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Revamped Nieto’s still delivers on quality

A lamb shank dinner is plated. Nieto's restaurant subject review is photographed Friday June 15 2012 HighlPark. | Richard A.

A lamb shank dinner is plated. Nieto's restaurant, the subject of a review, is photographed on Friday, June 15, 2012 in Highland Park. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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429 Temple Ave., Highland Park
(847) 432-0770:

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$15; sandwiches, $12-$14; entrees, $21-$34; dessert, $7.

Hours: Opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesday)

Try: Wild mushroom ravioli, lamb shank, Gram’s Chocolate Pudding.

Tips: Reservations accepted. Full bar. $5 valet parking available.

In a bite: Nieto’s, run by veteran restaurateurs Carlos and Debbie Nieto, is the successor to their long-running Carlos’ in Highland Park. It offers a solid menu of well-prepared American fare.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;
★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;
★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: July 23, 2012 6:01AM

By the time Carlos’ closed in late 2011, it had chalked up an enviable track record during a 30-year run, delighting diners and critics with its thoughtful take on contemporary French cuisine.

Now restaurateurs Carlos Nieto and his wife, Debbie, are continuing their winning streak in the same Highland Park location with the revamped Nieto’s, an American grill and wine bar that offers a more accessible (read less pricey) menu.

As part of the facelift, new hardwood flooring and attractive light fixtures with Edison-style bulbs dress up the intimate restaurant, which opened in February under its new name. The dining room’s familiar wood-paneled walls are intact, and many staffers, including Chef Ramiro Velasquez, are still on board.

The pared-down wine list still offers plenty from which to choose, by the glass or bottle, and serious oenophiles can inquire about the reserve list, a carryover from the venue’s days as Carlos’. Specialty cocktails are another forte of the bar.

Fresh oysters on the half shell, guacamole prepared tableside and grilled Gulf shrimp with a spicy papaya sauce are among the hot and cold appetizers. I strongly recommend the wild mushroom and spinach ravioli. The four pasta pillows came stuffed with a dense, flavorful filling topped with a drizzle of truffle sauce.

Nieto’s offers a number of salads, including a classic Caesar and a Mediterranean that brings together cheese, olive, red onion,cucumber and tomato. The dinner-size lobster Cobb salad ($19.95) was popular with a number of diners the night of my visit.

The n ine entree selections available include fish, grilled sirloin, prime bone-in pork chop, short ribs and a risotto that changes daily. Debbie’s Roasted Half Chicken, a carryover from the Carlos’ days also is available. And given proper notice, the chef may reprise old favorites no longer on the menu.

Two chef’s specials — braised lamb shank and sauteed halibut — provided proof the kitchen hasn’t lost its mojo.

The succulent lamb was falling-off-the-bone tender. It paired nicely with creamy mashed potatoes and an impressive vegetable mix of broccoli, corn, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, peas and celery. The halibut came in a deep bowl with a tasty lemongrass broth, artichokes, asparagus and carrots.

Diners also have the option of building their own prime beef burger by selecting from among several add-ons and cheese toppings. Turkey and vegetarian iterations are available, too.

A handful of tried-and-true desserts are at hand, including a plate of assorted cookies, warm chocolate lava cake, ice cream and sorbet. Gram’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Pudding, served in a Mason jar and shared with a dining partner, bore the consistency of a dense mousse. There’s no complaining about its intense chocolate kick, but I found the texture far too grainy.

NOTE: On a trial basis, Nieto’s introduced live music at its bar on June 21 with a three-piece band — something it expects to do on a regular basis. Depending on the reception, eventually it may expand its entertainment to weekends in space on the building’s second floor.

Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.

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