You'd never know we were in a recession by the number of restaurants that have opened in Chicago in the last year. Asian is the cuisine of the moment -- whether it's the brilliant fusions of Spring and Kevin, a surge of snazzy Thai spots or the cresting wave of sushi bars. A continuing taste for comfort food has spawned a new generation of taverns with enticing menus.
And even hotel dining is taking an exciting turn, thanks to such newcomers as Avenues in The Peninsula Chicago and Wave in W Chicago-Lakeshore. What follows are merely tidbits to stimulate your appetite. Call for details like hours, reservations and prices.
SIX NEW HOT SPOTS
Spring (2039 W. North Ave.; 773/395-7100). Chef Shawn McClain, previously of Trio, has been racking up accolades for his mostly Pan-Asian, mostly seafood creations at this Zen-inspired conversion of Wicker Park's old North Avenue Bathhouse. Chicago magazine's 2002 Best New Restaurant of the Year and Esquire magazine's 2001 Best New Chef are just the latest awards, and dishes such as lobster spring rolls with frothy curry-passion fruit sauce; potato-and-nori-wrapped wild Alaskan salmon on black-bean sauce; and New Zealand snapper with preserved-lemon couscous and spicy fennel salad 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.
Kevin (9 W. Hubbard St.; 312/595-0055). A Franco-Asian pioneer at the late, great Jimmy's Place, chef Kevin Shikami finally 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 paired with hamachi salad; sauteed duck breast with a duck-pear spring roll in star anise sauce; and a special of wild, striped sea bass on spinach, shiitakes and sliced potatoes in chive sauce. Pastry chef Cindy Schuman, formerly of Aubriot, whips up desserts like ultrarich peanut caramel chocolate ganache tart.
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, preceded by smoked salmon on a crispy potato pancake, lobster bisque or Caesar salad. For a light finish, try the poached pear in caramel sauce. Interesting wines by the glass or bottle.
Roy's (720 N. State St.; 312/787-7599). A handsome dining room with a big exhibition kitchen, the first Chicago outpost of chef Roy Yamaguchi's Hawaiian fusion chain brings together "Roy's Classics," such as blackened ahi in soy-mustard butter and Japanese-style misoyaki butterfish (really black cod), with the "nightly specials" of local chef Tom Hope, among them mussels in Thai coconut-milk curry and grilled shutome (broadbill swordfish) with wild mushroom ravioli in tomato-shallot vinaigrette. Baked-to-order, tropical-fruit strudel or chocolate souffle for dessert. Wide-ranging wine list and by-the-glass picks. Proficient, eager-to-please service.
Avenues (The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St.; 312/573-6754). Executive chef Gerhard Doll's luxe seafood -- warm Maine lobster salad, roasted French turbot boned tableside -- is the reason to dine in this predictably posh dining room with all the expected perks. But prices are sky high, so only do it on an expense account -- or if someone else is buying.
Wave (W Chicago-Lakeshore, 644 N. Lake Shore Drive; 312/255-4460). The transformation of the ugly-duckling Days Inn into the ultra-hip W included designer Ilan Waisbrod's sexy sunken dining room with its colored-glass-clad walls and red fabric undulating, wavelike, above a central communal table. The food is Mediterranean -- fish soup, composed nicoise salad, braised lamb shank, seafood bouillabaisse -- but the pulsating music, psychedelic projections and chic cocktails suggest that the scene is just as important.
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.
Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708). Minimalist white-and-gray Randolph Market District spot with packed-in tables and noisy patrons gets low marks for comfort, but chef Paul Kahan's lavish seasonal creations compensate. Look for appetizers like roast suckling pig with curried corn sauce and entrees such as bobwhite quail with sugar plums and baby turnips. Artisanal cheeses and intriguing boutique wines, too. Generally excellent service, despite minor oversights.
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 are among the possibilities. The wine list has appropriate picks for almost anything. Desserts are marvelous, particularly anything chocolate. If you're in Northfield, check out the new MK North.
SpiAggia (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 two 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.
Gibsons Steakhouse (1028 N. Rush St; 312/266-8999). Always-packed gathering place for everyone from VIPs 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.
Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (60 E. Grand Ave.; 312/379-5637). The first result of Rich Melman's partnership plan for expanding restaurant icons, this offshoot of the famous Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach offers the precracked crab claws in various sizes -- flown in already cooked -- plus predictable seafood and steaks in retro-clubby surroundings brightened by photos of the original Joe's employees and customers. Creamy crab bisque and the vegetable chopped salad stand out; dessert is pie, naturally including Key lime.
FIVE ETHNIC ALTERNATIVES
Cafe Iberico (739 N. LaSalle St.; 312/573-1510). Sip a reasonably 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. Warning: Too noisy to hear your own conversations.
Costa's (340 S. Halsted St.; 312/263-9700). One of the better Greektown spots is a white-washed, wood-trimmed source for such mainstays as taramosalata, kebabs and seafood, as well as some surprises. End with Greek coffee and rice pudding or caramel custard. Piano music many nights.
Fitzers Pub (Fitzpatrick Chicago, 166 E. Superior St.; 312/787-6000). Relax over a full Irish breakfast, fish and chips or lamb stew at this snug hideaway in the basement of the city's first Irish hotel. Guinness on tap, natch.
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.
Penang (2201 S. Wentworth Ave.; 312/326-6888). This garishly decorated Chinatown stalwart has a huge Malaysian menu (plus sushi), and most of the food is as outstanding as it is unusual. Be sure to try barbecued stingray wrapped in a banana leaf, sauteed convolus (hollow-stemmed spinach) with Malaysian shrimp paste and creamy Buddhist-style tofu. Finish with coconut pudding served in a coconut shell. Bank on terrible service.