If a Spanish-style culinary revolution ever sweeps across America, its epicenter will be Chicago. Witness Green Zebra (1460 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/243-7100; dinner for two $80), a West Town spot whose conceptual flair and novel techniques take vegetarian cooking where it has never ventured before. Chef Shawn McClain, an alumnus of Trio, isn't content to use outrageously flavorful heirloom vegetables and cook them simply. A pretty triptych of salad timbales—mustard greens and musk melon; champagne grapes with goat-cheese foam; watermelon and tomatoes, both yellow—blurs the boundaries between appetizer and dessert. Grilled peaches, another savory-sweet triumph, turn up in a delicate emulsion of milk and herbs on a bed of satiny white polenta. Avocado appears in a panna cotta: an ultra-luscious parfait layered with tangy crème fraîche and green-tomato gelée. The sleek boutique-industrial look, a gently priced small-plates menu, and a cool crowd having fun eating virtuously make Green Zebra (named after a tomato variety) the hottest ticket in town.
Reservations at El Bulli, the Catalan mecca of experimental cuisine, are off-limits to mere mortals. So what's a culinary thrill-seeker to do?Book at Moto (945 W. Fulton Market Ave.; 312/491-0058; tasting menus from $50 per person), whose 28-year-old chef, Homaro Cantu, is collaborating with a group of NASA scientists in his quest to redefine the language of food. In a spare meatpacking-district dining room, attended by waiters in black lab coats, Cantu practices his own brand of alchemy: vacuum-cooked everything, edible menus fashioned from potato starch paper, sublime Pacific bass cooked tableside on a polymer box that he invented and patented. Cantu is at his best when he riffs on the American vernacular—his barbecued capon, for instance, is a trompe l'oeil featuring two preparations of the smoky bird topped with tiny scoops of weirdly wonderful "Kentucky-fried ice cream" (infused with Cantu's take on the colonel's secret herbs and spices, of course). It's hard to know what to make of the strange corkscrew cutleryhandles stuffed with shaggy aromatic herbs, another madcap Cantu creation, or the glass of sweet sesame-milk soda that comes with an otherwise flawless sashimi. Still. At a time when most chefs shave truffles into mac and cheese and call it "creative," let's applaud one who actually dares.
On a dicey River North block, opposite the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, sits Chicago's most refined new restaurant: Pluton (873 N. Orleans St.; 312/266-1440; tasting menus from $79 per person). From the suave Big Band sound track, to the wall of creamy silk curtains that muffles the din, to the silver Cristofle cart laden with farmhouse American cheeses, everything inside oozes sophistication. So does the food. Unapologetically haute yet refreshingly playful, Jacky Pluton's Franco-American tasting menu unfolds as a series of tempting surprises. A Fabergé-worthy tableau brings together tuna threaded on licorice sticks, coins of banana and eggplant, and an ethereal, frothy basmati-rice cream. Roast duck is elevated with spirals of its air-dried skin and a shot glass of lavender-infused tapioca with a palate-cleansing apple sorbet concealed underneath. Cabrini-Green is being torn down, and now that Pluton has arrived, gentrification can't be far behind.
CHEF TO WATCH During his three-year stint heading the kitchen of Trio, the Thomas Keller-trained wunderkind Grant Achatz got it all: four stars from the Chicago Tribune, the title of James Beard Rising Star, and fans who clamored for his infusions and outré ice creams (olive oil, anyone?). At Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St.; 312/482-8113; dinner for two $125), due to open next month, Achatz will experiment with savory truffle bonbons (frozen on the outside, liquid inside), freeze-dried strawberries encased in foie gras tempered with cocoa butter, serving them in an equally cutting-edge space. Curious for a taste of the future?Start calling for reservations.
Wine-centric restaurants tend to shy away from ambitious cuisine, but Cru (24 Fifth Ave.; 212/529-1700; dinner for two $95)—with its astonishing 65,000-bottle cellar and a staff that can talk you through their Grüner Veltliners one grape at a time—performs a brilliant balancing act. While discreetly pushing the envelope (squab poached in acacia honey; veal cooked sous vide, or vacuum-packed), chef Shea Gallante's Italian-accented cooking still delivers plenty of charm. A dish of sea urchin risotto makes you see Venice; buttermilk-baked baby chicken with orange-tinged carrots is like a four-star Sunday supper. Grape geeks will find the two-volume wine list more absorbing than pulp fiction; for novices, some 50 wines available in three- or six-ounce pours means discovering eight vintages for the price of a bottle uptown. The sedate space is ideal for discussing malolactic fermentation, or just sinking into a Barolo-induced daydream.
Behind the trappings of a glam downtown lounge—replete with would-be models, er, waitresses, condescendingly delivering your lemongrass martini—hides Kittichai (60 Thompson St.; 212/219-2000; dinner for two $85), the best Thai restaurant in America. Thank Ian Chalermkittichai, former executive chef of the Four Seasons Bangkok, in whose hands even the tired standards come alive. The beef salad is pungent, with a kick of dried chiles and roasted ground rice for texture; normally rubbery Thai fish cakes are like crisped morsels of wild striped bass and prawn soufflé exploding with aromatics. Why waste time on fusion-y attempts such as honey-glazed duck breast when you can order the greatest green curry or the most expertly fried snapper this side of the Chao Phraya River?The opium den-meets-Zen garden interior features a reflecting pool afloat with votives and enough raw silk to tent a small nation-state. Though it all feels very Hollywood, habitués of fashionable haunts in Bangkok or Hong Kong will recognize Kittichai for being as authentically Asian as Hello Kitty.
Yes, everything you've heard about Per Se (10 Columbus Circle; 212/823-9335; tasting menus from $125 per person), Thomas Keller's French Laundry East, is true: the posh, rather impersonal, 16-table space, the reservations that make scoring courtside seats to the Knicks look like a breeze, the four-hour lunch for two that might cost a cool 500 clams. Worth it?Mais oui. From the parade of amuse-gueules, such as gossamer tuile cones filled with silky salmon tartare, to the tray of adorable postprandial chocolates, Per Se delivers the sort of Michelin-star polish and pampering you won't find elsewhere in this country. There is also Keller's legendary sourcing, the depth of the California-heavy wine cellar, and the fun of discovering lowly animal parts on the menu (grab the tripe!) next to oysters and caviar. More than anything, it's the service: so caring, gracious, and smart, you'll want to ask the waitress to be a guest at your next dinner party.
Nuevo Latino restaurants in Miami come and go more often than J.Lo bares her midriff. But, judging by its boisterous cadre of regulars, Chispa (225 Altara Ave., Coral Gables; 305/648-2600; dinner for two $70) looks destined to remain a running hit. Who cares if Buffalo, where chef Robbin Haas grew up, is a long way from Havana?He cooks in fluent Floribbean in a sprawling space with colorful vintage tiles on the floor, a design showroom's worth of cool lighting fixtures, and a 40-foot mahogany bar. It's easy to get carried away with cazuelitas (seared marinated octopus with roasted garlic), fritters (the definitive conch chicharrones), and empanadas (chorizo, potato, and Manchego is a must). If you manage to save room for the slow-roasted short ribs with cornmeal stew—not to mention the guanabana crème brûlée—the mojitos are on us.
On the northern edge of South Beach, a world apart from the frenzy, Talula (210 23rd St., Miami Beach; 305/672-0778; dinner for two $100) is where you'd go for a romantic dinner that might involve subtly spicy chile-glazed barbecued quail served over pillowy sweet-potato agnolotti, and a wicked El Rey-chocolate brioche and banana-bread pudding. Moroccan sconces cast a soft light on the cozy red banquettes and the lush garden patio is a great place to flirt. For Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who have worked at some of the best restaurants in the country, Talula was a labor of love. It shows.