There's no law that says a Greek restaurant must take up residence on the six-block stretch of Halsted Street known as Greektown, but one could be forgiven for thinking so.So, when a brash newcomer like Taxim sets up shop on the Wicker Park/Bucktown border, far from the cries of "Opaa!" reverberating by Halsted and Adams streets, it has to mean something.
And it does. Owner David Schneider merely says, "I liked the location," but I suspect the physical gap between Taxim and Greektown is meant to underscore an even greater philosophical one.
And don't even think about saganaki.
This is not intended to slight Greektown's finest, explains Schneider, whose German name belies a host of Greek relatives on his mother's side.
"I just wanted to make a statement that Greek food is not a monolithic thing," he says. "There are some good expressions of Greek food in Chicago, but they don't represent the full geography, the great variety of food within the modern-day state."
Within and without the state, actually. Schneider's notions of Greek food go back to the Byzantine Empire, so crossing Greece's present-day borders to incorporate influences throughout Asia Minor is fair game. If you want to dispute that, be prepared for a rapid-fire, 10-minute history lesson.
More to the point, he's trying to do things the right way. His tightly focused menu offers a half-dozen main courses and about twice as many mezethes, or small plates. At the bottom of the page are shout-outs to the local farms that supply Taxim's vegetables. The all-Greek wine list encompasses some 40 bottles, 10 of which are available by the glass. Well-trained servers describe the wines accurately.
My midweek visit was a delight. I was alarmed at the near-empty dining room, but enthusiastic service and precisely prepared food overcame my qualms. A follow-up visit on a weekend night found a chaotic dining room and a kitchen deep in the weeds. Our appetizers arrived five minutes apart; the gap between the arrival of our entrees was so great it was like eating separate courses; and no server seemed to notice.
They were, however, very good entrees. Good-tasting lamb chops were nearly upstaged by their plate companions, a chewy and delicious bulgur pilaf and a fanciful skordalia that was really a vivid-green pesto of Greek oregano, pine nuts and garlic. The fascinating duck gyros were a cross between a shawarma and Peking duck -- spit-roasted duck meat lacquered with pomegranate syrup, packed with yogurt-mint sauce in soft wraps of house-made satz bread (a soft flatbread cooked on a heated dome). The roasted chicken is very good, helped considerably by assertive amounts of oregano and garlic, some yummy cooked-in-fat potatoes and pieces of ouzo-preserved lemons. The roasted sea bass is moist and sweet, graced with kisses of lemon and olive oil and propped on a bed of chewy dandelion greens, which supply a bitter counterpoint.
The mezethes offer lots of appealing grazing. Start with revithia, a clean-tasting Greek hummus (more basic than Middle Eastern hummus because of the absence of tahini) served with warm pita pieces. Bits of lamb confit in yogurt sauce with fava beans (or, more recently, borlotti beans) are an addictive treat. Marinated Greek sardines with capers and purslane greens provide pleasant texture play, but this dish needs something to counter all that acidity.
The best dessert is the boughatsa, a simple creation of soft, house-made phyllo filled with vanilla custard -- more of a breakfast pastry than a dessert, but tasty nonetheless. Light and lemony Greek yogurt is brightened by streaks of fragrant honey and served, in generous portion, in a wide bowl. The chocolate halva seems an accommodation to chocolate lovers (the accompanying preserved kumquats were the dish's highlight), and the orchid-root ice cream, oddly elastic and even odder tasting (imagine, if you will, a poi semifreddo), is a dish best left to the aficionados.
The narrow dining room is attractively assembled, the walls hung with large copper trays and soft lighting provided by perforated-metal lanterns. Tables are clad in copper sheets, hammered into place by Schneider himself; long banquettes have firm, embroidered pillows for back support.
I'd give the place an "A" for vision and scholarship. Execution gets maybe a "C-plus," though "Incomplete" might be the fairer assessment. For a first-time restaurateur, Schneider does an awful lot of things right, and I'm guessing Taxim (tak-SEEM, incidentally) will get a lot better in a short time.
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1558 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-252-1558
Open: Dinner Mon., Wed.-Sun., lunch Mon.-Sun.
Entree prices: $18-$32
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking