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Restaurant Tours: fine dining in Cal City

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When the Cottage first opened its doors back in the fall of 1974, two of its most notable features were location--it was in the heart of the culinary wastelands of Calumet City--and the fact that it had a female chef. No one had ever thought about opening a fine-dining spot in south suburbia, let alone in a town primarily associated with raunchy bars and corrupt small-time pols. And a woman's place may have been in the hash-house kitchen, but haute cuisine was strictly a male preserve. Carolyn Buster, the chef, and her husband Gerry, who worked the front of the house in a tuxedo and a walrus mustache, were a couple of fugitives from the old Bakery restaurant on Lincoln Avenue. The two south suburbanites fulfilled their culinary dreams by building this quaint European inn on a road best known for franchise dining and gas stations.

But it was more than novelty that brought it lavish critical attention. It made most "top 40" lists, and Buster was selected as one of 13 "Great Chefs of Chicago" for the PBS series. Through the years she moved the menu from elegant but traditional continental/French stylings (at moderately low prices) to cutting-edge cuisine influenced by international trends (with haute prices to match). By the spring of 1990 the Busters were exhausted and shut the place down for an eight-month sabbatical, reopening with a lower-priced, earthier menu that kept such old favorites as the unique lemony pork schnitzel and the savory steak Madagascar with a creamy green peppercorn sauce. Among the new dishes were ribs with Asian and American seasonings and a zesty lamb sausage. Gerry and the waitstaff discarded their formal garb.

Alas, though the restaurant sustained its charm, the marriage did not. In February of this year, as part of their still-ongoing settlement, Carolyn turned the restaurant over to Gerry, who brought in a brand-new chef. Gregg Flisiak has done stints as sous chef at Yvette and Toulouse; even more impressively, he's worked under one of the true greats, Jean Joho, first at Maxim's and then for six years at the exquisite Everest Room. Now he's got total control of the kitchen at the Cottage, where his menu wisely retains a handful of house favorites. It's a tricky balance to maintain, considering the typical chef's ego, which would prefer to obliterate all vestiges of previous cooks. Flisiak, however, does a creditable job with most of the old favorites, though he turned the lush, tart schnitzel into a sticky-sweet botch.

Despite this one lapse, the new Cottage is well worth a venture south. For some reason or other, getting there involves breaking a psychological barrier for most north-siders, who will travel great distances to hit the haute spots of the north and northwest 'burbs but shrivel at the thought of dining anywhere south of Chinatown. The Cottage isn't a hard place to find; you just go straight down the Dan Ryan. Having survived the trip, you will find, for example, Flisiak's firm, subtly seasoned seafood "sausage" starter, composed of minced bay scallops and crabmeat folded into a roll of salmon mousse. This is spiked with a pair of cream-based sauces, one featuring sherry and sweet red pepper, the other saffron ($6.95). Even more sweetly succulent is the marriage of lobster snippets and wild mushrooms in a velveteen white wine cream sauce ($6.95). A more assertive starter is the grilled jumbo shrimp--genuinely jumbo--done to a nice crunch and mated with a roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato coulis ($7.95).

Soups ($3.95) have always been a Cottage specialty, leaning toward the hearty and full-bodied. We tried both of the day's offerings, which reappear regularly. One was veggies in a potent broth zipped up with a heady swirl of pesto, the other a chunky, thick potato scented with lots of fresh dill. Both were well worthwhile.

About half the entrees can be ordered in small portions, either for a lighter appetite or to mix and match. One of our group tested the old favorites, pairing the schnitzel ($9.95, $17.95) with the steak Madagascar ($10.95, $19.95). Despite the pork's failure, the beef was still a winner. I opted for the veal chop ($16.95), a hefty ten-ouncer, grilled to a juicy medium rare and enriched by an earthy saute of mixed wild mushrooms and a heap of sweet caramelized onions.

Fish lovers can't do much better than the grilled salmon ($16.95), impeccably fresh and cooked perfectly to order, though a somewhat thicker cut would have left the center as rare as I prefer. It was accompanied by couscous, a grain fortunately being served more and more in Chicago, and a slightly tangy relish of minced fresh vegetables. On my docket for a return engagement are the shelled lobster served with sauce americaine and salmon caviar ($20.95) and the lamb shank braised in cabernet sauce ($13.95).

Flisiak's desserts ($5 each) include one the whole table can enjoy, a trio of white, milk, and dark chocolate mousses. He makes a sampler mix of fruit sorbets if that chocolate is too rich for you. If you want to do the whole shebang--appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert, and coffee--it'll cost you the entree price plus a flat $15. He also offers a well-selected and not overly expensive wine list.

The Cottage, 525 Torrence Ave., Calumet City, is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 to 2. Dinner is Tuesday through Friday from 6 to 10, Saturday 5 to 11, and Sunday 4 to 8. It's closed Monday. Every second Sunday of the month there is a themed dinner in addition to the regular menu (one of which recently featured Alsatian food) or a special matching of food and wine. Call 708-891-3900.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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