Gauzy curtains usher a sea of sunlight into Caspian Cafe, where Mediterranean cuisine and seafood are sandwiched between crisp, white tablecloths and circular hanging lamps. The signature nachos take on a breezy vibe with tangy feta, cucumber, tomato, and hummus topping pita wedges. Lamb shank, blackened catfish, and hummus complement patron-toted potables in the BYOB dining room, and free parking allows guests to have a nice meal without worrying about bringing enough hot dogs to feed the parking meters.
Peru is the cradle of modern cuisine—a fact that Ay Ay Picante's owners, Don Jaime Bardales and Doña Chamuca Bardales, haven't forgotten. Native to the nation are now-common staples such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes, avocados, and chilies—all of which blend with traditional spices throughout the Peruvian chefs' extensive board of fare. The signature ceviche, for instance, marinates tilapia in lime juice and rocoto chilies. A marinade of fish sauce similarly enlivens the grilled shrimp and salmon kabobs. But the global influence of Andean cooking makes itself known in the fried-rice dishes, which bring out the flavors of peruvian peppers and mushrooms with a dollop of soy sauce and garlic. This blend of customary and contemporary has garnered respectful nods from both WTTW's Check, Please! and ABC7's "Hungry Hound".
History doesn't just influence the menu at Ay Ay Picante. It also influences the very walls of the dining room. As diners sip BYOB beverages, they can examine pre-Columbian murals from the Peruvian Nazca culture. These hark back to the giant images the Nazca created in the desert sand, which can only be seen when flying in an airplane or soaring between a human cannon and a landing pad.
Once inside Oceanique’s unassuming storefront, chandeliers and white-cloaked café tables give the restaurant the feel of an art-deco Parisian lounge. The setting is no accident: Chef Mark Grosz peppers his menu with the evidence of a culinary education acquired in France and under Jean Banchet at Le Francais. The eclectic dishes, which change daily, might pair butternut squash with salmon or drizzle rhubarb-mango chutney on foie gras. Beyond the signature seasonal fish dishes, they can devote full plate space to organic, ultrafresh produce, such as butternut squash and fiddleheads.
Even with its complex array of ingredients and tastes, the menu strives to remain approachable. Time Out Chicago writes that "while the multi-ingredient preparations border on overwhelming, Grosz somehow manages to balance flavors while completely flipping off subtlety." What results is a laid-back dining atmosphere lubricated by a choice of more than 800 wines and several vintage seawaters.
Though you might not know it from the outside, the kitchen at Aqua Bar and Grill, part of a hotel building from the 1940s, is the site of a nightly culinary summit. There, flavorful representatives from Cajun and Caribbean traditions meet to form an ever-changing menu that includes cajun sandwiches, penne pasta tossed with three kinds of sausage and jambalaya, top sirloin steak, coconut shrimp, crab-stuffed mushrooms, and crab legs. The chefs concoct a selection of seasonal American fare with emphasis on seafood that complements the bar and grill's well-rounded wine list and selection of more than 25 craft beers. Amid the high ceilings and walls dotted with paintings from local artists, Aqua's friendly owners also prowl the restaurant floor, mixing up signature cocktails at the bar, making friends, and daring people to sing their orders to the tune of "Turkey In The Straw".
In 1946, two Hagen brothers staked a claim using money their father, himself a fisherman, got from taking out a mortgage on the family home. Now, a pair of the founders' granddaughters and their husbands preside happily over an ever-expanding selection of fresh fish, shellfish, and shucked oysters flown in from around the world. Smoke from hardwood flames saturates the tender meat of salmon and trout, delighting nostrils and drawing feral firefighters to scratch at the door. Patrons wander in past the shop's colorful Viking ship mural to deposit personal catches in the smoker or peruse fried shrimp, chicken, and trays for parties. Brimming shelves push forward Scandinavian specialty items such as lutefisk, pickled herring, and lingonberries, which beg for inclusion in recipes or inaccurate dioramas of the first Thanksgiving.