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Antico | Wicker Park/Bucktown | $$$
Tucked into what used to be an antique store just off Armitage in Bucktown, the aptly named Antico is by all appearances a typical neighborhood restaurant. Yet the unassuming facade masks a crack staff and kitchen under the direction of Trinna Schramm, a former expediter at Alinea, and chef-owner Brad Schlieder, a veteran of A Tavola. Cuttlefish fritti—thick ribbons of fish lightly battered and served with an explosive fried lemon wedge—beat any calamari I’d ever had, and an octopus special on a bed of arugula and flat-leaf parsley had its sharpness undercut by a light, sweet dressing. Sauteed mushrooms served over polenta were a knockout, rich and buttery. House-made sausages were equally good, with nodules of fennel, complemented in sweet-and-savory fashion by braised red cabbage tanged with mustard and a mostarda of dried apricot. Risotto Milanese had a light, citrusy flavor balanced by Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the spaghetti con vogole had clams almost as fresh as the pasta. Yet, as at A Tavola, the stars were the gnocchi, served three ways on any given night; we opted for the brown butter and sage, crispy fried leaves of the herb providing a light crunch to pasta that melted in the mouth. A special of fried grouper rested on its own flavors, complemented by seasonal and especially fresh asparagus tinged with lemon. Amarone-braised short ribs fell off the bone, the sauce soaking into a shallow pool of saffron polenta. Meaty Colorado lamb chops were likewise perfectly prepared, though not so well served by their accompaniment, a slab of sliced potatoes Parmigiano gratin. During the day, Antico functions as a cafe, with pastries and fresh coffee roasted on the premises. In fact, locals kept straggling in for a cup to go throughout dinner. The thick-capped cappuccino I tried washed down a panna cotta with red-wine sauce that put flan to shame. —Ted Cox 1946 N. Leavitt, 773-489-4895, anticochicago.com. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily.
Avocado Cafe & Eatery | Logan Square | $
If I hear your cafe described as “casual” or “whimsical,” chances are the decor will look pieced together by a female cast member from Saved by the Bell, heavy on the “funky” 90s vibe. Luckily, the new Bucktown spot Avocado overcomes its strange suburban day-care aesthetic with a menu held together nicely by a balanced selection of vegetarian sandwiches (a couple of meat options are also available). The starters are definitely worth checking out—we ordered an impressive and hearty multibean hummus and a serviceable bowl of brown lentil soup—but the sandwiches and wraps carry the flag. Served on a toasted baguette and topped with a host of garnishes (carrots, arugula, roasted tomatoes, etc), my portobello po’boy was giant, and reasonably priced at seven bucks. I might have wished for a few more strips of mushroom, but the vegan garlic mayo, balsamic glaze, and four-cheese dip on the sandwich redeemed it. The eggplant po’boy was more of the same, and my friend’s avocado- spinach wrap was on point as well, fresh and crisp. Breakfast options are available, as are assorted baked goods. —Kevin Warwick 1913 N. Milwaukee, 773-442-2333, avocadoeatery.com. Tue-Fri 9 AM-9 PM, Sat 9 AM-7 PM, Sun 10 AM-6 PM.
Bite Cafe | Ukrainian Village/East Village | $$
The recently remodeled Bite Cafe is still casual and cozy, but a little more polished than before, and there’s a new bar—though the place remains BYO. The menu, under former Longman & Eagle chef Rodney Staton, is still vegetarian friendly but is now less fake-meat-centric; the Philly Cheese Fake sandwich, for example, is smoked portobello mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and provolone. Frequent changes to the menu allow for seasonality, and on a recent visit spring peas, wild mushrooms, and asparagus were all worked into several dishes; bucatini with peas, mushrooms, and mint was especially bright and springy. House-made ricotta with preserved Meyer lemon, red pepper flakes, and olive oil was fluffy and creamy, but the overcharred toast it was served with overwhelmed the mild flavor. Our favorite was a half Amish chicken with exceptionally crisp, flavorful skin, served with potatoes, chard, and a good two dozen cloves of garlic confit. The butterscotch pot de crème I loved on a previous visit is unfortunately no longer on the menu, but pound cake with strawberries, pink peppercorns, whipped cream, and strawberry ice cream was a good substitute on a recent trip. —Julia Thiel 1039 N. Western, 773-395-2483, emptybottle.com/bite.htm. Breakfast, lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: every night till 1.
Bivona Ristorante-Pizzeria | Lincoln Park | $$
Named after the small township in Sicily that hosts a much-anticipated peach festival each year, this roomy two-room restaurant is equipped with a Chicago must: a working fireplace in early May. The menu will soon be expanded to include more meats and pesci, but currently there are well-executed starters like crispy calamari and a sweet and bold salad of arugula, peach, and Roquefort, along with pastas and pizza. One of the owners highly recommended the gnocchi, and with good reason: the ricotta-and-potato dumplings in a thick, creamy alfredo sauce with mushrooms and spinach were doughy and addictive. There are lots of choices for pizza toppings—including peaches, eggplant, prosciutto, meatballs, pesto, and shrimp—but the thin crust on the one we tried was overwhelmed by Gorgonzola, pancetta, and caramelized onions. Still, this is a place with no signs of complacency—we were charmed by a dessert amuse of freshly fried zeppoles, puffy clouds sprinkled with cinnamon, meant to be dipped in a house-made caramel sauce. —Izidora Angel 2506 N. Clybourn, 773-525-2100. Lunch: Sat-Sun; dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat. Open late: Sun, Tue-Sat till 11.
Gosu | Logan Square | $$$
It takes confidence to open a sushi joint just two doors down from the established Hachi’s Kitchen in a potentially cursed space that once housed the short-lived Rustik and then Rustico Grill. But Kyung Sun Bang, formerly of Andersonville’s Hama Matsu, has some things going for her, namely her simple home-style Korean and Japanese dishes, such as greasy-good chapchae (sweet potato noodles stir-fried with beef, carrot, and onion), tonkatsu (crispy deep-fried pork cutlet), or agedashi tofu (lightly batter-fried soybean curd bathing in a dashi soy broth). But I’ll be the first to admit that some days you just need to forgo minimalist traditionalism and power down a monkey brain—a panko-breaded deep-fried whole avocado stuffed with tuna and crabmeat. Gosu is also extremely hospitable—your server might refer to the chef as “mom” as he plies you with extras such as three varieties of house-made panchan (kimchi, fish cakes, and pickled cucumbers), sesame-dressed iceberg salads, miso soup, perhaps a couple bottles of the lemon-lime soda Ramune for the kids, and a refreshing finish of the cool drink sujeonggwa, made with persimmon, cinnamon, and ginger. That spirit of generosity also applies to the portions, though perhaps to the detriment of some of Bang’s fanciful makimono, such the “burning scallop,” a spicy tuna roll piled high with glistening shellfish and tobiko, or the “origami,” a preparation of many fish wrapped in soybean paper and bathed in a sweet ginger sauce. BYO. —Mike Sula 2515 N. California, 773-276-7330, gosurestaurant.com. Lunch: Sat-Sun; dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 11.
Kingfisher | Edgewater | $$$
Peter McCarthy made a name for himself with the Jefferson Park storefront Pier 5736. Now he’s brought his affordable seafood to the north side, moving into the turreted Edgewater building that formerly housed Arkadash Cafe. He’s brought his fans with him too, judging from the packed room, which has the feel of a supper club, from the white tablecloths to the older crowd to the large menu. Each entree comes with a salad, potato, and vegetable, making this a good deal despite prices mostly in the $20s. Green salads were served overchilled, but the dressings are house-made. Shrimp bisque, available along with chowder and a soup of the day, was overly floury, but the fish hit the sweet spot, unfancified walleye and a terrific rainbow trout accompanied by delicious sweet potatoes. There’s a long list of appetizers, including oysters in various preparations, and a still longer list of fish, shellfish, steaks—even ribs and chicken Vesuvio, so there’s something for everyone. Service is friendly and adept, and Kingfisher is BYO while awaiting a liquor license. On Sundays there’s an affordable plated brunch, and currently there’s a nightly special: the chef’s choice of fish with salad, potato, and vegetable for $15. —Kate Schmidt 5721 N. Clark, 773-506-7014, kingfisheronclark.com. Lunch: Tue-Fri; dinner: daily. Sun brunch. Open late: Fri-Sat till 11.
The Original Five BBQ | University Village/Little Italy | $$ A couple things indicate that this new Taylor Street ‘cue source isn’t your traditional roadside shack: there is, for instance, a motion-activated air freshener in the bathroom. But there’s also pretty good food off a menu that’s straightforward and unvarnished: ribs, brisket, and hot links, among other proteins, with two sides per entree. (Meat’s also available on its own, served in an ungainly heap on a metal tray, and in sandwiches.) We tried the chicken, brined and smoked over applewood and oak—both skin and meat had a nice saline chewiness—and the pulled pork, tender and studded with chunks of fat. The latter came with a tangy mustard-based Carolina sauce, and the former we augmented with what was available on the table: Saint Louis-, Texas- (a favorite), Memphis-, and Kansas City-style sauces. I’m sad to report that the sides were only middling: mac ‘n’ cheese, though well flavored, was undercooked; baked beans, likewise. On a return visit I’d just get more helpings of the cool, not-too-sweet coleslaw—a perfect foil for the rest of the meal. —Sam Worley 1030 W. Taylor, 312-929-2084, theoriginalfivebbq.com. Lunch, dinner: Mon-Sat.
Uptown Pie Company | Uptown | $
Uptown Pie Company, whose website shows a menu of savory pies nearly as long as its roster of sweet pies, cooks up some real doozies: in addition to standards like quiche Lorraine and chicken potpie, the little Uptown upstart offers sweet-corn-and-shrimp cobbler, lobster shepherd’s pie, and Philly cheesesteak pie. When I visited, though, the only savory offering was macaroni and cheese pie, a concept so ridiculous that it’s basically unimpeachable—mac ‘n’ cheese! In a pie! And it was everything it should have been, a mess of creamy herb-flecked macaroni packed into a buttery shell and cloaked in more cheese. Sweet pies didn’t fare so well. The fruit in the classic two-crust apple was crunchy, confidently spiced, and not too sweet, but the whole thing suffered from a chewy, underbaked crust, a condition that afflicted other sweet pies too. Bourbon walnut, another excellent concept, tasted like neither ingredient in execution: the pie had an off flavor that, to my palate, was half candy and, strangely, eggnog. Lemon chess, an old southern classic, was better, its lemon-bar-ish filling bright and delicate. Uptown Pie Company shares a storefront with the Cupcake Gallery, whose products looked tempting; it’s a cute, colorful space with coffee and free Wi-Fi. —Sam Worley 1319-21 W. Wilson, 773-334-5450, cupcake-gallery.com. Tue-Fri 10 AM-7 PM, Sat 9 AM-5 PM, Sun 10 AM-4 PM.