Forget steakhouses and deep-dish pizzas; the Windy City’s latest wave of standout restaurants is taking Chicagoans’ fondness for eating well—and generously—to tantalizing new heights
By Amalie Drury
Au Cheval Young restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff has only been in Chicago for five years, but he knows exactly what his adopted city wants: sexy, dimly lit places that serve strong cocktails and sinful food (just look at the lines outside his Gilt Bar, Doughnut Vault, and Maude’s Liquor Bar). Sodikoff’s formula is especially effective at his new diner in the West Loop, Au Cheval, which elevates the greasy-spoon concept with tufted leather banquettes and a gleaming stainless bar counter behind which all the action is on view. There’s chopped chicken liver on pillowy challah bread, eye-widening frites, and cheeseburgers that tower thanks to the prodigious layering of their pancake-thin patties. Au cheval is kitchen slang for topping a dish with an egg, and practically everything here—including the fried bologna sandwich—is thusly adorned. It’s a glutton’s dream come true (800 W. Randolph St.; 1-312/ 929-4580).
Balena Situated across the street from the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre, this venture from the restaurateurs behind some of the city’s buzziest spots is heaven for carb-lovers. Pizza and pasta are sublimely rendered with dough made by full-time baker Peter Becker, while chef Chris Pandel’s hearty menu places a loving spotlight on meats and vegetables. Try thin, bubbly pizza with rhubarb, wild mint, ricotta, and pancetta; dark and dreamy sea-urchin pasta; and crisp salt-and-pepper chicken thighs. The cocktail list is entirely bitters-based, and the double-height dining room is warm, dramatic, and pleasingly illuminated by twiggy globe chandeliers (1633 N. Halsted St.; 1-312/867-3888).
Goosefoot Neighborhood charm meets fine dining at this off-the-beaten path BYO restaurant, where chef Chris Nugent’s contemporary-American-food-with-French-technique concept has made Goosefoot a critics’ darling since its December 2011 debut. The tiny, 34-seat space is located on an incongruous block that’s miles from the downtown scene yet exudes the polish and refinement of a more seasoned restaurant. Nugent’s wife Nina greets diners at the door, and the chef himself visits every table. As far as the splendid food goes, Nugent’s passion for his ingredients is evident in each bite of the eight- and twelve-course tasting menus. Sunchoke soup, duck breast with spiced beluga lentils, and Angus beef with heirloom carrots and—yes —goosefoot are on the current one (2656 W. Lawrence Ave.; 1-773/942-7547).