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Article updated: 12/28/2012 6:49 AM

Small plates, big flavors land restaurants on best of 2012 list

By Deborah Pankey

Small is the new big, as in small plates and small spaces. Bigger is also the new big, as in bigger steaks and bigger selections.

In a world full of dichotomy and diversity, it should be no surprise that these ideas coexist, at least when it comes to restaurants.

During 2012, Daily Herald restaurant critics fanned out across the suburbs exploring neighborhood tapas bars and family-run falafel houses, hip gastro pubs and swank steak houses. Here are the 10 spots we found served up the best meals and the best experiences over the past year.

@Bangkok Thai & Sushi

4077 W. Algonquin Road, Algonquin, (224) 569-3999; atbangkokthaisushi.com.

Entrees: $9.95 to $23.95

Hours: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Opened in 2008, this out-of-the-way spot is worth a drive for excellent Thai and Japanese food at reasonable prices. This place is sophisticated yet comfortable with tasteful, subdued decor and skilled service. Check out the rotating menu of sushi rolls and the newly added sweet chili chicken wings.

-- Carolyn Walkup

A Toda Madre

416 W State St., Geneva, (630) 845-3015, atmrestaurant.com.

Entrees: $6 to $24

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

From the people who brought you Bien Trucha (conveniently located next door), this small-to-large plates restaurant means business with an upscale spin on Mexican home cooking. Because of an outstanding cocktail program, you'd be well-advised to start with anything that features the mescal. Move on to the oysters and Hamachi, then to the handmade sopes with braised chicharron, and don't overlook the large plates, especially the Slagel Farm asado. Recently opened for lunch; reservations strongly recommended.

-- Izidora Angel

The Bank Restaurant

121 W. Front St., Wheaton, (630) 665-2265, thebankwheaton.com.

Entrees: $19 to $39

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Classic and new American share the menu at this comfortable, lively spot in a converted 1800s bank (imagine that!). The extensive menu makes this a great stop for families and groups. A full bar with creative cocktails, craft beer and acoustic music on the weekends makes it hard to leave.

-- Deborah Pankey

Bistro Dragon

644 Meacham Road, Elk Grove Village, (847) 895-6141, bistrodragon.com.

Entrees: $7.50 to $14.50

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

With its rich woods and bamboo decor, this restaurant set in a strip mall at the corner of Meacham and Biesterfield roads offers a surprisingly peaceful and Zen ambience. This aesthetic is applied to the presentation of the food as well. Specializing in "contemporary sushi and Chinese food," the menu is eclectic and surprising with everything from traditional fare like chow mein and egg rolls to more elaborate creations like the Golden Dragon sushi roll. The latter dish, artfully presented, features salmon and cilantro with apples and cucumber topped with tuna and mango and sprinkled with, of all things, real gold flakes.

-- M. Eileen Brown

Chama Gaucha

3008 Finley Road, Downers Grove, (630) 324-6002, chamagaucha.com.

Entrees: All-you-can-eat; $24.50 for lunch; $39.50 for dinner.

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Meat lovers rejoice in Chama Gaucha, a protein fest where dinner is a show, thanks to sword-wielding gauchos and tableside service. Truth be told, the many cuts of meat start to blur together, but the salty, spit-roasted piranha (garlicky prime sirloin) stands out. Killer condiments -- including notable chimichurri -- up the ante. Of course, vegetarians aren't exactly left in the cold. The central salad bar is stocked with goodies, including blanched asparagus and shards of nutty Parmesan, carved from a massive wheel.

-- Jennifer Olvera

French Quarter New Orleans Kitchen

44 Yorktown Center, Lombard, (630) 495-2700, fqrestaurant.com.

Entrees: $12 to $40

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Opened in late 2011, this upscale New Orleans-inspired restaurant bathed in purples and golds features live music, excellent cocktails, beads by the ton and art by College of DuPage students. Food-wise, it's the usual suspects like gumbo, étouffée and beignets, but a creative, seasonal menu also adds gems like a pair of irresistible crawfish arancini, a juicy Berkshire pork chop without a boring bite in it, and a superb Amish fried chicken. This gem offers a late-night kitchen that stays open until 2 a.m. on Saturdays as well as Sunday brunch.

-- Izidora Angel

Middleton's On Main

110 S. Main St., Wauconda, (847) 526-6433, middletonsonmain.com.

Entrees: $10.95 to $27.95

Hours: Kitchen open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (bar open until midnight); 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (bar open til 2 a.m.)

Food is surprisingly good at the newest restaurant to occupy this historic building dating from 1847 that has housed many short-lived restaurants. Billed as a gastro pub, Middleton's serves some outstanding dishes, including day boat scallops on roasted garlic mashed potatoes with gremolata and green basil oil and smoked salmon, goat cheese and avocado quesadillas with mango masala salsa.

-- Carolyn Walkup

Near Restaurant

108 Barrington Commons Court, Barrington, (847) 382-1919, near-restaurant.com.

Entrees: $22 to $25

Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Chef/owner Gaetano Nardulli displays an eclectic mix of contemporary Mediterranean and California/Italian fare that is flavorful, original and different. Many small plates allowed us to try more dishes than we normally could in a traditional restaurant. Nardulli has worked at some high-profile urban restaurants, including Spiaggia and Schwa in Chicago, experience that has served him well at his own place.

-- Carolyn Walkup

Park Tavern

5433 Park Place, Rosemont, (847) 349-5151, parktavernrosemont.com.

Entrees: $11 to $33

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday

They call it a gastro pub, I call it a place with great beer (dozens of brews on tap) and great food (like the daily mac and cheese to the Mexibano sandwich to the tummy-pleasing gooey butter cake). Its well-appointed (and well-stocked) bar is a place where you can join friends for happy-hour nibbles, and the comfortable (if a bit loud) dining room can accommodate families and festive groups. It's the type of spot where you want everyone to know your name.

-- Deborah Pankey

Saranello's Ristorante Italiano

601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, (847) 777-6878, saranellos.com.

Entrees: $11.95 to $38.95

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner: 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

With chef Mychael Bonner at the helm of this Lettuce Entertain You concept, Saranello's serves up a perfect blend of Italian comfort food and contemporary takes on classics. All the pasta -- from the gnocchi to the cavatelli to the lasagna noodles -- are made by hand and the rolling wine cart provides an opportunity to sample before you commit.

-- Deborah Pankey

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