As a lover (and heavy-handed user) of garlic, I found myself delighted in Aba, the immensely popular West Loop follow-up to River North’s Ema. The pungent flavor wove its way through our meal, from the cool, tangy beet tzatziki ($9) to the plump curls of kanpachi ($13) begging to be dragged through their pool of green sauce, bursting with bold peppery notes and rich garlicky bite. We sopped up every drop.
Executive chef C.J. Jacobson has allowed himself more freedom here, where meaty butcher cuts and crudo join spreads, kebabs and seafood small plates at the California-influenced homage to Mediterranean cuisine. While Ema (which means “mother” in Hebrew) focuses on vegetables, its “father” counterpart expands into proteins in a lovely way. For his take on steak shawarma ($20), Jacobson drew inspiration from the Mexican derivative, al pastor. He layers bright flavors to buoy the tender slices of steak, served medium-rare and cut thicker than the traditional street food-style shavings of shawarma. “We keep the deep, long-marinated spices of shawarma and add a lot of orange and citrus,” he explains. “These dishes are something you understand, but they’re a little different. It’s more authentic to who we are.”
Across the board, the flavors at Aba are fun and vary widely. Cocktails run from the stiff Green St. Manhattan ($14), a Buffalo Trace bourbon-based concoction tinged with citrus-heavy Cinzano sweet vermouth and blackstrap molasses, to the nicely balanced mango G&T ($13). For something finer, Aba has classic cocktails made with high-end spirits. Among them, the 5th Generation Margarita ($28) combines Fortaleza Still Strength tequila with Grand Marnier Cuvée Centenaire.