January 26, 2012
When it's cold outside, you want to be warm inside, and one way to accomplish that is with a nice jolt of spice in your food. Here are a few dishes, some of them in surprising places, that have gotten our tonsils' attention lately.
The Pump Room Two stars 1301 N. State Parkway, 312-787-3700. The venerable Pump Room is back, with a bright contemporary look and a seasonally driven menu emphasizing affordability and value. The menu, designed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, borrows heavily from his acclaimed ABC Kitchen in New York, and evidence of the chef's Thai-fusion leanings are present in the chili peppers that brighten many dishes — though a section of "simply prepared" items accommodates the spice-intolerant. Service is a strong point. Spicy dishes: Fried chicken with habanero-grapefruit butter, crispy walleye with habaneros and mint, pork chop with green-chili butter. Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday. Entree prices: $19-$38. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
BLT American Brasserie Two stars 500 W. Superior St.; 312-948-8744. NYC chef Laurent Tourondel makes a pretty impressive Chicago debut with this sprawling restaurant, which includes a few dishes reminiscent of Tourondel's work in various other BLT restaurants (with which he is no longer involved). The wide-ranging menu embraces sushi, pizza and a lot of what you might consider American bistro food, but the execution is far more sophisticated than the modest-to-a-fault menu might suggest. Jordan Mozer's opulent but warm design makes spending time in here an absolute delight. Spicy dishes: Spicy tuna roll, tuna tataki roll, BLT sandwich "deluxe" (with jalapenos). Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday. Entree prices: $22-$27. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended. Noise: Conversation-friendly. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Heaven on Seven (not recently rated) 600 N. Michigan Ave., 312-280-7774. One of the first Chicago restaurants to specialize in Cajun/Creole cooking, and still the best, Heaven on Seven (and its Naperville counterpart) offers many dishes for the timid of palate, but as the wall of hot-sauce bottles attests, this is a kitchen that enjoys spicing things up. There even are dedicated "Hot as a Mutha" nights two or three times a year here. Spicy dishes: Anything "voodoo," anything in "angry sauce," Hot as a Mutha pasta. Open: Dinner and lunch Monday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday. Entree prices: $9.95-$21.95. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible, validated self-parking.
Mercadito One star 108 W. Kinzie St., 312-329-9555. If you like lively Mexican cuisine with a nightclub vibe, grab some friends and fight your way into this snazzy NYC import. Crowds can occasionally overwhelm the kitchen and front-room staff, but there's a reason there are so many people here. Dishes as a rule are not especially spicy here, but a side order of habanero salsa ($3) will kick any plate into lip-numbing status. Spicy dishes: Shrimp tacos with chipotle mojo, pollo enchilado (chili-crusted chicken). Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday. Prices: Tacos (four) $15.50, entrees $18.50-$28.50. Credit cards: A, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking..
Xni-Pec One star 3755 Grand Blvd., Brookfield; 708-290-0082. This Yucatecan restaurant moved from Cicero to Brookfield in early 2010 to get closer to its west suburban customer base. It did so on a shoestring budget, so don't come expecting elaborate creature comforts. Do expect interesting, cliche-free Mexican food at very low prices. There is the occasional jolt of spice (the name comes from the Mayan term for "dog nose," a reference to some folks' reaction to hot peppers), but in general the food is gentle on the tonsils. Spicy dishes: Habanero salsa, guajillo-pasilla salsa, Xni-Pec camarones. Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday. Entree prices: $11-$18. Credit cards: DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended weekends. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible.
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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