You wouldn’t know the economy was in recession, judging by the crowds spending money in many of Chicago’s newest restaurants. While most of the high-pro le places that have opened since last year’s NRA Show are considered casual, they still command a pretty penny for well-prepared and imaginative food, accompanied by signature cocktails, microbrews or boutique wines. The restaurants listed here are well worth exploring and not far from downtown. —By Carolyn Walkup
Dana Hotel and Spa, 660 N. State St.
The stylish two-level restaurant in this River North boutique hotel is a far cry from the kind of steakhouse Chicagoans are accustomed to experiencing. A sushi bar on the upper level sets the tone here, along with sake flights. While anything on the menu can be ordered on either level, the street-level dining area seems more fitting for the Kobe and wagyu beef and other cooked proteins, such as the wok-roasted Japanese sea bass, and the luncheon burger menu. An interesting intersection of East and West, Ajasteak is primarily aimed at non-hotel guests.
2118 N. Damen Ave.
Michael Taus, chef-partner of the fine-dining Zealous, appeals to the Bucktown neighborhood’s casual hipsters with this American bistro-style storefront. While Duchamp has won major kudos for its havarti cheeseburger with tomato remoulade and delicious skin-on fries, the menu ranges far beyond such simple favorites. More in the Taus world cuisine tradition are Koreanstyle hot wings with soy mayo, sunchoke and truffle soup with tapenade cream and roasted roulade of salmon with pear-kohlrabi savory tart and apple cider nage. Entree prices stay below $20.
Affinia Hotel, 166 E. Superior St.
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit fame in New York is the culinary mastermind behind this American seafood restaurant and chop house east of Michigan Avenue, the only one of its kind in his growing empire of restaurants in the world’s dining capitals. As expected from a chef of his stature, the food quality is pristine, particularly in ultrafresh seafood choices such as the signature miniature ceviche-style fish tacos, fluke with apple and jalapeno or golden trout with foie gras, beets and almonds. Non-fish standouts may include suckling pig with peach chutney or wagyu beef with citrus pepper and caperberries. The sleek, subdued décor in neutral tones carries just a hint of a seafood theme with sepia-toned nautical photographs.
840 N. Wabash Ave.
One of the few new unabashedly finedining restaurants to open in the last year, this Gold Coast newcomer dresses up its interior with white leather, a subtle gray and blue color motif and mosaic-glass mirror art. Owner Matt Fisher and chef Troy Graves of Tallulah in Lincoln Square maintain their trademark humorous touches but with slightly pricier ingredients. Examples are pheasant breast confit and Medjool date crepinette with rapini and smoked bacon vinaigrette and Arctic char with potatoes, escargots, black truffle and parsnip puree. Graves reserves some of his signature items for lunch, including grilled quail and garlicky homemade lamb sausages over lentils.
2152 N. Damen Ave.
One of the newest additions to the artsy Bucktown neighborhood, The Bristol offers inventive and ever-changing dishes served by an amicable wait staff who brighten a storefront interior so dark it can require small flashlights to read the printed menu or the wallmounted chalkboards.
Dominated by small plates, selections are classified as “bar snacks,” “salads/sides,” “medium dishes” and “large dishes,” the wide-ranging menu suits occasions from snacks to full meals. When correctly paired with a boutique draught beer or wine or a signature cocktail, choices like a soft beer cheese spread with slaw and saltines or grilled prawns with anchovy butter hit the spot. Owners Chris Pandel, John Ross and Phillip Walters keep their dinner and weekend brunch establishment open late.
464 N. Halsted St.
Tony Priolo, formerly executive chef of Chicago’s Coco Pazzo, realized his dream of owning his own restaurant last summer, with the help of partner Ciro Longobardo. Featuring flavor-packed dishes with roots in all of Italy, Piccolo Sogno gives market-fresh vegetables equal billing with center-of-the-plate proteins. Wine expert Longobardo oversees the all-Italian list. The owners have added an awning to enclose and heat the popular leafy outdoor terrace in imperfect weather.
837 W. Fulton Mkt.
Award-winning chef Paul Kahan is better known for his fine-dining Blackbird, but his love of simpler pleasures like pork and beer inspired this “public house” in the Market District. Although he and partner Donnie Madia deny the communal table-dominated seating is modeled after a Belgian hall, the similarity is hard to ignore. In fact, Belgian beers predominate on the huge list of some 70 bottled and draught choices from around the world. The meat from each week’s house-butchered organic pig finds its way into everything from spicy, airy pork rinds in a paper cone to meaty confit of pork shoulder with littleneck clams, fingerling potatoes and chorizo or country ribs with polenta, apples and kimchi. Other proteins, vegetables and desserts also are offered, with oysters getting special attention.
161 N. Jefferson St.
Chef-partner Randy Zweiban retains the Latin cooking style for which he became known at Nacional 27 but broadens it to include influences from the Mediterranean to the Midwest in this eco-friendly contemporary American café. Sourcing only sustainable seafood and as much regionally farmed organic foodstuffs as possible, Province offers pricing diversity, from $3 “bites,” such as peeky toe crab toast, to three sizes of entrees, with the meatiest portion, grilled beef tenderloin, topping out at $29. Menu variety ranges from raw—oysters, sashimi, ceviche—to slow-cooked—rabbit confit, duck stew or 10-hour braised lamb.
1800 N. Lincoln Ave.
Overseen by talented chef duo Giuseppe Tentori and Ryan Poli, Perennial shows promise of success in a Lincoln Park space located nearly across the street from the seasonal Green City Market, which supplies the freshest of regionally grown produce from spring through fall. Showing some similarities to the more upscale Boka, also owned by Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, Perennial tries to be a bit more casual. Yet, dishes such as sea scallop with wild mushroom, braised spinach cannelloni gratin and tarragon sabayon or a vegetable tart that changes with the harvest offer equally creative variety. Weather permitting, seating is open on a pergola-topped patio.
110 W. Illinois St.
The nightclub impresarios behind Rockit Ranch Productions have taken a foodfocused direction with Sunda, a big, bold “new Asian” restaurant in River North. Sunda features flavors from Southeast Asia, Japan and China. Named for the preglacial land mass that once connected the region’s current archipelagos and peninsulas, Sunda serves many dishes family-style in the Asian tradition. Seating ranges from long communal tables to two smaller chef’s tables affording close-up views of sushi chefs at work. Chef Rodelio Aglibot, formerly of Koi in Los Angeles, describes his food as “current, yet timeless.”