Just when it seems like Chicago has all the Italian restaurants it needs, the cozy and capable PREGO comes along to dispel that notion. Situated on a busy stretch of Ashland just north of Diversey with only a modest awning to draw attention, it’s easy to miss. Chef/owner Chris Chmelar, whose family owns and operates Classic Desserts on Sheffield, opened this restaurant in late August. The menu is tempting and refreshingly limited, featuring starters like sauteed escarole redolent of garlic on a bed of creamy white beans and caramelized shallots. Pasta dishes are straightforward but nicely prepared; one night’s seasonal special was capellini with red, yellow, green, and orange bell peppers tossed with a generous handful of chopped sage, parsley, and thyme in olive oil and garlic. A seafood special mixed pasta with with plump pieces of calamari, shrimp, and mussels in a savory marinara. The bread didn’t overwhelm the salad in the panzanella, which was tossed with fresh field greens, cucumbers, and diced tomatoes. Secondi, or entrees, include several veal preparations; one, in a thick, tart lemon sauce, was pounded a bit too thin. A baby roasted chicken was purportedly cooked with rosemary, but the flavor was lost in a soupy, nondescript sauce that also left the roasted potatoes soggy. Despite a few kinks, the overall experience was genuinely pleasant–attentive service, piping hot food, and extremely reasonable prices. The room is warm and classic: hardwood floors, high tin ceilings painted white, funky bronze mesh candleholders on each table, pumpkin and burgundy walls covered with reproduction art deco posters of food and wine, and lights just bright enough to show off the food without ruining the mood. For now it’s BYO. Prego is at 2901 N. Ashland, 773-472-9190.
Huge posters of Sarajevo, Ribar, and Stari Grad cover the aqua walls at BOSANSKI OKUSI, and the room is clean and bright. Edgewater’s four-week-old Bosnian restaurant serves a menu full of unusual jela po narudzbi, or house specialties. The menu is heavily meat based; veliki cevapcici are spiced ground beef cylinders grilled on skewers and served with sour cream on an extremely greasy homemade bread called pita, though it doesn’t look or taste like the Middle Eastern version. Shish kebab comes with skewers of thin veal and lamb marinated in onions and garlic, also served on a round of pita with raw onions and tomatoes. The stuffed pies–burek is filled with spiced beef, the rich sirnica with cheese and sour cream, and zeljanica with spinach, cheese, and sour cream–look intriguing but taste bland: the pastry dough they’re rolled in needs a pinch of salt and some oil to boost the flavor. A good dish to share is the mjesanomeso, a combination of skewered grilled meat–beef, lamb, chicken livers, and veal–served with tasty, bright red ajvar (red pepper spread) and raw onions. If you don’t speak the language, ordering will require some patience, but otherwise service is quick and gracious. Be warned: the cigarette smoke is thick, and to drink there’s only juice and rich Turkish coffee, but they’ll open a bottle of anything you’d like to bring. Bosanski Okusi is at 6014 N. Broadway, 773-743-7560.
The room at MK NORTH–Michael Kornick’s north-suburban second location, in the former Brasserie T space–has the same sleek urban feel as the River North original: satin curtains accent exposed brick walls, black and ivory stones left from Brasserie T cover the floor, and large, irregularly shaped white mesh light fixtures hang from the ceiling. The room is wide open, with a small raised seating area off to one side and generously spaced tables throughout. Chef Bernard Laskowski (Bin 36) mans the kitchen here, with Kornick overseeing both operations. The contemporary American menu’s been expanded with a few appetizers geared toward the North Shore crowd: a platter of iced shellfish ($16 per person), plus oysters on the half shell and shrimp cocktail, both priced by the dozen. There’s also a burger on the dinner menu, along with a few light entrees for the health conscious; otherwise, Kornick’s familiar refined but hearty cuisine is served in the usual ample portions. A 12-inch braised lamb shank in a luscious velvety red wine reduction came with a scoop of roasted-garlic-and-parsnip puree. The wonderful flavors in a dish of butternut squash ravioli topped with roasted beets, parsnips, and carrots and dusted with cinnamon, nutmeg, and sage were unfortunately overwhelmed by too much melted butter. A starter of aromatic Indian summer sweet corn and Maine lobster soup, spiked with red chili and saffron, was both lively and satiny smooth. A salad of young arugula and shaved fennel topped with earthy Humboldt Fog goat cheese was simply tossed in olive oil and lemon. Service is professional and friendly, even with the immediate crowds this place is drawing. MK pastry chef Mindy Segal’s desserts, executed here by pastry chef Christine McCabe, shouldn’t be missed–especially her rustic apple crostata, served with roasted apple ice cream and a small pot of homemade caramel. The menu suggests that you “become a card-carrying wine geek” by joining the MK Wine Club, which for $50 a year gets you a 20 percent discount on wine at lunch every day and at dinner Sunday through Thursday, plus invitations to upcoming wine events. MK North is at 305 S. Happ in Northfield, 847-716-6500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.