John Bubala and Joe Russo closed SINIBAR, the late-night lounge adjacent to their restaurant, Thyme, in February, but reopened under the same name in Wicker Park in early July. They’ve transformed the former Buona Fortuna space into a bilevel French-Italian bistro and nightclub. Middle Eastern rugs and tilted mirrors accent the exposed brick walls in the Moroccan-inspired dining room, where colorful lanterns hang from the ceiling and slender upholstered chairs and ottomans surround black lacquer tables. The menu is short, simple, and nicely executed–to start there’s a warm calamari salad dressed in a lemon vinaigrette; mussels mariniere; and a well-balanced arugula salad with candied walnuts, blue cheese, and red cabbage. Entrees include three versions of steak frites–classic in a mustard sauce, au poivre in a brandy peppercorn sauce, and a la bordelaise in a caramelized onion and mushroom sauce–all served with tasty parsley-flecked frites, plus a few pasta dishes and specials such as a paillard of chicken in a lemon-thyme nage with frites. R & B, funk, and house music reverberate off the walls, but it’s quiet compared to the basement lounge, which is filled nightly with patrons sipping champagne by the glass or novelty martinis like the “Rockan Moroccan” (Bacardi limon, sour mix, Grand Marnier, and mint), “Le African” (Alize, amaretto, and cherries), or the “Urban Turban” (Absolut mandarin, Cointreau, pineapple juice, and orange juice). Sinibar, 1540 N. Milwaukee, 773-278-7797.

SUSHI DORAKU, a casual Japanese restaurant on the Gold Coast that opened August 9, is an odd cross between a diner and a fast-food restaurant. The third in a chain owned by Benihana of Tokyo (the two others are in Florida), the restaurant has stylish aquamarine walls hung with contemporary Japanese art, plus bright orange neon encircling the perimeter and dozens of small black halogen lights affixed to the black dropped ceiling. Granite counters shoot out from the kaiten sushi bar–a conveyor belt that snakes around the room at table level, from which you pick up your food. Plates are color coded-and range in price from $2 (blue) for lower-end sushi like tamago (egg) and California rolls up to $4 (white) for delicacies like unagi (eel), toro (fatty tuna), and salmon skin rolls. At the end of the meal, the plates are stacked and tallied to determine your bill. The “Lunch Time Boat” is a good way to sample a variety of dishes–a bamboo boat is loaded with an ample serving of slightly greasy tempura, three slices each of fresh and tender tuna and salmon sashimi, several nuggets of chicken with a ginger-soy dipping sauce and (oddly) a creamy curry mayonnaise, half a loose California roll, and a salad with ginger-apple dressing. Specialty items like a caterpillar roll (eel, avocado, crab stick, and cucumber) and devil roll (the same, but with tuna) are also offered, along with soups, a few noodle and rice dishes, and sides such as shrimp dumplings, teriyaki, and chicken gizzards. The sushi chefs, headed up by Steve Ungacta, greet customers as they enter, but once you’re seated the design of the room limits visual access to their wizardry. To assure attentive service, each table is outfitted with a red-and-green painted wood finial–flip it to red to get the server’s attention. Sushi Doraku, 1139 N. State, 312-867-7772.

Eclecticism meets opulence at LE PASSAGE, a new (July 21) Gold Coast nightclub and restaurant tucked down a cobblestone alley next to Le Colonial. The room, designed by Parisian Jacques Garcia (most recently hailed for his design of David Bouley’s Danube restaurant in New York), drips with ornate detail: the walls are hung with abstract gold and orange murals by Gerard Coldat and the columns are coated with gold leaf, which shimmers in the dim light and reflects off the blue resin floors. Only the small (70 seats) front room of the 10,000-square-foot subterranean space serves dinner; the rest of the floor is given over to the Yow Bar and the club, where two DJs spin dance music after 10 PM Wednesday through Saturday. Chef John Hogan (Kiki’s Bistro, the defunct Savarin) consulted on the French-American menu, which is currently being executed by chef de cuisine Jason Boywid, a Hogan protege. Many dishes have Hogan’s distinct signature starters include a country salad of frisee lettuce, goat cheese, lardons (bacon), and roasted beets in a warm walnut and sherry vinaigrette that has a strong bite. There’s also thinly sliced smoked salmon fanned out with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of capers and dill, and steamed mussels in a creamy white wine sauce with fennel and shallots. Entrees include Dover sole meuniere in a brown butter sauce; roast duck breast with a somewhat tender braised leg and thigh in a tasty prune-Armagnac sauce; and other hearty dishes. An older neighborhood crowd fills the dining room in the early evening, but well-dressed club hoppers stream in later to mingle and dance. Down a long hallway, past the bathrooms, is the Yow Bar, named after bartender Yow Low, originally of Trader Vic’s. The bar features wacky Polynesian drinks like a “Blue Hawaii” (vodka, rum, blue curacao, and pineapple juice) and a “Scorpion Bowl” (rum, brandy, and citrus juices). There’s also a late-night menu available in the bar offering small bites like minicheeseburgers, croque monsieurs, and two caviars, plus more substantial options like grilled sirloin steak. In an apparent effort to keep the place exclusive, there’s no sign at the alley entrance, but the doorman and velvet ropes are hard to miss. Le Passage, I Oak Place, 312-255-0022.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.