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Article updated: 2/14/2013 2:40 PM

Seafood shows up other entrees at Fresco 21


Fresco 21 bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant "dedicated to blending the flavors of the region, while representing the distinctive cultures and cuisines of the area." And under the guidance of chef de cuisine Cameron Grant who created a menu inspired by Spain, France and Greece this Rosemont restaurant lives up to its billing.

Opened in summer 2012 and located at 5300 N. River Road at the InterContinental Hotel near O'Hare International Airport, the décor certainly hits some great notes: circular lighting fixtures made of metals or glass in metallics and blues are sophisticated, the ceilings are dramatically high and the click clack of heals on the floor add to the atmosphere. The tablecloths, a brick orange, seem the only misstep.

Hallways are expansive, framed by oversized, jovial abstract canvasses with blasts of purples and reds, leaving you with the unmistakable feeling that, yes, this is a big restaurant, in a big hotel, where guests need to be accommodated in due style.

On a recent Thursday night, the place was nearly empty, save for several businessmen and a couple. The real party, it appeared, was happening at the bar -- a more intimate space that boasts its own menu.

But Fresco 21 is also not the kind of place that needs to be packed in order to be enjoyed. A nearly impeccable service makes this easy. (Our only reservation regarding our server was that she seemed to recommend the entire menu when prompted to point out some of her favorites.)

Sectioned into hot and cold tapas, salads, pizza, from the sea, pasture and farm, the menu is easy to navigate. The wine list, an approachable offering with a range of Italian, Spanish and Californian wines by the glass and by the bottle, is on the opposite side. We chose a potent Italian red, La Spinetta Il Nero Di Casanova, at the not-shy price of $15 a glass.

Charcuterie, poached shrimp, grilled hangar steak -- the tapas were aiming high. But so were the pizzas, it seemed: lamb meatball, baba ganoush, mozzarella chili oil. And these were toppings on just one of the half-dozen or so available.

We opted for simpler fare to start, but the cold tapa of carpaccio was, unfortunately, a rather flat rendition. The lightly seared, barely there filet lacked vibrancy and was completely overpowered by the accompanying roasted walnut halves. Two rows of halved green grapes did little to add to what wasn't there.

But, in what would wind up a recurring theme, a taste of the seafood completely turned things around. The hot tapa we picked -- two shrimp and leek cakes, spongy and soft, set over a relish-like jaunty yellow curry sauce and crowned with a delicate sunny side up quail egg -- became the perfect warm bite and, at the completely reasonable price of $7, couldn't be further from the more pricey carpaccio.

Entrees, like the appetizers, saw an inexplicable disparity between meat and seafood. Short ribs featured a very attractive hunk of meat ladled with a wine reduction, accompanied by the textural combination of sautéed spinach, a heap of battered onions and root vegetables, the last diced so small that arranging them on the fork seemed an exercise in punishment.

All that wouldn't have made a difference had the short ribs not fallen so far below expectation. What should have been fork-tender meat was instead a struggle to cut, leaving us with the impression that the meat was either undercooked or old.

But a citrus-encrusted seared tuna proved a 180-degree turn again -- coming alive in all the ways the short ribs hadn't. Cooked a perfect medium-rare, with subtle citrusy notes aided by a bright saffron cream -- its arresting yellow color not unlike the curry relish of the shrimp and leek cakes -- the tuna was a hit. Several fingerling potatoes, spinach and a dusting of fennel added body, color and even more flavor.

Desert options too were ambitious. There were the acacia honey panna cotta candied pistachios figs, a handful of house gelati, a tiramisu cheesecake. We went with the chocolate mousse -- a simple but satisfying option to share between two people.

Ÿ Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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