photo credit: Kim Kovacik
“Buts”—every restaurant has them. “The food is good, but I could definitely still eat a cheeseburger.” “This used to be my favorite place, but then I ran into my ex-wife here.” At its peak, Apolonia in South Loop is an exciting place to share fantastic European-inspired food. But, you have to come at the right time.
On a busy evening, Apolonia feels like a work party you actually want to be at, and happens to be hosted in a museum atrium. You can find couples drinking wine, friends who saw the black truffle puff bread on social media, and lanyard-wearing out-of-towners discussing the riveting Accounting Association Summit happening at McCormick Place nearby. You know all this because you can hear everything—there’s barely any soundproofing in the minimalist, stone-floored room. And as long as you’re not actively eavesdropping, the chatter blurs into a pleasant hum.
But the party doesn’t happen every night. When Apolonia is slow, silence becomes your unwelcome dinner guest. There’s a sense of discomfort as you try to avoid causing a ruckus—talking loudly, squeakily adjusting your chair, or triggering “Baby Got Back” to echo through the space after some errant Instagram scrolling. Throw in the eerie Orwellian omnipresence of the looming barren walls and this place starts to feel sterile and isolating.
Unsettlingly silent or not, you can always find solace in the great food. From the garlicky puff bread to plump mussels on crusty toast with a spicy calabrian butter sauce, the small plates are the highlight of the Mediterranean menu. We also love the handmade pastas, particularly the fiorentini al sugo. The tender pasta and pork sausage are bathed in a smoky tomato sauce, and topped with spicy chili oil. It's so comforting that even on a slow night, you won't care that Big Brother might be watching.
But while the shareables and pasta are consistently delicious, entrees and desserts occasionally fumble. A salty polenta accompanies the bland chicken saltimbocca, and the creme citron has the repetitiveness of a CSI marathon. The citrus curd, ice cream, and marmalade all have the same sweet and tart flavors, which become boring and predictable after a few bites.
Apolonia is a restaurant that sources its power from the energy of people. And with a little foresight and planning, you can experience this spot at its best. Come on a weekend, or check the McCormick Place calendar before making a reservation. That way you can ensure that there will be a crowd—there’s no better way to appreciate Apolonia's mussel toast and pasta than with a few friends, some wine, and a room full of financial experts enjoying the perks of having an expense account.
This is a bright, refreshing way to start your meal. The chilled yellowtail is perfectly complemented by the tartness and slight spice of a pepper gastrique. And the crisp grapes on top add welcome bursts of sweetness.
Black Truffle Puff Bread
This is a strong contender for our very unofficial award: “The Best Garlic Bread We’ve Ever Had”. The black truffle puff bread is deep fried, baked, then topped with rich truffle butter, garlic, and fragrant fried parsley. It’s a crispy yet pillowy marvel of dough engineering. Get this.
Roasted Mussel Toast
This is another must-order. A hefty tableside pour of tangy, spicy calabrian butter sauce blankets the briny mussels and crunchy toast. The flavors and textures fuse into a bite that’s similar to smoky buffalo wings that have just completed a transcontinental sea journey.
With individual pieces of lamb already skewered by toothpicks, this is an ideal shared plate. The meat is savory and spicy, and has a slight bitterness from its charred exterior. It’s nicely balanced by the sweet onions, creamy tzatziki sauce, and acid from freshly squeezed lime.
Fiorentini al Sugo
Hypebeasts eagerly waiting for the next Off-White collaboration should instead focus on the tomato sauce and chili oil collab happening in the fiorentini al sugo. The two ingredients create a smoky tang that has just the right amount of heat to keep your tongue alert. When mixed with the al dente pasta, cheese, and fragrant fennel pork sausage, each commanding forkful makes any highly anticipated sneaker release feel inconsequential.
Roasted Duck Breast
Specific versions of this dish will change, but the incredible duck is the main character, with crispy skin and savory meat. During our visit, the dish came with fried sunchokes that deserve their own spot on the small plates menu. They had a sweet and nutty interior, light and crunchy exterior, and were complemented by a fresh coriander pistou.
Despite its juiciness, the chicken is bland and relies on the prosciutto and overly salted polenta for flavor. Other than being overcome with the feeling that you might need a re-up of water to deal with the sodium intake, there’s not much else happening here. Skip this.
Egg Custard Tart
If dessert menus were multiple choice questions, this is the correct answer. The caramelized top is covered in flaky rose phyllo dough that’s exceptionally crispy and not too floral. Combined with the soft egg custard and honey ice cream, this is the lovechild of baklava and creme brulee that will make you search for a pen to sign the adoption papers.
From the curd, to the ice cream, to the marmalade, to the candied shell, this dessert does everything to make you aware that it’s citrus-themed. It’s like that coworker who just got a Peloton and suddenly started coming to work in Peloton gear just to really show that they love their Peloton. With every component hitting the same sweet and sour notes it becomes dull and monotonous.