Dining: Naha Takes Simple, Makes It Memorable

Alison Neumer Lara

Crain’s Chicago Business
April 8 2008

Naha is one of the city’s pure dining pleasures.

Chef Carrie Nahabedian’s seasonally driven cooking reflects a kitchen
that continues to stretch and grow after eight years (and counting)
on the corner of Clark and Illinois streets. Superb ingredients
prepared with a touch of the unexpected shine. Plus, to be plain,
the hamburger rocks.

Naha works well for business dining: The room is simple but modern,
with a warm California-Mediterranean feel (dark wood floors, neutral
tones), walled by windows that lend a grand sense of spaciousness.

Service, although sometimes a bit precious, is knowledgeable and

Among the starters, heirloom apple salad is a hit: lively, acidic
and sweet with apple cider-honey vinaigrette ($11). Shaved fennel and
watercress offset the fruit, while a small wedge of local Capriole’s
Sofia goat cheese, rich and full-bodied, rounds out the dish.

Vanilla and blood orange, plus hints of lime and basil, highlight an
appetizer of pan-roasted, caramelized scallops ($16). The result is
lush, yet balanced. A shaved slice of Serrano ham adds a salty note,
but isn’t really necessary.

The menu also reflects Ms. Nahabedian’s Armenian heritage. One fixture
is her take on the mezze plate, including baba ganoush, fresh Armenian
string cheese, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese-phyllo triangles
and marinated olives – all meant for sharing ($18). Hummos is the
clear standout in the mix (you’ll suddenly realize how many mediocre
cocktail-party versions you’ve suffered before), as is the basterma,
thin slices of dried beef heavily spiced with paprika and fenugreek.

Another menu staple and safe bet is fried chicken salad. Despite
its name, it’s a relatively light lunch entree with small chunks of
chicken and a pile of crispy romaine lettuce ($17). Corn, candied
pecans and buttermilk dressing carry through the Southern touches.

Pan-roasted wild salmon ($26) is a much better example of what the
kitchen can do: perfectly crisp fish, subtly sauced, with simple but
hardly bland vegetable partners such as buttery melted leeks and celery
that coax out more flavor. Curried yellow and purple cauliflower,
plus roasted cubes of rutabaga, add earthiness.

NAHA 500 N. Clark St. (312) 321-6242

A quail dish was robust but unfocused. Dark caramel duck sauce
threatens to overwhelm with richness and fully coats the heirloom
potatoes and greens underneath ($18). Maybe a little acidity or salt
required? Near the other end of the spectrum, nestled on the edge
of the plate, is an airy quail egg Benedict, resting on brioche and
draped with foamy hollandaise.

On to that burger, which surely owes some of its success to perfect
proportions. The mix of beef is expertly seasoned, meaty and not
too fatty; a toasted buttery brioche bun is substantial, but not
thicker than the burger itself ($14). Add a choice of great cheeses
(manchego, anyone?) and soft, roasted tomato (no wan slice icy from
the fridge) and you’ve got burger love. No wonder it has never budged
from the menu.

In the same vein of simple but wonderful, Naha’s housemade ice creams
and sorbets are top-notch (three small scoops, $12). Black walnut
and crimson raisin flavors are superb, as are daily specials such as
tangy berry-yogurt ice cream. Superb, and unexpected, much like the
petits fours that come with the check. A fine finish.

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