You don’t have to hop on a plane to escape the brutal polar vortex in Chicago, just head to Aba in the West Loop for a Mediterranean oasis that whisks you away from the cold and snow.
The notoriously hard-to-get-a-reservation restaurant is participating in Chicago Restaurant Week for the first time, and boy, oh, boy, is it a great deal — just plan an early dinner, so you can snag a table. (Aba confirmed the restaurant is open Wednesday but will close early at 10 p.m.) For $48 you get two starters, one main, a dessert and a glass of wine — either an easy-to-drink red or a prosecco-without-the-bubbles white, both of them 2016 Italian vintages.
Part of me wishes that Aba had a shorter list of spreads and mezze from which to choose — my dining companion and I eagerly pored over first-course options for three days before our reservation Monday evening. (Paradox of choice, am I right?) You too can agonize over the perfect choice on the restaurant’s website or the Chicago Restaurant Week website.
Start with one of the spreads, which come with a basket of piping hot fluffy pita, dusted with garlic, sesame seeds and herbs. For those nervous about heat levels, the spicy hummus is not as hot as the name implies. Marinated fresno and sweet roasted chiles made the spread more sweet and smoky than hot, with just a hint of spice. The texture was ultra light, almost as if it was whipped, and perfect for dipping.
But once the muhammara hit the table, arriving on a beautiful blue ceramic dish, the hummus was quickly neglected. With smoky roasted pepper, earthy isot chile, crunchy candied walnuts, and an acidic and sweet pomegranate molasses, the spread was a terrific blend of spicy and sweet flavors, and smooth and crunchy textures. We tore into the pita and scooped up giant spoonfuls, laying it to waste quickly.
Moving beyond the spreads are salads and other small bites. The green falafel came with a perfectly crunchy crust and a moist interior that doesn’t crumble. It was accompanied by an avocado tzatziki, garlic tahini and dania spice, which rounded out the savory fried balls with bright cucumber, cooling yogurt, nutty earthiness and a hint of fragrance. The beef carpaccio was tender, and unlike other iterations of the dish, was not entirely raw but gently cooked, still pink in the middle. It was sliced and drizzled with a yuzu-soy sauce, ginger, scallions and local honey.
Though we were excited about the grilled octopus, the dish was a mixed bag. The thicker portions were tender and juicy, but the skinnier parts near the tip of the tentacle were dry and rubbery. Grilled potatoes accompanying it were forgettable. The romesco sauce ended up carrying the entire dish, with its creamy texture contrasted with crunchy nuts.
The slow-braised lamb was a different story. Two eggplant-wrapped rolls of tender lamb leg pieces sit in a pool of bright stewed tomatoes, sweet dates and cinnamon. Graviera, a Greek cheese similar to Gruyere, is melted on top. It’s truly a Herculean feat to hold yourself back from eating the entire dish in two bites. (We ate it in four).
If you’re not already totally satisfied, dessert will change that. The kulfi, a frozen treat that tastes like Turkish coffee, sits in a pool of coriander caramel and is topped with marcona almond dust, which gives it a crunchy texture to contrast the smooth and icy creation. While the kulfi is a light ending, the creme brulee pie storms in and demands to be the star. Instead of a traditional small dish or cup, the custard is tucked into a buttery, soft crust that lifts up the airy and sweet filling. But what’s most delicious is the transitional layer between the filling and the crust that reminds you of gooey butter cake or underbaked sugar cookies. To accompany the pie are slices of apple with a drizzle of burnt honey, whose tart flavor summons memories of apple pie a la mode.
If you’re able to snag a reservation either super-early around 4 p.m. or late around 10 p.m., do it. Or if you’re feeling lucky, stroll in as a walk-in. For this price and for the amount and quality of food you’ll get at Aba, it’s more than worth braving the cold. (Call first to check hours during the cold snap.)
302 N. Green St., 3rd floor, 773-645-1400, abarestaurantchicago.com