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Top new restaurant, Louie’s Wine Dive

12/19/2012

A lobster poutine at Louie’s Wine Dive.

A lobster poutine at Louie’s Wine Dive.

The local restaurant scene seemed oblivious to any economic slump this year. The number of openings tripled the number of closings in 2012. New additions ranged from the spectacular (Exile) to the ubiquitous (fro-yo’s), from the reborn (Buzzard Billy’s) to relocated (Bambino’s) and from first-course specialists (The Standard) to desserts-only lounges (Crème). For our money, though, Louie’s Wine Dive delivered the best overall package.

After years of running new places for Bravo, Jason Kapela left the corporate grind this year to open his own place in the Uptown Shopping Center. He counseled with former Wine Experience owner Kyle Cabbage to fine tune his concept and persuaded half a dozen staffers from Bravo to follow him across town. This 84-seat café is furnished upscale from a true dive. Comfortable rosewood furniture, an overstuffed couch and a sleek, long bar invite people to linger. In fact, one of Louie’s biggest problems has been turning tables — no one wants to leave.

Above all, Louie’s delivers value appropriate to the times. Most plates fall into the $4 – $19 range with complete kids’ meals at $5. Yet they still use top ingredients like La Quercia charcuterie and La Mie breads. Cabbage’s wine pairings are well considered, and the restaurant will open any bottle if a customer commits to two glasses.

Kapela’s menu mixes familiarity with original twists. Mac-and-cheese can be ordered with lobster or wild mushrooms. Superb oysters are fried in panko and served on fried wonton shells with habanero aioli and a balsamic glaze. Deviled eggs are garnished with hackleback caviar. Lobster poutine delivers crisp yet tender fries covered with seafood gravy that includes generous pieces of fresh lobster, assorted mushrooms and subtle Fontina cheese sauce. Ragu is Bolognese style with an orange glow from Chianti, tomatoes, carrots and cream. It included prosciutto, sausage, bacon and tender pork shoulder on toasted potato gnocchi. Striped bass presents two moist skin-on filets on a bed of quinoa in a beurre blanc. Drunken carrots, a specialty, are marinated in dark rum. Porchetta is extraordinary, even in a town rich in Italian restaurants. It’s a slow cooked pork shoulder without any dryness, stuffed with prosciutto and sage and served with cheese sauce…                

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Restaurateur of the Year — Mark Linebach opened his third and fourth Cozy Cafés in 2012, in the former KC BBQ on Douglas and the former Robin’s Wood Oven Grill on Southeast 14th Street. The latter is larger than previous stores and, unlike the earlier ones, serves breakfast all day. Little else varies from a simple template Linebach drew up two years ago when diners and blue plate specials were fading from the scene. Cozy offers old fashioned foods: scratch-made pies and cakes, hand-breaded pork tenderloins, homemade meatballs and “cavatelli” that includes several pasta, none of which is actually cavatelli. Coffee is from Grounds for Celebration, sausage is from Graziano’s and service is from a kinder, gentler America. Pizza slices are always available and so is breakfast, at least on the south side. Value draws crowds to CC. Blue plates like hot beef with mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans go for as little as $5, breakfasts start at $4 and pizza or cavatelli dinners begin at $5.                

Design of the Year — With Slingshot (formerly G.E. Wattier and Associates) as architect, Exile Brewing Co. brilliantly translated a vision of R.J., Bob and Amy Tursi into a “burn-bright lifestyle” celebrating the American dream. For its crowning glory, artist James Ellwanger conceived a replica of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, with Gene Arnold of Allen Henderson and Associates as structural engineer and Laugerman Architects making its 3D drawings.               

Book of the Year — In “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a renowned Jewish chef and a Muslim friend explore the cross cultural culinary glories on their native city.              

Outstanding Journalism — David Chang’s Lucky Peach quickly became the best-written food magazine in America. CV

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