Sean Kelly knows his way around the Mediterranean, and his Aubergine Cafe navigates a delicious course through the region's varied cuisines. Aubergine's menu not only hits on all of the major cooking styles found in that part of the world, but it does so using local ingredients -- a philosophy that captures the Mediterranean spirit just as much as the recipes do. Although most of the dishes are classics, Kelly updates them with style, and so the grilled Moroccan free-range chicken breast over saffron couscous is sided with a roasted-fennel-and-eggplant-tomato chutney, and pan-roasted halibut sits on a soft bed of crab "gumbo" with housemade, Old Bay-seasoned potato chips and a textbook rouille. All of these delights are served in a dining room that is at once romantic and casual, a bistro in every sense, with the colors of Provence and Tuscany mixing with the smells of the sea. And with a staff as accommodating as a Greek family at their daughter's wedding, this is one club Med we should all join.

Now that bread puddings have become as ubiquitous on dessert menus as crème brûlée and cheesecake, it's tough to find one that stands out -- but Radex's does. Not surprisingly, the pastry chef at this hip spot offers a hip variation on the standard, taking a sour cream-enriched cornbread and turning it into a cross between old-fashioned spoonbread and fruit-filled polenta, a bundle of warm goodness bearing the flavors of pears, blueberries and raisins. It's sort of sweet, a little tart, very rich and, topped with vanilla ice cream, downright sinful. Bread alert!

Now that bread puddings have become as ubiquitous on dessert menus as crème brûlée and cheesecake, it's tough to find one that stands out -- but Radex's does. Not surprisingly, the pastry chef at this hip spot offers a hip variation on the standard, taking a sour cream-enriched cornbread and turning it into a cross between old-fashioned spoonbread and fruit-filled polenta, a bundle of warm goodness bearing the flavors of pears, blueberries and raisins. It's sort of sweet, a little tart, very rich and, topped with vanilla ice cream, downright sinful. Bread alert!

Carmine's on Penn
Mark Antonation
We've got an offer -- and a restaurant -- you can't refuse. After six years and a few management changes, Carmine's on Penn has finally hit its stride. Not only is this one of the best family-style eateries around, it's also the best Italian, any style. The atmosphere is welcoming, the servers efficient, the wine list impressive, and the food incredible. These dishes are all about vibrant flavors, well-cooked pastas, tender, tasty meats and huge portions that are suitable for sharing like a big Italian family in the middle of the hustle-bustle dining room or out on the spacious, inviting patio. This is upscale Italian at low-scale prices. Start with a platter of bruschetta and anything the blackboard lists as having balsamic on it, because Carmine's is one place that knows to use a well-aged version. And then it's off to find a new belt, because not even loosening yours a few notches could prepare you for such a feast: ravioli alla vodka, rich and filling; or a thick, ragoût-like bolognese; or veal alla Carmine's, fork-tender medallions covered with cappacola and mozzarella and then baked until it becomes as one; or gooey baked ziti; or the spicy seafood fra diavolo. Mangia, mangia.

Readers' choice: Carmine's on Penn

We've got an offer -- and a restaurant -- you can't refuse. After six years and a few management changes, Carmine's on Penn has finally hit its stride. Not only is this one of the best family-style eateries around, it's also the best Italian, any style. The atmosphere is welcoming, the servers efficient, the wine list impressive, and the food incredible. These dishes are all about vibrant flavors, well-cooked pastas, tender, tasty meats and huge portions that are suitable for sharing like a big Italian family in the middle of the hustle-bustle dining room or out on the spacious, inviting patio. This is upscale Italian at low-scale prices. Start with a platter of bruschetta and anything the blackboard lists as having balsamic on it, because Carmine's is one place that knows to use a well-aged version. And then it's off to find a new belt, because not even loosening yours a few notches could prepare you for such a feast: ravioli alla vodka, rich and filling; or a thick, ragoût-like bolognese; or veal alla Carmine's, fork-tender medallions covered with cappacola and mozzarella and then baked until it becomes as one; or gooey baked ziti; or the spicy seafood fra diavolo. Mangia, mangia.

Readers' choice: Carmine's on Penn

Tante Louise is romantic, it's charming, and the food is a francophile's dream. What more could you want from a French restaurant? Everyone's favorite aunt is about to turn thirty, and while she hasn't aged a bit, her experience shows. Duy Pham has more than filled former chef Michael Degenhart's shoes, and he's beginning to inject some of his own style into the menu. And so the classics come with a twist: duck seasoned with Chinese five-spice, roasted-red-pepper oil on pan-seared John Dory in a lobster demi-glace, mushroom leek custard with rack of venison. The wine list is wonderful, and owner/host extraordinaire Corky Douglass couldn't be more inviting. Do we still love Tante Louise? Mais oui.

Readers' choice: Le Central

Tante Louise is romantic, it's charming, and the food is a francophile's dream. What more could you want from a French restaurant? Everyone's favorite aunt is about to turn thirty, and while she hasn't aged a bit, her experience shows. Duy Pham has more than filled former chef Michael Degenhart's shoes, and he's beginning to inject some of his own style into the menu. And so the classics come with a twist: duck seasoned with Chinese five-spice, roasted-red-pepper oil on pan-seared John Dory in a lobster demi-glace, mushroom leek custard with rack of venison. The wine list is wonderful, and owner/host extraordinaire Corky Douglass couldn't be more inviting. Do we still love Tante Louise? Mais oui.

Readers' choice: Le Central

Best restaurant when someone else is paying

Papillon Cafe

It's not so much that Papillon is an outrageously priced restaurant -- in fact, the entree portion of the menu is broken down into some manageable payment plans that range from $14 to $26 -- as it is that we want to try all of the courses. We'd like to start with the decadent foie gras and the creamy potage du jour, linger through a Roquefort-drenched salade de maison, then move on to a seafood dish or perhaps the sweetbreads, until a stunning light-as-air cheesecake finally drops us to our knees -- that is, if we've finished sucking down one of the well-chosen bottles of wine from the extensive, and sometimes expensive, wine list. Trying as many things as possible at Papillon is an idea that's apparently taken off, because proprietor Radek Cerny and his chef de cuisine, Frank Kerstetter, have initiated a tasting menu that changes nightly but always costs $59 per person and includes six courses that are chosen by the chef and flawlessly executed by a snip-snap waitstaff. If the person who's paying is a suit or a date, so much the better -- Papillon is one of those rare spots that manages to mix business with pleasure, in a dining room that's comfortable for both. Tell 'em they'd better bring the platinum card. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bean counter.

Readers' choice: Morton's of Chicago

Best restaurant when someone else is paying

Papillon Cafe

It's not so much that Papillon is an outrageously priced restaurant -- in fact, the entree portion of the menu is broken down into some manageable payment plans that range from $14 to $26 -- as it is that we want to try all of the courses. We'd like to start with the decadent foie gras and the creamy potage du jour, linger through a Roquefort-drenched salade de maison, then move on to a seafood dish or perhaps the sweetbreads, until a stunning light-as-air cheesecake finally drops us to our knees -- that is, if we've finished sucking down one of the well-chosen bottles of wine from the extensive, and sometimes expensive, wine list. Trying as many things as possible at Papillon is an idea that's apparently taken off, because proprietor Radek Cerny and his chef de cuisine, Frank Kerstetter, have initiated a tasting menu that changes nightly but always costs $59 per person and includes six courses that are chosen by the chef and flawlessly executed by a snip-snap waitstaff. If the person who's paying is a suit or a date, so much the better -- Papillon is one of those rare spots that manages to mix business with pleasure, in a dining room that's comfortable for both. Tell 'em they'd better bring the platinum card. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bean counter.

Readers' choice: Morton's of Chicago

The Penrose, inside the eighty-year-old Broadmoor hotel, exemplifies old-fashioned, romantic dining. The glittery, chandelier-lit space harks back to a more refined, less harried time, with gorgeous views of Colorado Springs and the outline of Cheyenne Mountain at night (the dining room sits in the penthouse of the Broadmoor's South Tower), along with velvety chairs and exquisite china and silverware. Like your surroundings, the warm but snappy service is also designed to pamper you. And since the French have always had a thing or two to say about love, cheri, it's perfect that the menu here is a collection of rich, sensual cuisine française: veal sweetbreads and foie gras, lobster bisque and consommé, chateaubriand, turbot pot au feu. Dinner-dance music plays throughout the meal, so if you really want to make her swoon, fox-trot her around the dance floor a few times to get ready for the rest of the evening -- which could start but a few floors away, since the Broadmoor is a beautiful place to spend the night.

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