WHAT'S NEW IN CHICAGO DINING?
Chicago has shown it can go toe to toe with any other American city as a great restaurant town, largely for the diversity of the dining scene, its ethnic neighborhoods, its reasonable prices and a considerable mass of locals who like nothing more than going out to eat and drink with gusto. The city's media hype the handful of gimmicky molecular cuisiniers, but Chicagoans pack places that offer an array of more traditional but highly inventive cuisines. Here are some of the newest and best.
1700 W. Division Avenue
Chef Mark Steuer is doing what he calls calling "Re-imagined" Low Country cooking at its best, by adding a good deal of himself to traditional dishes like sherry-laced she-crab soup with hot drop biscuits; his big, tasty shrimp with heirloom grits are textbook, and the Carolina rice balls with pimiento cheese and pickled cabbage are just plain delicious fun.
There's much to applaud by his combining high and low in a dish of cornbread in a black skillet with foie gras, nectarine marmalade and smoked salt. And you can't help but lick your fingers after a taste of his juicy quail with black pepper dumplings, Vidalia soubise and pickle relish. The Low Country Boil teems with seafood, rabbit, sausage and potatoes.
The dining room itself is spare and loud, so it's not a place to linger. Conviviality might be increased by a bit of sound-proofing, but you can still carry on a civilized conversation here.
The Carriage House is open for lunch Tues.-Fri., for brunch Sat. & Sun., for dinner Tues.-Sun. Dinner prices $6-$34.
564 West Randolph Street
Embeya is Vietnamese for "little one," an affectionate childhood nickname for chef Thai Dang, who did not strike me as particularly small in stature but did impress me with his enormous talent for showcasing Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines at this glamorous new restaurant in the West Loop.
High ceilings, tall windows, a gleaming bar, carved teakwood panels and airy ice-like chandeliers give this dining room the cast of one that might well vie with the most sophisticated in Saigon, whatever that may be. Add to the mix the handsome couple of owners Komal Patel and her bearded husband Attilla Gyulai and you have good reason to drop by for a cocktail and stay for a meal as the place fills up with a well-dressed crowd out to impress their own ilk.
The Vietnamese dishes are the most delicate, influenced by French cuisine, as in the shrimp wrap with shiitake, lettuce and herbs and the rice noodle salad with short rib and lemongrass. Chinese flavors are evident in the tamarind-coated ribs with toasted garlic and hoisin sauce, while a rabbit leg gets a Thai treatment of chili, marinated peas and radish. Desserts are every bit as tantalizing, like the fried banana with coconut ice cream, caramel, and the addictive mango and sticky rice pudding.
The Peninsula Hotel
108 E Superior Street312- 337-2888peninsulachicago.com
The Peninsula Hotel, now 13 years old, is one of Chicago's very finest and certainly the most beautiful, in view of its baronial space, with a grand lobby leading to the concierge and front desk. Downstairs is one of the city's best and most elegantly appointed Chinese restaurants, Shanghai Terrace, and afternoon tea is very popular at the hotel.
A year ago Chef Lee Wolen came onboard to turn The Lobby into the hotel's showcase dining room, and it has the same spectacular size and panorama that distinguishes the rest of the hotel space here, with twenty-foot floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue.
The odd banality of the restaurant's name is hardly a draw, but Wolen, with a résumé that includes Eleven Madison Park in NYC, has crafted a menu that has been getting rave local reviews, and he has quickly become one of the most exciting chefs in the city, and one who has not gone the gimmicky route of some of his publicity-grabbing colleagues.
Among my favorite starters was a salad of pristine peekytoe crab, garlic, asparagus, prawn and sea urchin with a foamy urchin sauce. His ricotta gnocchi with rosy Serrano ham and English peas is simple perfection, and his hand-rolled cavatelli with rabbit confit, artichokes and mustard worked well. Wolen's rendering of octopus, with heirloom carrots, slivers of radish and nubbins of smoked ham is already a star dish. Marinated Kona kampachi was well married to olives, favas and mild sorrel, while a torchon of foie gras was given a little crunch from almonds and a citrusy sweetness from grapefruit.
Of the entrees, I was amazed by the deep, rich flavors of his whole roasted chicken with morels, potatoes and ramps, which at $54 for two is the city's best bargain for great cuisine. It comes to the table in a hot skillet and is deftly cut apart before you, its crackling skin hiding an herb stuffing (think Pepperidge Farm to the sublime) and is sauced with cream and morels.
Roasted scallops came with peas, more morels and guanciale bacon, all to good effect, while olive-oiled poached halibut with razor clams, shrimp and lemongrass straddled every coastline of America with considerable panache. Of course, Wolen uses Colorado lamb, whose fatty richness makes all the difference in a dish with feta, toasted chickpeas and roasted eggplant and puree.
His cooking is all of a style, one with flourish not flamboyance. The principal flavors and textures are all complemented, never overwhelmed. This applies to the desserts, too, like tarte Tatin with vanilla ice cream and.
Wolen has given this large lobby space a personality it would otherwise lack, and he is be commended for maintaining the balance of fine cuisine without the gastro-theatrics.
The Lobby is open for breakfast daily, brunch on Sun., Lunch
Mon.-Fri., and dinner nightly. Entrees $27-$39.