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Putting the Go in Gourmet

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Joncarl Lachman, executive chef of the gourmet carryout store Urban Epicure, won the San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef award in 2002. He's worked at New York's Inside restaurant with Anne Rosenzweig, the influential chef who helped marry haute cuisine to traditional American cooking. His recipes have appeared in Wine X magazine. But his latest accomplishment might seem most impressive of all: he's getting people to eat brussels sprouts.

"People hate brussels sprouts, but they love these," says Lachman. Roasted in caraway butter, the dark green globes are surprisingly crisp, like popcorn with vitamins. They're a prime example of Lachman's cuisine--comfort food that's both familiar and lavish.

Tracy Benson and her partner, Lauren Potempa, who own the store, met six years ago, when they both worked in marketing. Benson had been mulling the notion of gourmet takeout for some time; she got the idea, she says, after realizing how sick she was of saying, "It's four o'clock. What am I going to do for dinner? I don't want to go to the grocery store, I don't want to cook, I don't want fast food." At Notre Dame, where she recently earned her MBA, she spent 18 months researching the concept's feasibility as part of her final project, promising herself that after graduation she'd either fulfill her dream or forget about it. When she found the ideal space--a spacious former recording studio in the heart of her own neighborhood, Andersonville--the decision was clear.

A high wood-barrel ceiling and exposed-brick walls with lime green accents give the shop an airy chicness. Behind the glass counter, the day's entrees are displayed on square white or blue porcelain plates. The shop also sells prepackaged gourmet and artisanal foods like tubes of chili puree, jars of cherry cognac sauce, and boxes of pastel almond dragees, and locally made items like Urban Accents spices, Terry's Toffee, Red Hen bread, Cocoa Room truffles, and Cliff & Buster macaroons. A black counter with high-backed bar stools seats about 15, though most customers don't stay. Another counter curves in front of a small demonstration kitchen, where Lachman and guest instructors teach classes on, for instance, classic French sauces. Another course lets parents and children cook side by side. The store also hosts private events and offers catering and gift baskets.

Each menu item is a lush variation on a standard dish. Grilled pork chops with kumquat-garlic jam, sturgeon wrapped in prosciutto, bright green beans tossed in champagne vinegar and laced with ribbons of caramelized onion--they're what your grandmother might have made if she'd gone to culinary school. The offerings change every two weeks, though some favorites, such as the brussels sprouts and the house chicken salad, remain constant. So do the panini and sandwiches, including the Amsterdammer, a ham sandwich gone swanky on ciabatta bread with white cheddar, marinated tomato, leaf lettuce, and apricot mayonnaise. Benson's proud of the menu's range. "A customer can have a sandwich or a French double-cut pork chop with glazed turnips," she says. Prices range from $5.50 (the sandwich) to $12 (one pork chop).

Lachman, who's used to regular restaurant cooking, has had to adjust his style a bit. At restaurants, the food is consumed within minutes of being plated, but at Urban Epicure--where most customers take dishes home to store and reheat--it has to hold up to the ravages of refrigeration and microwaving. He learned early on to use walnut or olive oil instead of butter, which can congeal unattractively in refrigerated food. And instead of secluding himself in a kitchen like most chefs, he's often behind the counter, giving reheating instructions or discussing a recipe. "I'm not one of those chefs that like to hide behind walls," he says, laughing. "I'm not temperamental."

The place is busiest right after work, during the dinner rush (the store's open till 8 on weeknights). Many customers, though, are putting more than one meal into Urban Epicure's hands--some pick up several days' worth of food at a time, and women who are about to travel call up asking if they can get two weeks' worth of meals for their husbands. Its owners hope Urban Epicure is on its way to becoming a neighborhood staple. "In this economy, people feel that eating out is a treat," Benson says. "We want to be thought of as everyday."

Urban Epicure is at 1512 W. Berwyn, 773-293-3663.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Anthony Tahlier.

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