Red Violet ✭121 W. Hubbard St., 312-828-0222. River North now teems with nitropubs (thumping nightclub vibe, serious food), but this February 2012 arrival is one that doesn't have a velvet-rope entry line, and where you might be able to hear yourself think. Owned by the team behind the solid Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge, and featuring a menu designed by Gene Kato (ex-Japonais, Sumi Robata Bar), Red Violet offers Chinese dishes with Pacific-Rim accents (such as hamachi splashed with hot oil and a salmon "lucky purse") in a contemporary, softly lit setting. Too much "untsa" music for my taste, but the food is solid. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, dim sum brunch Saturday-Sunday. Prices: Entrees $18-$38. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Accepted. Noise: Conversation-friendly. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Slurping Turtle ✭✭✭ 116 W. Hubbard St., 312-464-0466. Takashi Yagihashi's reputation is for fine dining, at such restaurants as Ambria, Tribute and his current Lincoln Park restaurant, Takashi, but this small-plates concept in River North may prove to be his most popular effort. The menu is divided among raw dishes, bincho-grilled proteins and bountiful, soul-nurturing noodle dishes. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Saturday. Entree prices: $13-$14. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Not accepted. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Tallgrass ✭✭✭ 1006 S. State St., Lockport, 815-838-5566. Since 1981, fine-dining fans have been traveling to this restored Victorian house in the historic canal town of Lockport, and chef/partner Bob Burcenski and sommelier/partner J. Thomas Alves have always made it worth the trip. The silent cart that wheels dishes into the dining room, the silver-domed entrees themselves and the wholly unenforced "jackets requested" policy all speak to a quieter, more formal time, but the food itself is as fresh and relevant as anything you'll find in Chicago. Try prosciutto-wrapped pork with pear chutney and Stilton-laced polenta, or red-pepper panna cotta with feta cheese on a crunchy endive base, and see if you don't agree. Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday. Prices: Three-course dinner $48, four-course $58, five-course $68, seven-course $88. Credit cards: A, M, V. Reservations: Required. Noise: Hushed.
Tavernita ✭✭ 151 W. Erie St., 312-274-1111. A high-energy Spanish restaurant where ever-flowing cocktails (particularly the nitrogen-preserved "kegged" cocktails, said to benefit from aging) compete for attention with chef Ryan Poli's (ex-Perennial) approachable and fun small-plates menu. The real scene is in Barcito, the adjacent stand-up lounge with separate cocktail and menu offerings, and a month's worth of people-watching. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday. Entree prices: $13-$24. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended (not accepted in Barcito). Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Trenchermen ✭✭✭ 2039 W. North Ave., 773-661-1540. This collaboration of chef/brothers Michael and Patrick Sheerin was a long time developing, but the final product is so entertaining the wait seems to have been eminently worthwhile. Begin with a steam-punk-inspired dining room, which manages to retain elements of the building's bathhouse origins, and finish with a modern kitchen that gleefully turns influences inside out (an eggless avgolemono paired with cured-egg bottarga), combines aged duck with arancini and umeboshi and places tomato-molasses jam underneath cornmeal-dusted doughnuts. Servers in turn-of-century garb are attentive and knowledgeable, and the whole operation runs with the efficiency, and often the noise, of a steam-powered engine. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, brunch Sunday. Prices: Dishes $8-$24. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Urban Union ✭✭ 1421 W. Taylor St., 312-929-4302. The European focus of this modest, budget-friendly 77-seater includes only scant reference to things Italian, because this Taylor Street neighborhood offers very little else, and chef/partner Michael Shrader is aiming for a broader identity. By all means try the house-made trofie pasta and porchetta, but don't overlook a Spanish-accented fennel salad or whole-roasted fish in "boom boom" sauce. Save room for the surprisingly creative desserts, and the forward-thinking and gently priced beverage options. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, brunch Sunday. Prices: Small plates $6-$12. Credit cards; A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-friendly. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.
Vera ✭✭ 1023 W. Lake St.; 312-243-9770. Vera's small-plates menu may suggest Spain's Costa Brava, but the atmosphere in Mark and Elizabeth Mendez's corner restaurant is sweet home Chicago. This is the sort of place one can hit for an after-work nibble with sherry (Vera boasts a nicely curated selection of those) or linger with a series of small-plate dishes and a modestly priced bottle of wine. You can go from a $3 chicken-liver on toast to a $15 slab of cocoa-dusted foie gras, but do not pass up the beautifully seasoned vegetable dishes, which are the kitchen's best bets. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday. Prices: Small plates $3-$15. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Not accepted. Noise: Conversation-friendly. Other: Wheelchair accessible.
Yusho ✭✭✭ 2853 N. Kedzie Ave., 773-904-8558. If one thinks of Japanese food as an exercise in subtlety, Yusho will be a rude, which is to say exhilarating, awakening. Charlie Trotter's veteran Matthias Merges has chosen the road less traveled — specifically, a quiet stretch of Kedzie Avenue — for this small-plates, inexpensive restaurant that takes its inspiration from yakitori (grilled and skewered) dishes and Japanese street food. Dishes here boast powerful flavors, and even a short trip through the menu is apt to be a thrill ride. The narrow dining room, lined with exposed brick walls, offers sturdy wood tabletops, artfully arranged mismatched hanging lamps and Japanese anime (and the occasional monster movie) from a ceiling-mounted projector. Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday. Prices: Small plates $3-$18. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; street parking.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.