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Restaurant Tours: cafe de Rudi

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The coffeehouse tradition goes back to 1672, when an Armenian named Pascal opened a coffee stall at the Saint-Germain Fair in Paris. He called it a "cafe." Gradually cafes became hangouts and began to offer food and wine. But these days in Paris--if not in Chicago--cafes are dying out, and chic wine bars where Parisians on the fast track can choose from a variety of wines by the glass to complement their tartine or pate are taking up the slack. If the parallel holds, Starbucks will be serving wine by the glass in the year 2300.

But Chicagoans don't have to wait that long to visit a wine bar. The new Rudi's Wine Bar & Cafe is owned by a former wine importer, Rudi (like Cher and Madonna, he feels no need for further identification). He modeled his establishment on one of the better-known Parisian wine bars, Willi's, near the Palais Royal. Rudi, who offers a nice selection of moderately priced California and French wines, searches out the French ones himself, some of which he insists can't be found elsewhere in this country.

Rudi's is more old-fashioned French cafe than newfangled wine bar. The food is traditional hearty bistro fare prepared by the Ritz Carlton-trained Juan Hurtado, and the atmosphere that of a cozy little neighborhood hangout, with the obligatory big bar up front, lace cafe curtains, and red-and-white checked tablecloths. Terrific taped music runs to Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, Charles Aznavour, and Edith Piaf. On Monday nights there's the added attraction of a jazz guitarist and a vocalist, Bobbi Jordan, who also waits tables. She insists Rudi makes her park cars and do the books too, and signs her name on your tablecloth with a heart in place of a dot over the "i." But it's Rudi who's the heart of the place. Though he's never intrusive, you can tell he loves playing host.

Rudi's hospitality begins with a tiny complimentary tasting of potato salad, dilled cucumbers in sour cream, garlicky lentils, and carrots marinated in oil and vinegar. The tasting is fine for two people, but unhospitably skimpy for three, although it's accompanied by constantly replenished French bread (other restaurants take note).

We needed the extra bread to sop up the last delicious drop of our appetizer sauces--delicate and delicious tomato garlic for the pleasingly plump bay scallops Provencal ($5.50) and sinfully satisfying garlic herb butter for the positively chubby baked escargots ($4.95)--and to finish off the bottom of the bowl of the sensational soup du jour ($2.95), mussels, onions, wine, and cream laced with saffron. Caesar salad ($3.95) was large enough for two, and as good as any I've had recently--though I'd appreciate the option of having an anchovy. Years ago you always got them automatically.

As for entrees, a richly flavored, hearty cassoulet of duck legs with braised lentils ($8.75) hit the spot during an autumn cold snap (from the size of its legs, the duck could have played pro football). Even the man at the next table who said he doesn't usually like fish fell for the fresh, grilled whitefish Grenobloise ($8.75), topped with capers and lemon, in a buttery sauce with fine herbs. It was served with horseradish, boiled potatoes, and crisp mixed vegetables. Walleyed pike ($9.25), sauteed in butter, with the same accompaniments, was marvelous.

Fish is supposedly the hardest thing for a chef to get right, so why were the less challenging pasta sauces so off base? A half portion of the pasta du jour ($4.95), linguine with ground beef, tomato, and onions, could have passed for Hamburger Helper; and the vegetables in the pasta primavera ($7.95)--broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, and cauliflower--seemed to fight the marinara sauce. The baked pork chop Normandie ($8.75) with rosemary and apples was so dry and tough that we sent it back.

The dessert tray restored our confidence. Thin slivers of freshly baked tarts, cheesecake, bread pudding, and chocolate mousse, all in a pool of creme Anglaise and raspberry sauce, presented a decision almost as difficult as figuring out the pricing structure--$3.75 each for the tarts, $3.50 for the bread pudding, $4.25 for the chocolate mousse or cheesecake, $6.25 for an assortment of the day's choices, and the waitress said she could haggle for a double-sized tart. We managed to sample apple with almond, pecan caramel, raspberry, and blueberry tarts, along with the bread pudding, cheesecake, and chocolate mousse. Although the cheesecake was a bit sugary, the bread pudding and tarts were wonderful, especially the pecan caramel--happily long on caramel.

Rudi feels that decaf cappuccino and espresso defeat the purpose. Of course, he's a man whose business card promises "late night dining," a man whose establishment is open until the wee hours, a man who needs to stay alert. He should be reminded that his staff does too. Double-dosing them with espresso might speed up the slow service. As for the customers, those of us with early morning wake-up calls need a nine o'clock jolt of caffeine about as much as an IRS audit. Relent, Rudi. All those Starbucks stores can't be wrong.

Rudi's Wine Bar & Cafe, 2424 N. Ashland, is open nightly. Food is served from 6 to midnight, but the bar remains open till 2, Saturday till 3. Reservations are encouraged, especially on weekends. For more information call 404-RUDI (7834).

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

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