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Restaurant Tours: food without a country

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Ursula Davids, matriarch of the family that runs Pastiche restaurant, likes to call its food "cuisine without borders." You might have inferred something like that from the name, just as the name of Stewart Parsons's restaurant, Gypsy, suggests the chef's culinary meanderings across national and cultural frontiers.

Both of these relatively new spots are heavily into gastronomic multiculturalism, offering menus that might have emerged from a fine restaurant in Blade Runner--if there was a fine restaurant in Blade Runner.

Like so many new American (and international) chefs, the creators of the menus at these spots take ideas from anywhere on earth, whether they be in the form of seasonings, cooking techniques, or specific regional and ethnic dishes. The real melting pot is the cooking pot.

The downside of this kind of internationalism, of course, is a loss of character. The finest restaurant in Florence could easily be French or Belgian; what is perhaps the most brilliant restaurant in Vienna is neither very Viennese nor German. All this is the legacy of what we once called nouvelle cuisine, which quickly became an international cuisine.

Cross-culturalism isn't limited to the fancy places, either. Lots of otherwise basic American restaurants offer pizzas in classic or designer versions, Italian-style fried calamari, Greek salads. Then there are the targeted efforts, such as French-Japanese crossovers or Asian-Italian attempts.

Pastiche and Gypsy, however, have an even more free-swinging approach. Pastiche offers dishes that range from Thai noodle preparations to pierogi to potato pancakes to Vera Cruz fish to a batch of Florida-Caribbean platters. Gypsy is more apt to incorporate several regional or ethnic approaches into one dish, such as placing a classic Portuguese clam-and-sausage dish atop a heap of homemade linguine or simmering a good old American pot roast in a broth of Italian portabella mushrooms.

What's going on here and in other restaurants like this may form the foundation of a truly new American cuisine, idiosyncratic as these chefs may be. Needless to say, the ideas don't always jell--but they're rarely uninteresting, and the prices won't kill you at either spot.

Pastiche is on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building in a residential neighborhood: the corner of Clarendon and Montrose, once the home of a lovely little place called Mont-Claire. Take the elevator right up to the bright, scrappy entryway lined with oddball mosaics.

The layout is a little odd, too, with a somewhat cramped bar area leading to a small dining room leading to a kind of passageway with booths, plus a terrace and yet another small dining room. Ursula's son John runs the bar and the front of the restaurant; her daughter Patricia heads the kitchen. A real family affair.

If for no other reason, come here for the conch--the wonderful ocean meat that's sort of a cross between shrimp and octopus. The tender stuff comes from inside various kinds of seashells, and you find it all over the Miami-Key West-Caribbean circuit, but rarely in Chicago except at an occasional old-line Italian spot, where they call it scungilli. As an appetizer, Patricia chops it up and turns it into greaseless fritters (conch fritters are a Caribbean standard), served with zippy key-lime and mustard sauce ($4.25). Or, better yet, try it as a rich entree, panned in a light coating of corn-meal, then anointed with a really garlicky aioli (mayonnaise) sauce ($9.50).

The "yin-yang" soup ($3.25) varies seasonally but is always a pair of purees laid out in the bowl like the ancient Chinese symbol. The combination of potato-leek and curried carrot was one of the few disappointments I encountered: the former was exceedingly bland, the latter peppery hot without complexity, overpowering the carrots. Oysters baked in vodka with a cornmeal crust ($5.50) also went far to the bland side, but the Jamaican jerk chicken legs ($3.50) simply sparkled with flavor, and a papaya and shrimp salad dressed with soy ($6) lived up to its promise.

What really hit the spot was a simply grilled slab of tuna, done rare as asked, with a dressing of grapeseed oil and soy sauce ($13). A dish called "Pork and Bings" ($11)--which matched up nice chunks of pork with, yes, Bing cherries--rang no special bells for us, but the accompanying potato pancakes (also available as a starter for $3) had that home-cooked onion flavor and firm texture.

Stewart Parsons, who tried with little success to create an East-West cuisine at the departed Eurasia, fared much better as one of the revolving-door string of chefs at Gordon and did a bang-up job at Bistro 110. On his own for more than a year now, he's been running Gypsy, two big rooms on two levels, in the heart of Streeterville.

We dug right into the "tart flambe," which is really a kind of Provencal pizza, its thick but flaky crust supporting a lush mix of bacon and leeks bound with just the right amount of melted Gruyere cheese ($5.95).

Another starter, called "studded" mushrooms, was big mushroom caps stuffed with a mix of sauteed eggplant, sausage, peppers, and olives ($5.95). Kind of tasty, but the mix was so assertive that you didn't get much mushroom flavor. A couple of other dishes also showed tendencies to overseason or pile too many good things together.

Bordering on but not quite falling into this trap was the roasted-garlic ravioli ($13.95)--big, plump ones filled with both mozzarella and brie along with the sweet, rich garlic buds, and served with giant sauteed shrimp. One lovely seafood dish was just straightforward French: a couple of outsized but still tender and perfectly cooked (meaning slightly rare) scallops on a bed of sauteed spinach with a crown of just-pungent-enough roasted-garlic cream ($14.95). The lamb shank simmered in a red-wine broth ($14.95) was enough meat for two and well worth trying despite the slightly pallid lamb-caraway sausage and the overzealously seasoned ratatouille it was served with.

They tell you to save room for dessert, but the portions here make it difficult. In the name of science, however, I sampled something called a chocolate buttermilk pudding cake ($3.95), rich and chocolaty enough to give you acne just by looking at it.

Pastiche, 4343 N. Clarendon, is open Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10 PM, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11, and Sunday 11 AM to 3 for brunch and 5 to 9 for dinner. Carryouts are available; 296-4999.

Gypsy, 215 E. Ohio, is open Monday through Thursday 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM, Friday and Saturday 11:30 AM to 10 PM, and Sunday 11:30 to 9 PM (brunch is served till 3). It'll close slightly later every night once the weather warms up. Call 644-9779.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.

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