Berwyn is on the rise. The financial crisis has turned the near west suburb into a hot spot of affordable housing, and young couples and families are crowding in. Area stores stock T-shirts proclaiming, "Ich bin ein Berwyner," and not all the sales are ironic.
I'd wager most people think of Berwyn's dining scene in terms of tacos and Czech dumplings, but that was then. Autre Monde, which made its debut a little more than a month ago, boasts good looks, terrific value-driven food and a culinary pedigree that reaches deep into Chicago's fine-dining history.
The two-couple, four-person team behind the operation — owners Christine Tully Aranza and John Aranza, and chefs Beth Partridge and Dan Pancake — worked together at Spiaggia, Mantuano Mediterranean Table and even Tuttaposto, all under chef Tony Mantuano. (Call them the Mantuano Mafia.)
Indeed, one reason I like Autre Monde so much is that it reminds me of Tuttaposto (a long-closed restaurant I still miss), or, rather, what Tuttaposto might look like today.
Autre Monde's name is French (it means "other world"), but the cuisine stretches across the Mediterranean. The charcuterie platter is a hearty hike through Spain, the board crammed with generous slices of Serrano ham, chorizo, lomo and more, abetted by piquillo peppers and a handful of marcona almonds. All this for $12? I'm in.
I'd also reserve room for the flatbread pizzas, which are true flatbreads, cracker thin and slightly charred at the edges. These crusts support some novel topping combos, including roasted peppers with olives and French feta (creamier and milder than its Greek counterpart) sprinkled with za'atar (a seasoning made from dried herbs).
Other worthy starters include fat, lightly crusted oysters sitting in a simple watercress salad; the improbable combination works, the greens contributing clean tastes opposite the oyster's richness. Clams and white asparagus commingle in an herbaceous tarragon broth; tender grilled octopus shares its plate with charred tomatoes and capers, united under a light vinaigrette.
A trio of pasta options, all $15 or less, includes a fine tortellacci with goat cheese and black truffle above a classic brown-butter sauce, and tagliatelle with shrimp and scallops over a sweet pea sauce.
Partridge calls the menu's grilled pork porterhouse "a big and unashamed pork chop," which is a pretty good way of describing this hefty bone-in chop; served with escarole and gigante beans, the juicy chop represents pure peasant perfection. More porcine satisfaction can be had from the porchetta sandwich, a mound of slow-cooked, picked and shredded pork topped with fennel slaw on a potato bun, accompanied by house-made chips.
And there are always a couple of specials; keep your eye out for the robust salmon a la plancha, and Pancake's guinea-hen sausage with oil-cured olives, both terrific.
In keeping with the Mediterranean approach, desserts are not emphasized to any great extent. But there are a few sweets, notably a chocolate hazelnut pot de creme and a light but satisfying honey-lavender cheesecake.
The 65-seat dining room is simple and charming. Hardwood floors, cream-colored walls and soft globe lights give the place warmth. There's a small, L-shaped bar in back and a couple of highboy communal tables in the middle of the space. An outdoor patio in back opened recently. When full, the room resounds with excited chatter.
Add Autre Monde to your list of late-night dining options, especially on weekends, when the kitchen generally stays open until 10. "We're staying open," Partridge says. "We might close earlier on slow nights, but anybody who comes in looking for food is going to be served."
The rusticity of the menu does not extend to the service, which is unaffectedly knowledgeable and helpful. The beverage program is especially impressive; John Aranza's short but well-chosen wine list abounds with interesting picks, including a couple of Croatian wines.
And the bar cranks out some good cocktails, including a Sazerac that comes off like a boozy Good & Plenty, and a blood-orange gimlet that would be my favorite Sunday-brunch eye-opener if this place were open for brunch. One can dream.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.