Nuevo Latin seems to be the cuisine du jour, and newcomer COOBAH (located in the former Viennese Kaffee-Haus Brandt) is sure to give neighboring Otro Mas a run for its money. Chef/partner Jimmy "Tasty J" Madla, most recently Veruca Salt's drummer and before that a chef at Zaven's, whips up some tasty dishes: A flatiron steak (a shoulder cut similar in texture to flank steak) is marinated with parsley, oregano, and cilantro and served with black nightfall beans and caramelized plantains. A soy-marinated and braised lamb shank comes with sides of coconut-milk mashed potatoes (too sweet for my taste) and sauteed red chard. The kitchen serves past midnight every night, and a good choice for late-night dining might be the homemade tamales, $2 each and filled with cinnamon beef, spicy pork, or goat cheese. Owner John Litz designed the space with clever details: terra-cotta mortar walls; oversize light fixtures shaped like flowers, with curved copper petals enveloping the bulbs; and an unusual moss green epoxy floor. (Check out the bathrooms, too, where the faucet handles are huge, multipronged wheels.) Some will appreciate the Latin tunes piped in through the powerful sound system; others will be annoyed that it's so hard to converse. But the food and drink offerings make the noise easy to overlook. The mostly Chilean and Spanish wine list is full of reasonable gems, close to a dozen of which are poured by the glass; earthy red varietals like Malbec, Carmeniere, and Tempranillo work well with the heady cuisine. There's also an extensive list of obligatory goofy mixed drinks. Coobah is at 3423 N. Southport, 773-528-2220.
Just as he did at his former restaurant, Red Light, chef Paul Wildermuth consulted with Arun Sampanthavivat (of Arun's) on the menu at swanky new South Looper OPERA. In fact, the whole concept smacks of Red Light (not surprising, since it's run by the same team--Kleiner, Davis, and Polakow, who also own Marche and Gioco): stylized Asian food with powerful flavors served in an over-the-top space. Here, one wall is decoupaged with Chinese newspapers, while the rest of the room is done up in rich tones of red and orange; chairs whose mismatched velvet upholstery makes them look a bit like pincushions surround the tables. The food is part whimsy, part serious, and mostly enjoyable. Where Red Light is pan-Asian, the emphasis here is Chinese, and it's the appetizers that are stretched the furthest from their classic inspirations. Shumai (steamed dumplings) are stuffed with pork and shrimp as usual, but set on a bed of truffle-scented mizuna (a bitter Asian green) and laced with black vinegar; crispy prawns have an almond crust and come in a sweet-and-sour blood orange sauce. Other dishes truer to form but just as nicely executed include Szechuan dry-cooked green beans with ground pork and preserved vegetables; a wonderfully fresh sweet pea shoot stir-fry; Cantonese roast duck with plum sauce; and jumbo prawns with bamboo shoots in a garlic black bean sauce. Opera is at 1301 S. Wabash, 312-461-0161.
Wicker Park's new OHBA marks another successful restaurant launch for Miae Lim, owner of Mirai Sushi, this time in the arena of eclectic cuisine. The stunning, sultry space makes the loss of former occupant Rambutan easier to swallow: curvaceous brushed-steel light fixtures and halogen track lighting subtly illuminate green granite tables, mustard and tan leather stools, and auburn wood floors. Banquettes at one end of the bar look like they'll make probable future waits more than tolerable. Chef Gene Kato, new to Chicago from South Carolina, offers a menu that successfully marries Asian flavors to French and Italian sensibilities. Tastes go from smoky to sweet in a duck starter: fanned slices of smoked duck breast, a light and creamy foie gras mousse, spicy pepper jelly in a brilliant orange color, and a tangy blood orange sauce. Warm crab salad is enlivened with a cilantro-lime vinaigrette and served with a side of wilted greens and a luscious avocado sorbet. About half the entrees have an Asian focus: filet mignon comes topped with sea urchin, roasted oyster mushroom, and a mirin-marsala glaze, while Dover sole is poached in sake and served with mizuna in a soy-ginger broth. On the European front, a sun-dried tomato pappardelle is the base for a seafood dish of mussels, clams, and lobster in a white caper sauce, and peppercorn-crusted lamb chops rest in a confit of shallots with roasted pear and asparagus. The wine list alone is worth the trip, spanning the globe with a Grunhaus Herrenberg 1999 Kabinett (Germany), Mills Reef Reserve 2001 sauvignon blanc (New Zealand), Flowers 2000 pinot meunier (California), and Sagelands 1999 Bordeaux style (Washington State). Most bottles are $35 to $55, and dozens of by-the-glass options run $6 to $12. There's also an extensive sake list, featuring a $20 flight for the uninitiated. Trendphobes could have a hard time with the chic decor, beautiful-people crowd, and artistically presented food (read: small portions), but there's nothing forced about the way it all comes together, making it a fair contender in the increasingly competitive high-end dining market. Ohba is at 2049 W. Division, 773-772-2727.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.