It's been a strange year for Chicago restaurants. At the same time as old favorites have closed their doors or downscaled, several mega-sized operations have burst onto the scene, and cute little bistros continue to crop up in North Side neighborhoods. Downtown, the newcomers are an eclectic bunch, demonstrating the twin allures of globalization and localization, sometimes simultaneously. What follows is a very short list to stimulate your appetite. Call for details like hours, reservations and prices.
NINE NOTEWORTHY NEWCOMERS
Aria (200 N. Columbus Dr., The Fairmont Chicago; 312/444-9494). Complimentary nan (East Indian bread), served fresh from the glassed-in "action" station's tandoori oven, is reason enough to try the Fairmont's total transformation of its old Entre Nous and Metropole. Fronted by a spacious lounge, the narrow, curving dining room is strikingly appointed with luxurious woods and fabrics. The fusion menu offers everything from Kyoto sashimi tuna salad to swordfish "osso bucco style," from Tuscan ravioli with braised veal to Hong Kong "chow mien" with barbecued duck and lobster, plus steaks and roasts. For dessert, don't miss lemongrass creme brulee paired with passion fruit sorbet. The only drawback is the poor service.
Fogo de Chao (661 N. LaSalle St.; 312/932-9330). Hotter than "fire on the ground" (the name's translation) since it opened last summer, downtown's first churrascaria and the fourth U.S. outpost of a Brazil-based chain boasts authentic gauchos roaming the semiformal dining room bearing rodizios (sliding skewers) laden with picanha (rumpsteak), alcatra (top sirloin), fraldinha (bottom sirloin) and other cuts of beef, as well as lamb, chicken and sausages. The all-you-can-eat concept, a bargain at lunch, includes one of the city's most sumptuous salad bars. Specialty cocktails and desserts are on hand, and the staff tends to be admirably attentive.
Fortunato (2005 W. Division St.; 773/645-7200). Fondly remembered for Sole Mio, Chez Jenny and Palladino's (among others), chef Jennifer Newbury returns with this sleek, minimalist newcomer to Bucktown's trendy restaurant row. Her glassed-in exhibition kitchen, which fills the back of a white-tablecloth dining room done in grays and earth tones with black-and-white blowups of flowers on exposed-brick walls, turns out authentic-tasting Italian fare that is simply prepared and relies on the freshest ingredients. The menu changes frequently, but wood-grilled octopus on a medley of beans and polenta with braised duck and prunes are terrific openers, and delicate house-made pastas stand out. Well-chosen Italian wines and more than a dozen grappas are among the beverages. The sidewalk cafe is lovely for lingering. Grand Lux Cafe (600 N. Michigan Ave., entrance at 111 E. Ontario St.; 312/276-2500). "Grand" and "lux" accurately describe the Cheesecake Factory's tonier sister, a Las Vegas-worthy, medieval-meets-Art Nouveau/Deco answer to the Old World European cafe that's an extravaganza of mosaics, stenciling, warm wood paneling, soaring coved ceilings, inlaid marble floors and plush fabrics. The grandness predictably extends to portion sizes and a multipage "casual global" menu of everything from Asian-inspired creations to gourmet pizzas, pastas, salads and sandwiches. The food? Not bad. A few favorites: portobello pizza, the burgers and the molten chocolate cake. Try to sit in the main dining room or the splendid rotunda with great Mag Mile views.
Mar y Sol (812-816 W. Randolph St.; 312/563-1763). Trendy and traditional tapas and entrees draw from the "mar" (sea) and "sol" (sun) at this tropical-toned hangout, where the beat and cocktails are Latin and the crowd is young and loud. Snack on beef and portobello empanadas, spinach with almonds and raisins, and chewy baby octopus, but don't miss mar-velous pescado abrigado, fish baked with citrus slices and spices in a banana leaf, or gambas lanzadas, guava-and-chili-glazed shrimp on sugar cane skewers. Custard-filled cornmeal crepes make a swell finale.
Opera (1301 S. Wabash Ave.; 312/461-0161). This year's hit from Boutique Hospitality Co. (of Red Light, Marche and Gioco) combines designer/partner Jerry Kleiner's flamboyant take on contemporary Chinese decor with a menu of regional Chinese creations and whimsical inventions orchestrated by Paul Wildermuth (from Red Light) and Thai guru Arun Sampanthavivat (of Arun's). Lobster spring rolls, fried Hunan-style whole red snapper, a side of pea shoots stir-fried with sesame oil and chopped garlic, and a dessert of almond milk panna cotta with almond cookies are typical. Wines have been selected to harmonize with the food.
Weber Grill (539 N. State St., Hilton Garden Inn; 312/467-9696). From Smokey Joe's bar to photos of backyard barbecues, Weber-Stephen Products Co.'s first downtown Weber Grill Restaurant (there are two in the suburbs) looks like it could be the prototype for a national chain. Cooks work up a real sweat manning the huge Weber kettles lining the open kitchen, and the results are satisfying ribs, burgers, steaks, fish and chicken. Even beefsteak tomatoes get a hit of fire on the grill, and the strawberry shortcake arrives embossed with a baby Weber.
West Town Tavern (1329 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/666-6175). The demise of Zinfandel in River North last June was a real loss, but chef Susan Goss and her wine-expert husband, Drew, now hold forth at this corner spot in the increasingly hip East Village neighborhood. Exposed-brick walls, polished wood floors and a handsome oak bar set the stage for food that's upscale American but not strictly regional (like Zinfandel's was), allowing room for international accents. Retro beer cheese may share the starter list with ratatouille-topped polenta. Maple-cured pork chop with wild rice, duck leg confit with mashed parsnips, and Zinfandel's pot roast in black-vinegar sauce are possible seasonal entrees. Campfire s'mores are among the homey desserts.
Zest (525 N. Michigan Ave., Hotel InterContinental; 312/321-8766). Surprisingly affordable and something of a sleeper despite a high-profile location, this stylishly austere dining room is a welcome addition. The lunch and dinner menus cruise the Mediterranean and beyond with "little plates," such as tuna escabeche, duck confit quesadillas and pork tenderloin with Moroccan fruit chutney. Entrees include paella Valencia, braised lamb shank and sauteed red snapper with rock shrimp, grapes, leeks and almonds. Desserts like pan-roasted pineapple bop to the tropics. Old and New World wines are as reasonably priced as the food.
Cafe Iberico (739 N. LaSalle St.; 312/573-1510). Sip a modestly priced Rioja or Ribera del Duero and nibble tapas at the bar, or come with a group, sit in one of the sprawling dining rooms and share tortilla espanola, grilled octopus, pisto manchego and other dishes that will transport you to Spain. A plus: rock-bottom prices. A minus: ear-splitting noise.
Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708). Minimalist white-and-gray Randolph Market District spot with packed-in tables and lively patrons gets low marks for comfort, but chef Paul Kahan's lavish seasonal creations compensate. Look for appetizers like sweetbreads, foie gras or offbeat salads, and entrees such as quail or venison. Artisanal cheeses, imaginative desserts and intriguing boutique wines, too. Generally excellent service, despite minor oversights.
Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773/248-6228). This townhouse has become a destination for adventurous international diners because of Trotter's often brilliant, beautifully crafted meals. The nightly menu, American-French with Asian influences, is limited to degustations using everything from lobster and foie gras to buckwheat groats and stinging nettles, often in unexpected ways. World-class wine list with a section at the back recapping all $75-or-less bottles, as well as predictably fine service.
Frontera Grill/Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St.; 312/661-1434). Rick Bayless' nationally known bailiwick for authentic regional Mexican fare is two restaurants (plus a bar) in one. The casual, colorful Frontera features wood-grilled meats and fish, while the semiformal Topolobampo excels at more complicated, elegant dishes. Novel desserts. Many Mexican beers, rare tequilas and offbeat wines complement the food.
Gibsons Steakhouse (1028 N. Rush St.; 312/266-8999). Always-packed gathering place for everyone from V.I.P.s to average people adheres to a "bigger is better" policy with humongous steaks and chops, hefty lobsters and fish fillets, huge sides and desserts that easily feed four. Martinis are double-size, too. Nice selection of red wines. Expect waits even with reservations.
Keefer's (20 W. Kinzie St.; 312/467-9525). Designed with business diners in mind, French-trained chef John Hogan's collaboration with brothers Glenn and Richard Keefer and radio industry mogul Jimmy de Castro serves steaks and seafood in a dramatic contemporary setting highlighted by a 50-foot-long bar curving around the central circular dining area. USDA Prime Delmonico steak, huge lobsters and Dover sole are typical. For a light finish, try the poached pear in caramel sauce. Interesting wines by the glass or bottle.
Kevin (9 W. Hubbard St.; 312/595-0055). A Franco-Asian pioneer at the late, great Jimmy's Place, chef Kevin Shikami now has his own restaurant with his brother/general manager, Alan. East meets West in the eclectic decor and in the food. Lustrous soy-and-wasabi-swathed tuna tartare is a signature appetizer; sauteed duck breast with a duck-pear spring roll in star anise sauce, a typical entree.
MK, The Restaurant (868 N. Franklin St.; 312/482-9179). Michael Kornick's internationally accented cooking shines in this black, white and gray conversion of an old paint factory with a dramatic skylight. Sauteed squab with truffled Madeira sauce and butternut squash ravioli with root vegetables epitomize his style. The wine list has appropriate picks for almost anything. Desserts are memorable, particularly anything chocolate.
Spaiggia (980 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/280-2750). Done in cool tones of taupe and gray, the tiered dining room overlooking the Mag Mile is a great place to entertain on an expense account. Original chef Tony Mantuano, back for several years, excels at devising sophisticated pastas and preparing wood-grilled meats and fish. If you just want to have fun, go across the hall to the bemuraled Cafe Spiaggia to enjoy similar dishes at lower prices. In either, save room for bittersweet semifreddo (like a mousse cake). Outstanding list of Italian wines and American clones, as well as one of the city's first cheese caves.
Spring (2039 W. North Ave.; 773/395-7100). Chef Shawn McClain has racked up accolades for his mostly Pan-Asian, mostly seafood creations at this Zen-inspired conversion of Wicker Park's old North Avenue Bathhouse. Dishes like lobster spring rolls with frothy curry-passion fruit sauce and potato-and-nori-wrapped wild Alaskan salmon on black-bean sauce justify the fanfare. Desserts push the envelope with accents like fennel or salsify ice cream. A good global wine list and sensitive service round out a winning picture.
Tru (676 N. St. Clair St.; 312/202-0001). Chef/partners Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's collaboration with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises' Rich Melman combines a stylishly simple, serenely lit, smoke-free setting with spectacularly presented "progressive French cuisine." Whether you opt for a three-course prix fixe meal or a "collection" -- vegetarian, seafood, grand, chef's -- you get lots of surprises. The glass caviar staircase (with four caviars and as many condiments) is a signature opener, and Ms. Gand's desserts -- including a five-course "collection" -- are renowned. Terrific wine list and topnotch service, too.