photo credit: Neil Burger

Sifr image


Middle Eastern

River North

$$$$Perfect For:Drinking Good CocktailsOutdoor/Patio SituationSmall Plates


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It’s a bold (and dramatic) move to name your Middle Eastern restaurant Sifr, the Arabic word for “zero” or “nothing.” It’s also practical—under-promising and over-delivering is a solid strategy. But just one bite of juicy lamb kebab is enough to know that Sifr doesn’t need to manage expectations like a consultant angling for a full-time gig. A meal at this River North spot is the perfect middle ground between fancy and casual, and full of subtly inventive dishes that mostly deliver.

Tables and chairs and bar area at Sifr

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

View of kitchen and banquette seating and stairs up to rooftop at Sifr

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Live fire kitchen at Sifr with tables and seating in front of it

photo credit: Neil Burger

Tables and chairs and bar area at Sifr
View of kitchen and banquette seating and stairs up to rooftop at Sifr
Live fire kitchen at Sifr with tables and seating in front of it

Sifr’s “About” section says the name represents a new beginning, which makes sense since the restaurant comes from the team behind Indienne, a fine-dining Indian spot just a few blocks away. The two clearly share some DNA, although Sifr takes itself less seriously. It trades staff in crisp jackets and tableside pours for an open, live-fire kitchen, a casual dining room where house music mixes with the hum of conversation, and no white tablecloths are in sight. It all strikes a great balance of being inviting while making sure the focus stays on the food.

Food spread with multiple dishes on a table at Sifr

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

You’ll never have a boring dish. Sifr smashes together flavors and techniques from across the Middle East and North Africa to create their own unique spins on traditional cold and hot mezze, plates from the grill, and a few larger entrees. Manakish and mezze are the moves here, but as fun as blanketing your table with a California king-sized quilt of dips and falafel and dukkah-crusted halloumi might be, try to save room for some of the large plates, which are cooked perfectly. Standouts like the lamb adana kebab or the grilled maitake mushroom in a peppery sauce hit the sweet spot of spice, smoke, and char. Seasoning can be hit-or-miss, though. A chicken tagine floats in an olive sauce so salty it could double as the Dead Sea. And a wagyu kebab tastes like a mouthful of cinnamon sticks, though not in the pleasant cup-of-Christmas-morning-coffee kind of way.

Front bar at Sifr, with open shelving, lots of plants, and big bright windows

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Sifr’s food is meant to be shared, which makes it an especially good choice for a group dinner with people who expect you to do the planning. Reservations for Friday and Saturday book up quickly, but a table during the week is manageable on short notice. And if you can’t bear the thought of giving up a single piece of manti, the large front bar is a lovely environment for a leisurely solo meal. It’s a welcome option in a neighborhood not really known for its subtlety. Settle in with a cocktail, and prepare to give Sifr an “exceeds expectations” for its annual review.

Food Rundown

Bowl of muhammara with a side of pita

photo credit: Kim Kovacik


Smoky and rich, complemented by pops of acid from pomegranate seeds. Considering how much the table will ooh and ahh over this dish, walnut allergy-having friends may decide to risk their lives.
Mound of mashed eggplant topped with confit tomatoes and pine nuts on a layer of labneh with pita on the side

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Tunisian Eggplant

Ultra-smooth labneh is a bed for a mound of mashed eggplant topped with confit tomatoes and pine nuts. A hint of spice, coupled with the tang from the yogurt, makes this a refreshingly light mezze.
Plate of four falafel with pickled vegetables

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Herb Falafel

Crunchy on the outside, these quenelle-like falafel are surprisingly soft and fluffy on the inside. They come with fantastic harissa tahini and pickled vegetables—be prepared to order extra.
Plate of three charred maitake mushrooms sitting in a yellow bell pepper sauce

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Maitake Mushroom

Yes, this dish might look like pine cones that survived a forest fire. But flavor-wise, it’s one of the best things on the menu. Blackened mushrooms work well with the bell peppery sauce balanced by bright hits of lemon. It’s earthy, delicious, and you won’t smell like smoke afterward.
Plate of five pieces of grilled chicken shish taouk topped with microgreens

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Chicken Shish Taouk

Everything about this plate of chicken is just right. The chunks of meat are juicy and tender, and each piece is coated in a marinade (which tastes vaguely like tikka masala and mint chutney) that’s charred to perfection.
Bowl of three manti in a butternut squash sauce

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Summer Pea And Fava Manti

Dumplings are delicious, and Chicago has a lot of great ones. The manti in a silky butternut ashta at Sifr are a contender for our new favorite in the city. Delicate wrappers encase a creamy cheese-pea-fava filling that’s so good, we don’t mind that the overall plate leans sweet and cinnamony.
Plate with a whole grilled sea bass with half a grilled lemon

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

Sea Bass

The sea bass is soft and flaky (in other words, cooked really well), but lacks flavor despite the use of chermoula. It comes with a grilled lemon—use it, because this dish needs acid.

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