John Manion with cassoulet at Branch 27 Credit: Eric Futran

The physical rehaul of the Eckhart Park public library branch impressed everybody when Branch 27 opened last spring. That was in contrast with chef Bob Zrenner’s opening menu of American bistro standards, which Reader reviewer Martha Bayne found “safely unremarkable in both content and execution.” But in early December Zrenner decamped (ending up at Jerry Kleiner’s 33 Club), and owners Howard Natinsky (Fat Cat, Five Star Bar) and Cary Michael (ex-Rockit Bar and Grill) executed a shrewd play in replacing him with John Manion, who’s been a ronin chef since his terrific Wicker Park nuevo Latino restaurant Mas closed in 2007. His last assignment—to deliver a kick in the ample ass of the faltering Goose Island Brewpub—was an interesting experiment. I loved the direction he took it, challenging its nacho-and-chicken-wing-loving constituency with local sourcing and a snout-to-tail ethos that at one point put a sweetbread BLT on the menu. I was less impressed with the execution than the concept, but nonetheless Manion left the brewpub in better shape than he found it.

In Branch 27 he seems to have landed at a venue where he can really commit to the kind of cooking that was promised at Goose Island. Here Manion’s not coddling anybody—roasting goat legs, compounding butter with bone marrow, and daring diners to look whole grilled sardines right in the eye. He offsets the funk of those humble fish—now superstars of the sustainable-seafood movement—with a sweet, tart escabeche and peppery arugula. He fries chickens livers hard like Harold’s, but fluffy inside, plating them with garlic aioli and some much-needed shrubbery, and he pretties up a clovey, tensile boudin blanc with shreds of yellow squash and green apple.

And then there are some extraordinarily winning dishes: rabbit leg, braised and shredded with pickled carrots over grilled corn bread; a light, not-as-assertive-as-most cioppino, sweetly scented with Pernod and fennel and swimming with an aquarium’s worth of salt cod, sturgeon, mussels, crab, scallops, and head-on shrimp. His cast-iron Dutch oven cassoulet brings together a wildly divergent but irresistible meaty quartet of pork belly, duck confit, herbaceous lamb meatballs, and smoky merguez sausage; don’t order it solo.

Not everything works: a delicate scallop crudo was obliterated in the crossfire of blood orange vinaigrette, guanciale, and green olives. And like many of his peers, Manion hasn’t reconciled the clean, beefy flavor of grass-finished hamburger with its arid lack of fat. Surprisingly, the charcuterie plate was the biggest disappointment, featuring a ham as dry as a bone. But in less than two months, Manion’s taken Branch 27 a lot further than he took Goose Island in half a year. If this is the place where he decides to settle in, I’m willing to bet he’ll take it further still. —Mike Sula

This Evanston space has seen its share of stars—from Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand, Shawn McClain, and Grant Achatz in the days of Trio to Dale Levitski in the Trio Atelier era—but since it morphed into Quince in 2006, the respectable talents of neither chef Mark Hannon nor the short-lived Pete Balodimas managed to make this high-end spot in the dowdy old Homestead Hotel a destination again.

Things have changed dramatically in the past few months, though. Executive chef Andy Motto, who took over the reins last fall, lives up to his impressive pedigree (Le Français, Les Nomades, the French Laundry, Tru, Charlie Trotter’s, Le Lan, Old Town Brasserie), and he’s ably assisted by sous chef Benjamin Benbow (who worked alongside Motto at the last two) and wine director Scott Quint.

Dishes like a starter of liquid cauliflower encased in squid-ink ravioli and topped with apple compote and a tiny squib of smoked salmon combine what might seem like ill-compatible elements in a way that’s completely transporting and refreshingly gimmick-free. (Your implement for this? A spoon.) Motto’s interest in southeast Asian flavors is showcased in offerings like crispy pork rolls in a serrano vinaigrette dotted with thinly sliced chiles and French breakfast radishes. A halibut fillet served over barley in a heavenly coconut-lemongrass broth and topped with crunchy shallots was mind-blowing—one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Little touches—like the scallion-walnut rolls included in the bread service, or the finger-size chard-and-Parmesan-stuffed cannelloni served with a combo of sliced duck breast and duck thigh confit—make a big impact. The only thing we found less than transcendent was a dessert of deconstructed pumpkin mousse, little orbs surrounded by swoops of blood orange sauce and puddles of banana foam, all studded with odd matchsticks of curried brioche sticks: the mousse itself was so good I would have preferred a simple ramekin of it. That was ameliorated, however, by a pairing with a stellar dessert wine, Australia’s Noble One. Complimentary thimble-size red velvet cupcakes finished the meal. —Kate Schmidt

I have oceanic reserves of nostalgia for this once-grotty neighborhood stalwart, so I was nervous when it underwent a major face-lift and expansion under new ownership last October. The bright new spit-shined Salam—complete with massive full-color portraits of Middle Eastern monuments and mannerly female waitstaff—is certainly more presentable than it used to be. But the open kitchen’s move into a neighboring abandoned Quizno’s (whose red neon toasted slogan remains suspended from the ceiling) means the rough, chummy banter between cooks and customers has been silenced. Somehow that makes it harder to forgive occasional consistency problems, like spun-dry shawarma or falafel that have clearly spent too much time outside the fryer.

All items on the once-minimal menu remain—shawarma and kebab entrees (downsizable to sandwiches), variations on chickpeas such as fatah and mossabaha, and an organ trio of liver, heart, and kidney sauteed with onions and lemon—and still arrive as nearly insurmountable heaps of food, accompanied by bright pink radishes and preceded by a teaser of superbriny olives. There’s still fresh-brewed mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange-carrot juice, and rotating specials including grape leaves, zucchini, massef (a soup traditionally accompanied by lamb and rice), and a Sunday wild card that ranges from string beans to Cornish hen. But the menu’s expanded along with the space and now features more Arabic dishes, including spinach pies, house-made labneh, and a few of the tomato-onion sautees known as kalaya. But the ominous addition of generic fast-food items—chicken wings, gyros, burgers, rotisserie chicken, and fries—makes my heart hurt. —Mike Sula

Kelly and Laura Cheng’s gentle updating of Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, their parents’ venerable but dingy 23-year-old Hong Kong-style barbecue restaurant on Argyle Street, had been under way for some time when they shut their doors last fall and reopened around the corner in this vastly expanded space. At certain hours the new joint makes you wonder how they ever accommodated so many devotees at the first one, and two months in, the family still seems to be catching up to the crowds. But fundamentally, much about the place remains the same, including the front window’s insouciantly presented panoply of hanging barbecued ducks, chicken, cuttlefish, and pork slabs alongside tubs of glistening offal. A slightly revised but still extensive menu is supplemented by a seemingly permanent group of specials such as lotus root with house-cured bacon and lamb stew casserole. And certain innovations—like the dramatic Peking duck dinner that for $32 feeds three or four—seem destined to join the pantheon of old favorites like panfried noodles and delicate, gingery steamed Dover sole. Sun Wah’s ultimate appeal has always been in its excellent value—even a $5.75 small order of Singapore noodles is lunch and dinner—and despite a slight increase in prices across the board, it boasts a consistency and variety that never fail to inspire overordering. —Mike Sula

In the Neighborhood: 14 More West Town Options

Butterfly Sushi Bar & Thai Cuisine

1156 W. Grand | 312-563-5555

$$

JAPANESE, THAI | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

When I visited the food wasn’t quite there: the paltry three shrimps in the shrimp tempura appetizer, for example, were lost in a huge pile of vegetables that had the heft of beer batter. On the other hand, the Vietnamese-tinged yom mua nam tok was a hit, tender chunks of spiced beef dusted with crushed roasted rice for a nice crunch and surrounded by fresh cucumbers, chiles, scallions, and a vibrant lime dressing. The sushi, though, was strictly average—both the soft-shell crab maki and the special Red Dragon roll (spicy shrimp and cucumber wrapped with avocado and tuna) were so loosely rolled they nearly fell apart at the touch. Still, Butterfly Sushi seems to have been a hit with the neighborhood: there’s a second location at 1421 W. Chicago (312-492-9955). —Peter Margasak

Cafe Central

1437 W. Chicago | 312-243-6776

$

LATIN AMERICAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

Open since 1952, this family-owned cafe serves an extensive menu of traditional Puerto Rican favorites and lots of seafood. Hearty home-style meals begin with specialties like mofongo (balls of mashed plantains mixed with garlic and bits of crushed pork crackling), alcapurrias (fritters made from a puree of plantains and yautia, a starchy white root related to taro, and stuffed with ground beef), and pionono (sweet plantain fritters stuffed with ground beef). Diners not full from the appetizers can move on to heaping platters of bistec encebollado (loin steak with onions), fried chicken, pork chops, and other comfort food; or jibaritos, steak or roast pork sandwiches served on fried plantains instead of bread. For dessert there’s papaya con queso or casos de guayaba con queso (papaya chunks or guava shells with cheese) and vanilla flan, and the beverage menu includes a dozen flavors of Goya juice. On weekends the cafe is crowded with families, many of whom come for the specials, such as bacalao guisado (codfish stew), mondongo (tripe soup), and, for those craving the flavors of the old country, cuchifrito (fried pig’s ears). —A. LaBan

Chickpea

2018 W. Chicago | 773-384-9930

$$

MIDDLE EASTERN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

How do you tell mom her cooking isn’t very good? The answer is: You don’t. So when Amni Suqi, the mother of Jerry Suqi (Narcisse, Sugar, La Pomme Rouge, and now Jam), made the rounds at Chickpea to ask how we liked the food, we didn’t bring up the fasoolya, a braised lamb chop that was mostly bone, gristle, and fat atop a bowl of rice with heavily cooked green beans and tomato pulp. Or Thursday’s “mama’s special,” bathinjan mihshee, three baby eggplants stuffed with rice and a little minced lamb swimming in tomato broth so salty we wanted to wipe it off. Or the fattoosh, which had more limp chopped lettuce than tomato, cucumber, and scallion—and little pieces of crunchy salted pita we could count on one hand. Only the kibbe stood out: a crisp cracked-wheat torpedo stuffed with flavorful lamb, onions, and pine nuts and complemented by yogurt with cucumbers and mint. We also enjoyed a trio of dips—plates of smoky baba ghannoush, rich koosa ma laban (yogurt with zucchini and mint), and prettily decorated hummus. A Saturday special, mussakhkhan, sounded so intriguing we returned to try the Palestinian national dish and weren’t disappointed by a trio of moist, crispy-skinned pieces of chicken thigh with caramelized onions and pine nuts atop chewy flatbread. —Anne Spiselman

Coalfire

1321 W. Grand | 312-226-2625

$$

PIZZA | LUNCH: SATURDAY & SUNDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Coalfire—Chicago’s first east-coast-style coal-oven pizzeria—opened in 2007 to a flood of buzz and business, catching owners J. Spillane (a longtime bartender at the Matchbox) and Bill Carroll off guard. Was the frenzy warranted? It is, after all, just pizza (almost literally—besides the pies, the menu offers calzones and a few salads). But as pizza goes, it’s pretty great. The thin, blistered crust is sooty and crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy toward the center of the pan, with a dense, toasty flavor. The sauce, applied sparingly, is fresh and slightly sweet; toppings include buttery prosciutto, hot Calabrese salami with fennel, and a terrific spicy Italian sausage. And while in pizza, to each his own, I agreed with my friend who, four pies in, declared the simplest to be the best: sauce, cheese, one topping, perfection. —Martha Bayne

La Farine

1461 W. Chicago | 312-850-4019

$

BAKERY, COFFEE SHOP | 6:30 AM-6 PM DAILY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED | cash only

I feel lucky to live a few blocks from La Farine Bakery, which supplies a number of upscale restaurants. Tearing into owner Rida Shahin’s challah warm from the oven is my idea of childhood heaven. His daily breads typically include sourdough, ciabatta, multigrain, French, and several more, as well as rolls and buns. Focaccia of the day, more hippie than Italian, featured roasted yams and red potatoes, caramelized onions, fontina and mozzarella, garlic olive oil, and herbs, but the toppings were salty, and the generous slice was undone by being prewrapped in plastic. There are daily sandwiches, but the soup of the day, listed on the blackboard as chicken and rice, was MIA on my last visit. Shahin hires another baker for the bulk of the pastries, which tend to look homemade—and not in the best way. A chocolate eclair filled with a mix of whipped cream and dark chocolate was decent, as was the free sample of stollen, but I was unimpressed by dryish sesame-anise biscotti and coconut macaroons. —Anne Spiselman

Flo

1434 W. Chicago | 312-243-0477

$$

AMERICAN, MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: TUESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: TUESDAY-SUNDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

A neighborhood favorite thanks to affordable prices, inventive but down-to-earth cuisine, and a friendly, unpretentious atmosphere. The menu offers big flavors in familiar dishes: at breakfast (which is popular here) the egg sandwich is served with roasted red peppers and spinach; stacks of buttermilk pancakes are covered with bananas and chocolate. Weekend brunch adds dishes like eggs Flo (brioche topped with smoked turkey, spinach, and poached eggs) and bolsillos (breakfast tacos with eggs and grilled veggies) to the mix. Dinner and lunch items continue in a Mexican vein: enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos. On Tuesday nights you can BYO with no corkage fee. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Green Zebra

1460 W. Chicago | 312-243-7100

$$$

SMALL PLATES, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY, CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH

It’s been a while since chef Shawn McClain transformed a dilapidated West Town storefront known to me and my neighbors as the “pigeon palace” into a sleek haven for vegetarian dining, but I’m still impressed with the number he did on the space, all cool earth tones, warm low lights, and bursts of greenery. The seasonally changing menu is currently Thai spiced sweet potato-coconut soup with crispy noodles, Boston baked beans with collard greens and brown bread, a poached duck egg with smoked potato puree and country sourdough, and rye spaetzle with sauerkraut and smoked caramelized onion. Among the desserts are apple-filled bismarcks with caramel-thyme ice cream and 12-year-old aged Cheddar. After-dinner options include French-press coffee and exotic teas—for example, one that according to the menu was once harvested by monkeys. —Martha Bayne

Habana Libre

1440 W. Chicago | 312-243-3303

$

LATIN AMERICAN, CUBAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

Frying is fundamental to Cuban cuisine; at Habana Libre techniques are modified to match each foodstuff: fibrous yuca is slightly browned, chicken flash-fried to crispiness, smoky croquettes bronzed, empanadas served flaky and light as tempura. Mildly spiced and satisfying, this food is clean tasting and alive. Our coctel de camarones was a saladlike mound of just-cut tomato and onion popping with perky shrimps. In ropa vieja—the best we’ve had in Chicago—chunks of sweet pepper infused thick, beefy threads with flavor, the slight sweetness balancing the big meaty taste. Lechon, suckling pig, was so fresh and moist we were glad to revisit it in our Cuban sandwich, where it nestled between sliced cheese and ham with pickles, pressed a la plancha, flattened on the griddle. Juicy oxtails doused with criollo sauce paired well with classic moros y cristianos, black beans and rice. Pineapple sorbet, served in a baby pineappple half, was the cutest dessert ever. —David Hammond

Juicy Wine Company

694 N. Milwaukee | 312-492-6620

$$

EUROPEAN, SMALL PLATES, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: Monday-saturday | closed sunday | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY TILL 3, FRIDAY TILL 2, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL 1 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

From the name you’d expect Juicy Wine Company to be all about the grape, but the instant you walk in the door it’s clear the place is just as much about the cheese. A “retail plus” wine bar from Rodney Alex (formerly of Wicker Park’s Taste), Juicy offers an a la carte selection of cheeses and cured meats, and even a butter “experience” that pairs three artisanal butters with various sea salts. Charcuterie includes salumi made by Seattle-based Armandino Batali (Mario’s pop). All wines served in-house—we had a seriously complicated 1994 Davis Family Russian River pinot noir—are available to go, and there’s a $5 wine by the glass chosen nightly. Downstairs the wood-trimmed, minimalist space is split between a wine wall and deli case in the front and a low-key seating area of tables and banquettes in the rear. Upstairs is a cozy bar and lounge, complete with DJ booth and a rooftop patio. —Martha Bayne

May Street Market

1132 W. Grand | 312-421-5547

$$$

Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

From the sunny hostess to the chatty server to the chef-owner himself—Tru vet Alex Cheswick—everybody at May Street Market exudes goodwill: they even send you out the door with a complimentary treat. On my last visit chilled shots of a creamy potato veloute drizzled with chive juice—a fancy-pants vichyssoise—were a fine starter. Diced root veggies were separated from a toss of mixed greens by a lusty slice of prosciutto. An entree that paired delicate panfried trout with rich braised short rib was choice, but what topped all was a ridiculously good dessert: pomegranate tart with a chocolate crumb crust and a thick layer of fondant, capped with a quivering crown of pomegranate foam and served with banana ice cream and a grilled banana slice. Current favorites on the seasonal menu include Cheswick’s signature Maytag blue cheese cheesecake appetizer, a duck burger, tempura beef short ribs, and a slow-roasted turkey leg. —Martha Bayne

Natalino’s

1523 W. Chicago | 312-997-3700

$$$$

ITALIAN | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 2, TUESDAY-THURSDAY TILL 1 | CLOSED MONDAY

This old-school Italian-American joint on the booming Chicago Avenue nightlife strip seems to have beamed down directly from some well-appointed suburb. But despite the swanky stock decor, the food is a cut above the norm. An appetizer of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around fluffy ricotta was surprisingly light and fresh; my plate of “Chicken Joey” was equally satisfying: three tender, lemon-drenched cuts of grilled chicken breast over a garlicky tangle of rapini, white beans, and coarsely chopped tomatoes. The vast selection of pastas includes a toothsome bowl of eight-finger cavatelli in vodka cream sauce and “Rigatoni Johnny,” baked with ricotta, spinach, and pine nuts. There are daily specials; one of linguine with shrimp and scallops was fresh and well seasoned. —Martha Bayne

Sushi X

1136 W. Chicago | 312-491-9232

$

ASIAN, JAPANESE | Lunch: monday-friday; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Housed in a windowless concrete building kitty-corner from the Chicago Avenue Blue Line stop, Sushi X is a surprisingly successful example of restaurant minimalism, goth variety. Run by the folks behind Randolph Street’s Sushi Wabi, the raw space features about a dozen tables and is decorated mainly by candles and billowing gauze curtains, with anime and vintage films projected against one white wall. The menu features about three dozen maki, ranging from basics like hamachi and smoked salmon to fanciful overstuffed creations like the Red Dragon, a rich and spicy combination of shrimp tempura, sriracha, jalapeño, mayo, roe, spicy tuna, and eel sauce. A few hot dishes—panko-crusted chicken, veggie tempura—round out the sushi offerings. Sushi-X also does a booming takeout and delivery business, serving an area bounded by Congress, North, Western, and Lake Michigan. —Martha Bayne

Swim Cafe

1357 W. Chicago | 312-492-8600

$

COFFEE SHOP, BREAKFAST, VEGETARIAN/HEALTHY | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: SEVEN DAYS; dinner: tuesday-friday | BYO

Former caterer Karen Gerod serves fresh, organic foods from local and socially conscious vendors—Ineeka Tea, Naked juices and smoothies, and java from Just Coffee—and uses them in her sandwiches, salads, and sweets at this cafe awash in mild, bright shades of aqua and sea foam green. I can think of no more perfect treat for kids who’ve worked up an appetite across the street in the Eckhart Park pool than a PB&J on Red Hen’s scrumptious chocolate bread. A tuna sandwich on pumpernickel gets a kick from capers, avocado, cucumber, and lemon, and a ham-and-Swiss panini was satisfying. By no means miss Gerod’s cupcakes. She also bakes her own muffins, cookies, and scones, which she keeps diminutive by design—”small but rich” is her motto. Swim Cafe is open till 9 PM Tuesday through Friday, and it’s BYO after 6 PM. —Susannah J. Felts

West Town Tavern

1329 W. Chicago | 312-666-6175

$$

CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY

“Tavern” is a stretch—with exposed brick walls and artfully dressed floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a far cry from a corner tap. As at Zinfandel, Drew and Susan Goss’s previous restaurant, the 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. Seasonal 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. The wine list has 40 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