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Restaurant Tours: Spruce's White House connection

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Bill Clinton isn't really a junk food junkie, says Keith Luce, who ought to know. Luce spent the past two years as the White House sous chef, feeding Bill, Hillary, Chelsea, and thousands of their closest friends. Now he's the executive chef at Spruce, the smart new Streeterville eatery.

Do not, however, expect him to verify the story that Hillary bops Bill with the crockery. Not only won't he say a word about their personal lives, he won't even reveal much about the meals he fed them.

"It's not like it's a CIA thing, but we really aren't supposed to discuss what we did while working there," says Luce, his boyish face showing just a touch of color. "Though I will say that in all the time I was there, I never made a hamburger or even saw any of the family eating one."

How about all Bill's stops at McDonald's while out jogging and schmoozing? "He never really ate there. All he had was coffee. A lot of what you hear is just not true," he says.

Don't expect to find any White House dinners on the menu at Spruce. "Obviously my style is the same, but the meals here are less formal." He admits to only one overlap. At his most memorable White House dinner, prepared for Leah Rabin shortly after her husband's assassination, Luce served a soup similar to the creamless Jerusalem artichoke soup on the current menu. (He will divulge that Hillary "really loves" artichokes.)

The 27-year-old Long Island native found his way to the White House through the kitchens of some of New York's best restaurants, including La Cote Basque and Le Cirque. He also was cochef of the Tavern Room at the posh Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where he met Walter Scheib, who moved on to become White House chef and eventually brought Luce aboard.

"I loved working there, but I felt after two years I wanted to get back to restaurants," Luce says. "A mutual friend of Dan's and mine got us together, and I did a tasting for him. The project was really exciting."

"Dan" is his boss, Dan Sachs--all of 28. The project, of course, was Spruce. The huge underground space of the old Moosehead Bar on East Ontario has been converted into a dining room with an exposed-beam ceiling and nearly a dozen massive rough-hewn wood pillars, which contrast nicely with the elegant white tablecloths and upholstered booths and banquettes. Windows looking out on the sidewalk help to avert the claustrophobic feel that plagues most below-ground restaurants.

Sachs has worked in both the kitchens and fronts of major restaurants in London and the U. S. since his college days at Harvard. Most recently he was manager at Spiaggia, the Levy Brothers' Italian spot high above Michigan Avenue. At Spruce he works the front of the house, which is truly an engaging operation thanks to what Luce calls his "new American" cooking, which draws from everywhere on the globe.

One of his most popular dishes is salmon tartare, which he cures with sake ($8). He also rides the crest of the new wave with ingredients such as taro root, which he makes into cakes, giving that bland Hawaiian mush some real flavor. The cakes are the base for his fine grilled salmon entree, which also includes an excellent array of mixed roasted veggies ($18.50). Elsewhere you'll find fava beans, pancetta, quinoa--the exotic grain once grown only in the Andes but now farmed in the States--and chipotle peppers, which Luce blends with garlic to infuse into his whipped potatoes.

Starters well worth returning for include the lush terrine with chunks of New York foie gras, the richness of which is cut just a bit by caramelized mango relish ($11), and Luce's homemade smoked chicken sausage, paired with marinated spaghetti squash ($6). The Jerusalem artichoke soup is also a joy, enhanced by a small hill of duck confit in the center of the bowl ($5.50). (Leah Rabin's soup had risotto.) The only disappointment is the lobster meat and shaved fennel appetizer accompanied by cheese crisps that are very salty and otherwise inappropriate to the sweetness of the seafood ($10).

An entree of seared prawns is fresh and tasty, set off well by the accompanying salad of sweet peas and quinoa, served in the classic Italian manner: touched with only a light drizzle of fine olive oil ($21.50). Luce serves a wonderful but underutilized cut of steak, the boneless rib, which has more true beef flavor than any filet and most sirloins, yet it's still quite tender ($22). He presents this good-size, char-marked beef over a ragout of sweet potatoes, fava beans, and pancetta. It's worth every bit of cholesterol.

Other nice combinations include the littleneck clams and leeks served with steamed snapper ($20) and the crispy vegetable chips that come with a tasty Indiana duck breast ($19.50). You can also get the chips as a side ($4), as well as the chipotle and garlic mashed potatoes ($4), which usually come with the roast lamb.

Desserts ($6) range from the offbeat, such as cherry and polenta pudding with mascarpone sorbet, to the sinful, a warm espresso chocolate cake with a liquid center. We opted for a slightly tart sweet, a napoleon of lemon and chevre cheese accompanied by dollops of rhubarb compote.

Spruce, at 238 E. Ontario, is open for lunch Monday through Friday and for dinner every night except Sunday. Call 642-3757 for reservations.

--Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Keith Luce and photo of "Spruce" by Randy Tunnell.

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