ROUND 1: KLEINER
The stakes: With a prescient ability to spot the city's next dining hot spots (South Loop, Randolph Street), who else could we match against restaurateur Jerry Kleiner but Kleiner himself? Though he closed South Loop's Saiko this year, he made a double comeback. Hipster lounge Victor Hotel debuted this summer but quickly garnered grumbling over its snooty, clipboard-wielding front-door sentries. This fall, it chucked its bar-bites menu for a seemingly out-of-synch all-sushi lineup. Carnivale, however, has delighted with its pan-Latin menu and rollicking, no-attitude ambience since opening in October.
The winner: Carnivale. At this party, everyone feels like she's on the guest list.
The up-and-comer: Kleiner again. Look for his new spot at 5201 S. Harper Ave. (next door to the just-revived Checkerboard Lounge) in Hyde Park to debut in 2006.
ROUND 2: SUSHI STUNTS
Kizoku Vs. Tsuki
The stakes: Sex, death and sushi? This year, Chicago decided to try its sashimi served with a side dish of scandal. In November, Kizoku made national headlines when it, uh, laid out its, uh, spread on the nearly naked body of its "sushi model" Tabitha. Purists may have rolled their eyes, but plenty ponied up $500 for the taboo treat. Not to be outdone, Lincoln Park's Tsuki announced it was serving Japanese delicacy fugu, the blowfish that can kill if not carved correctly. Two days later, after being alerted that their stock didn't meet FDA shipping practices, a red-faced Tsuki plucked fugu from the menu.
The winner: Tsuki. We'd still rather die than eat sushi from a stomach.
The up-and-comer: Look for more cooked, old-school Japanese traditions to join the raw: kaiseki at Mastusmoto, a teppan grill at Kohan and yakitori at soon-to-open Mizu.
ROUND 3: SALUMI STANDOFF
Francesca's Forno Vs. Osteria Via Stato
The stakes: Forno, a downscale Wicker Park spinoff from the sturdy, reliable Mia Francesca, tweaked a familiar formula just enough to retain credibility with longtime fans, but also lured a hipper crowd with lighter servings (and prices) of imported cheeses, pizzas, salumi (cured meat like prosciutto di parma) and antipasti. Osteria, which recently launched an adjacent small plate-serving enoteca, pairs the formidable skills of Tru chef Rick Tramanto and the resources of powerhouse Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
The winner: In this evenly matched face-off, we think Forno's cool crowds and fast-paced plates give it the edge.
The up-and-comer: Slated to debut Dec. 6, Quartino has an ace up its sleeve: small plates complemented by cheap pours of imported wine ($4.50 for 8.5 ounces).
ROUND 4: GASTROBARS
Landmark Vs. Luxbar
The stakes: Persnickety bar goers fed up with jalepeno poppers and hot wings clinked glasses to celebrate the autumn debuts of these glam gastrobars, where food doesn't take a back seat to brews. The guys behind Lincoln Park's BOKA opened Landmark to mixed reviews for lukewarm service, but bite-size bison burgers, wood-fired pizzas and tasty martinis soon hit the spot. The Gibsons group had the classic Chicago reputation behind its new Luxbar, but so-so ribs and mini-filet mignon sandwiches failed to stack up to the original's big steaks.