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Chicago Heats Up

David Nicolas Diners at Quartino, in Chicago, awaiting chef John Coletta's casual fare.

Photo: David Nicolas

Though chefs like Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless long ago helped Chicago shed its "Hog Butcher for the World" image, the city hasn't quite been able to edge past the dining capitals on the coasts. But that's all changing. This city in America's heartland is peppered with young chefs who are blending straight-from-the-farm food with inventive technique. Three of these hotshots—Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto, and Graham Elliot Bowles of Avenue—all worked under Trotter and are now at the forefront of the kitchen-as-laboratory trend, offering a multitude of minuscule courses and esoteric ingredients. All is not ultra–avant-garde here, however. Some chefs, such as Michael Carlson at Schwa, are garnering attention for their creative American fare at funky neighborhood spots. And grazing is in, too—this is the Midwest, after all—with small plates of simple, fresh food: Spanish tapas at Del Toro, Italian spuntini at Quartino, seasonal vegetables at Green Zebra. Here, seven of the hottest tables in town.

Alinea Grant Achatz has been igniting the most sparks on Chicago's restaurant scene lately. He takes food to a new dimension at Alinea, where diners can choose a 12-course tasting or a 24-course grand tour—and should plan on staying for at least three hours. Achatz likes to atomize, spindle, and otherwise manipulate food, so expect flavor-packed combinations of powders, foams, and globules—and custom-made pins and prongs with which to consume them. In one course, sweet potato–bourbon tempura is impaled on an aromatic cinnamon stick, to be nibbled off lollipop-style. And the waitstaff, who decipher Achatz's complex menu like seasoned chemists, set the bar high for service: checks are handwritten and presented in a vellum sleeve, and embroidered linen napkins are replaced, not merely refolded, each time you leave the table.

Butter Any chef who lists the French Laundry on his résumé is bound to turn some heads, and Ryan Poli is doing just that at Butter. With its expansive front windows and illuminated bar, this airy spot in the West Loop is a sexy backdrop for the handsome 29-year-old's imaginative New American menu. Starters include a toothsome risotto with melon and prosciutto, while entrées resemble works from the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art: savory squares of sturgeon and bits of crisp pork belly are strewn with earthy black truffles and sweet dabs of carrot in steamed, puréed, and powdered form.

Carnivale It's always Mardi Gras at the latest brainchild of Chicago restaurateur Jerry Kleiner (Marché, Red Light). Carnivale, a cavernous 400-seat restaurant in the West Loop, celebrates the food, drink, and music of Latin America. Sample the quintet of tangy ceviches (shrimp, scallop, hamachi, crab, and tuna), peppery pozole (hominy stew), or rum-glazed pork shoulder, but steer clear of the curiously dry tres leches cake. And be sure to book a table in the two-level main dining room, with its pulsing salsa music and splashes of color everywhere, from the patchwork ceiling to the mottled walls.

Custom House Known for working his magic with fish (at Spring) and veggies (at Green Zebra), 2006 James Beard Award winner Shawn McClain finally sinks his teeth into red meat at Custom House. While steaks are the stars here—crusty pan-roasted prime sirloin with salt-and-vinegar fingerling potatoes—the chef's penchant for showcasing organic ingredients from small purveyors (Grimaud Farms, Morning Fresh Dairy) is also evident. And McClain's innovative sides eclipse the clichéd steak-house standards. You'll find tender young asparagus with a lemony ricotta sauce or boulangère potatoes with caramelized onions served in a tiny cast-iron skillet—no twice-baked potatoes here. McClain's food is complemented by polished service in a classically stylish dining room (lots of dark wood and creamy hues punctuated by shots of deep red) in the South Loop's hip Blake Hotel.

Quartino Banking on Chicago's insatiable appetite for small plates, Quartino opened last December alongside a bevy of other newcomers to the area just west of Michigan Avenue. With mismatched wooden tables, shelves groaning with freshly baked artisanal bread, and walls covered in subway tiles, Quartino is a charming, if contrived, old-world Italian spot. On a sunny day, snag a table at the sidewalk café, where you can sip a quartino (about eight ounces) of Italian wine—there are 20 available by the carafe. Highlights of chef John Coletta's budget-friendly menu include a wide selection of salumi (try the duck prosciutto, one of the seven he cures on-site), veal meatballs flecked with sun-dried tomatoes and raisins, and a simple Nutella panino for dessert.

Schwa It's easy to drive right past Schwa, tucked behind a slightly dingy storefront in the still-gentrifying Wicker Park neighborhood. Don't. Beyond the squeaky front door lies a tiny BYOB restaurant where surf and turf means veal cheeks and scallops, and organic ingredients are standard. Chef Michael Carlson and his sous, Nathan Klingbail, do the greeting, seating, cooking, serving, and clearing while managing to look as unstressed as the vowel for which Schwa is named. Dinner starts with an amuse, perhaps a cylinder of carrot juice topped with cardamom foam. The house garden salad combines microgreens, shaved fennel, fava beans, and strawberry purée; soft pillows of decadent quail-egg ravioli are bathed in brown butter. Service can be iffy, but the laid-back vibe and ambitious food will likely win you over—even if you do have to cut through the kitchen to use the restroom.

Vie The sleepy village of Western Springs, about 15 miles west of downtown, has never been known for its restaurants. But chef Paul Virant (an alum of Blackbird and Everest) is remedying all that at Vie. Nestled improbably in a plain-Jane office building, Vie, with its industrial-chic good looks—concrete floors, brushed aluminum chairs, silky banquettes—may surprise you. A mostly thirtysomething crowd tucks into delicate ricotta-and-herb gnocchi with glazed morels and sweet peas, or flaky merguez-sausage empanadas with a tangy yogurt-mint sauce. And all desserts are paired with wines, no doubt Virant's way of celebrating Vie's distinction as the town's first restaurant to receive a liquor license since prohibition.

Janet Franz has written for the Chicago Tribune and Economist.com.

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