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Restaurant Tours: Budget Gourmets

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Restaurants the world over have learned the lesson of the last presidential race: it's the economy, stupid. In Paris, a dozen of France's finest chefs have opened popularly priced bistros as adjuncts to their three-star dining palaces. And now several top local chefs and restaurateurs are taking a cue from their Parisian counterparts by downscaling--without downgrading--their output. Some of the best have either opened adjuncts or dropped their haute spots altogether in favor of cafes and bistros.

Yoshi Katsumura, arguably Chicago's finest Franco-Japanese chef, expanded his Lakeview restaurant and tried at first to serve both haute and popular-priced fare, then settled on 100 percent bistro. Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, two thirds of the great Trio restaurant, opened Brasserie T in Northfield as a complement to their first establishment, then left the original altogether to devote themselves to their down-priced place. (Henry Adaniya continues to run Trio without changing its name to Solo.) And they're not the only ones following the trend. Other notable examples are Brasserie Jo--our only authentic French brasserie--opened by Jean Joho, the city's leading French chef, as a sideline to the Everest, and Il Toscanaccio, a trattoria started by the folks who run the primo ristorante Coco Pazzo.

Meanwhile, several of the gems in our culinary crown, such as Jackie's and Jimmy's Place, had to shut down, largely for economic reasons, suggesting either that we're not spending as much for great food as we once did, or that our tastes are changing, or perhaps both.

"I knew times were changing and people's habits were changing," says Katsumura, who first opened Yoshi's Cafe in l982. "Especially we lost a lot of convention business in the city and we depended a great deal on that business at the restaurant."

His solution was expansion and down pricing. Fortunately he and his wife, Nobuko, own their double-storefront building, half of which once housed his somewhat too crowded little 48-seat citadel. So they shut down late last August, knocked down walls, and redid the place with blond oak, tones of beige, and tile floors. They added a small bar at the front and one of those open kitchens, which keeps Yoshi happily confined all evening long. "I can't make the rounds of the room anymore because I'm so busy, but I can always see who's coming and going."

There are now more than 100 seats, and the average dinner tab has dropped from more than $50 to about $20, but the seats turn over two and a half times a night. Best of all, they've given us an absolutely terrific restaurant at prices that make it perhaps the best buy in town. You no longer can get Katsumura's seared fresh barracuda with pesto sauce, roasted potatoes, and garlic mustard at $22. But you can have marvelous veal scallopini with mushroom calvados sauce for only $13.95--or a gorgeous steak au poivre, made with a New York strip, for $16.

Some of the starters are every bit what they were when this was three-star dining, such as an incredible seafood terrine, studded with nuggets of crab, served with dill aioli--a garlicky mayonnaise--for a mere $4.50. Herbed ravioli stuffed with goat cheese ($3.95) was another winner, as was a tangy tuna tartar special with avocado ($5). I would have a hard time distinguishing between the current pistachioed duck terrine at $4.95 and the beauties he used to serve for $7. The only minor flaw was a giant crab cake that had too much filler ($5.50).

There are also crisp designer pizzas--our choice was a dazzling creamed-leek, shiitake, mozzarella, and blue cheese concoction at $6.50--some pastas, and an inexpensive "healthy menu."

"People's tastes are changing," Katsumura says. "They want a lot lighter things. Now they walk in without reservation, sometimes even eat at the bar."

My advice: Don't walk. Run.

If you don't live there, you might never have a reason to go to Northfield. But now there's a great incentive: Brasserie T (for Tramonto), in a shopping center just off the Edens.

"After being in a restrictive fine-dining atmosphere for two years, we decided to open a neighborhood type of place where families could sit around the table, dress comfortably, and eat what suits them," says Gand, who opened the place with her husband, Tramonto, in midsummer, then pulled out of the Trio partnership three months later. Too bad they didn't do it in my neighborhood.

A true brasserie--meaning brewery--is typically a big, bright, bumptious place featuring Alsatian food. This one is big--it seats up to 250--and you can choose from a large selection of microbrewery beers. But there's only one Alsatian classic: choucroute garni, a crunchy, not overly sharp sauerkraut adorned with pork sausages, smoked butt, cured ribs, and boiled potatoes. It comes in at $14.50, about $10 under the typical entree at the elegant Trio. The average dinner tab is $21 before tax and tip, less than half of Trio's.

The menu here ranges far beyond Alsace to other French styles as well as Italian and American. There are the inevitable grilled portabello mushrooms--nicely done on a bed of creamy polenta ($7)--and the equally inevitable crab cakes (tiny ones, crisp and decently flavored--for $8.50). But one of the special treats is a platter of smoked and cured fish, including trout, whitefish, and pastrami-cured salmon ($11 or $18), with a zesty beet and red onion salad garnish.

At the rear of the bilevel hall, with its arced ceiling and bright lights, sits a big, copper-sheathed, brick oven turning out splendid little pizzas on crackery crusts. We opted for one with asparagus, roasted garlic, and a whisper of tomato sauce to go along with its melting cheese ($7.50).

Also on the Italian side, we had a meaty, tender osso buco with an enormous blob of marrow in its bone--the real reason you want osso buco--and just-right saffron risotto. At $22.50 it's priced higher than the typical $16 entree, but well worth it. Also right in the groove was a delicate fillet of tilapia, potato-crusted to give it body while retaining its intrinsic flavor, accompanied by spinach and lentils ($16.50).

Gand's desserts are legendary, and a special of frozen almond mousse adds to the legend ($5.50). If this brasserie doesn't fully meet the classic definition the way Joho's does, it certainly meets and exceeds all other expectations. Lucky Northfield.

Yoshi's Cafe is at 3257 N. Halsted; phone 248-6160. Brasserie T is at 305 S. Happ Road in Northfield; call 847-446-0444.

--Don Rose

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

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