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Ever since the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago has seemed to be renewing itself. The city continually reassesses, and takes what is often already very good and brings it up to date. This is as true of its restaurants as it is of its glorious architecture, neither of which betray the city's admirable sense of balance between preserving local history and moving forward as an international city.
Three new restaurants exemplify the ongoing refinement of Chicago's dining scene. For nearly two decades Spiaggia has been in the top rank of America's finest and most influential Italian restaurants; now, with the return of its original chef, it is taking a new direction. Spring has brought the exemplary and personal culinary statement of an exciting local chef to a burgeoning neighborhood. Keefer's takes the cherished idea of the Chicago steak house and brings it happily into the 21st century.
Eighteen years ago, Levy Restaurants opened Spiaggia, which showed off modern cucina Italiana in a skyscraper with the proud address of One Magnificent Mile. With its panoramic view of Michigan Avenue and the Lake Michigan waterfront from a dining room fitted out on several tiers, with huge booths, marble pillars and 40-foot-tall windows, Spiaggia was immediately among the poshest of Chicago dining venues.
The first chef at Spiaggia was Tony Mantuano. A year of training in Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy had provided him with the precepts and techniques that underpin distinguished Italian cooking, and his talent helped put Spiaggia at the top of Chicago critics' lists. But he left Spiaggia in 1990 to return to his family's trattoria in Kenosha, Wis., then returned to the Windy City in 1991 to open Tuttaposto.
Mantuano was succeeded at Spiaggia by Paul Bartolotta, who had come from San Domenico in Imola, Italy, and its offshoot in New York. Bartolotta more than maintained Spiaggia's eminence, refining the menu, while sommelier Henry Bishop added to a stellar wine list (which holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence). When Bartolotta left in mid-2000 after a highly successful run, Levy decided to renovate. It added contemporary Italian chandeliers, mosaic floors and richly colored fabrics, and then the owners coaxed Mantuano back to the kitchen. After a few months of respectfully keeping Bartolotta's menu mostly intact, Mantuano imparted fresh ideas to the cuisine, and has now set the restaurant on a new course. The result is food that is somewhat more elegantly appointed, yet maintains the merits of simplicity.
One can dine at Spiaggia è la carte, ordering finely rendered dishes such as handmade pasta with large shrimp, baby zucchini, garlic and basil, and lamb chops with roasted garlic, rosemary and potato puree. But the best way to appreciate Spiaggia's range is to place yourself in Mantuano's imaginative hands via a tasting menu, with options for a six-course menu ($95), a five-course vegetarian menu ($75) or a lavish eight-course menu ($135). You will be presented with refined and inventive Italian cuisine showing an occasional North American accent.
Dinner might begin with filetto crudo -- raw yellowtail -- with osetra caviar and crème fraîche. One characteristic pasta is small ravioli stuffed with crescenza cheese, glazed with Parmigiano-truffle butter and paired with white asparagus. The meat course could be grilled sliced prime steak with fresh porcini, Parmigiano shavings and a gloss of extra-virgin olive oil, with this perhaps followed by a selection of Italian and American cheeses from their newly installed cave. You'll receive two desserts -- possibly a chocolate eggshell filled with warm chocolate and zabaglione, then a balsamic gelato with summer sweet strawberries.
Bishop's list offers more than 600 selections, with bottle prices ranging from $35 to $2,000, and 12 wines available by the glass. The list is rich in Italian rarities, representing the small estates and great names in modern Italian viniculture. Among the difficult-to-find wines are Renato Anselmet Müller-Thurgau '01 ($69), Cieck Canavese Rosso '99 ($59) and an exceptionally rare red Picolit '01 from Emilio Bulfon ($59). Bishop also stocks interesting Italian varietals coming out of the United States, including Andrake Cellars Red Mountain Sangiovese '00 ($99) and Firelands Pinot Grigio Isle St. George '01 from Ohio ($36).
Chef Shawn McClain first gained attention in the Chicago area a few years ago, earning a reputation for eclectic, exotic combinations of food during his seven years at Trio in Evanston. Now, at Spring, he has both lightened his menu and brought it down to earth, working with fewer ingredients to a better purpose and thereby exemplifying the best impulses of young Chicago chefs.
The restaurant is located in a former Russian bathhouse on the funky but quickly gentrifying cusp of Wicker Park and Bucktown. The dining room is set one flight down (where the pool used to be), adorned with glazed white tiles and a curving bar within a Zen garden motif. The tables and booths are set at angles that balance the pastel walls, slate, raw steel and minimalist furniture with a friendly intimacy. The service staff couldn't be more pleasant or knowledgeable, even about wine.
The well-selected list includes more than 100 labels, offering quality, variety and value. A judicious number of bottles sell for less than $40, such as Rubissow-Sargent Merlot Mount Veeder '97 and Jacques Rouzé Quincy Vignes D'Antan '01. There are a number of fine Syrahs (and Shirazes) and Pinot Noirs that go well with McClain's food, for example Rockblock Syrah Oregon Seven Hills Vineyard '99 from Walla Walla Valley ($88) and Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Olivet Lane '99 ($100).
McClain breaks down his appetizers into 'chilled' and 'warm' categories: A creamy mousseline of foie gras with a kumquat confit falls in the former, while sea scallop and potato ravioli in a truffled mushroom broth belongs to the latter. He always makes available two soups, perhaps a spiced tomato with lemongrass, coconut milk, cellophane noodles and biting red Thai curry, and a wild mushroom and lentil soup with assertive Indian spices. Vegetarians are not thrown a bone at Spring: There are always several options, such as buckwheat soba noodles with mushrooms in a soy broth, and roasted eggplant masala with tempura mushrooms and a coriander-yogurt sauce.
Clearly, McClain revels in Asian seasonings and preparations, but his dishes never exhibit the kind of continental fusionary clash occasionally seen in the forced combinations of other chefs. Scallops are teamed with braised oxtail, both enriched with sweet soy sauce, while a beef tenderloin is joined by Chinese-style pot stickers filled with short-rib meat in a red wine reduction. Wild ivory king salmon picks up the notes of a jasmine-scented rice cake and a green curry-coconut sauce.
Coconut also gives a lovely taste and texture to a crème brûlée with Hawaiian gold pineapple, while an apple tart takes on wonderful savory dimensions from caramel sprinkled with black pepper and a cranberry-ginger ice cream. The flavors are always subtle, fragrant and tantalizing, never in dissonance with the main ingredient.
Given the fact that a three-course fixed price meal here runs only $45, Spring sets a tone and style that seems absolutely right for the current dining scene in Chicago.
So, too, the new, very reasonably priced Keefer's has been packing in a young crowd whose taste in steak houses runs somewhat above the clichés of the sit-'em-and-serve-'em Chicago genre. But instead of dashing the old routine, they have built on it in a big way. Owner Glenn Keefer, formerly a general manager for Ruth's Chris Steak House, his brother Richard and partner Jimmy de Castro bring old-school experience to their restaurant.
Even before it opened, Keefer's was being touted as chef John Hogan's take on the traditional steak house, and it's true that you'll find some of the best beef in Chi-town here (all of it USDA Prime). But in contrast to the usual feel at so many steak houses, set by bare wood floors and raffish, scuffed bars, Keefer's manages to be hip and homey. With 16-foot-high ceilings, a crescent-shaped, 50-foot-long granite and cherry bar, a stone fireplace and roomy leather booths with small table lamps, the decor has helped draw a lot more women here than are found at the hyper-masculine beef houses.
Hogan's cooking is based on forthright flavors that come from the ingredients, whether a very juicy, well-marbled rib eye, or a platter of terrific onion rings as crisp and golden as they come. The menu is a recap of American classics, some of which -- like steak Diane, a tenderloin in a reduction of shallots, red wine and Cognac -- haven't been seen in such illustrious company for a long while. Garlic soup with sweetbreads, morels and fava beans is not as delicate as it might be in a French bistro, but with flavors this hearty, who's complaining?
Good-old fried clams come off crisp and tender, as does fish and chips treated to a batter of Japanese breadcrumbs and Guinness Stout, served with fresh, crunchy cole slaw. A lid of flaky, buttery pastry serves as a perfect foil to a pot pie teeming with lobster, shrimp, fish and vegetables. Hogan even excels with sandwiches, and both his grilled chicken with shaved fennel and watercress and his soft-shell crab with tomato relish are paragons. Pasta, on the other hand, does not seem his strong suit: Gemelli with smoked chicken sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and cream was an ill-conceived mess.
Desserts toe the middle American line proudly. You will be reminded of home by a Creamsicle-style ice cream; 'mom's cheesecake'; a luscious, baked strawberry-rhubarb cobbler; the 'triple chocolate,' a flourless chocolate cake topped with honey-cocoa ice cream and chocolate sauce; and a chocolate pudding topped with fresh whipped cream.
Keefer's wine list, now more than 110 labels strong, keeps the steak house faith. The selection is mainly from California, including plenty of big reds, with a good complement from France, Italy and Spain, and 10 wines offered by the glass. More than two-thirds of the wines are priced at $50 or less, including Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve '98 at $36, Valley of the Moon Pinot Blanc Sonoma County '00 at $31, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay Sonoma County Russian River Ranches '00 at $32 and Hartford Court Zinfandel Russian River Valley Unfiltered '98 at $50.
The diversity among these three restaurants shows that Chicago's great strength as a good food town comes not from being flashy, but from rethinking its own culinary traditions while focusing on quality year after year.
John and Galina Mariani's latest book is The American-Italian Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).
KEEFER'S SPIAGGIA SPRING
20 W. Kinzie St.
Telephone (312) 467-9525
Open Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday
Credit cards All major
980 N. Michigan Ave.
Telephone (312) 280-2750
Open Lunch, Friday and Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost Entrees, $29-$38; tasting menus, $75, $95, $135
Credit cards All major
Award of Excellence
2039 W. North Ave.
Telephone (773) 395-7100
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Prix fixe, $45
Credit cards All major