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Restaurant Tours: a country French cafe, with wolves



Even my companion, who after years of language study still accidentally booked her family into a French nudist colony, could figure out what the loup in Le Loup Cafe means. Lon Chaney would have loved this place. Wolf pictures cover the walls. There are wolf planters in the front window, and wolf T-shirts for sale. And the flip side of the menu is sort of an "everything you've ever wanted to know about wolves." It's a good idea to postpone reading about their methods of visual communication until after you've eaten.

The wolf in the photographs is actually an Alaskan malamute, the half-wolf, half-dog pet of chef Claude Laura and his wife Giselle Ward-Laura. This is the second restaurant that the Lauras have dedicated to Misty. The first Le Loup Cafe, in Wicker Park, was an upscale version with more sophisticated fare. This version, in Lakeview, opened about a year and a half ago with a menu featuring a few Middle Eastern dishes--mementos of Claude Laura's stint as a chef in the French army in Algeria--but mostly the country French comfort food that was popular 30 years ago: onion soup, cassoulet (the word comes from the glazed earthenware pot in which this Languedoc stew is cooked), boeuf bourguignon, escargots (the ancient Gauls ate snails for dessert), and those delicate pancakes called crepes, which French peasants offered to landowners as a symbol of allegiance.

Cuisine-wise, those were problematic times, but the Lauras' prices bring back the fondest of memories. Entrees average around $6 (though nightly specials are $9) and are usually accompanied by a vegetable and pasta, potatoes, or rice. If you want to up the ante by $3, share an ample portion of good, garlicky hummus with buttered toasted pita, or tasty spinach-and-feta filo pockets. The cheese-encrusted onion soup ($3) is nice, but it's outclassed by a sensational chicken-broth-based carrot soup thickened with pureed leeks, celery, onions, and lettuce ($2.50).

Because it's made with raw egg, no one should order a Caesar salad without considering the risk-reward ratio or, in my case, combat pay. Le Loup's Caesar ($3.50) is one of the few I've had lately that's worth the risk. It's that hard-to-achieve perfect blend of romaine, grated Parmesan, and garlic vinaigrette with Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice, and it's far superior to most served in more expensive restaurants. If you're chicken, there's an excellent garden salad with a creamy mustard vinaigrette dressing ($2).

As much as I hated the old pork--the greasy chops and flavorless fatty roasts of my childhood--that's how much I love the new pork. Unlike most of us, it has 50 percent less fat than 20 years ago, which puts it on a par with chicken. Imaginatively sauced, lean and tender, it's been showing up on restaurant menus all over town. Chef Laura does his to perfection, sauteeing the tenderloin in brandy, then serving it with prunes in a brandy, green peppercorn, pepper, and mustard sauce thickened with just a dash of heavy cream. Only available as a special, it's the best of the entrees we tried, and deserving of a permanent place on the menu. Another special, duck breast Madagascar, seemed mismatched with the same creamy sauce, especially since it's the new rare duck, which looks and tastes a lot like the old beef. We liked the couscous (the semolina that's a North African staple) with chicken in the tomato-based sauce favored by Algerians. It's also available with the hot-pepper-based harissa sauce Tunisians prefer. The roast chicken, although a bit dry, is nicely seasoned with rosemary, thyme, oregano, and tarragon. It comes with vegetables and french fries, but the kitchen will substitute rice or pasta on request. Give the overcooked, underseasoned boeuf bourguignon a pass.

Le Loup Cafe serves one of the smoother cappuccinos ($2) around town, and its dessert crepes ($4.50) are a special treat. For those of you too young to remember crepes suzette, they're translucent pancakes warmed in an orange-butter sauce, dusted with sugar, doused with Grand Marnier, and then ignited. For those of you who do, they're back! The strawberry crepes are just as glorious. Choose them over the white-bread boring bread pudding ($2.50) with runny caramel sauce.

Don't expect flowers or white napery at this tiny, unpretentious home away from home for wolf fetishists. It's a bare-bones operation with Formica-topped tables, paper napkins, flatware you lick off between courses, and seating for only 25 (more on the side patio in fine weather). The crowd, and there can be one, is a low-key mix of young and not so. Service is fast, friendly, and knowledgeable and, if the wolf is at your door, you'll appreciate Le Loup's lack of a liquor license. It's always cheaper to bring your own.

Le Loup Cafe, 3348 N. Sheffield, is open from noon to 10:30 Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and till 11 Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served Sundays. For more information call 248-1830.

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

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