IN A WORD
Chicago's Best Kept Dining Secrets
Sun. March 22, 2009 12:00 AM
by PJ Gray
In an attempt to slap over-spenders back into reality during our current recession, power lesbian and personal finance guru Suze Orman has been howling at people to, among other things, stop abusing their credits cards (wise advice, I'll admit) and to stop eating at restaurants. Wait, what? I'm confused.
Apparently Ms. Orman has not recognized the irony of her own words. Not only did her family own a restaurant in Chicago's South Side, but she admits in her own biography to have worked in a bakery/café in the 1970's. Would she have appreciated someone dispensing such advice to the general public when she was a struggling waitress? I highly doubt it.
Of all people she should understand and respect the importance of supporting the restaurant industry especially in harder times. This industry supports many subsidiary food and service industries that drive our general economy.
Don't get me wrong. I'm as frugal as the next guy and I'm far from recession-proof. I'm also not a financial professional and have no desire or right to dispense financial advice to readers. However, I encourage you to support your favorite independent restaurants the best you can despite the harsh economic climate. To inspire you, I thought I would share some best kept secrets I recently discovered during some of my most recent culinary jaunts.
BANANAS FOSTER CAFÉ
Best Kept Secret: Signature Dessert Demo
Chef John Winslow (former general manager at Blue Plate Catering) has opened this little slice of comfort food heaven in an area that needs and wants it. This corner storefront location is small which inevitably translates into table waits during peak weekend hours. And as much as I like a good breakfast or brunch—don't miss their full Irish breakfast—I recommend trying their dinner menu during week nights for some extra breathing room. I thoroughly enjoyed the beef bourguignonne with its rich, flavorful sauce and hearty stew vegetables. However, their best kept secret is on the dessert menu. Order their delicious Bananas Foster and, upon request, Winslow or one of his sous chefs will demo the making of this decadent treat before your eyes. It's soooo worth it.
(1147 W Granville Ave at Broadway 773-262-9855)
FONTANA GRILL AND WINE BAR
Best Kept Secret: Wine price options
Yes, Virginia, there is finally another fine dining restaurant on Uptown's Wilson Avenue. This is especially good news for those "evil gentrifiers" who have pioneered and cleaned up the neighborhood for the past 15 years or so.
Chef/Owner Nino and his delightful wife Melissa have opened a little gem in the heart of historic Sheridan Park where they serve an eclectic and reasonably priced menu that includes dishes with both their Bosnian family history and neighboring Italian influences. Their pizzas are tasty and worth ordering, but don't miss their appetizer selection. The Grilled Polenta with Cevapi (sausage) and the calamari steak are delicious.
Their best kept secret is in their wine bar. To help patrons truly enjoy their carefully selected wine list, prices of wines are conveniently offered at two price points: wines at $1 per ounce are also offered at $3 (half glass), $6 (full glass), or $22 (bottle). The wines at $2 per ounce are also offered at $6 (half glass), $12 (full glass) or $44 (bottle). This price structure eliminates the potential for those wasted, half-consumed bottles while experimenting with new wines.
Oh, and I predict that their other best kept secret will be discovered this summer when their large outdoor patio will be open for business. This former Uptown resident may have to cat-fight a neighborhood patron for a seat, but I'll be there! You've been warned, neighbor.
(1329 W Wilson Ave 773-561-0400)
Best Kept Secret: Flexible Menu
Managing Partners Edgar and Marcos Castaneda have not only elevated Mexican fare with their delicious menu, but also redefined the meaning of "flying to Mexico."
From start to finish, their smart, flexible menu gives patrons many options. If you're a Guacamole lover like me, you'll enjoy their Trio de Guacamole—a delectable sampler of their signature guacs served as a flight. (Yep, there's the flying reference, kids.) And for those of you, like me, who are always challenged by too many tempting menu choices, I also recommend the Zocalo Platter that offers warm, gooey Queso Fundido, crispy Flautas and tasty Empanadas—all on one plate.
The flights don't stop there. For taco fans, the Tacos de Cazuela allows you to sample three of their four meat varieties (beef pork, chicken or duck confit) instead of forcing you to only choose one kind.
From their impressive bar, Tequila is also offered in flights with a variety of options including their must-try infusions. (Also, their fruit-filled red or white Sangrias are outstanding!) For your sweet tooth, their sampler platter will provide you and your guests an affordable option when deciding on dessert.
(358 W. Ontario 312-302-9977)