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Monday, April 22

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Airbags

People who claim they don't have any guilty pleasures are liars, liars, pants on fire. Even the most intellectual of human beings are programmed to engage in a bit of dumb fun now and then -- perhaps popping Justin Timberlake's "Justified" into the stereo, pouring over the celeb-ridden pages of "US Weekly" or settling on the couch for this week's all-new "Alias" -- to keep from going insane. (Not that I, ahem, would do any of these things; I'm just trying to set the scene.)

As far as culinary guilty pleasures go, I would have to say that Ezuli is at the top of my list: I know I shouldn't like it, but I do. Wicker Park's casual Caribbean/Jamaican-themed nightspot is far from perfect, but there is something ultimately enchanting about this establishment that makes me return again and again.

For one thing, I have yet to find food of this sort anywhere else. Ezuli's menu is short but sweet, offering up a few eclectic stand-out items that should make even the most critical of foodies take notice. The bruschetta is one such item: Soft toast is spread with a thin layer of peanut butter and then topped with thin slices of fresh mango and red onions, and sprinkled with bleu cheese. Sound weird? You bet. I can't tell you how many times I have ordered this dish and watched the faces of my dining companions crinkle up in disgust. But after trying this wonderfully salty/sweet/sticky concoction, I know all would stand by me when I say that this dish is a true (albeit odd) winner.

The jerk chicken -- whether in sandwich form or sliced atop a fresh, green salad -- is another Caribbean-inspired item that is definitely worth a mention. The chicken's marinade is sweet, yet has a mellow kick -- an ideal compliment to cilantro mayo (in the sandwich) or citrus vinaigrette (salad). And since we are already confessing to unhealthy obsessions, I suppose this would be an appropriate time to declare my extreme feelings of a non-platonic nature for Ezuli's sweet potato fries (which accompany the sandwiches and burgers). This side dish -- thin strips of salty fried sweet potato -- can satisfy my sweet and salty cravings all at the same time. I've heard some people complain that the fries are too limp, but to me they are perfect.

The short list of entrees is also creative, including a tasty Tobago vegetable curry over coconut rice and peas and a Jamaican catfish served with spicy salsa. One of my favorites is the tuna cooked rare and infused with a light tangerine vinaigrette and served a top a black bean salsa.

While I am prepared to argue that the flavor and consistency of the food are impressive, I can't honestly say that Ezuli's offerings deserve to be priced so high. At $9 each, the sandwiches and burgers aren't terribly unreasonable, but the entree portions are so small that the $11-$13 price tags seem ridiculous. My tuna dish (mentioned above), was delicious, but at $14, I expect much more food on my plate. If this place lowered their prices by about $2 per dish, I could rightfully move this place off my "guilty pleasures" list and on to my "excellent dining experiences" list.

Ezuli's décor and atmosphere also does not score originality points with me. The "trendy" storefront space is all-too typical of what you find everywhere up and down Milwaukee Avenue -- dark walls, exposed brick, sporadically placed artwork -- and at night, the place is so dark you can barely read the menu. Yet, for all my complaints about the generic "hipness," I will admit that the staff is very down-to-earth and friendly, quite the anomaly along this strip.

Bottom line: Is Ezuli the greatest place on earth? Not by a long shot. But it does qualify as the perfect guilty pleasure to get your fix of rum-soaked martinis, world beats and Caribbean cuisine. And, I guarantee the wait for a table will be tremendously shorter (if not nonexistent) than at such neighboring places like Rodan and Thyme Cafe.

So go ahead: Try Ezuli and like it. Savor the sweet potato fries and order another mango martini. Cheer loudly when Jennifer Garner's character finally gets back together with Michael Vartan's character at the end of the season. There is absolutely no reason to be ashamed.

Ezuli is located at 1415 N. Milwaukee. It is closed Mondays.

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