THE TOP TEN Retaurants Small Plates in Chicago
The best small plate dining in Chicago, presented in alphabetical order.
Avec Restaurant & Wine Bar
615 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60661 / 312-377-2002
A follow-up to Blackbird, this fab spot is located next door. With a name that’s French for “with,” it’s no surprise that you’ll eat elbow-to-elbow, possibly even cheek-to-jowl, with a lot of other people. Call it communal dining in a modern-day setting at tables that seat up to ten people (it can be very tight, very noisy, and absolutely insane when this place is jamming). But the name “Avec” also is suggestive of the food served; it’s a wealth of tasty ideas that are Mediterranean-centered and would be wise to be paired with wines. From the selection of small and large plates, zero in on the pork shoulder with dried apricots, prunes, slab bacon and apricot mustard. The homemade tagliatelle with goat's milk butter, green garlic, cracked pepper and truffled whitefish caviar is topnotch, too. When in the mood for a nosh, the medjool dates, stuffed with chorizo and wrapped with smoked bacon, are sensory delights. For something more substantial, think duck cassoulet, and wrap it up with a luscious apple galette---or a fine selection of global cheeses.
2647 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago, IL 60647 / 773-486-6464
Despite the small-plates invasion that threatens to make communal dining a---yawn---predictable experience, we have a soft spot for this jam-packed little gem, even if it’s not crazy-authentic. Named after the Spanish word for “sugar,” the orange-toned tapas bar is small---really, really small---but it packs a punch. Red or white sangría starts things off right, but it’s nothing compared to garlicky, butter-bathed, paprika-spiked grilled shrimp. Slices of plantain with savory, garlic-infused beef are memorable, and it’s hard to go wrong with the prototypical (but well executed and super-crisp) patatas bravas, although we find the accompanying paprika sauce needs oomph. For dessert, snag the donuts with warm chocolate for dipping.
The Bluebird Wine Bar & Bistro
1749 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60647 / 773-486-2473
Wine, and the food that pairs well with it, is about as approachable as it gets at this Wicker Park hotspot from the folks behind Webster’s Wine. The setting is distressed and industrial with a wine bar and tables fashioned from recycled materials, warehouse-y fixtures and exposed brick walls. Belly up and design-your-own charcuterie; we especially like the slightly smoky Leon’s knackwurst---a local fave---paired with nutty Mahón D.O. Two-slice bruschetta come in a few varieties (try the sun-dried tomato relish and crisp lomo). While you’re at it, order up a thin, crispy, yolky-good Serrano, manchego and egg pizza. “Plates” are slightly more substantial, although we find the “baconed” pork chop with peach chutney---a ham steak, really---to be a bit of a misnomer. As for vinos, the prices are affordable and interesting, the selection vast (over 100 by the bottle and many by the glass) and the descriptors on the menu both enlightening and fun.
The Drawing Room at Le Passage
Le Passage Discotheque, 937 N. Rush St., Chicago, IL 60611 / 312-255-0022
It would be easy to assume that The Drawing Room, located inside Le Passage Discotheque, is just a lounge. That would be a huge mistake. With a menu designed by chef Shawn McClain (Spring, Custom House) this reconcepted, basement-level spot is not only easy on the eyes---think modern chandeliers, white curtains, low one-armed brown velvet chairs alongside just-as-low-tables---but it serves up some very creative small plates, too. Chef Nicholas Lacasse, a protégé of McClain’s, delivers a cute stack of peekytoe crab cakes with kimchi and a deconstructed Greek salad with grilled baby octopus and goat’s milk feta. There’s also a “burger” of super-tender braised short ribs with crispy pancetta and roasted shallots. Of course, no visit is complete without a few fun cocktails. Sit pretty with classics like a Negroni and Old Fashioned or newer creations like A Perfect Poire---crafted by three master bartenders. Work off the calories next door on the dance floor.
Emilio's Tapas Bar & Restaurant
4100 Roosevelt Rd., Hillside, IL 60162 / 708-547-7177
Emilio Gervilla's tapas empire got its start at this popular free-standing restaurant, which is still going strong. Fanciful murals, mosaics and miscellaneous artifacts set the stage for meals assembled from a multitude of little dishes plus some entradas, most in small or large portions. Start by sharing cold tapas, among them garlicky potato salad, Spanish ham with manchego cheese and tomato-topped bread, stuffed squid in piquant tomato sauce and smoked-salmon rolls. Then move on to hot ones ranging from pepper-crusted beef brochette with wonderful caramelized onions to unusual deep-fried eggs or bacon-wrapped dates in satiny red-pepper cream. Crispy-skinned baby chicken with creamed leeks in mustard sauce is almost a must. Some picks disappoint, particularly the paella. Spanish wines from several regions, sherries, beers and brandies make up the beverage list. Desserts go beyond flan to caramelized bananas, a rich chocolate terrine and profiteroles. Service tends to be good, except when the place gets packed.
Emilio's Tapas Sol y Nieve
215 E. Ohio St., Chicago, IL 60611 / 312-467-7177
It's tapas, and the Emilio in the restaurant's name is Emilio Gervilla, who owns several of these places in the city and suburbs. Generally speaking they fare well, and this location is no exception. There's a comfortable dining room and nice bar. Most of the usual tapas suspects are here: ensalada rusa, jamon y queso, pan con tomate. Small portions or large portions, the choice is yours, which means you can spend a little or spend a lot. The list of sherries is extensive, as is the selection of wines by the glass. It's a pleasant place for lunch (read: quiet).
600 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60610 / 312-822-9600
The presentations at this sleek restaurant are artful and elegant (the shapes of the plates alone are a feast for the eyes)---without being ostentatious. The hot-and-sour soup, for example, is served in a deep white bowl that swoops like a Frank Gehry building. Panko-breaded oysters with a smoky-tasting bacon gratin are laid in a beautiful, long narrow dish. Kobe carpaccio is another outstanding first course; the paper-thin slices of beef form two rows of shingles, amped up by a yuzu-ginger sauce. Seven-spice Kobe prime rib is another flavorful dish. The menu flows from an inspired and eclectic viewpoint, one that keeps an eye on traditional Japanese (including sushi) and the other on a more modern approach. The results are as impressive as the atmosphere, which involves splashes of color, textured glass and overhead waves of expensive wood. Service is on top of everything, and there is an excellent selection of saké, to boot.
618 S. Rte. 59, Naperville, IL 60540 / 630-420-8995
Don’t let the suburban strip mall location deter you: John Borras is the real deal, maybe in part because the Le Cordon Bleu-trained executive chef studied under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli on Costa Brava in Spain. His emphasis, rather than foams and fuss, is on creating sweet and savory blends that work. Thinly sliced, paprika-cured lomo embuchado pairs with marinated raisins, toasted pine nuts and a zap of balsamic glaze; mango caviar---which isn’t caviar at all---is an aspic-based, labor-intensive dish the chef prepares that's heaven for diners. Bacon-wrapped shrimp with roasted red pepper aïoli is a safe bet, too. Peculiarity aside, we admit to being intrigued by the strange marshmallow napoleon with manchego crisps and balsamic and berry sauces. Spanish vinos form the backbone of the wine list. Fruity sangría is a solid alternative.
626 N. State St., Chicago, IL 60610 / 312-698-5000
The folks behind Gibson’s Steakhouse do it again with this comfortable, noisy Italian small-plates concept. The dining room, which is separated by archways and features hodgepodge table settings, fills with a professional loft-dwelling crowd that heads straight for the in-house prepped salumeria selections (try the delicate ribbons of duck prosciutto and air-dried bresaola); cheeses like Gorgonzola dolce make an appearance, too. A great stop with friends and family alike, there are oodles of appealing choices, including garlicky white bean spread, pungent Italian cheese fondue and Neapolitan pizzas---not to mention super-affordable carafes (think $4 and up). Entrées range from lemony scallops with caperberries to crisp duck leg with Tuscan kale. In the mood for pasta? Try the linguine with clams or ravioli with braised pork and fava beans.
10 W. Hubbard St., Chicago, IL 60610 / 312-527-4060
On paper, Vermilion---which melds contemporary Indian food with a variety of Latin American cuisines---sounds like a bad idea. But step inside this River North restaurant and you’ll find a sleek and stylish room filled with beautiful black-and-white photographs, modern leather couches and cozy booths. Then there’s the food, including dishes such as tandoori skirt steak with fresh pico de gallo, artichoke pakoras with eggplant-chili-coconut sauce and lamb chops with minty red onion salad. Somehow, the cuisine manages to combine flavors and ingredients from very diverse cuisines in ways that truly work. So much for first impressions. Not ready to dive in? Opt for small plates from Vermilion’s tapas menu in the sexy lounge area. We can’t get enough of the pani puri with spicy potatoes. Vegetarians feel the love, too, with their own vegetarian menu. We’re afraid, however, that the signature “herb & spice” cocktails sometimes come off as strange rather than tasty.
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