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Pili.Pili -- Is this what Chicago needs? (long)


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Pili.Pili -- Is this what Chicago needs? (long)

HungryHoward | Apr 14, 2003 01:24 AM

From Balkan lamb to Waffle House, last week's "MIA – What Would You Like to See" thread hit upon a number of regional cuisines, restaurants and specific dishes.

For those who didn’t speak up about their desire for a "French Provençal/North Mediterranean" destination never fear. New on the scene is Pili.Pili, which opened April 1 and sits in the shadows of the Merchandise Mart.

Saturday evening my wife and I went with high hopes. Sadly, we left with a feeling of disappointment...

The place was packed when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation. We waited a few minutes at the bar, watching the bartender set out wine glasses, pour tumblers of Cokes and orange juice, all the time preying that the city grants the restaurant its liquor license soon. (“Early May,” they believe.) Of course, I'll welcome a good BYOB opportunity anytime, and rolled out a bottle of Jacques Girardin Santenay "Clos Rousseau" Cru.

The host showed us to our banquet, which was a few steps off the ground, overlooking the primary seating area. It's a nice space: warm, comfortable and inviting. On the back wall is a large quilt of Pili Pili, the hot North African pepper that the restaurant takes its name from.

Our overenthusiastic waiter arrived and walked us through the menu, from the chef's style, how the bass is flown in fresh each day from the Mediterranean to what he had for dinner earlier that evening ... and the evening before. Over the course of the two-hours our waiter would continue to volunteer more information than we would ever want to know.

Pili.Pili's menu is quite diverse, perhaps to a fault. In scanning the single page I was sadly reminded of the Cheesecake Factory and its “all things to all people” approach. In total, there are about 15 starters ranging from soups, salads, warm appetizers, oysters and a charcutrie plate. On the bottom of the menu, the 18 entrees span the Mediterranean-geographic spectrum from pastas and risottos to a Provençal seafood stew and Moroccan lamb.

On the bright side, the menu is very reasonable – a smart decision by owner Jack Weiss (also of Coco Pazzo) given the current economic environment. In fact, the highest-priced entree is the steak frites at $19.50.

We placed our orders and waited for our starters to come out. In the meantime, we, only after asking for it, enjoyed their wonderful homemade bread, described as “Old Man Slippers” for its appearance. It comes in a small, white paper bag with a side of whipped butter.

Bordering on having eaten too much bread, we finally saw a server approaching with our starters. He placed them down in front of us. Then, much to our surprise, another server came to the table … with our entrees. Perplexed, I asked why we were being served both starters and entrees simultaneously. (It’s been a few years since I’ve put a toe in the Mediterranean – perhaps there’s a new dining custom…?) He struggled with a response before our waiter raced in to take the entrees back to the kitchen with a promise that they’d be disposed of and that they’d prepare new entrees for us. (Other examples of clumsy service would continue to plague our experience.)

After shaking off the strangeness of that episode, we dug into our appetizers. My wife enjoyed the
roast sweet red pepper stuffed with goat cheese. I was terribly disappointed with my mussels, which hardly lived up to the fictional description offered by our waiter. No wafting aroma. No plentiful cream-based broth. No tender mussels. But, yes, it was presented in a tagine pot.

We persevered, enjoying the wine, watching the owner spend too much time talking to CLTV/WBEZ’s Steve Dolinsky and witnessing the adjacent party of four make a run at finishing off their BYO bottles of Tanqueray, Bacardi and Absolut.

What I believe were new entrees finally arrived; either that or they were simply re-heated and re-plated. My wife devoured the “Riviera style” sea bass, which was stuffed with swiss chard, tomato confite and roast garlic. The dish had too much going on for my taste, though the freshness of the bass was evident. My order of “Mechoui,” Moroccan slow-cooked lamb shoulder with Israeli cous cous and chickpeas, was nicely prepared and flavorful; thankfully the lamb was tender. On the side, we enjoyed their wonderful Pommes Frites – presented piping hot and with a red pepper dipping sauce. Neither of us seemed to mind that they didn’t match our entrée selections.

We selected their cheese plate to accompany the remainder of our wine. The plate featured a fistful of walnuts, toast points and three cheeses – a mild Morbier, a classic Tome De Savoie and a tasty Bleu d'Auvergne. It made for a nice change from a tarte tatin or a chocolate tart.

One visit to Pili.Pili is enough for us. While there were a couple enjoyable moments and both the environment and value were attractive, the missteps were too numerous to overcome. Well, that and I just don’t expect to have a hankering for “French Provençal/North Mediterranean” anytime soon.

230 W. Kinzie

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