Chicago Hopefuls

A look at new talents and trends that are taking the Windy City by storm

There's always been a fine line between inventive ideas and bizarre ones. Recently, Chicago has seen plenty of both. When a restaurant called Pasha installed a female bartender in its candlelit ladies' room, for instance, that seemed a little wacky--but cool too. Read on for more serious proof of the creativity that's throwing the city for a loop.

A WORLD OF TRUFFLES
Chocolate and wasabi? The combination sounds like a dare, not a truffle. But it's an inspired mouthful at Vosges Haut-Chocolat, a new shop in Chicago's trendy Bucktown.

The innovator behind Vosges (pronounced vozh) is Katrina Markoff, a 25-year-old Cordon Bleu-trained chef who worked at Michelin three-star restaurants in France and Spain and traveled throughout Southeast Asia in search of novel flavors before deciding last year to set up shop back home in America. "I didn't want to slave away in another restaurant," she explains. "And I've always loved chocolate." She called Julie Ruedebusch, a marketing expert who was a childhood friend, and together the two women went into business. What began as custom work for the fashion designers Todd Oldham and Judith Ripka soon led to the Bucktown store.

Vosges buys blocks of chocolate from around the world, including Callebaut from Belgium and Scharffen Berger from San Francisco. Markoff transforms it in a number of ways. The spice-flavored truffles are the most exciting: they're so well balanced that even outlandish combinations work. A milk-chocolate truffle called the Naga, named for a tribe in India, is filled with a curried coconut cream and dusted with curry powder. "Eat it top-side down," Markoff advises. "That way the spice is the first thing to hit your tongue." The Budapest, with dark chocolate and sweet paprika, is a perfect match for scotch. The Black Pearl consists of a semisweet shell clasping an infusion of ginger and wasabi.

"Spices create so many feelings," Markoff says. "You can run the gamut of emotions in a single box of chocolates." A box of emotions costs $16 for 9 chocolates, $28 for 16. The confections are also sold by the piece ($1.40 each) and packaged in Chinese take-out containers--chopsticks not included. (2105 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-772-5349.)

PIPE DREAMS
They gurgle. They smoke. They tower three feet high. Hookahs (water-cooled pipes) filled with fruit-flavored green tobacco just might be the trend that stomps out cigars. At least that's the case at Souk, one of the latest additions to Chicago's Bucktown-Wicker Park district. (The idea has hit other cities too: Kan Zaman in San Francisco and Chi-Cha Lounge in Washington, D.C., are hookah hot spots.)

At Souk, bohemians and yuppies dig into chef Maher Chebaro's elegant Middle Eastern food, then sip mint tea and Turkish coffee as they take turns drawing from the hose of a hookah. Ten bucks buys a bowlful of apple, apricot or strawberry tobacco. A bartender lights the pipe with what appear to be chunks of hot lava. The smoke, milder than that of a Capri cigarette, is intensely fragrant and sweet.

"When I first heard about the hookah thing, I didn't believe it," says one twenty-something hipster, as she blows a puff of smoke into the air. "And, you know, I think it's pretty tasty." (1552 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-227-9110.)

RETRO ACTION
The Pump Room, in Chicago's swank Gold Coast neighborhood, was the place to see and be seen when it opened in 1938 and for several decades after that. Its Booth One became famous because only bona fide Hollywood stars--Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz--were allowed to sit there. In the past 30 years, Booth One hasn't been very busy. But the current vogue for all things retro, a $2 million restoration and a hot chef just might make The Pump Room swing again.

Beef Wellington and shrimp cocktail got thrown out with the old upholstery. Martial Noguier (whose résumé includes stints with such renowned chefs as Alain Ducasse, Michel Richard and Joachim Splichal) applies French techniques to global flavors, especially in dishes like his Japanese-style langoustines with Thai Penang curry and his peppered ahi tuna with baby bok choy, fried lotus root and ponzu sauce.

Although the menu has become more ambitious, Booth One has grown less exclusive. It's now open to any celebrity, Hollywood or otherwise: D'Arcy Wretsky-Brown of the rock band Smashing Pumpkins booked it recently. (The Omni Ambassador East Hotel, 1301 N. State Pkwy.; 312-266-0360.)


Brad A. Johnson, an enthusiastic trend tracker, is a restaurant producer and the chief dining critic for MSN Sidewalk Chicago, a Microsoft Web site.

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