A Mano335 N. Dearborn | 312-629-3500

$$$Italian | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Amid the mushrooming proliferation of multiregional trattorias, A Mano shows promise. A basement little brother to Bin 36, its menu and wine list are vast and wide-ranging, almost unnavigable in potential. With careful selection you can build a great meal, but as with any unexplored territory there are some sinkholes. An assortment of six antipasti and/or salumi for $22 is a sweet deal that affords the chance to sample fennel sausage and a spicy, chocolaty, cinnamony mole salami from Seattle’s Armandino Batali or culatello, the soft, buttery nucleus of a ham cured prosciutto style. On the other hand, accompaniments to the much-touted pesce crudi were alternately negligible (hamachi with cured mullet roe) or distracting (scallops with grapes and pears). Most recent restaurants of A Mano’s ilk haven’t dared open their doors without firing up a wood-burning pizza oven, with mixed results, but here it’s executed with facility to produce a crust that’s a bit puffier than most. That’s just the left side of the menu. Primi include a take on the classic Tuscan bread soup ribollita—more a lump of stuffing soaked with egg yolk—and the northern cotechino sausage, fried crispy atop white polenta. Some of the fresh pastas work, such as the delicate al dente pappardelle with braised boar and raisins, but the farfalle was overcooked and drowning in amatriciana sauce, which also obscured the house-cured guanciale. Most entrees hover in the $20-$27 range; $6 side dishes include an exceptional earthy escarole with fava bean puree (aka “mud and grass”). Under no circumstances skip the house-made gelati, which include both common flavors and curveballs like gingersnap, mascarpone, and an incredibly rich and fruity olive oil version. —Mike Sula

Ai Sushi358 W. Ontario | 312-335-9888

$$$Asian, Japanese | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, other nights till 11:30

Stylish and thoughtfully appointed, in a space previously occupied by Kizoku (which not even “naked sushi” could save), Ai’s the third restaurant from chef Toyogi Hemmi and the folks behind Ringo and Tsuki. We started with Hou Hou Shu, a semisweet, naturally carbonated sparkling sake, and chawan mushi, an egg custard with uncommon mushrooms that was remarkably both ethereal and earthy. Ai offers a host of maki variations, but the ones we tried suffered from competing ingredients: the flavors of “rainbow spicy pine nut tuna” weren’t unpleasant, just indistinct, and it was almost impossible to locate the crab in our “soft-shell crab volcano”—there was just too much going on. We enjoyed hamachi carpaccio in a light ponzu sauce with jalapenos, as well as an innovative take on shabu-shabu, here not meat but whitefish dipped first in cold sake and then miso-based sauce. You can play chef yourself with kaisen tobanyaki, a metal stove that enables you to cook shellfish and mushrooms at your seat. In back there’s a pleasant lounge that can easily accommodate large groups. David Hammond

Borincuba3424 W. Irving Park | 773-866-2822

$$Cuban, Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday

This Cuban-Puerto Rican hybrid, ten years in the planning, opened in the Irving Park space vacated by the Bosnian bakery Fontana. Owner Aracelia Aguilera, a Borincuan from the neighborhood, decided to put to use the skills she developed over 39 years of marriage to a Cuban, and indeed her home-style ropa vieja, Creole picadillo, lechon, and chicken fricassee are sturdy, stewy mama plates (though portions are on the mingy side). “I don’t know how to cook Puerto Rican,” she says. Her aunt handles that end of the menu: pasteles, mofongo, alcapurrias, empanadas, a mean jibarito, and a variant they call a jibarita, made with sweet plantains instead of green ones. —Mike Sula

Cafe 1031909 W. 103rd | 773-238-5115

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

Thomas Eckert, formerly of the Indian-fusion spots Vermilion and Monsoon, heads the kitchen at this tiny seasonally focused BYO in Beverly, run by the owners of Beverly’s Pantry next door. Traces of his old jobs show up all over the menu—pheasant-breast risotto was flecked with tandoori-spiced sea salt, garam masala, and methi leaves. An entree of farmer’s cheese and sous-vide vegetables had a creamy shrikhand saag dressing, and the cheese itself was indistinguishable from a big block of Indian paneer. The whipped cream on a “banana split,” with caramelized banana and a trio of gelati, was also laced with garam masala. Competing flavors sometimes get away from Eckert, as in a confusing starter of melon balls topped with prosciutto, microtarragon, and an Alaskan king crab leg, floating in a salty coconut broth. Simpler dishes, like a curried corn chowder with tapioca pearls and lemon custard, and a grilled sturgeon with mashed sweet potatoes and oxtail ragout, were complete knockouts, and a cheesecake with peaches and basil leaves alone was worth the trek to 103rd Street. Prices are high for a BYO, with entrees averaging $24, but Cafe 103 is a worthy contender to Koda, till now the only upscale choice in the area. —Tasneem Paghdiwala

Cafe Orchid1746 W. Addison | 773-327-3808

$$Middle Eastern, Mediterranean | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11|BYO

When Kurt Serpin says he’s cooking Ottoman cuisine he doesn’t mean the extravagant feasts of the sultans, but he is talking about the traditional national cuisine that developed in their expansive palace kitchens. The menu in his compact Lakeview restaurant is certainly expansive, covering the expected mezes—hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, falafel—kebabs, and grilled seafood dishes (Serpin is from the Turkish city of Mersin, on the Mediterranean), but also a nice selection of less common items, like the pre-Ottoman, tiny wontonlike meat dumplings known as manti, which arrive in a deep bowl of yogurt-tomato sauce. (Serpin says it takes him and his wife eight hours to stuff enough for 25 orders.) He’s also doing alabalik, rainbow trout cooked with mozzarella cheese; balik sarma, or grilled grape-leaf-wrapped sardines, and mercimek koftesi, spicy, cold lentil fingers that are a vegetarian approximation of the cig kofte, raw meatballs served at nearby Nazarlik. No processed gyros cone spins in this place. Serpin, who’s cooked at A la Turka and the late Cafe Istanbul, stacks the meat on the Autodoner himself and shaves it for doner kebab or iskender, a luscious, comforting dish of shaved lamb, veal, and house-baked bread, smothered in butter, yogurt, and tomato sauce. Mike Sula

El Cubanito2555 N. Pulaski | 773-235-2555

$Cuban | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations not accepted

The menu at this teeny west-side shack is as limited as the cinder-block surroundings: Cuban, steak, and ropa vieja sandwiches plus a handful of breakfast-oriented options like ham and egg. The Cuban sandwich is the star, a classic mix of tender roast pork, smoky ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, and sliced pickles on crusty Cuban bread. When pressed and toasted the various elements fuse into almost perfect balance; my only quibble was with the stingy application of pickle—ask for extras. There’s room for about four people to eat on-site, squeezed on stools underneath black-and-white photos of Havana, a mysterious “wine list,” and blaring Spanish-language TV. Grab a can of Ironbeer—the sort-of diluted, fruitier Dr. Pepper that touts itself as Cuba’s “national beverage”—and head for roomier environs. Martha Bayne

Exposure Tapas Supper Club1315 S. Wabash | 312-662-1082

$$$ Bar/Lounge | Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2

Round about 10 PM on a recent Friday, Exposure Tapas Supper Club became my idea of a bad time. The boisterous people at the next table were shouting just for the fun of it, the talented jazz combo was much too loud, and the previously attentive waiter was MIA. But the experience was more enjoyable before the white-tablecloth dining room got crowded and noisy, even if the decor—a mix of huge ceiling-hugging chandeliers, plywood panels, exposed brick, and tufted red velvet-is rather bizarre. As the name suggests, the changing menu focuses on small plates (most $4-$14), though there are a few entrees available. Oysters and clams from the raw bar were everything they should’ve been, but my favorite cold dish was charred beef tenderloin carpaccio paired with a salad of fresh baby artichokes drizzled with truffle oil and balsamic syrup. Winning warm choices included bacon-wrapped dates with a spicy red pepper sauce (a Spanish classic), rustic braised oxtail gnocchi, and au gratin potatoes with Gorgonzola. Seared sea scallops with asparagus-thyme-orange salad and crispy beet-ribbon-topped mashed potatoes would have been terrific had the scallops not been egregiously salty. Black-bottom creme brulee ($5) solved an age-old dessert-lover’s dilemma by bringing together an incredibly fudgy brownie and a silky custard with a crackly caramelized-sugar crust. —AnneSpiselman

Honky Tonk Barbeque1213 W. 18th | 312-226-7427

$$Barbecue/Ribs | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Cash only | BYO

For more than 20 years pit master Willie Wagner has been serving ribs, pulled pork, and other ‘cue at neighborhood fairs and music fests; now he’s taken his show indoors at Honky Tonk Barbeque, a Pilsen space decked out in a Wild West motif. Texas-style beef brisket is killer, moist and rippled with savory fat. Memphis-style baby backs and Saint Louis-style spare ribs are sprinkled with a mildly piquant dry rub, then cooked low and slow to render fat while leaving loads of flavor on the bone. The “roto-chix” is very good, its flesh moist and skin deliciously crisp from hours of smoking over Wagner’s signature apple-oak blend. The short menu is designed for carnivores, though tangy, slightly sour coleslaw is an excellent counterpoint to the meat; there’s also a lightly dressed salad of greens, jicama, goat cheese, and seasonal berries billed as “What Your Girlfriend Wants.” “Light” isn’t a designation that usually comes within light-years of barbecue, but at Honky Tonk all dishes show a hand sensitive with the seasonings, and leisurely cooking leaves meat surprisingly grease free. Wagner, serious about his craft, doesn’t serve anything slathered in goo, though two sauces—one sweet, one tangy—are available on the table, if you must. —David Hammond

Koko Sushi & Leveche3140 N. Lincoln | 773-248-2988

$$$Japanese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11

Koko Sushi & Leveche opened in August with a wild twist intended to distinguish it from Lakeview’s multitudinous sushi spots: the menu was half Japanese and half Olive Garden-inspired Italian. California maki and spaghetti with meatballs, together at last? Not for long, it turned out. Only the sushi chefs saw any action—confused diners who thought they’d walked into a straight-ahead sushi spot wholly ignored the caprese salad and ravioli. The menu’s now been given an update that gave the Italian items the can, though a grilled steak with asparagus and a starter of lobster tail in lemon-butter sauce remain. Other than that, it’s yet more bento boxes, tempura, chirashi, and udon. Some of the maki are overdone with sauces and textures, like the Koko Summer roll: tuna, yellowtail, avocado, cilantro, green pepper, masago, spicy mayo, chile oil, and lime juice (hungry yet, or just exhausted?). And approach the tempura maki with caution—a couple are dipped completely in batter, deep-fried, and drenched with sweet and spicy sauces, like s’mores gone wrong. In any event, the diners who wanted a standard, serviceable sushi spot got their wish. TasneemPaghdiwala

La Madia59 W. Grand | 312-329-0400

$$Italian, Pizza | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, other nights till 11:15

Can I go on record predicting the 2008 resurgence of deep-dish pizza? With thin-crust, Neopolitan-style pies flying out of wood-burning ovens all over town, a backlash can’t be far behind. One of the latest entries in the suddenly crowded field is La Madia, a pizzeria and wine bar from owner Jonathan Fox, formerly COO at Maggiano’s. Housed in the space where the Jazz Showcase used to be, the restaurant is simultaneously sleek and warm, with a bar up front and a long row of booths lining one wall. A floor-to-ceiling wall of wine provides visual focus—unsurprising given the dizzying oenophilic options; there’s something in the neighborhood of 250 bottles, many available by the four- or seven-ounce pour, with prices hitting $500 for a 2001 Colgin Cellars Tychson Hill cabernet. It’s all very impressive, but the list is so overwhelming that a little guidance might have been nice. As for the pies, they’re delicious. A soft, slightly chewy thin crust showcases the pure flavors of fantastic house-made fennel sausage, fresh arugula and prosciutto, and other select toppings like a sweetly savory combo of Taleggio and roasted vin santo grapes that hung in tricky, but ultimately successful balance. And it may be personal preference, but I appreciated the liberal hand with the cheese—there was noticeably more holding up that fennel sausage than I’ve found on similar pies at Coalfire or Spacca Napoli. The staff was unflaggingly patient as my friend and I waited (and waited) on a third to join us late Sunday night. And maybe, as we head into winter, the blasting heat from the oven will become a welcome bonus rather than a source of mild discomfort that had me fanning myself with that monstrous wine list. —Martha Bayne

Maya del Sol144 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park | 708-358-9800

$$Mexican, Latin American | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In the beginning there was Bayless, who did beget . . . well, it’s a long story, the most recent chapter of which is being written at Oak Park’s Maya del Sol, where Frontera alum Ruben Beltran serves pan-Latin offerings in a space balancing a laid-back low-lit dining room and a more extroverted bar space festooned with flat-screen TVs. Like his mentor, Beltran employs fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes finely shaded with south-of the-border spicing. Tuna ceviche is a basic blend of marinated fish, serrano chiles, and olives, each flavor popping cleanly and satisfyingly simple. Our salmon was moist, almost sashimilike at the center, and seasoned with restraint to let its naturally beautiful taste come to the surface. Nachos are quirkily crowned with pot roast braised in honey and cider vinegar; Salvadoran pupusas were much lighter and flakier than expected, stuffed with chayote, cheese and chile, topped with delicate cilantro crema fresca. Equally refined, though not fussy, Oaxacan tamales are prepared to reveal the fundamentally satisfying marriage of corn and chicken. Moist and savory, cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of achiote-marinated pork, is perked up by the traditional accompaniments: red pickled onion, house-made habanero salsa, and handmade tortillas. Cuban mojitos, Brazilian caipirinhas, and Peruvian pisco sours are, like the food, well-balanced and pleasingly proportioned. Brunch and lunch are in the offing. —David Hammond

Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge332 E. Illinois | 312-527-2888

$$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

Living up to the pun, Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge rolls out a new wave of innovative preparations that blend traditions and build on not typically Asian ingredients such as cilantro, avocado, and spicy mayo. Niu also serves up very fresh-tasting raw stuff in generous bowls of chirashi and nigiri available by the piece. Salmon is flown in daily from Norway, and every piece of sashimi we sampled carried the pristine kiss of the sea. Still, fusion dishes, though reasonably flavorful, seem to lack lively seafood snap: popular jalapenos stuffed with crab and cream cheese tasted mostly of cream cheese, and fresh oysters on crunchy garlic toast tasted mostly of crunchy garlic toast. There are some exceptional sake options: a flight of three, ranging in intensity from cloudy and heavy to light and fruity, is an eye-opening introduction to the range achievable in rice wine; sake with Chambord successfully harmonized sharp and sweet notes and would work as either an aperitif or dessert beverage. Service is bright, friendly, and informative, and chef Jackson Mou (Nobu, Sai Cafe) has assembled an imaginative team in the kitchen. The lounge stays open till 2. David Hammond

Pannenkoeken Cafe4757 N. Western | 773-769-8800

$European, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

Linda Ellis, owner of this tiny new Lincoln Square cafe, fell in love with Holland on her first trip in 2001—the bikes, the easy pace, the friendly people. And she got hooked on pannenkoeken, the large, thin, crispy-edged Dutch pancakes—so much so that she apprenticed herself to a gruff elderly master of the art. The result is a tightly compressed menu: a few egg dishes, regular buttermilk pancakes, and three pannenkoeken (apple, chocolate-banana, and bacon and Havarti). “I wanted to start small,” Ellis says. “I wanted to be able to control what we do qualitywise.” The place has been packed since its early-September opening, especially on weekends, but with the help of her daughters, who handle the front of the house, Ellis is already thinking of expanding her pannenkoeken repertoire—perhaps sliced pear, chocolate, and nuts or one topped with ice cream, like her mentor used to make. Mike Sula

Paramount Room415 N. Milwaukee | 312-829-6300

$$$Bar/Lounge, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 2

You’ve got to like any place that serves one great dish. So I’m willing to forgive Paramount Room a lot for the sake of the Guinness Stout-braised Berkshire pork shank, as succulent and flavorful a hunk of pig as I’ve ever eaten. This gastropub and lounge from Jon Young (Kitsch’n) and Stephen Dunne (Volo Wine Bar) has other assets too: a well-chosen list of Belgian and boutique beers, the cheekiness to offer “optional complimentary bourbon-cured foie gras” with its $18 brioche French toast, a plump burger of house-ground American Kobe beef with a choice of artisanal cheeses, and for dessert, a top-notch black-and-tan float made with Guinness ice cream and Abita root beer. What’s to forgive? Underwhelming, overpriced oysters Rockefeller and less-than-crisp fries were among the disappointments on an eclectic menu that jumps between bar favorites (fried pickle spears, Scotch egg) and fancy fare (Kobe steak, duck leg confit). Service snafus, such as the delivery of another table’s food to ours, probably multiply with the crowds. And most of the seating is in the basement—a redone Depression-era speakeasy with a balcony, a pool table, and a DJ setup but no elevator—making the place inaccessible to anyone with a disability. Even the two booths in the street-level room are up a step, as is the entrance. Get a ramp, guys, and revamp those booths! Anne Spiselman

Pepitone’s5437 N. Broadway | 773-293-3730

$$American, Italian, Barbecue/Ribs | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11

This new neighborhood Italian-American restaurant attempts to score on two fronts, with a wood-paneled bar and lounge featuring the usual big-screen TVs and an expansive high-ceilinged dining area and patio out back. The two sections are separated by a wall and corridor, which means families and couples can dine without too much interference from the superfans up front. The menu of bar bites, burgers, and comfort food is well executed if unadventurous. Baked mostaccioli with herb sauce, capers, and olives was hearty, though the creaminess of the dish overwhelmed any subtle flavors. Smothered chicken breast, however, really hit the spot: topped with plenty of mushrooms in a goat-cheese sauce and served with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus that helped counteract its richness. Other options include salads, steak, pizza, stuffed pork chops, and ribs. Portions are generous, and weeknight food and drink specials offer some real bargains—don’t skip the portobello mushroom caps with melted goat cheese, which you’ll vacuum up in no time. —Rob Christopher

Pupuseria Las Delicias3300 W. Montrose | 773-267-5346

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Simple, nutritious, and filling, pupusas—tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings and slapped on the griddle—are so beloved in El Salvador that they’re honored every year with a holiday, Dia Nacional de la Pupusa. Las Delicias owner Hugo Gutierrez Jr. grew up in a family that traded in the thick masa cakes, and almost a decade ago started up a restaurant devoted to pupusas and Guatemalan cuisine. This summer, when a larger space opened up in Albany Park, he seized on the opportunity, opening the new place in September. The focus is still on pupusas, with an array of fillings beyond the usual—chicharron, chorizo, chile and cheese, ham and cheese, fish, chicken, shrimp, zucchini, the herb chipilin, the loroco flower blossom. There’s still Guatemalan food as well: tamales; their smaller cousins, chuchitos; taquitos; and dobladas, tortillas filled with meat and vegetables, folded, and fried. But Gutierrez has also expanded, adding fruit drinks, chicken soup, and atole de platano, a thick, sweet drink made from plantains. On Fridays there’s a special of chow mein, which is popular in Guatemala. And he’s added the option of pupusas made with rice flour, which gives them a chewier texture and a milder flavor that puts the focus on what’s inside. The supersize pupusa loca—a seven-incher stuffed with the customer’s choice of five fillings—goes for five bucks; all other pupusas run between $1.75 and $2.50. —Mike Sula

Relax Lounge1450 W. Chicago | 312-666-6006

$$Bar/Lounge, Burgers | Dinner: Monday-Saturday|Closed Sunday | Open late: Saturday till 3, Monday-Friday till 2 | Reservations not accepted

The identity crisis of this late-night lounge is made manifest right up front in its ungainly name—an 11th-hour switch from the planned moniker, Pharmacy, when legal restrictions on what can actually operate under that designation threatened to scuttle an already long-delayed opening. With a green druggists’ cross glowing over the door and bar specials like spiked milk shakes, Relax is striving for a soda-fountain vibe, but that’s confounded both by all the framed photos of the Rolling Stones in their 70s heyday and the patterned vintage wallpaper, which screams Victorian sitting room. The kitchen, such as it is, serves baskets of burgers and fries, and burgers and fries only. The kitchen, such as it is, serves baskets of burgers and fries, and burgers and fries only. But they’re pretty good: a third-pound beef patty or veggie burger on a toasty bun, your choice of cheese, and a side of hot, crisp, salty hand-cut sticks of starch. And compared to the other “rock ‘n’ roll” bar on the block, the blisteringly loud Five Star, this place is an oasis of class. The kitchen’s open till 2 on Saturday, 1 Monday through Friday. Martha Bayne

Rosebud Prime1 S. Dearborn | 312-384-1900

$$$$$American, Steaks/Lobster | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Monday-Friday till 11

On the main floor of this boudoirish steak house, the huge red-velvet-draped window, incongruously flanked by plasma TVs, offers a luxe view of the Bank One lobby. A glance at the menu and you see why an ATM might be necessary. But it’s no surprise that the latest outlet of the local chain known for its staid food and gargantuan portions would be pricey. What is surprising is how poorly it executes the standards: almost everything at Rosebud Prime is subprime. For $10 you get a closefisted pour of Maker’s Mark, for $12 a weak martini, dispensed at the table with a flourish defeated by the drink’s paltriness. Oysters Rockefeller were respectable, served on a gritty bed of seasoned salt, each half shell retaining a bit of oyster liquor. Also on the plus side was the complimentary bread basket, including a crisp, cheesy flatbread and a raisin pump—I enjoyed it before the waiter snatched it from the table. If he intended to help us save room for our steaks, he needn’t have bothered: a $32 petite filet, ordered medium rare and served well past medium, is hard to swallow under any circumstances. Give the kitchen some credit—I was jealously eyeing my companion’s $45 Chicago rib eye, juicy and cooked the requested shade of pink. But soggy pommes frites made a bad thing worse, and I left thinking of all the good places I could have gone for the money. —Kate Schmidt

Sabai-Dee5359 N. Broadway | 773-506-0880

$Asian, Chinese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

In Laos, Kevin Wong and his family were Chinese immigrants who operated their own restaurant, but when they came to the U.S. almost a quarter century ago his parents worked straight nine-to-five jobs. Now the 36-year-old has returned to the family business, a cafeteria-style steam table operation with a few tables, a perfunctory selection of Chinese-American dishes (fried rice, chow mein, kung pao chicken) but more importantly the only Lao food available in the city. Similar to northern Thai Issan cuisine, it’s supposed to be spicier than its neighbor’s, and though Wong tones down his thin red and green coconut milk curries, on request he’ll doctor individual orders to their appropriately nuclear levels. These stews—floating with fall-off-the-bone chicken or pork and tender vegetables such as miniature eggplants or julienned bamboo shoots—are meant to be eaten with sticky rice or rice vermicelli. There’s also a pa lo stew, boiled eggs and firm tofu in a thin soy-based broth, with or without fatty chunks of pork belly, and a nourishing pho with beef and meatballs—deep and rich, but less redolent of five-spice seasoning than the many Vietnamese bowls in the neighborhood. There’s a selection of salads—papaya, Lao ham (nam), and the beef salad called laap—the Lao national dish. Beyond an assortment of finger food—fried chicken, beef jerky, house-made rice, tapioca-based sweets, and sausage, milder but similar to the funky Thai Issan variety, there are other hidden treasures not on display, such as chicken noodle soup. Just ask Wong what’s good and unusual and he’ll set you up. Mike Sula

Table Fifty-Two52 W. Elm | 312-573-4000

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

Yes, he’s the Big O’s personal chef, but besides that I knew next to nothing about Art Smith before sitting down at Table Fifty-Two. Then came a slap on the back, and five minutes later, I knew everything—the charity, the Obama fund-raiser, the cookbooks. The way Smith works the room I would have expected a line of Oprah groupies out the door, but for now this is a neighborhood place, a spot where Gold Coast old folks can pretend to keep it real on down-home comfort food without suffering the indignity of spending economically. Or, as my companion put it, “It’s like Southern Charm Night at your parents’ country club.” Smith’s menu visits other parts of the globe—there’s a red curry multigrain risotto with butternut squash, a chicken breast with coconut-ginger-chile sauce—and a wood-fired oven burns for pizza and a fish of the day. But the key ingredients are seasonal and southern, beginning with a dense moist goat cheese-chive buttermilk biscuit that renders everything to follow a disappointment. A crab cake with fennel slaw was fat with excellent sweet crab, but the fried-green-tomato napoleon (with bacon, goat cheese, and greens) was fried too hard, and limp hand-cut french fries with grated manchego weren’t fried hard enough. A dinosaur-size ancho-crusted Berkshire pork chop was cooked perfectly medium rare, but the flesh wasn’t much more flavorful than conventional pig. Similarly, the wood-fired Tasmanian ocean trout—which is supposed to be a step up from salmon—was texturally undistinguished chicken of the sea. The room is small (as are the menu and wine list) and convivially done in Country Kitchen yellow, the only atmospheric anomaly being the waitstaff’s brown pajamas—a cross between Shaolin monk and sharecropper. Mike Sula

Tavern at the Park130 E. Randolph | 312-552-0070

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge | Lunch: Monday-Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday| Closed Sunday

Intrigued by reports that Tavern at the Park afforded “breathtaking views” of Millennium Park, we were surprised to find that few tables in the main dining areas offered any kind of views at all, though there are seats upstairs that provide a slivery peek at the park. The more comfortable downstairs area is dark and clubby, with leather banquettes and low light. Executive chef John Hogan (Keefer’s, Kiki’s Bistro, Le Perroquet, L’Escargot) draws on French culinary tradition in dishes like the meaty, fork-tender beef short ribs in demi-glace, though his approach is wildly eclectic: there’s pasta, the obligatory high-end beef sliders, and some odd but tasty options like a cheese fondue with chicken chunks and, for dessert, a fried banana split we enjoyed very much. Fortunately we like salt, but even for us some dishes contained tongue-numbing quantities of sodium—more likely due to a rogue sous chef with a runaway shaker than to Hogan’s recipes. A number of wines are available by the glass, most for under $10. This is a genuinely friendly place, with hosts and servers making a sincere and coordinated effort to pamper and ensure that dining here is a pleasant experience. —David Hammond

Thalia Spice833 W. Chicago | 312-226-6020

$$Japanese, Thai | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 11 | BYO

Inheriting a space (and some cool twisted wire furnishings) from former restaurant and dance club Spice, Japanese-Thai BYO Thalia sprawls over two rooms with several cozy VIP chambers. Though we’re sometimes hesitant to chow down on raw fish at fusion places, we found the artfully arranged chirashi here freshly fine. Some Thai selections seemed dialed down, but when I gave our server the green light to make it real, seared tuna came out deliciously dressed with chiles and fish sauce; the owner’s Laotian mother works the kitchen and knows how to turn up the flavor. Green curry with pleasing chunks of eggplant and sweet pepper packed full-on Southeast Asian seasonings and good heat, and Thalia’s version of honey-marinated duck—something I haven’t noticed much on other Thai menus in Chicago—was full of tasty crunch. Even Thalia’s fusion creations—sake baby ribs, spicy salmon maki—show a commitment to fresh ingredients and honest flavors, so even if you’re skeptical of such offerings, as I am, get over yourself and enjoy. Prices are reasonable, with a three-course lunch special (dumplings, soup, and six pieces of sushi or sashimi) for $14. DavidHammond