Duo of tuna, tomato salad, salmon sashimi, and roasted beet salad at Grocery Bistro Credit: Eric Futran

If you’re trying out a hot new restaurant these days, odds are good that, seated at a communal table in a room so loud you have to yell to be heard, you’ll order organic, locally sourced food—possibly including some part of a pig you never thought you’d consume—from a menu that changes seasonally. The Grocery Bistro is that hot new restaurant without the snout-to-tail devotion that defines the menus at similar concepts like the Publican and the Bristol: there’s no shortage of meat here, but it comes in comfortably familiar cuts, and seafood and vegetarian dishes are equally prominent on the menu.

Chef de cuisine Andre Christopher (Pops for Champagne, Japonais) is a vegetarian, but judging from a special of silky seared foie gras served over poached strawberries with chocolate sauce and crumbled Heath bar, it hasn’t impeded his ability to prepare nonvegetarian dishes. The ingredient combinations in many of the offerings, though hardly groundbreaking, are interesting enough to make decision making difficult—I empathized with the woman sitting next to me who steadfastly resisted several successive attempts to relieve her of her menu, insisting, “I need it.”

Appetizers are served with ten-inch forks, ideal for reaching across the table to snag a bite of something and making sharing practically mandatory. (You’d best hope your neighbors have good self-control, since they’ll be sitting near enough to reach your plate as well.) Salmon sashimi was fresh but slightly overwhelmed by its fried-egg-and-caper topping, while flavorful strips of baked pancetta were the star of a velvety, creamy potato-leek veloute. Gorgonzola polenta outshone the sausage-stuffed chicken thighs it was served with: though the meat had a nice char, a couple bites where we came across unpleasant bits of cartilage had us pushing it aside to get to the rich polenta, which was complemented by poached tomatoes and (too few) cloves of roasted garlic.

All the desserts flirt with savory flavors: there’s a PB & J with peanut butter mousse and a “chocolate-chip cookie dough” risotto; even the banana tiramisu has bacon in it. We only got through the Monte Cristo, a heavy “sandwich” of breaded, deep-fried chocolate with a raspberry dipping sauce. The Grocery Bistro is BYO, but Perman Wine Selections next door offers suggestions for menu pairings. —Julia Thiel

Seems like Chicago’s been waiting since the Bronze Age for someone to challenge the gimmicky orthodoxy of Greektown, a place to take tourists more than a place to take expectations of a memorable or original meal. But at Taxim 29-year-old former caterer David Schneider, with the help of sous chef Jan Rickerl (Green Zebra, Scylla), has raised the bar for what passes as serious, interesting regional Greek food in a dramatic scrubbing of the late Wicker Park dive Big Horse Lounge. The tin lanterns in this Byzantine lounge (dimly) expose some of some of the freshest yet oldest ideas in village cuisine: humble, seasonal ingredients in simple, wonderful dishes like fresh-shelled favas with yogurt and lamb confit, a recipe from a mountain region where the traditional use of animal fat reflected a scarcity of olive oil. (And Schneider has already changed it by subbing in tender unshelled bean pods that were unavailable a few weeks ago.)

That’s not to say Taxim is a bastion of tradition. Pomegranate-glazed duck gyros are an updated nod to street food, dressed in a thin, unstrained house-made yogurt that’s deployed with amazing results in a number of dishes, from sauteed baby eggplant to a brawny (if dry) minced goat kebab, as well as on its own for dessert, accented with some tart candied kumquats. The so-far moderately sized selection of hot and cold mezzes and large plates—which also includes supersweet roasted peppers, capers, and kefalograviera cheese and a phyllo-clad goat feta and ramp pie—apparently just hints at Schneider’s repertoire, said to include hundreds of recipes from Greece and Asia Minor. The all-Greek wine list (including nine by the glass) is affordable and interesting; add to that the promise of rooftop dining amid native Greek verdure from Schneider’s grandparents’ village and a daytime yogurt bar in the front of the house and I’m looking forward to watching him live up to his lofty ambitions on many future visits. —Mike Sula

Nab a table in the glass-roofed rear atrium of Branch 27 and behold a case study in rehab done right. Under the management of Howard Natinsky (Fat Cat, Five Star) and Cary Michael (Rockit Bar & Grill), the former Eckhart Park branch library at the corner of Chicago and Noble has been stripped to its bare-brick bones and thoughtfully retooled as three airy, graceful spaces. Rough-hewn floor planks have been repurposed as wall facing; old press machinery hangs as art. OK, the front bar is noisy, and the floor-to-ceiling windows in the main dining room afford a great view of the #66 bus stop, but overall the space is balanced and lovely and invites a lingering dining experience. So it’s too bad the food can make you want to skedaddle.

Chef Bob Zrenner (of the short-lived Graze and before that Lakeview’s popular X/O) has implemented a menu of American bistro standards—flat iron steak, plank-grilled salmon, mussels and fries—that shouldn’t be hard to mess up. But a boneless roasted half chicken wore a flabby, glutinous skin, and an ahi tuna burger, ordered medium rare and served on brioche with wasabi aioli, pickled cucumbers, and ginger, was grilled to a gray, mushy puck.

There were successes as well: my friend’s pork chop was thick and juicy, glazed with a smoky-sweet chipotle jus and served with a side of buttery mashed potatoes. (Those same spuds had saved the chicken plate when I’d ordered it a few days earlier.) And while the seafood salad seemed hastily assembled, full of ungainly chunks of bell pepper and cucumber, it could have stood on its own as an entree, loaded with fresh calamari, mussels, and shrimp on a bed of mesclun spiked with unexpected hits of basil and mint.

Overall, though, the menu feels formulaic—safely unremarkable in both content and execution. Witness, for example, the “mozzarella egg roll”: a run-of-the-mill log of melted cheese in a bland wonton skin. It’s too bad the TLC so evident in the room has yet to reliably manifest itself in the kitchen—because, did I mention, it’s really pretty? —Martha Bayne

New Too

Amelia’s Bar & Grill

4559 S. Halsted | 773-538-8200$$Mexican/Southwestern | Lunch: Monday-Friday, Dinner: seven days, Saturday and Sunday brunch | BYO

Amelia’s Bar & Grill occupies a lonely industrial corner a few blocks south of the storied stockyards’ gate, and nothing about the facade would indicate that anything more exotic than menudo lies within. But classics like lush quesadillas—made with chewy handmade tortillas, mild Oaxacan cheese and dark, funky huitlacoche—or Garcia’s signature grilled salmon with green papaya, mango, and avocado creme fraiche share the page with Mediterranean fusion creations like pan-seared, risotto-crusted halibut on a bed of tomato, anchovy, and fennel ragout. Lomo de puerco, an entree of grilled pork tenderloin, was terrific—thick medallions of pork painted with a tart, sweet tamarind glaze and seared till crisp. Plated with a handful of sauteed purslane, a smear of roasted quince, and a tangle of grilled onions, it could have come out of a far more pretentious kitchen. A plate of oysters on the half shell topped with ceviche looked fantastic, and if the ceviche was disproportionately heavy on octopus, and the bivalves themselves a little blah, it was all still fresh, and punchy with lime and peppers. But while the strong, tricky flavors of that ambitious halibut dish were masterfully balanced, they were no match for the beyond-briny smell of the fish. And little things like the teensy shavings of avocado garnishing the ceviche led me to think that Garcia and the tiny, effusive staff are trying to do a whole lot with very little. —Martha Bayne

Birchwood Kitchen

2211 W. North | 773-276-2100$American, European | Lunch: seven days, Dinner: Monday-Friday, Saturday and Sunday brunch | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO

There’s not a cheap shortcut to be found at this ambitious sandwich shop from former Pastoral cheeseman Daniel Sirko and partner Judd Murphy (also of Pastoral). Like every new venture these days it invokes the mantra of local, seasonal, and sustainable. But here those words have real meaning, with ingredients on the menu of hot and cold sandwiches—plus a make-your-own option with house-roasted meats (turkey, ham, beef)—largely sourced in the midwest and served on Labriola and Red Hen breads. The prices reflect that commitment with most sandwiches in the $7-$9 range, such as hand carved beef with wonderful funky blue cheese, half melted on toasted sourdough, or the club, laden with juicy roasted turkey breast and thick-cut bacon, or grilled gruyere with sweet caramelized onions. And if the braised lamb baguette comes off a bit dry all it needs is dip in the jus. The additional selection of light plates, soups and sides is augmented by a weekend brunch menu with items such as croque madame, Belgian waffles, and polenta and eggs. —Mike Sula

Bull & Bear

431 N. Wells | 312-527-5973$$$American | Lunch, Dinner: seven days | Open Late: sunday-friday till 2, Saturday till 3

With the world teetering on the edge of an economic abyss, plenty have remarked upon the wretched timing of this trader-themed sports bar. Nonetheless, hordes of River West workers—if not actual traders—pack in after five to ogle sport-tuned flat screens and decidedly three-dimensional waitresses, tank teed and dude friendly. There are all sorts of other diversions for arrested adolescents of drinking age, including special Xbox booths and pay-as-you-go beer taps sprouting from the tables, as well as a predictably dull menu of upscaled, uninspired pub grub—overcooked but nicely seasoned Kobe sliders, untruffly parma truffle fries and boneless buffalo wings (aka chicken breasts). Overall it’s about as groovy as a Cheez Whiz factory, but it fits in with the neighborhood’s other theme park restaurant attractions. —Mike Sula

Fred’s at Barneys New York

15 E. Oak | 312-596-1111$$$$American | Lunch: seven days, Dinner: Monday-Saturday, Saturday and Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

I can think of several reasons to dine in Fred’s at Barneys New York—on the sixth floor of the new Barneys Chicago—but food doesn’t top the list. If you’re worn out from shopping, the contemporary room provides a chic respite, at least when it’s not crowded and cacophonous. The views are terrific, especially from the tiny balcony. But the evolving menu was limited and didn’t offer the vaunted lobster salad (lunch only), contrary to what I was told on the phone. Plates for sharing included cured meats, calamari, and eggplant three ways the server couldn’t remember, but we were drawn to pizzas featuring King Arthur Flour, homemade mozzarella, tomatoes from the San Marzano valley, and olive oil from Spoleto. The crust didn’t hold a candle to Spacca Napoli’s, and the cheese got lost in a sausage-dotted topping that tasted mostly like red pepper sauce. An appetizer of chicken livers sauteed with shallots in port-wine sauce was much better. Garlic boosted al dente linguine with slightly shriveled baby clams—but not enough to make it worth ordering again. A surfeit of salt undermined the not-quite-tender osso buco, though I liked the pudding-like polenta underneath. The highlights of our meal were the deeply chocolaty warm flourless cake with creamy vanilla ice cream and the cappuccino semifreddo with golden raisins in vanilla-rum sauce. I’d take a shopping break just for them—and at $8 each, they’re reasonable for the neighborhood and less than desserts (or anything else) at the New York Fred’s. —Anne Spiselman

Iyanze

4623 N. Broadway | 773-944-1417$African | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only

“Have you ever had Nigerian food before?” asked the counterman, steering me kindly away from a bitter mango-seed soup in favor of a more savory pumpkin-seed-and-spinach-based egusi. At Iyanze, a casual, cafeteria-style spot in Uptown from the proprietors of Bolat African Cuisine, it’s up to the customer to mix and match sides, starches, and proteins from the menu board overhead—which can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. The egusi, a rich, complicated soup made with no small amount of palm oil, was then heaped with chunks of braised goat and paired with a hefty softball of fufu, the steamed paste of yam or cassava that’s the West African standard for both starch and utensil. (Tear off little balls of fufu and form them into spoons to scoop up your stew.) Rice—in fried, coconut, or traditional jollof varieties—is another staple, as are oxtail and fried fish and plantains. The space is bright but utilitarian, dominated by flat screen TVs showing grainy video of the Nigerian news—so if dining off trays in the company of grim-faced politicians and soldiers cradling machine guns isn’t your thing, steer clear or carry out. But for a filling, affordable taste of authentic West Africa this is the best bet around—at least until Bolat’s Lakeview location reopens. —Martha Bayne

Pintxos Tortilleria & Bar

737 N. LaSalle | 312-664-4800$$Tapas/Spanish Dinner: Friday, Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

Cafe Iberico started as a small tapas bar that felt authentically Spanish. Since then it’s grown into a sprawling institution churning out massive quantities of food that’s not as good as it once was. So I’d like to think Pintxos Tortilleria & Bar, the new second-floor addition devoted to Basque tapas, or pintxos, is an attempt to recapture the excitement and intimacy of the early days rather than just a way of handling Iberico’s overflow weekend crowds. Before anything else, order a tortilla española: it takes 20 minutes. Warm and well made, ours was the highlight of the meal. The pan-roasted chicken drumsticks in olive oil with whole garlic cloves, cubed potatoes, piquillo peppers, green onions, and herbs were juicy and tasty, if not quite crispy enough. We tried eight pintxos, and only the succulent eel passed muster—little morsels of lamb, duck, and Cornish hen were overcooked and dry, as was the section of quail. We also got two scallop slices as thin and lifeless as quarters, three of forgettable butifarra sausage, and a trio of minuscule dates wrapped in ham. The real rip-off was marmitako, a shallow bowl of salty “seafood combo soup” with not a speck of seafood. Among the mini desserts, priced at just $1.50: smooth crema catalana and coconut pudding the consistency of dried tar. Quaffable wines for $3.50 a tumbler ameliorated my disappointment somewhat, but the mediocre cortado (espresso with steamed milk) made me want to hop a plane to Madrid. —Anne Spiselman

Shikago

190 S. LaSalle | 312-781-7300$$$$Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday-Friday, Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Saturday till 11

Brothers Alan and Kevin Shikami got good reviews when they opened Shikago a couple years ago, but the cavernous restaurant, decorated with whimsical abstract art, faced a triple whammy: the problematic financial district location, the economic downturn, and eventually the loss of Kevin, its chef and co-owner, who retired from the restaurant biz. James Okono has replaced Kevin in the kitchen, and the changing menu has been given a stronger Asian slant, though some of the original dishes remain. One of them is a disk of tuna tartare accompanied by Japanese pickles and two little sections of inside-out tuna-avocado maki. It was decent but—thanks to the less-than-lively ginger-soy-wasabi dressing on the tartare and a slight squish to the maki—not as memorable as in the past. The same was true of the Shikago roll—salmon, avocado, spicy mayo, cilantro, and tobiko wrapped in limp nori—and the fresh rice-paper spring rolls stuffed mostly with greens plus rice noodles and boneless bulgogi short ribs. New to the short list of entrees were so-called “sizzle plates”: a choice of four proteins and five sauces served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Our chewy grilled-as-ordered sirloin steak didn’t sizzle in any sense, but the Thai curry sauce blanketing the meat had some snap, as did broccoli, carrots, and cherry tomatoes accented by hot green chiles. Peking-style duck breast, in half a dozen rosy slices, was paired with a measly two dried-out moo shu pancakes; the bowls of rice and duck broth on the side seemed superfluous. Severely simplified desserts included a sorbet trio (I liked the guava and passion fruit more than the strawberry) and dense, bitter green tea creme brulee. The wine list is well chosen, and sakes as well as wines are available by the glass. —Anne Spiselman

Sunda

110 W. Illinois | 312-644-0500$$$Asian | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, other nights till 11

The chef at Sunda, the new pan-Asian—excuse me, “New Asian”—preening ground from Billy Dec’s Rockit Ranch Productions, has put together a wide range of dishes both daring and ridiculous sounding, including sushi, noodles, dim sum, and grilled meats. Raw fish seemed fresh enough and stood on its own merits even when up against seemingly insurmountable overmanipulation. In the Wa-Machi, a specialty hamachi roll, the fish was surprisingly present and accounted for amid the triple attack of fresh wasabi, wasabi tobiko, and wasabi aioli. Same went for the escolar nigiri garnished with potato chips and mild truffle shavings. But some combinations were just plain wrongheaded—an amuse of noodles and ground beef, almost like Bolognese, was the antithesis of something intended to wake the palate. A so-called salad of soft “burnt” watermelon and jerkylike unagi bacon was a total textural mismatch, and the braised oxtail pot stickers in a “white wasabi cream” gave the lie to Dec’s claim that there’s no fusion in this joint. The impressive-looking crispy pata, a towering confit pork shank, could’ve been a nod to the deep-fried lechon kawali of Aglibot’s Filipino heritage but for the side of foie gras “gravy,” which tasted like liver boiled in sriracha.Aglibot’s ostentatiousness did finally pay off in a dessert, appropriately named Ridiculous: a squat dome of walnut-studded caramel covering a ball of vanilla ice cream, insulated by a gingery layer of carrot cake. —Mike Sula

Tocco

1266 N. Milwaukee | 773-687-8895$$$Italian, Pizza | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2; Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday till 11

Serious pizzas emerge from the two wood-burning ovens hidden in plain sight behind the bar at Tocco, Bruno Abate’s high-fashion Wicker Park pizzeria/trattoria/runway, an adjunct to his couture-themed Follia. Of the three varieties of schiacciata, minimally topped flatbreads whose saucelessness allows the thin crust to develop in all its full blistered chewiness, I particularly liked the one with funky, full-flavored speck and melted Taleggio. However, the small rear kitchen responsible for the rest of the menu—antipasti, salads, house-made pastas, and meatier second courses—seems less capable of its mission and hampered by less-than-ideal ingredients. A plate of gnocco frito, knobs of fried dough that were undercooked inside, were accompanied by supermarket-quality salumi. And someone in the kitchen seems to be scared to death of overcooking starches, as evidenced by a granular polenta with a watery sausage ragu and tough paccheri (like supersize rigatoni) with spent chunks of pork. Gelati said to be made by a mysterious “old man from Melrose Park” were variable—a simple vanilla was smooth, creamy, and excellent, but chocolate was icy and over-the-hill, and hazelnut and pistachio were somewhere in the middle. I’ve never had a look at Abate’s footwear, but I found myself wondering if the primary ingredient in his particular recipe for la dolce vita isn’t actually fine Italian shoe leather, with the vino and the food running a long second and third. —Mike Sula

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