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Chicago: New Taste Sensations in the Second City

From deep-dish pizza to Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago has a formidable appetite for big, bold food. And food issues are fighting issues here: the City Council recently banned foie gras on the basis that raising it hurts the waterfowl. Now lawmakers may consider outlawing transfat. New on the scene are seven worth seeking out, identified here.

For the Budget-Minded

With his PBS television show and numerous cookbooks, Chef Rick Bayless lifted regional Mexican cuisine from the Tex-Mex ghetto at his Frontera Grill. Now he upscales fast food at Frontera Fresco, in the 7th-floor food court of Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s). Tortas (grilled sandwiches), huaraches (flatbread) and quesadillas are made to order, while tamales change regularly. Nothing costs more than $7.50, leaving you loads to spend elsewhere in the store. 111 N. State St., 312/781-4884. $-$$

Chicago has long suffered a dearth of delis. But Eleven City Diner fills the void. Here, corned beef is hand carved, a soda jerk makes the phosphates, and there’s an old-fashioned candy counter with “penny” candy. Breakfast is served all day and well into the evening. The result is out-the-door lines. If you’re in the South Loop or nearby at the Museum Campus, join the queue. 1112 S. Wabash St., 312/212-1112. $-$$

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Chicago has long been synonymous with deep-dish pizza, but Neopolitan pies are making headway citywide. Spacca Napoli warrants a trip to the North Side’s Ravenswood neighborhood. A very busy wood-burning oven turns out Italian classics like pizza margherita (tomato sauce), funghi (mushroom) and quattro stagione (“four seasons” with different toppings on each quadrant), made with imported flour, cheese and olive oil. Crowds pack the simple, bright dining rooms nightly, proving Chicagoans’ affinity for pizza in any form. 1769 W. Sunnyside, 773/878-2420. $-$$

Two Mid-Range

Chicago’s affinity for Mexican food meets its zeal for small plates at Zocalo, in the River North district. Among the more unexpected choices is a guacamole trio, tuna-mango ceviche, and panela cheese flamed with mezcal, a south-of-the-border version of Greek saganaki. Many of Mexico’s most food-famed regions are represented on the menu, from Yucatecan marinated meats to Oaxacan moles. 358 W. Ontario St. , 312/302-9977. $$-$$$

The food is good at Flatwater, the new restaurant on the Chicago River level downtown, but the scene is fantastic. Power boats pull up to the breakwall, where yachtsmen and guests climb onto the outdoor terrace for food and drink. The former is generous and often sophisticated. A platter of beef carpaccio easily feeds a crew as an appetizer, and the portions only grow from there to entrées like lobster pot pie and pork with spicy applesauce. When you tire of people watching, there is always river gazing, which is especially romantic at night when the water reflects the city lights. 321 Clark St., River Level, 312/644-0283. $$-$$$

Two Splurges

Chef Shawn McClain mastered Asian seafood at his first restaurant, Spring, and gourmet vegetables at his second, Green Zebra. His third, Custom House, tackles meat, offering a foodie steak house with a liberal definition of red meat. McClain’s interpretation extends to rabbit and sweatbreads, sirloin, and ribeyes. The menu also endears lighter appetites at the table, offering several fish and salad options. The sleek interior, with window-wrapped walls, banishes the masculine clubbiness that has become a steak house convention elsewhere. 500 S. Dearborn St., 312/523-0200. $$$-$$$$

With only 50 seats in the dining room, Mediterranean newcomer Copperblue makes an intimate, elegant evening. Chef Michael Tsonton is the passion behind the stove, turning out dishes that are inventive in concept and presentation: heirloom tomatoes come three ways — raw, roasted, and as sorbet. Duck two-ways includes a classic roast breast paired with Moroccan-spiced confit of leg. Tsonton, who once studied art and design, commissioned the entrancing murals depicting themes of work and play that ring the room. 580 E. Illinois St., 312/527-1200. $$$$

Elaine Glusac

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