Fresco 21, 5300 N. River Road in Rosemont IL, sits right next to the Intercontinental Chicago O’Hare Hotel, so you know it’s by the airport. It’s easy to get to via the Kennedy and quick, as long as you’re not traveling anywhere around rush hour. The website describes it as “a modern Mediterranean restaurant experience” and I’d say that’s well said.
The décor is modern, definitely. Handsome, subdued lighting but bright enough to read comfortably by. The kitchen is open, but the dining room is expansive. We didn’t feel we were sitting too close. Tables are beautifully set with lots of space between so we didn’t feel our conversation could be overheard.
The service put me in mind of some of the old-fashioned high-end Italian restaurants I’ve been to in the past. Our server was attentive and was happy to suggest items for us to choose from the eclectic menu. And he brought us a plate of complimentary duck breast slices dabbed with a bit of Brie—dramatically served on a long rectangular platter with graceful lines of sauce tying the pieces together visually.
The Fresco wine list, printed on the back of the dinner menu, features a clearly carefully chosen selection of whites, reds, sparklings and Reserves. Plus they include a nice list of wines by the glass. Ask your server for recommendations. We were pleased with our server’s suggestion of a Tuscan wine called La Spinetta Il Nero Di Casanova—it worked very well with both our dinners.
The dinner menu, inspired by Fresco’s Chef de Cuisine Cameron Grant, gives the nod to many modern combinations and also takes a fresh approach to some classic dishes. Descriptions of the cold and hot tapas selections—all reasonably priced from $4 to $6—really tease the imagination.
Cold tapas plates range from smoked duck breast (with gorgonzola and pomegranate molasses), shrimp (with fennel and avocado), chilled melon (with prosciutto and parmigiano), and burrata cheese (served with heirloom tomato, arugula and black pepper croutons) to simple dishes like candied nuts and marinated olives. Hot tapas choices range from spicy Tunisian chicken wings with blood orange yogurt (how unique!), wood-fired mussels (with chorizo, tomato, herbs and garlic butter), and steak fries with rosemary aioli to Greek meatballs with tzatziki, grilled hanger steak with goat cheese, and calamari (with salsa verde and grilled lemon). What fun to be able to savor such cool combinations of flavors for such a reasonable price.
My colleague couldn’t resist the lure of the classic—onion soup was a special that day. They brought her a bowl of very beefy soup—more like beef consommé as the base rather than broth. Though there weren't a ton of onions, the flavor was there. The also-unconventional gratinee consisted of a small piece of bread with a thin slice of parmigiano melted on it—not the overkill you get in many places.
I had the sesame encrusted ahi tuna—simple and fresh on its own, it was garnished with a couple of spoonfuls of delicious gazpacho-flavored heirloom tomato chunks. I wanted to lick that plate clean. We split the calamari—a generous order that was lightly crisp with the grilled lemon a surprisingly pleasant touch.
Our salads—again, reasonably priced at $5 and $6—were good. My companion appreciated her field greens with feta, tomato, cucumber, red onion, olives and peppers set off with a simple, spicy Greek dressing. My own spinach salad boasted roasted beets, toasted almonds, goat cheese and strawberries with an herb-y honey-basil vinaigrette. Enjoyed every bite.
We passed on the pizza selections ($11 to $14), but they looked intriguing—unique choices like shrimp with basil and that amazing-sounding burrata cheese (see link above), Greek meatballs (with baba ganoush, cheese, peppers, and olives), and others with figs, wild mushrooms with triple cream brie, and Italian sausage with cream shallot, parmigiano, fontina and a sunnyside-up egg. May have to go back some time just to try one of these.
Main courses (priced from $21 for paella to $49 for the 20-ounce Delmonico steak with Madeira wild-mushroom veal essence) include items from the Sea, the Pasture, and the Farm. I loved my diver scallops, beautifully cooked and served with tomato, olives, garlic, oregano, olive oil and served atop wonderful cream-and-butter enhanced whipped potatoes. We both agreed her pan-roasted halibut was excellent, cooked to a T with lemon, capers, avocado and roasted garlic and served with asparagus and a nicely crisp fresh chive potato cake.
Some Fresco desserts offer more intriguing combinations of flavors. My panna cotta was milky, silky smooth, and light, and it took on new dimensions when I combined bites with the accompanying candied pistachios and figs. My companion loved the Bailey’s-Irish-Cream-flavored sauce on her tiramisu cheesecake. It was a Friday evening and we dined early, so the place wasn't crowded and we felt comfortable lingering with an after-dinner drink (a snifter of Courvoisier VS for $12) before we headed back out onto the highway.
If you’re in town for business or on the town for fun near the airport - the InterContinental O’Hare Hotel's Art Museo has rotating visual arts exhibits right next door - and you want to treat yourself to a creatively prepared and beautifully presented (love their oversized plates!) dinner at a full-service, elegant but unpretentious restaurant, you can’t go wrong with Fresco 21. Even if you just want to enjoy some unique tastes and are near the airport, head over, order a glass of wine and try a couple of the creative, very reasonably priced items on their hot and cold tapas menu.