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Restaurant Tours: old spaces, new faces

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There are dozens of theories about what makes for successful restaurant spaces, and each occasionally has been proved wrong. No-nos include windowless places high off the ground or below ground level. Yet for decades Le Perroquet, eight stories above Walton Street, and Maxim's, one story under Astor, were roaring successes. On the other hand several top restaurateurs subsequently failed miserably in those spaces, despite high-quality food.

Another theory is that location is everything. Yet a presumably perfect, well-trafficked spot at Lincoln, Armitage, and Sedgwick has been the site of a 15-year series of flops, including Caribbean, Italian, and Chinese. Today it's a video store. And a seemingly doomed space in the River North gallery district, following year upon year of failed eateries, finally came up a winner with The Marc.

Then there's the saying "If you cook it they will come." Taking these words to heart, Jean Banchet created Le Francais within the unlikely precincts of Wheeling, and Jerry and Carolyn Buster built the Cottage in less likely Calumet City. They've been consistent winners--even when chefs and management have changed.

In recent months several familiar and distinctive restaurant spaces have taken on new faces, changing style with varying results. Perhaps the best of them is Wildfire (159 W. Erie, 787-9000). It's in the River North spot that once housed the Eccentric--a wildly heralded collaboration between Lettuce Entertain You and Oprah Winfrey that opened in 1989. The Eccentric had a labyrinthine setting with some fanciful dishes to match its name, but it never found a niche despite frequently interesting menus. Once it even tried to include dancing and a floor show. Eventually part of it became the Big Bowl restaurant. Then the Eccentric shut down last year and the Bowl was made bigger. Trade gossip says the problem was Oprah's name. She was rarely there, and scads of her elderly groupies used to show up in hope of a sighting, spending only a buck or two for coffee.

So chef Russell Bry and the Lettuce folk--sans Winfrey--remodeled to create a large, open, beautifully lit bilevel space that's a virtual theater with a big exposed kitchen area as the stage. The set consists of three enormous brick ovens with roaring hardwood fires: one for grilling, one for pizzas and baking, the other for twirling spits of roasting chickens.

Gone are the eccentricities. What emerges is straight-ahead American cafe cooking: succulent, roasted, double-chop rack of pork, marinated in maple syrup and whiskey ($13.95), and crisp-skinned, juicy chicken with wilted greens alongside ($10.95). You may want to try the homemade Worcestershire sauce with the pork.

A special of grilled salmon rubbed with herbs was just OK ($13.95); the grilled baby back ribs were meaty, though they weren't as smoky-flavored as I hoped, and the barbecue sauce was disappointing ($14.95). It needs something more traditionally zesty.

Starters were uniformly good, notably the skillet-roasted mussels ($7.95), the house-cured smoked salmon with excellent horseradish cream ($6.95), and the day's designer pizza, which was liberally dotted with savory andouille sausage ($7.95).

When Arnie Morton opened Arnie's in l973 it was a dazzler: a vast, opulent art-deco space that wrapped around a terrific glass-wall atrium at the base of a high-rise complex. The showy artwork was always at the edge of excess and competed with the upper-middle American-continental food for attention. It closed at the end of l993 but was reopened by Heinz Kern last spring as Palette's (1030 N. State, 440-5200). Kern has redesigned the place with wrought iron, neoexpressionist murals, and some traditional oils and statuary. The mix of modern and retro is reflected in the menu as well.

It's a standard sort of Near North menu, decent enough for the most part, with a few standouts and some misses. The Gorgonzola cheesecake starter with gazpacho relish ($5.75) is not to be missed, nor is the grilled calamari appetizer ($6.95). There's also a good potato-bound crab cake ($6.95). Less good was a retro dish, oysters Rockefeller ($7.50), which wasn't well seasoned and included some oysters that were past their prime (as were the mussel and shrimp on an otherwise appealing shellfish platter at $9.50). But baked clams ($6.50) were fine.

The peppercorn-studded tuna steak with Belgian endive and bok choy was cooked rare as ordered and nicely seasoned ($17.50); a special of hazelnut-crusted sea bass, paired with wild mushrooms, showed similar sensitivity in fish cookery ($18.50). The thick veal chop was especially juicy and tender ($26), and I would return any day for the braised lamb shank with mashed potatoes ($16.50). An added attraction: Dave Green performs miracles at the piano bar Wednesdays through Saturdays.

Jimmy Rohr built his eponymous place on a desolate stretch of Elston Avenue in l978, and they came in great numbers for his wonderful Asian-tinged French fare, first created by Yoshi Katsumura. The long, narrow main room--supplemented by an enclosed, porch-like addition--had an opera theme, with posters, memorabilia, and stained-glass medallions plus piped- in music. The economy and Rohr's health difficulties forced Jimmy's Place--one of the city's real gems--to close last year.

Now it's Richie's on Elston (3420 N. Elston, 961-0100), and the theme has switched to art: a dozen Chicago artists including Vera Klement and Stan Edwards have self-portraits displayed; another dozen, including Hollis Sigler, have spaces reserved for promised pictures. This is not, however, a destination restaurant like Jimmy's. It has modest, step-above-diner fare with a few ethnic touches but few standouts except for the desserts. A small troupe of us ate our way through Richie Aronson's menu and had reactions as all over the place as the food: flavorless, falling-apart potstickers ($4.95), excellent house-smoked salmon ($7.95), and an interesting shrimp cocktail served Mexican-style, amid chopped tomato salsa in a sundae glass ($6.95). The sun-dried tomato pizza ($6.95) had a lifeless crust, a real surprise because the Aronson family owns My Pie pizzeria.

The minestrone was as bland as sand ($2.50), as was the steamed salmon, despite its announced mix of Asian seasonings ($16.95). The back ribs were acceptable though not too meaty ($15.95); the rotisserie chicken was much more flavorful ($11.95), and the roast duck well crisped ($16.95). Only the day's special of chicken-fried steak, made with sirloin, would merit reordering ($14.95). But desserts such as the wild chocolate "insanity" cake ($6.95) are the strong suit.

--Don Rose

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

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