February 2, 2012
Things are certainly heating up, foodwise, in the neighborhood dubbed Lakeshore East, the easternmost spit of land between the Chicago River and Randolph Street. The stylish, upscale steakhouse III Forks opened there late last year; Aria restaurant is getting new attention thanks to Beverly Kim's appearances on "Top Chef"; and now we have Filini, which opened in November in the architectural gem known as Aqua Tower.
This is actually a hotel restaurant, attached to the Radisson Blu hotel, but thanks in part to its separate, street-level entrance, Filini feels like an independent. The clues to the contrary are the spaciousness of the dining room and bar (few free-standing restaurants can afford this much square footage) and the "room number" line on the dinner check.
Filini offers almost as much eye appeal on the inside as does Aqua Tower's undulating exterior. A sleekly modern, lower-level bar glows with amber light and is an appealing after-5 destination.
The second-floor dining room, accessible by elevator or a grand staircase, is a 120-seat study in silver. Shiny silver fabric wraps around the long banquettes and high-back booths, and free-standing chairs have stainless-metal seats (which unfortunately make a chilly first impression when one sits). Wood floors add an element of warmth, contrasted with the glazed white ceiling tile arranged irregularly on the ceiling.
The north wall consists of a glass-and-steel wine display; against the south wall is the open kitchen, source of surprisingly little noise but occasional smoke.
Amid all this glitz stands a simple wood table holding an enormous wheel of Grana Padano cheese; it's a reminder of executive chef Christian Fantoni's birthplace and a visual metaphor for his cooking — very comfortable in the contemporary (in New York he worked at Le Bernardin, Le Cirque and Fiamma Osteria, and he was executive chef at Bice in Chicago) but never completely shed of its rustic roots.
Complimentary nibbles quickly come your way. A dish of olives with fat flakes of Grana Padano, and a nicely varied bread basket (all but the crisp breadsticks made in-house) give guests plenty to munch while perusing the menu. Start with bruschette, twin rounds of toasted, garlic-rubbed bread piled high with various toppings (the shrimp with ricotta and cherry tomatoes, and the peppered carpaccio with arugula and dots of aged balsamic, are particularly good), then move into antipasti such as octopus salad (highlighted by long tentacles of tender octopus) and balsamic-glazed pork belly topped with delicate cipollini onion rings.
Of the half-dozen pastas, I'd make room for the cappellacci, hat-shaped pasta filled with butternut squash and sprinkled with sage and crushed amaretti cookies; and the fingertip-size gnocchi surrounding braised oxtail-vegetable ragu, topped with a pecorino fonduta that takes the dish from rich to indulgent.
Lighter options are available in the very good poached halibut with Brussels sprouts, and terrific pieces of bacon-wrapped veal loin with huge stalks of asparagus and a light-tasting Bergese sauce. Orecchiette pasta with lamb sausage and ricotta salata, a special one day, is a dish I'd love to see on the menu.
Not everything works. Monday's featured plate, braised beef with polenta, needs considerably more seasoning to become interesting, and Tuesday's cioppino — a cross between the San Francisco fish soup and an Italian zuppa livornese — also needs a spark. The pappardelle pasta with wild boar ragu is scented heavily with cocoa, and that combination, while admirably bold, did nothing for me. In place of classic vitello tonnato, the menu offers tacchino tonnato, using thin-sliced turkey breast, rather than veal, under the white tuna sauce. It's not bad, but it comes across as a cost-cutting ploy.
Desserts are plentiful, and traditional. The hits are the panettone bread pudding and the ricotta cheesecake; the cioccolatissimo is your ubiquitous ganache-topped, soft-center chocolate cake, but it's executed well, and the accompanying kumquat marmalade is an inspired touch. Bomboloni doughnuts with chocolate, vanilla and raspberry dipping sauces are fine; the too-dry tiramisu just misses.
The menu jokes that it's "almost 100% Italian," but you'll look hard to find evidence of inauthenticity. The attention to detail bodes well for Filini's future.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
221 N. Columbus Drive; 312-477-0234; filinichicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday
Entree prices: $15-$39
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
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.