic cedar plank–which was set in turn, weirdly, on white china. My friend’s Guinness-and-onion soup arrived in a sizzling hot crock with a bubbling white-cheddar crust; though a bit undersalted it was still savory and satisfying. Her shepherd’s pie came in a similarly blister-inducing piece of crockery, with its own crust of piped-on mashed potato rosettes. Underneath was a hearty mix of ground lamb, carrots, and pearl onions. While my friend stuck to the classics, I opted for a relatively exotic plate of grilled sea scallops served with carrots and fingerling potatoes. The whole shebang came drenched in a rich, spicy red broth dotted with kernels of corn and redolent of star anise, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and a spice rack of other flavors. I’m still not sure if it was the heat from the saucepan or the spices that did the job on my tongue, but I had to wash it down with a second glass of a refreshing 2003 Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. The restaurant was the brainchild of Jim Murphy, owner of Wrigleyville fixture Murphy’s Bleachers, and was in development when he died a few years ago; the project has been taken over by his widow, Beth, and his sons James and Brian–hence the name. With its extensive wine and beer lists, it’s a casual, mostly successful hybrid of pub and bistro, and if its size prevents it from feeling exactly cozy, the staff do their darndest to make you feel at home–our waiter kept promising to buy us shots.—Martha Bayne

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.