Is this Chicago's toughest reservation? Middle Eastern-style fare reigns at crazy-popular Aba
If there’s a hotter restaurant this summer than Aba, I must have missed it. Plopped down in the heart of Fulton Market, surrounded by superbly worthy competition, this lively homage to all flavors Middle Eastern has become a magnet for the young and prosperous.
Aba has been jampacked since opening day (back in early June). Perhaps midfall, when the chill takes Aba’s splendid outdoor patio out of the equation, things will calm down. For now, scouring online reservations for a weekend table, or even a prime-time weekday table, is an exercise in futility. Best to phone, especially if you can plan a couple of weeks out, or arrive early and rely on the host’s tender mercies.
Indeed, when the restaurant opens at 4 p.m. (a very smart move), fans hit the door immediately in hopes of nabbing a table, chair or even standing room on the outdoor patio (this cash cow will have a roof over its head by next June, mark my words) or the main dining room. At the former, guests are literally above the fray, on a third-floor perch offering glimpses of downtown. In the latter, guests dine under realistic-looking trees and greenery, a light but not bright interior in which, given its size, ambient noise is extraordinarily well-managed.
Chances are good you’ll do a little drinking before eating, so let’s start there. Ryan Arnold’s wine list is a treat, keeping the less-adventurous bases covered while offering a trove of bottles from Lebanon, Greece, Israel and Morocco. Servers absolutely love talking about these relative unknowns, most of them modestly priced and unfailingly food-friendly.
Liz Pearce’s cocktails incorporate ingredients found on the menu (turmeric, honey, mango) into nifty takes on daiquiris, margaritas and the like; standard cocktails are $13, and a handful of reserve drinks (classic cocktails with super-premium booze) are $28. I indulged in the Ducasse martini, made with vodka developed by Alain Ducasse and Grey Goose, and unless that name has special resonance for you, you should order a normal martini and apply the $15 savings elsewhere. For groups hunkered down for the evening, there are large-format cocktails (“Groupie,” on the menu) meant to serve six to eight imbibers.
Chef C.J. Jacobson, also behind Ema in River North, helms Aba, with an emphasis on proteins, in the form of steaks, and cooked and raw seafood.
The chef is C.J. Jacobson, who opened the highly regarded Ema restaurant in River North two years ago. Aba, in a sense, is a sequel effort (in Hebrew, Ema means mother, and Aba means father), but though the two restaurants have about a half-dozen dishes in common (two kinds of hummus, house-made labneh and stracciatella cheese, kefta kebabs), Aba shows its independence with its emphasis on proteins, in the form of steaks, and cooked and raw seafood. (After a two-hour wait at the bar, protein sounds like a fine idea.)
Start with the raw proteins, notably the kanpachi, arrayed wreathlike with greens, tomatoes and charred avocado, around a puddle of aji amarillo; and charred lamb tartare, the meat sliced in discs and tossed with crispy rice and cucumber and an aromatic blend of cilantro, garlic and ras el hanout spices. Tuna tagliata piles thin-sliced tuna ribbons above pickled red peppers, onion and mustard seeds, an acidic buffeting the fish handles well.
Spreads are a must, if only to get one’s hands on the warm, puffy house bread, brushed with butter and dusted with za’atar. There are the aforementioned hummus varieties and labneh, and a particularly nice artichoke spread with sunflower-seed tahini and sprouts, but make room on the table for the muhammara, a sweet red-pepper spread with chile, walnut, tomato and pomegranate molasses.
Under the heading “Mediterranean Butcher” you’ll find a variety of meats in “humble” and “prime” cuts. The former includes eggplant-wrapped braised lamb, not a pretty dish by any means, but rich with umami, and beef short rib over lemony celery-root puree, raisins and pomegranate glaze.
Prime cuts are legit steaks and chops, served in petite portions. The beef tenderloin is about 4 or 5 ounces of closely trimmed steak with fingerlings and Gorgonzola butter; two grilled lamb chops, thin by steakhouse standards but excellent in flavor (and less than $28), sit on a bed of freekeh and benefit from garlic and burnt oregano.
The skirt steak shawarma has drawn controversy; the steak has great flavor, abetted by za’atar and a hint of chile, and there’s a nice tomato-cucumber salad alongside. But it’s not sliced off a spit and not served as a bread-wrapped cone, and there have been complaints. (The next menu, Jacobson hints, might call the dish “shawarma-spiced” skirt steak.)
A second short-rib dish, dubbed “crispy short rib,” is more of a light bite, the crunchy meat over a shallow pool of beej jus and sherry, along with grilled onions.
Seafood options include harissa-crusted halibut, and nicely charred octopus with frisee, grilled potatoes and romesco sauce. Among the kebabs, the grilled salmon with sweet peppers and zhoug is a keeper.
Simple desserts include the frozen Greek yogurt that’s already a fixture at Ema, and sweet date bars dusted with powdered sugar. I’m partial to the creme-brulee pie, which is exactly how you’d imagine it, though with a drizzle of burnt honey; and the double-chocolate tart, baked with a tahini swirl on top and served with whipped cream and mint.
Service was everything a recently self-outed restaurant critic would hope for.
302 N. Green St.
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner daily
Prices: Main courses $13.95-$27.95
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.