Regardless of what generations of grade-school culinary woes might suggest, cafeteria-style dining and a tasty meal are not mutually exclusive concepts. While organic food pioneers work to elevate the cuisine of educational institutions, the folks behind the upscale Fornetto Mei have brought the cafeteria to new heights at this downtown outpost.
Working with the same Italian/Asian fusion theme as its classy sister restaurant, Fornetto & Mei's Kitchen is a casual spot offering a simple, honest and refreshing answer to the pedestrian dining experience. You're given a debit card upon entering, after which you shuffle from station to station—each decorated according to the theme of its cuisine—selecting your meal components. Next, you pay at the cashier, grab a seat and wait for your meal to be delivered to your table. Asian specialties include plenty of stir-fries and enough handmade dumpling varieties to please all takers. Italian options include a wide range of panini, wood-oven pizzas and a great selection of pastas. If you're feeling more conventional, you can't go wrong with the rosemary lemon rotisserie chicken and gourmet salad bar.
Most entrees run between 10 and 15 bucks, but the view from Fornetto & Mei's Kitchen is worth a million; diners get to gawk at Grant Park from anywhere in the dining space, and warmer weather brings outside tables with better views. Plenty of enthusiasm and expertise were employed in stocking the wine bar; there's a great vintage to complement everything, though prices run high. Not that I'm complaining; after all, I don't remember ever getting to choose a wine with my school lunch.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: K. Tighe