The last thing the West Loop really needs is another big, trendy restaurant - but that doesn’t stop them from appearing. And Aba certainly falls into this category. Your personal opinion on it will depend at least a little on your patience for crowds, celebrity chefs, and sports cars being dropped off at the valet. But Aba also happens to have very good food, which is why it’s worth checking out the next time you’re in the mood for a sceney meal.
It’s inevitable to be compared to your sibling, so we’re going to get this out of the way - Aba is the sister restaurant to Ema in River North. They have the same head chef, they’re owned by the same restaurant group, and they both serve Mediterranean small plates. But where Ema went to Brown on a scholarship, Aba spent the summer in Ibiza - and just stayed there. You pass a bouncer before taking an elevator to the restaurant, there’s a huge dining room with two bars and a loungey rooftop patio, and wherever you’re sitting, you’ll be surrounded by an awful lot of dressed-up pretty people.
So yes, Aba is a scene - but it’s a scene that comes with fantastic food. Most things on the menu are meant to be shared, but some are so good that you won’t really want to. For example, all of the hummuses and spreads (like the spicy hummus or the sweet muhammara), and the fantastic fresh-baked pita they come with. The kefalotiri might be our new favorite fried cheese - it’s deliciously sharp and salty - and some of the larger meat and seafood plates are must-orders (specifically the leg of lamb with cinnamon and dates, and the harissa-crusted halibut that’s perfectly spiced).
Besides the excellent Mediterranean food, there are some other things you can count on when you’re here. When it’s crowded (which is most of the time), expect long waits, a hectic atmosphere, and groups of loud people moving around the space. In other words, a typical clubby restaurant/occasional sh*tshow. If this is a dealbreaker, plan on coming here earlier in the night, or just go to Ema instead.
The celebrity chef restaurant situation in Chicago is kind of like a magician’s scarf. These places just keep coming, and on the surface, a lot of them can look pretty similar. The good news about Aba is that - as long as you don’t mind a little bit of a party - its delicious food makes it more than worth your time.
Spreads and Hummus
Spreads and hummuses make up a large portion of the menu here, and we’ve liked every single one we’ve tried. Our favorite hummus is the spicy one (made with chickpeas and fresno chiles), and the version topped with short rib ragu is great, too. The sweet and spicy muhammara (roasted peppers with chili, walnuts, and a sweet pomegranate molasses) is another standout. What we’re saying is that we could come here and happily just eat the spreads.
Charred Lamb Tartare
There’s too much lime juice in this dish - it overwhelms the lightly charred meat and makes the whole plate very wet. And the lettuce cups served on the side don’t improve things. Skip this.
Unlike the lamb tartare, this dish - thin strips of tuna served with pickled red peppers and mustard seeds - has a great balance of acidity. It’s delicious and refreshing.
Arugula and Iceberg Salad
How much you like this salad will depend on how much you like oregano and iceberg lettuce, because it has a lot of both. It also has hazelnuts, dates, and graviera cheese. We’re not fans.
Essentially a large everything bagel, served with a whipped labneh and honey mixture. The bagel is good, but we’d be happy just eating the labneh with a spoon.
Don’t order this dish if you plan on doing any close-talking - the marrow is roasted with scallions and a very strong anchovy salsa. But it tastes fantastic. Our only real complaint about this dish is that the pita it’s served with is too thin for the marrow - we suggest saving some bagel for this instead.
We’re no strangers to the glory of fried cheese - we’re in the land of cheese curds, after all. And this pan-fried Greek cheese dish is indeed glorious: salty, crispy, and a little spicy thanks to some chile.
Toasted Sesame Shrimp
This fried shrimp dish is dry, and the green harissa sauce it’s served with doesn’t add enough flavor or moisture. Overall, this tastes like something you’d eat at the state fair rather than in the Mediterranean.
Leg of Lamb
The lamb here is wrapped in eggplant, and served in a tomato sauce with dates. It’s cinnamony and slightly sweet. It will make you think of fall.
This is a straightforward meat and potatoes dish. Kind of boring, yes. Tasty, also yes.
This will make you happy. The halibut is moist and flavorful, and the harissa crust gives it a nice amount of spice.
There are a few different kebabs on the menu - chicken, salmon, and a lamb and beef kefta. They’re all well-spiced, and they come with perfectly cooked basmati rice. Order at least one for the table.