Mediterranean food, an ancient cuisine, is right in sync with modern palates: it’s lighter, aromatic, full of fiber, vitamins and veggies and hugely satisfying. There are some 21 nations that border the Mediterranean Sea and each nation’s cuisine features extraordinary freshness and flavor. Just-made hummus surrounding a healthy puddle of olive oil, Turkish kebabs and Spanish tapas and stuffed grape leaves and falafel are setting new standards for contemporary healthful eating.
Mercat a la Planxa
638 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60605
Pablo Picasso roamed the winding streets of Barcelona eating food like this and he not only lived to be 91, but he managed to date a couple of women and paint a bit. No trendy imitator of Spanish tapas, Mercat a la Planxa presents the very best of this Mediterranean cuisine with traditional tapas like bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Marcona almonds, flash-fried Padron peppers, Serrano ham croquettes and a variety of magnificent paellas. You’ll also find thoughtful presentations of cheese and cured meats and fragrant platters of shellfish. Vegetarians have a sizable roster of choices and carnivores can order a whole roasted suckling pig, a familiar option in Spain. If you’re ever going for a chef’s tasting menu, this is the place to indulge and hear food angels sing.
1664 N. Ada St.
Chicago, IL 60642
What can you expect from a chef who sharpened her knives at Chef Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and served as Executive Sous Chef at Todd English’s Beso? Chef Zoe Schor’s Mediterranean small plates are a revelation in seasonal cuisine from down home crispy black-eyed peas and fried oyster and pork belly po’ boys to a bright seared octopus plated with Cannellini beans and Tabasco mash. Comfort food doesn’t get any more soothing than her cavatelli with duck confit, poached egg, spinach and Parmigiano unless you’re talking dessert like buttermilk panna cotta or pretzel bread pudding capped with maple whipped cream. Ada St. offers a fine Sunday brunch with creative Bloody Marys and juice cocktails and its industrial location means ample free parking available right outside the door.
615 W Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60661
There’s a reason this West Loop eatery is always abuzz with repeat diners – its Mediterranean small plates present new discoveries with each visit. Ex-chef/current curmudgeon Anthony Bourdain loves Avec (as well as Chef Paul Kahan’s other Chicago restaurants) as do Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine magazines. Start with house marinated olives and salumi plates and move onto combinations that seem odd at first (chicken liver crostini with roasted apricots, pickled fennel and mint or Burrata cheese with green strawberries, Marcona almonds, peas and strawberry vinaigrette) but work exquisitely because of farm fresh ingredients in perfect proportion. It’s not all small – there’s a Slagel Farm 55-day dry aged ribeye with bone marrow butter and fennel-preserved lemon gremolata for a protein punch that’ll knock you out.
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Troy Mediterranean Grill
2908 N. Broadway Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
For straight ahead, affordable Mediterranean cuisine with a nice Turkish bent, set the compass towards Troy. Shortly after being seated, here comes the heavenly warm bread and an earthy lentil spread called ezme. Make a whole meal of appetizers from creamy hummus and crispy falafel to bracing tabouli, zucchini pancakes, a Turkish kind of pizza, grape leaves and soslu patilcan – small cubes of fried eggplant in fresh tomato and garlic sauce. Main events include knobs of kebabs with chicken, ground or chunky lamb, Kofte (grilled ground beef and lamb) as well as yogurt kebabs classically prepared but served on yogurt and seasoned croutons with butter sauce. Not only is the menu affordable, it’s BYOB.
1558 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
What could be Chicago’s best Greek restaurant, alas, is not in Greek town but in hipster haven Wicker Park. You’ll find the requisite tzatzíki, grape leaves and braised lamb here but also regional Greek dishes on none of the Halsted Street menus. Small plate (mezedes) rock like house-cured sardines moistened with lemon vinaigrette; smoked pork loin marinated in Cypriot red wine; and house made phyllo filled with leeks, lemon, fresh dill and goat feta. Entrees take Greektown into the 21st century with duck gyros made with Gunthorp Farms duck breast and leg or how about spit roasted sea bream serving as a fish gyro? A long list of salads and veggies, more Greek varietals than you can shake a skewer at and super sweet desserts, including home made yogurt served with fir tree honey and walnuts, make the grade “A” all around.
Jacky Runice has been a columnist with the Daily Herald Chicago since grunge music and flannel was the new black. Her fingers and gray matter have been busy as travel editor of Reunions Magazine; penning a column that was syndicated around the nation via Tribune Media Services. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.