If we knew exactly what made restaurants successful, then there would be no unsuccessful ones. But the business is unpredictable and customers fickle; some mediocre concepts seemingly last forever, while genuinely worthy enterprises wither on the vine.
Today I look at two restaurants that deserve more business than they're getting: Near, a northwest-suburban Italian run by a former chef at Schwa; and Red Violet, a snazzy-looking, contemporary Asian restaurant struggling for attention along River North's booming Hubbard Street corridor.
For nearly three years, Gaetano Nardulli was sous-chef — or, in his words, "the guy wearing the hat inside the window" — at the highly regarded Schwa in Wicker Park. But when it came time to open his own place, Nardulli moved downtown — as in downtown Barrington, a shorter commute for the lifelong suburbanite.
Nardulli isn't replicating the artistic, highly creative food he fashioned under Michael Carlson. His food at Near speaks to his roots, the dishes he learned from his mother and grandparents, and from cooking tours in Italy.
But no Schwa alum can abandon fun entirely. Opening small plates include a ramekin of shimejii-mushroom confit, along with toasted country bread and slices of Pecorino Romano cheese, a yummy little assemble-yourself crostini. The marinated eggplant, which requires a three-day prep and is a delightful change of pace from the fried-eggplant routine, is so good I could eat it every day.
I love Nardulli's Parmesan-dusted arancini; the fried rice balls are small in size (to me, that delivers the best crunchy-to-creamy ratio) but packed with braised chicken and provolone. Similarly, the chicken-liver crostini seem a tad skimpy when they hit the table, but the liver-and-truffle-topped toasts are so rich I defy any one person to polish them off.
Delicate gnocchi float in a rustic tomato sauce with pork shoulder, a good chilly-weather dish. Risotto topped with herbs and shaved bottarga, a dish I enjoyed, has changed to a cauliflower (in roasted and pureed forms) and Kalamata-olive preparation.
There are some yummy desserts, notably a lemon curd with brown-butter cake, but the star is the chocolate cremeux crowning Nutella panna cotta, with grapefruit segments, sea salt and house-made pretzel streusel.
Business has been decent in the restaurant's first year (the anniversary was a few weeks ago), but in my view, this place ought to be packed. Near is cute and comfortable; it has 42 seats in a space that could easily handle 60 ("I don't want people to feel they're on top of each other," Nardulli says) and a spacious bar area for overflow. And prices — small plates mostly under $10, pastas $13 or less, proteins in the mid-$20s — are more than fair.
So what's holding Near back? I suppose service could be a little more nimble, a bit more polished, but apart from a slow bar one night, I didn't observe anything egregiously wrong. Perhaps Near's tucked-away strip-mall location hurts its visibility. But I'm telling you, there's some good stuff coming out of Near's kitchen, and those who live nearby are missing out by ignoring it.
Cherie Cheung is used to flying under the radar. She and husband Rocky Law, and his brother, Andrew, already own Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge in River East, a solidly successful performer for five-plus years but lacking, a bit, in foodie love.
So the lack of buzz accompanying Red Violet, which opened February in River North, neither surprised nor disappointed them.
"It's all right," says Cheung. "We prefer a soft opening. Take our time, get things right."
Red Violet sits on one of the hottest stretches of restaurant-cum-nightclubs in the city, regularly jammed with gaggles of stiletto-heeled pretty young things and the people who seek them. But while neighboring restaurants are using velvet ropes to regulate traffic flow some evenings, tables at Red Violet go begging.
Red Violet seems to be doing everything right. The red and purple decor certainly has that dark and sleek nightclub look, the underlit, glass-faced bar is attractive and the sound system cranks out a steady stream of what I term "untsa" music (untsa, untsa, untsa, untsa). Cocktails, from what I've tried, aren't yet where they need to be (feel free to experiment on Tuesdays, when menu cocktails are half-price), but the menu, which was updated in July by ex-Japonais chef Gene Kato, is a solid mix of traditional and contemporary Chinese dishes, with a few Pacific Rim influences here and there.
The younger crowd would love the appetizers. Hamachi carpaccio takes super-thin slices of raw fish and cooks them, ever so slightly, with splashes of hot oil, finishing the dish with sprinkles of ginger and fried scallions. The wagyu scroll is more of a true carpaccio, the thin beef given an Asian inflection with toasted peanuts and cilantro. And the shrimp toast is adorable, a pair of panko-crusted shrimp-mousse balls with jutting asparagus spears (which is why some customers call them "shrimp Popsicles") over a sweet-and-sour chili sauce.
Among entrees, your best bets are the lucky purse — salmon en papillote, only with clear fata paper and Chinese five-spice blend — and loup de mare (sic), a very pretty presentation of sea bass in pepper sauce. And even the relative snores on the menu — sha cha shrimp is closer to so-so shrimp, and Peking beef tenderloin cries out for sharper seasoning — are at least serviceable. There are some ambitious West-meets-East desserts, such as almond panna cotta and white-chocolate-filled doughnuts with black-tea semifreddo.
If you're dining in the area on a weekend night, especially if you're interested in, I don't know, hearing your dining partner's voice, you might give Red Violet a chance.