May 26, 2011
It would be easy to overlook Fogon, an 8-week-old Mexican restaurant in River West, especially as the space has been home to two or three forgettable restaurants in the last few years.
The restaurant's pedigree suggests that would be an error. Fogon is owned by cousins Leo and Eusevio Garcia, who also own the well-regarded Amelia's Mestizo Grill in Canaryville, and Eusevio was the original owner (with then-wife, Kate) of equally well-regarded Mundial in Pilsen.
Though they own both restaurants jointly, Eusevio is a permanent fixture at Amelia's and Leo is similarly shackled to Fogon. But the chef/owners have mirror-image cooking styles, sharing a penchant for weaving European influences into their cooking. And there are several dishes common to both menus. They offer budget-friendly wine lists and a full bar that includes a couple of potent margaritas.
The cousins invested considerable effort into Fogon's decor, and the results are lovely. They bypassed the tired Mexican-flag palette in favor of cream-colored walls, off-white stone flooring and dark-brown wainscoting. As at Amelia's, the tables are topped with white cloth and butcher paper; chairs are sturdy and comfortable.
To the right of Fogon's tiled host stand is an attractive, dark-wood bar area with a couple of tables and some counter seating. Huge glass windows, stripped of any curtains, let in glorious amounts of light into the high-ceilinged space. A few paintings, all hung exactly 18 inches too high, add splashes of color.
The sophisticated look perfectly complements the upscale cooking, and particularly the often striking presentations. Ceviche, a texturally interesting mix of fish, shrimp and baby octopus with mango, jicama and cucumber, arrives nestled in curved lettuce leaves, with a surprise bonus of a shelled oyster alongside. Whitefish arrives as part of a towering napoleon with eggplant, zucchini, portobello mushrooms and peppers, over a coarse tomato concasse; it's a little busy, frankly, but it sure is fun to eat.
The first time I had the empanadas, they were filled with lobster and so impenetrably overcooked I wanted to check my teeth for chips. I actually ordered these on a return visit, convinced that nothing could be this bad on purpose, and to my relief the baked pastry packets were soft, flaky and delicious. The filling also had changed to crabmeat, queso fresco, epazote and tomatoes, which also was an improvement.
Salmon al carbon is a dish that appears wherever a Garcia happens to be cooking, and it's still a keeper, a generous fillet of grilled-just-right fish under a zesty tamarind-chipotle glaze, along with caramelized mangoes and green papaya and a chunky avocado-cilantro creme fraiche. I'd also steer you toward the angus rib-eye, a very nice piece of beef for $26, whether paired with gorgonzola cheese polenta and asparagus salad (my visit) or poblano potatoes au gratin and arugula salad (the current iteration).
A special of mango-glazed duck breast over a vivid chimichurri (Europe, South America, Garcia welcomes all influences) will be a star entree when the duck slices aren't quite so fatty (this duck's fat cap was more like an overcoat). Stir-fried eggplant (another dish common to Fogon and Amelia's), shiny with tamarind-oyster sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds, is a terrific side dish. And though several sauces are labeled spicy, the only truly hot dish is the shrimp Diablo, which packs a memorable kick (eased somewhat by the house-made corn tortillas served alongside).
When I first visited Fogon, the dessert options were identical to those at Amelia's, including the fruit-and-chocolate extravaganza known as crepas locas and the "Mexican tiramisu" made with requeson cheese and Kahlua (though a visual clone of the Italian original, except for the kiwi slices on top). Now there are all-new sweets from pastry chef Leticia Zenteno (who also oversees the desserts at Amelia's and Ceres' Table), including a killer prickly-pear creme brulee.
Fogon seats only 62 indoors, but the cute triangular patio just beyond the entrance can hold another 40 or so. Parking in this neighborhood can be competitive (you'll have better luck a block to the west of the restaurant), but not insane. Yet.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
1235 W. Grand Ave., 312-421-2000
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday
Entree prices: $18-$26
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Recommended weekends
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