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Restaurant Tours: Brett Knobel goes upscale

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Brett Knobel, the owner of Brett's Waveland Cafe in Lincoln Park, is a local institution. We've cheered as she mounted the barricades twice in as many years in defense of our right to decent concession food. Unfortunately, Brett's fresh-squeezed orange juice and cheddar-and-chive omelets laid an egg with the Park District, which has again recommended against renewing her contract. (Board president Richard Devine insists that no final decision has been made.) Luckily for us, it's not our heroine's only venue. Brett's Kitchen in River North has been an important tuna-melt resource for years. And now there's her newest creation, an upscale restaurant (it opened last October) near the corner of Roscoe and Damen. In a surprise move, she's called it Brett's.

Brett describes the cuisine at her new dining spot as "California only heartier, with a French influence." This means that the food relies on fresh ingredients, exotic spices, and chilis, and the chef is influenced by the newest culinary fashion, robust French regional cooking.

Brett is a disciple of Alice Waters, founding mother of California cuisine and owner of the legendary Chez Panisse. Brett's French-trained chef, Charles Socher, formerly of Chezz Chazz and Le Chardonnay, prefers the cuisine of Provence, with its abundance of garlic, tomato, and olive oil. Both cuisines rely on fresh produce, fish, and seafood. (The "panisse" in Chez Panisse actually refers to a Provencal specialty, a cake made of chickpeas or cornmeal. Like sex, it's better than it sounds.)

Brett's province is the bread, which she bakes herself. Called pain du Levant, it's supposedly the French equivalent of sourdough bread. That's like comparing Catherine Deneuve with Roseanne Barr. Brett's bread isn't even sour. It's wonderfully fresh, sweet, nutty, and far superior to that proffered by most restaurants in town, even the Corner Bakery. It's served with Greek olives and occasionally a pureed lentil and country herbs de Provence dip.

As the menu changes weekly, the bread is the only constant. I know some might consider this creative, but who doesn't like to order a favorite dish again and again? I don't want to face a future without Brett's grilled portobello mushrooms stuffed with faux fois gras (I assume she just said no to the price of goose liver), thyme, and tomato, with a Madeira wine glaze and diced red onion, pear, bell pepper, and chives ($4.95). Or her grilled honey-mustard-seed duck breast on a bed of caramelized apples with green peppercorns and potato crisps ($5.75) that looked like Pik-Niks, but tasted like heaven. Gratin (a breadcrumb crust) of James River oysters topped with sweet peppers, green onions, tomato, horseradish, orange zest, and tarragon ($6.95) wasn't far behind, followed closely by black fettucine with a mixed fresh-herb seafood hash of scallops, mussels, and yellowfin tuna with ginger, saffron, lime, and fresh cayenne chilis ($6.25). We'd like an opportunity to try the breaded goat cheese and eggplant sandwich ($5.50) with fresh basil and tomatillo salsa, comino mushrooms, lime, and mole (the spicy, dark Mexican sauce).

And I want the butternut squash soup again. (All soups are $3.95.) Flavored with sage, fried ginger, and spiced pumpkin, it's ambrosial. The garlicky mixed butternut-, spaghetti-, and acorn-squash soup laced with tomato-basil oil and onions in an herbed chicken-broth base tasted more like onion soup--OK, but not special.

I always thought I liked appetizers better than entrees because I fear intimacy, but I seem to be capable of a commitment to any one of several main courses at Brett's. The mixed grill of quail stuffed with faux fois gras with garlic quail jus, and dry-spice (turmeric, coriander, anise, black and red pepper, coffee, and garlic) rubbed pork chop with pork jus, served with Christmas lima beans ($15.95) was an odd combination, but wonderful. Savory braised lamb shanks with garlic, rosemary, lemon, and tomato on a bed of Jacob's cattle beans, with honey-roasted ham and roast potato ($11.95), melted in our mouths but stuck to our ribs on a cold winter's night. Pot-au-feu is a classic French country dish of meat and vegetables slowly cooked in broth. Socher's version successfully mingles beef, chicken, and spicy duck sausage with leeks, potatoes, mushrooms, and savoy cabbage ($12.95). It's accompanied by a dish of Dijon mustard, horseradish, and cornichons (French for gherkins) for dipping, which give it a marvelous zing--something my mother's chicken-and-matzo-ball rendition could use, although she'd say gentile zing was an oxymoron. Given the opportunity, there's no telling what depth of emotion I might muster for a marinated New York strip steak with three garnishes: parsley and basil, wild mushroom saute, and crispy Vidalia onions ($16.95). Or roast veal liver pave au poivre, wrapped in bacon with balsamic-scented onion confit, and sour orange-cranberry jus ($11.95).

All of the fish comes from Big Tuna, Inc., a wholesale outlet owned by Yoshi (a sideline to his north-side restaurant). Grilled striped bass glazed with black peppercorn sauce on a bed of lemon and fresh herbed mushrooms with rice and sauteed Belgian endive ($13.95) could make a fish eater out of anyone. Firm, juicy grilled monkfish and salmon with two relishes--tomato and bell peppers with dill, and spiced pineapple with cilantro and ginger--served with brown rice ($13.95), had a delicious citrusy tang.

Brett's desserts (all at $3.50) don't quite measure up to the rest of the food. The best was creme brulee, but even that could have used a harder, thicker crust (the search for the perfect creme brulee goes on). The lemon sponge layer cake dusted with powdered sugar in a light strawberry coulis was very nice, but the apple pound cake was dry on the inside and burnt on the outside, and the caramel nut tart served with Haagen Daz ice cream was too chewy and hard to cut.

But the desserts look better than they taste. The large front window frames a tableau of candles on a harvest table decorated with dried flower arrangements and the evening's selection of cakes and tarts. The California-French connection extends to the decor. Elaborate imported Italian verdigris chandeliers and wall sconces hung with painted grape clusters, along with black wrought-iron chairs and bar stools, give this small but elegant restaurant (it seats 46) the feeling of a vineyard garden in California or France--or Italy for that matter.

The decor does not include wreaths of cigarette smoke. Brett's is a "smoke-free environment." She cites statistics showing that women who work in restaurants are twice as likely to die of lung cancer. I hope she'll be able to stay open with this policy. Jimmy Rohr (Jimmy's Place) finally had to throw in the ashtray and give up his no-smoking edict.

The only caveat about Brett's is the slow service. It even took a long time to get the check. Maybe the waiter was out back sneaking a smoke.

Brett's Restaurant, 2011 W. Roscoe, is open from 5 to 10 Tuesday through Saturday and 5 to 9 Sunday (closed Monday). They take reservations. For more information call 248-0999.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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