[Editor’s note: Both Nella Pizzeria Napoletana and Kith & Kin closed in 2011.]
Even before he swept in as the fixer for Lincoln Park’s Sprout—whose comically hubristic initial concept was an exorbitantly priced organic restaurant for an imaginary recession-proof customer base—Dale Levitski was one of those local celebrichefs whose personal trials have been presented as compellingly as their food (cf. Achatz, Carlson). Top Chef fans were introduced to the likable, fauxhawked, jobless ex-La Tache-and-Trio chef with a story arc that went from vertiginous ascent to crash and burn to resurrection in a flaming spectacle of pure reality TV ballswagger. If that weren’t enough, following his final-round defeat, his mother died and his long-planned restaurant Town & Country was killed by the economy.
Everyone loves a good redemption song—even sung twice—and because Levitski’s tune is so sweet, what churl is going to say he should’ve stayed home under the covers? I had to harden my heart in advance of my recent visits to Sprout, and perhaps as a result, my first glance at Levitski’s elliptical menu—with not one but two dishes incorporating decidedly unseasonal January tomatoes—gave me chest pains.
Ordering a la carte is possible but discouraged subtly by the staff—and not so subtly by the steep pricing for individual dishes. But Levitski and his sous chef, Top Chef co-contestant Sara Nguyen, have answered opening chef Satko Ibrahimovic’s originally proposed $120 veal filet mignon with a $60 diner-determined three-course prix fixe, complete with intermezzi and a splash of wine.
As I submitted to this scheme, I started to relax. First courses, like a meaty, tender veal cheek with escargot atop salsify puree, are substantial and for the most part technically impeccable. And some, including a pair of seared scallops with smooth parsnip that echoed the texture of popcorn with some freeze-dried corn and a fragrant bloom of cress, pears, fennel, macadamia nuts, peppermint, and grated licorice root—suggest that Levitski and Ngyuen are having lots of fun. There’s enormous potential even in missteps like a charred and overchilled baby octopus with white bean puree, olive, and some of those winter tomatoes—I want that again in July.
The meat-and-potatoes ethos Levitski likes to talk about shows up all over the second-course selections, where there was more appreciation for time and place. Silky, tender sous vide venison medallions on a cauliflower mash are sauced with powerful hits of clove and anise, and long strands of braised short rib and enoki tendrils are tossed with soft, plump, seared gnocchi. But my favorite dish on the menu is the tender, almost lean strips of Wagyu draped over brandade with a drizzle of garlicky chimichurri—not just meat and potatoes but also surf and turf and churrasco all at once.
There’s probably more invention and risk-taking in the dessert courses than anywhere else, and for the most part it pays off. A number of plates employ traditionally savory elements, such as a deconstructed lemon tart with cilantro oil and pink peppercorn cookies (no longer on the menu), a pineapple-topped pancake with candied beets and chocolate goat cheese, and butternut squash beignets with whiskey ice cream and curry sauce.
The intermezzi are less reliable. A so-called palate cleanser between the first and second courses—a raspberry-champagne granita—laid waste to everything in its path like a 7-Eleven Slurpee. And the aged cheddar-apple-sweet onion sandwich with crispy cheese tulle skirt might be my all-time favorite grilled cheese sandwich, but its unwieldiness as a pre-dessert cheese course undermined its cleverness.
At the moment Sprout doesn’t seem like the restaurant Levitski would build if he could have everything his way. The space, purportedly redecorated with input from the suggestion box, still looks like a bit like it was designed by the mistress of a third world drug lord. And on the slow nights I visited, there were stretches of glacial pacing that suggest the chefs could benefit from the sort of high-pressure deadlines imposed on them when they were on TV.
Still, I’m just glad Levitski’s back in the kitchen—he’s a significant talent with a lot more going for him than just a good story. —Mike Sula
In early 2006 Jonathan Goldsmith opened Ravenswood’s Spacca Napoli, introducing the city to authentic Neapolitan pizza and pretty much altering the landscape for pizza in Chicago in general. Goldsmith’s not-so-secret weapon was not his massive imported wood-burning brick oven but an import of another sort: Nella Grassano, a Naples native who’d started making pies at age eight in her family’s pizzeria. Spacca still turns out perfectly good pies, but after Grassano’s departure in 2007, the pizzagentsia began to grumble about a decline in consistency. Now she’s teamed up with Mia Francesca capo Scott Harris for the first of two projected pizzerias, Nella Pizzeria Napoletana, a bright, kitschily appointed Lincoln Park room featuring its own blue-tiled, volcanic rock oven.
Sepia-toned prints of weathered hands working dough adorn the walls in the front, while near the rear hokey full-color shots of Grassano and Harris in a flour fight with a pair of toddlers suggest that their secret weapon is urchins who prep the dough with their bare feet. But the most enjoyable atmospheric feature in the place is the demo mirror angled over the marble work counter, which affords most seats in the house a view of the pie makers in action.
My first pizzas—a classic margherita and a funghi-and-sausage combo made by chefs other than Nella—arrived somewhat elastic and lifeless, undercooked even by Neapolitan standards, where a bit of central soupiness is both expected and treasured. But subsequent pizzas, made by Grassano herself, were another story, with raised, lightly blackened crusts bordering underskirts stippled by constellations of tiny, crispy blisters. These were worthy, foldable delivery vehicles for high-quality toppings like the marinated tuna, olives, and sweet onion of the tonno e cipolla. A special of escarole with olives and capers was overdressed with a bit too much stewy greenery and fresh mozzarella—but still a capital pie. There are more than 20 varieties to choose from, including a handful of stuffed pizzas, along with a selection of forgettable antipasti. Among the pasta and rice specials, a four-cheese risotto may have been the most perfectly cooked example of the form I’ve ever come across in a Chicago restaurant—soupy, but not a bowl of mush, each grain distinct and al dente.
Will Grassano topple Spacca as the ultimate Neapolitan pizzeria in town? Not before the rest of the kitchen staff gets up to snuff. Until then it’s a contest only when la pizzaiola herself has her hands in the dough. —Mike Sula
The owners of Kith & Kin could’ve hyped their inviting Lincoln Park spot as a gastropub and earned an oxygen-depleting collective yawn. But they didn’t, and a stealthy early-December opening has attracted mobs to this otherwise culinarily bereft pocket of the neighborhood.
Chefs David Carrier and Andrew Brochu both worked with or under Grant Achatz at one time or another—the former first at the French Laundry, then at Trio—though there’s little that immediately brings to mind those fine-dining icons. Instead what you have is an attractive and affordable menu served in a room that suggests all of the comforts of neighborhood pubbery without resorting to the usual cliches clumsily adopted from the Irish or British. The menu is globally influenced—mussels, for instance, are served in a curried, slightly bitter IPA with a few pieces of grilled, almost sweet naan. There are Mexican and Italian dishes: a deeply satisfying spicy lamb neck stew is billed as pozole, though it’s more like birria; a deep bowl of spaghetti carbonara uses house-made noodles. Even French Canada gets a nod, with rillette-like pork creton and the latest entry in the unfortunate high-end poutine trend, this one with a chicken gravy to ruin the perfectly good fries.
The aforementioned creton is one of a number of spreadable “crocks” served with crostini and priced at $5; another contains chicken liver paté with a thick cap of butter. Any two could easily make a swell meal on their own, especially paired with a beer from the list of 26. That simplicity is echoed in a trio of salads and a trio of sandwiches, but the larger plates are what really sucked me in, especially a mahimahi and clam bourride redolent of fennel and a pile of fried chicken thigh confit that went down like the ghostly essence of poultry. There’s a small selection of well-made classic cocktails that includes a helluva good Sazerac; the five-spice hot buttered rum could pull double duty as dessert, in place of, say, a slice of fluffy sweet potato pie or the bitter-chocolate-covered banana-cream doughnut. This is the inviting, irresistible place with casually excellent food that every neighborhood deserves. —Mike Sula
New Too: Nine more recent openings
3120 N. Lincoln | 773-525-7005
AMERICAN, BREAKFAST | Breakfast, lunch: Seven Days, Saturday & SUNDAY BRUNCH | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
If bacon has officially jumped the shark, someone forgot to tell the folks behind Bakin’ & Eggs (also the owners of Lovely: A Bake Shop). At this new breakfast and lunch spot, you can get it on anything from a burrito to a biscuit—even the waffle involves bacon. It’s a good thing it’s done well, or the bacon flight might seem a little over the top; as it is, you’d better have either a hearty appetite or plenty of reinforcements if you plan to attack the five large rashers of jalapeño, honey, mesquite, cherry, and maple-pepper bacon. Portion sizes are ample here, and at eight to nine bucks apiece are a good deal as entrees at moderately upscale brunch places go. Even a half order of rosemary-parmesan drop biscuits with sausage gravy and—inevitably—a slice of bacon (available weekends only) is a reasonable-size meal in itself. Pumpkin pancakes, only subtly pumpkiny, were three big, fluffy discs topped with chopped caramelized pecans and served with pear butter, maple syrup, and whipped butter on the side. And while the spinach, mushroom, and Gruyere frittata was more than decent, it was the side of cheesy potatoes that really won me over. Our waiter kept checking to see if everything was “perfect”—a tall order at any restaurant—but we couldn’t find any reason to complain. —Julia Thiel
3054 W. Armitage | 773-252-7440
LATIN AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO
Logan Square’s Conoce Mi Panama claims to be the only Panamanian restaurant in the U.S.; it’s almost certainly the only one around Chicago. Some have argued that this is because the cuisine of Panama is nothing special, but while many of the items on the menu are also typical of other Latin American countries—ceviche, empanadas, tamales, ropa vieja—here they’re deftly prepared and nothing disappointed. The highlight was an appetizer of carimañolas, yucca stuffed with ground beef and fried until it was light and crispy outside and creamy inside. Patacones, or twice-fried green plantain slices, come with crushed garlic in butter and oil for dipping—because what deep-fried food isn’t better for being dipped in more oil? But fried appetizers nothwithstanding, most of the fare here isn’t gut-bustingly heavy. Thanks to owner and server Antonio Bailey, who’s a vegetarian, there’s even a veggie burger and veggie “chicken” strips, which he swears taste exactly like chicken. They don’t, but they’re still pretty good, panfried with peppers and onions and served with house-made hot sauce on the side as well as the white rice, beans, fried plantain strips, and vegetables (or salad) that accompany all entrees. The drinks are also worth trying, especially chicha de raspadura con limon, which is like lemonade sweetened with raw brown sugar, and chicheme, a rich, creamy Panamanian drink with corn and spices in it (a little like eggnog with kernels of corn at the bottom). —Julia Thiel
1752 W. North | 773-698-8783
EUROPEAN | SUNDAY-WEDNESDAY 7:30 AM-8 PM, THURSDAY-SATURDAY 7:30 AM-9 PM | BYO
Crepe Crave bills itself as a “crepe and gelato cafe,” and that’s exactly what it serves—no more, no less. The coffee’s from Illy, the 18 flavors of gelato (some seasonal) from the Michigan company Palazzolo’s. The crepes are classified as sweet, savory, or “breakfast,” which spans both, and if you don’t like the combinations offered you can build your own. The smoked salmon on the Norwegian, served with cream cheese, was perfectly balanced by capers and red onions; an egg crepe with feta, spinach, and fresh tomatoes was equally good. Sweet cheese was our favorite of the sweet crepes—a cheesecakelike confection that we had with strawberries. Though the place is fairly nice, with a leather couch and hardwood floors, everything’s served in or on plastic, but the crepes are good enough that I’ll be back whether or not they ever offer them on real plates. —Julia Thiel
2829 W. Armitage | 773-384-6527
ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 11
Katakana and Koko Sushi Bar feels like a restaurant in trouble. Nearly empty on our Saturday night visit, the large exposed-brick dining room with a high sushi bar in the middle is decorated with everything from huge Picasso reproductions to light projections, not to mention leftovers from its Mexican incarnation, such as faux-finish arches and carved sunbursts on the high-backed chairs. The service was erratic: our waitress, though attentive, had to scurry off to get explanations of even the simplest dishes, while the kitchen and sushi crews seemed incapable of preparing more than one item at a time, slowly. Worst of all, much of the food we sampled was mediocre, and some preparations bore little resemblance to their descriptions on the enormous menu. For example, Katakana lamb chops ($24), which were supposed to come with asparagus, mushrooms, potatoes, and “chef’s special sauce,” arrived scrappy and naked, ringed only by a ribbon of cucumber slices. When we asked about the accompaniments, we got a side of asparagus, peppers, and onions and a bowl of rice. Our big Chicago maki, reputedly stuffed with hamachi, salmon, tuna, eel, tamago, avocado, cucumbers, jalapeños, pickles, and lettuce, was bland—perhaps because several ingredients were missing—and the equally dull white dragon maki had no trace of the promised mango with the white tuna and red tobiko on top. Nigiri, at a pricey $3.75 apiece, combined poorly formed rice balls and flavor-challenged fish. Variations on tempura abound, but judging by our fried oysters and agedashi tofu, real tempura batter—light, lacy, crisp, piping hot—was a foreign concept. Other disappointments included swamp-wet spinach with decent sesame sauce (gomae), rather dry hamachi neck without the usual grated daikon, and chicken yakisoba with lots of dry chicken and little vegetable. Minced-vegetable stuffed squid rings were enjoyable, though not “lightly battered finished with flaming sake.” The highlight turned out to be “ceviche dip exotic,” a spunky, spicy seafood cocktail served with chips that suggested someone’s heart remains in Mexico. —Anne Spiselman
1904 W. North | 773-904-8113
EUROPEAN, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & Sunday BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 2
At this slick Wicker Park restaurant and lounge, the menu features potato pierogi, golabki, borscht, kielbasa, and a few items you probably wouldn’t recognize if you didn’t grow up with a babcia cooking for you. It just happens to be radically different Polish food from the heavy, homey—but let’s face it, bland—traditional stuff. Chef Gabriel Miranda calls on his Japanese training and Mexican heritage in dreaming up dishes like poblanos stuffed with Polish sausage and goblacki that are a composed take on maki, with horseradish-flavored sushi rice and braised short rib. Pierogi here are light and silky and dressed in a creamy bourbon-date sauce; the kielbasa is made from dark-meat chicken and served in a whole-grain-mustard demi-glace with lentils and pancetta. Even chicken breast—that dry, lifeless slab of protein chefs put on the menu just in case someone who doesn’t like to eat gets dragged in—is redeemed, marinated for two days in Polish Bison Grass Vodka and served over house-made slaw with fuchsia-colored beet ponzu. Dishes like aioli—made with the fermented rye flour traditionally used as the base for the sour soup zurek and served with fried calamari—manage to transcend the gimmickry associated with the worst and most unlikely excesses of fusion cuisine and turn out both subtle and delicious. —Mike Sula
3114 N. Broadway | 773-360-8572
GREEK | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
The best thing about Melanthios Greek Char House, which opened in November, is the aroma of smoke wafting out to the vestibule, even on weeknights when whole pigs and lambs aren’t turning on the giant rotisserie/grill fronting the exhibition kitchen. The second best thing is the way the former video store has been transformed into an artfully rustic dining room with hardwood floors and exposed brick that would fit in perfectly in Greektown. Too bad our meal didn’t live up to the expectations raised by the smell and setting. For starters, the large ice-cream scoops of Greek spreads on the pikilia combo reminded me of Japanese plastic food (or breasts, since each was topped with a kalamata olive), and the overly fishy taramosalata had a greasy mouthfeel. While metallic undertones marred the skordalia, tzatziki was merely mediocre. The warm Greek trio brought together grape leaves stuffed with underseasoned ground beef and rice, almost feta-free spanakopita with soggy phyllo atop spinach that tasted like it had previously been frozen, and a bunch of olives—not an inspired accompaniment. The highlight of our meal—aside from the hot, crusty, round loaves of bread—was freshly grilled octopus that was livelier, if less tender, than typical Greektown versions. Our high hopes for the grill, fueled by the dominance of expensive steaks and chops on the comparatively limited menu, were dashed when the “traditional souvlaki dinner” turned out to be skewers of dry chicken breast chunks and chewy pork served with grilled bell peppers and pita that surpassed the meats. Moussaka, which arrived with burned spots on the béchamel, was as dull as it was camera-unready. Thin Greek coffee and lackluster galaktoboureko with limp phyllo were a couple more low points. Better-than-average service wasn’t good enough to make me want to return. —Anne Spiselman
1 W. Grand | 312-755-0189
STEAKS/LOBSTER, BAR/LOUNGE | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: SATURDAY & Sunday TILL 11
Has there ever been a good meal to be had at a grille? The Colorado-based chain Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewing has apparently decided to compete with the crowd-drawing kitty-corner Weber Grill by converting its dining room into a mid-price-point steakhouse. The space, dimly lit and surprisingly insulated from the hubbub of the adjoining Rock Bottom Brewery, has the air of a hotel restaurant, and our poor, personable waiter was required to ask, “Have you been here before?” Well, no, but it’s not as if this is unfamiliar terrain: standard apps (crab cakes, calamari, shrimp cocktails, spinach dip, grilled ahi tuna), salads (including several chopped), steaks, and “plates” including short ribs, roasted chicken, walleye, and double-cut pork chops. A complimentary pan of cornbread, glazed ickily sweet, came with garlic butter; flaccid, heavy, breaded calamari came with a gluey sesame sauce. Salad, tossed tableside, might have been refreshing were it not for the almost soddenly overdressed greens. A ten-ounce prime rib—happily pink as ordered—was chewy rather than juicy and as hard to cut as it was to swallow, though the accompanying gravy and horseradish sauce weren’t bad. That came with a mountain of cheddar mashed potatoes, the same that undergirded an order of braised short ribs, which were OK but oversalted. Best? Arguably the side of roasted asparagus we were brought in lieu of the requested creamed spinach. The latter, when it finally arrived, was dreadful—mushy, overrich, and devoid of much flavor. The wine list at this aspirational joint is a little odd, with prices ranging from $24 to $349. Stick with beer—and maybe stick with the pub side, where an only slightly revamped version of the old Rock Bottom menu remains on offer. —Kate Schmidt
2101 S. China Pl. | 312-842-2228
ASIAN, CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: every night TILL 2 | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
Let’s avoid any potential confusion: there’s nothing sugary about most of the offerings at Sweet Station, though there is a sweet big-ass menu. (It’s believed by some that every time you try a new food, you’re entitled to a wish; at Sweet Station, you’ll probably run out of wishes before you run out of new foods to wish upon.) Eighteen hours a day, every day of the week, the Sweet Station food assembly line slams out selections from a dense bill of fare that lists several hundred items ranging from pan-Asian to Hawaiian and Portuguese. We started with abrus herb and pork tongue, a flavorful broth studded with toothsome chunks of lingual tissue. Portuguese chicken is a baked casserole of creamy fowl on a bed of spaghetti, tasty if nonassertive. The squid balls (did you know they had them?) were terrific, a kind of crispy seafood sausage, and the congee with ginkgo nuts and lily bulbs was a very light gruel that would make an excellent hangover breakfast. With its mammoth menu and reasonable prices, this is the kind of place that invites adventurous eating. I’ve marked my calendar to return this summer when they’ll be preparing luffa (the spongy gourd that loofahs are made from), which is apparently as good for dinner as it is for stretch marks. —David Hammond
2958 W. Irving Park | 773-866-2233
CONTEMPORARY/REGIONAL | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: TUESDAY-FRIDAY TILL 1, SATURDAY TILL 2 | BYO
Tinted windows are about the most forbidding exterior feature a restaurant can have (aside from a health code violation sticker on the door)—if you can’t tell who’s inside and what they’re doing, it’s reasonable to assume it’s nothing you’d want any part of. Don’t let the intimidation factor deter you from visiting this “eclectic Midwestern wine bar”; the interior is somewhat swanky but inviting, with deep booths, comfy sofas by a fireplace, and blues on the soundtrack (except for Thursday, which is jazz trio night). The menu has a lot to recommend it—particularly with former Vintage Wine Bar and Farmerie 58 chef Jack Stankovic in and out of the kitchen, serving tables himself and chatting with diners. He’s a hands-on chef who proudly offers an assortment of charcuterie (including duck ham), cheeses, pickles, and sandwiches. Big meaty plates come with thoughtful touches, such as bacon-wrapped lamb chops with veal demi sauce or a double-cut pork chop with apple-bacon glaze and house-made applesauce. It’s only a few months in and Stankovic is already changing up the menu, but if it’s as consistently well done as his opening efforts this has the makings of a neighborhood standby. —Mike Sula