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Restaurant Tours: some like it rich

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My temptations revolve around clothes and desserts. My daily cheap thrill is to power-walk past the Gap at the corner of Division and Dearborn to see if they've gotten anything in stock that isn't muddy burgundy, muddy green, muddy teal, or muddy plaid. Then, instead of turning east so I can see the other window, I have to keep on going straight so I won't be tempted by Saint Germain's French pastries. I can't resist gelato either, but it's impossible to avoid Italian restaurants.

Before Saint Germain opened I'd safely passed that boarded-up space for weeks. Then one day there it was, right next door to Yvette, looking like the movie set of An American in Paris, a little French quarter of a block just down the street from me. It's worse than my worst nightmare: that a Mrs. Fields would open in my lobby.

There's nothing wrong with Hollywood glamour. Even though Saint Germain's customers look well traveled, I'd lay odds they don't want the dingy, smoky atmosphere of a true Paris cafe on North State Parkway.

Saint Germain's brightly striped awnings shade French doors, which can be opened in the summer to create a semioutdoor cafe. On your left as you enter is a gorgeous display of breads and pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, and salads--a technicolor, food stylist's dream. Desserts are big deals in little packages. The petits fours ($.95-$1.25 each) and individual cakes ($4.30-$4.50) remind me of the doll food in Marshall Field's old toy department. Though adorable to look at, they're not exactly a good buy. Larger cakes, such as the Passion Fruit Bavarian that serves six, cost $23, and mini cookies (assorted chocolate, pistachio, raspberry, and coconut macaroons) are $12 a pound.

Cafe prices are more moderate than the bakery prices. Soups range from $2.90 to $3.50, sandwiches from $5.95 to $9.50, salads are $4.50 to $7.75, and regular-size gourmet pizzas, $7.50 to $7.95. There are always a few hot entrees on their plats du jour, such as ragout d'agneau au curry for $12.50, grilled double breast of chicken for $10.50, and steak frites for $15.50.

The front room has yellow walls the color of thick cream, a painted mural of Paris, polished red-brick floors, and little marble tables with cane chairs. French pop songs are piped in. An inner room, separated by flower boxes from the front, has dark wooden booths and a view of the open kitchen. How can they use a kitchen and keep it looking so freshly scrubbed? Maybe it's a just a front for the real kitchen. A very Parisian-looking little bar is at the back of the cafe--a touch of class, avoiding the kind of tacky "meet market" spillover emanating from Yvette. If you like Yvette, go now. Everyone else is next door.

Most of the restaurants I've been to lately have stuck us nonsmokers in the back room. Happily, Saint Germain's creative management moves the nonsmoking areas about from one day to the next. The service is fast, charming, and courteous, and everything's immaculately clean. Otherwise it's very French.

One night I suggested to Laney that we try Saint Germain. "I won't go to a French restaurant," she said. I'd had a bad day and didn't feel like arguing, so I said, "How about Avanzare?" "It's French, too," she said. "No, it isn't," I said. "It's Italian." "It's French to me," she said. I'm used to these conversations. "They use a lot of sauces," said Laney, "just like the French." They do. Case closed.

So I had lunch at Saint Germain sans Laney. I tried one of their daily specials, the gourmet croissant sandwich--a coarse, nut-studded country duck pate with a fruity Cumberland sauce ($6.75). It came with gaufrette potatoes (crunchy homemade chips) and marinated vegetables. The croissant was so buttery I had to keep wiping the grease off my chin, my hands, my book, even my shoes--but I didn't mind. My sandwich was so rich I couldn't face dessert.

I went again with another friend, Enid. She was on a diet. Everyone's on some kind of diet. My daughter Jill is on Jenny Craig. My daughter Lee won't eat anything with a nervous system. I have one friend who's a kosher vegetarian and a member of Overeaters Anonymous. The only way I can find out how anything tastes is to order it myself. I once went to a restaurant with three friends just so we could try a number of menu items, and they all insisted on ordering the same thing, what I wanted.

Enid finally settled on a mini two-and-a-half-inch Spinoccoli pizza: tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, garlic, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese ($3.25). She's one of those people who's always so hungry she can't tell if food's gone bad. Her pizza tasted like chlorine to me. We complained to the waitress, who brought us another. This time we could both taste the chlorine. They may have washed the vegetables in some kind of antiseptic, as they do in Mexico. The waitress said it tasted fine to the staff, and perhaps I wasn't used to the combination of parmesan and mozzarella. That's a laugh. The carryout queen? My kids learned four languages from reading menus.

The good news was that my own sandwich, baked mozzarella with eggplant and oregano ($6.25), was wonderfully gooey and buttery. I only ate half in order to save room for a pear Charlotte: chocolate mousse, poached pears, and pear mousse wrapped in layers of biscuit and ganache ($4.30). It literally melted in my mouth, but I could still manage only a couple of bites.

On a third visit I tried something totally out of character for me, a light lunch. My salmon salad ($7.50) came with cucumbers, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and capers. The classic vinaigrette topped red lettuce and endive--no tacky iceberg here. There was a basket of freshly baked raisin rye bread on the table. So much for the light lunch. I felt it was my duty to try a raspberry mini tart ($.95). The waitress warned me that it was just a bite, and she was right. I didn't bother to use my fork because it was bigger than the tart, which tasted like pure shortbread topped by three raspberries. I bought a couple to go, forced myself to forgo a loaf of the raisin rye but succumbed to two croissants ($1.20 each) and wondered if an extra five pounds around my waist could be considered a work-related injury.

One evening I ordered an entree from their daily plats du jour, grilled filet of salmon ($13.75). A buttery sauce almost made up for the blandness of the boiled potatoes and the small portions. My companion had asked the hostess to move us to the middle room because she was afraid those little marble tabletops up front weren't big enough to eat dinner off of. She'd forgotten that the French don't give you that much.

The "From Our Open Kitchen" page of the menu states: "The chefs at Saint Germain have been trained to pay special attention to your health concerns. Our alternative cooking techniques reduce calories, sodium and cholesterol while enhancing the natural flavors and qualities of the product." I didn't see any of those little heart-healthy symbols on the menu. From their menu to God's ear.

Saint Germain, located at 1210 N. State Parkway, is open Monday through Thursday from 7AM to 11 PM, Friday and Saturday from 7 AM to midnight, and Sunday from 8 AM to 10 PM. For more information call 266-9900.

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

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