If someone had suggested to me that this summer's hottest dining location would be at State and Lake Streets, I probably would have administered a field sobriety test.
But the spring opening of the Wit Hotel changed the Loop from a place to eat (pre-theater, at least) to a place to be.
It started with Roof, the indoor/outdoor perch on the 27th floor, which seemingly overnight became the hippest alfresco option in town. Eye-catching in often interesting and occasionally painful ways, Roof pulls in a steady stream of sophisticated urbanites and trying-way-too-hard newbies (the latter tottering in spike heels like newly upright foals), happily munching to Roof's small-plates menu. At lobby level is State and Lake, literally and figuratively a more down-to-earth concept, which has developed an SRO audience for its artisanal American menu.
And now we have Cibo Matto, the beautifully realized fine-dining room, offering sophisticated, traditional-with-a-twist Italian food (the name translates to "crazy food") by chef Todd Stein.
That name should be familiar. Stein was the executive chef at mk under Michael Kornick and left to work at David Burke restaurant in Las Vegas. Stein has done very good work under two very long shadows, and it's nice to see him in the spotlight at last.
"I've always had an inflection of Italian in my food," Stein says. "It's what I really like to eat, but I've never had the opportunity to cook this kind of food."
Talk about making the most of an opportunity. Already I miss the zucchini blossoms, deep-fried and filled with ricotta cheese, its delicate sweetness thrown into contrast by a sharply bitter arugula pesto. The blossoms are now gone, sadly, but Stein assures us we'll always have sweetbreads, which he quickly fries and serves (on my visit, at least) with artichokes, preserved lemons and a lemon sauce.
I'm hoping the rabbit terrine, a special a few weeks back, returns to the menu. The terrine, served in two pancetta-wrapped slices over white- and orange-carrot purees, is a triumph of silken, instantly yielding texture, and the sauces added a hint of sweetness.
Grilled veal tenderloin is a special that made it to the menu, and deservedly so. Flawless meat and a heavenly, fragrant sherry-vinegar reduction are what make this dish memorable, abetted by thin folds of duck prosciutto and sturdy ceci beans.
It seems that everybody is doing short ribs these days, but Stein's Italian-influenced treatment was a treat; the tender braised meat is topped with a little gremolata, and to the side is a pile of rich-flavored, ricotta-creamed spinach. Call this dish Bossy Buco.
In-house pastas are good bets; they're presented as primi courses (in-between appetizers and entrees) but portioned like main courses, so plan on sharing. There's always one filled pasta, currently a buffalo-ricotta ravioli with broccoli puree, golden raisins and fried capers (in concept, not entirely dissimilar from those zucchini blossoms). I'll go ahead and recommend the menu's sole dried pasta, the bucatini, done carbonara style ("the right way," Stein asserts) with pancetta, pecorino Romano cheese and a poached duck egg. You're required to perform a little remixing to incorporate the egg into the pasta, but you'll be thrilled by the result.
There's a good deal of fish on the menu, led by grilled-on-the-bone halibut with an heirloom-tomato panzanella (bread salad), and sensational swordfish with an intensely rich tomato fuso (literally, melted tomato) and a black-olive sauce that contributes just the right touch of salt. I was initially offput by the relatively scrawny whitefish, but its fine flavor, accented with drops of 25-year balsamico, won me over.
Tina Bianco's desserts are simple but memorable. The hazelnut mocha cake is rich and satisfying, supported by a Tuaca (vanilla-citrus liqueur) sabayon sauce. I love the Greek-yogurt panna cotta, served atop a lemon spongecake and crowned with a little lemon curd.
Deciding where to sit (assuming one gets a choice, which lately would be assuming a lot) can be as tantalizingly difficult as deciding what to eat. There are so many temptations: the 12-seat, counter-height chef's table overlooking the busy kitchen; cozy high-walled, leather-clad booths; free-standing tables with views of the 2,000-bottle, glass-enclosed wine tower and a side room with a back-lit, woven-look wall. Along the west windows, curtains of individual strings flutter with the air currents, adding a sense of motion to the room. And above, a 30-foot ceiling fresco by acclaimed artist Todd Murphy offers endless visual fascination; if this hot spot ever calms down, I'll come back with a neck pillow and contemplate the art at length.
Cibo Matto 201 N. State St., 312-239-9500 Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun. Entree prices: $14-$37 Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V Reservations: Strongly recommended Noise: Conversation-challenged Other: Complimentary valet parking (with validation); wheelchair accessible