Jason Vincent

NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: NIGHTWOOD Well, of course: A year and a half after Jason Hammel and Amelia Tschilds more than delivered on the promise of Lula, drawing in their sous-chef Jason Vincent and giving him a luminous open kitchen of a culinary stage, it's not a stretch to say this cozy and dark walnut block of a joint is the smartest restaurant in Chicago south of Roosevelt Road. (When you find yourself telling friends they need to go out of their way to try the toast ??? thick and crusty French bread, perfectly charred in a wood-grilled oven, evoking every summer camp we never attended ??? it gets hard to consider anywhere else.) But is Nightwood just a neighborhood restaurant? And is that a backhanded compliment? Only if you believe setting up on a dreary stretch of Pilsen and not pandering to its substantial Mexican-American community with halfhearted fish tacos (as might have been expected from lesser, carpetbagging restaurateurs) is a problem. Only if you consider Nightwood's elegant and unpretentious insistence on soulful and simple cooking ??? a fragrant half-chicken dressed with dates and cornbread croutons, honey-roasted pears beneath whipped goat cheese, homemade rigatoni ??? as too much of a return to the unadorned. No, Nightwood is not merely the best neighborhood restaurant of the year. It's also the best example of a very welcome trend in Chicago dining ??? casual enjoyment. Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St., 312-526-3385 ??? Christopher Borrelli
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