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Restaurant Tours: the jewel of North Ashland

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At tiny Daniel J's on North Ashland, kitschy black construction-paper bow ties adorn napkins folded to look like shirt fronts, the tablecloths are covered in brown butcher's paper, the curtains look like they're made from bed sheets, the waitstaff wear flowered plastic aprons, and on one visit we had to lick off our utensils after each chic course--yet reservations are almost mandatory. North Shore paranoids brave the perils of the city for Daniel J's. Baby boomers mingle with Generation Xers. Local lads in fur jackets check out the designer duds of Gold Coast ladies whose idea of dressing down is to turn their rings around so the diamonds don't show. And the cardinal comes in for the mushroom polenta. They all share a passion for downtown food at Uptown prices.

Chef Jack Jones, who cut his teeth at Yoshi's, Spiaggia, and Terczak's, is as au courant as they come. He and his wife Mary, an ex-biology teacher who used to wait tables at Bistro 110, opened on a shoestring last May, with an atmosphere to fit their budget. The whole family pitched in--his mom made the curtains and her dad built the bar. The restaurant's name was a last-minute compromise: Jones, whose middle name is Daniel, originally hoped to call the place Jack Daniel's. Then he talked to a lawyer.

A harbinger of the stylish cuisine to come, a superb sun-dried tomato pesto liberally laced with garlic and hinting of olives and thyme, accompanies the warm bread on each table. The bread is constantly replenished, so it's a perfectly adequate appetizer if you're on a strict budget. Otherwise, try the delicious wild mushroom quesadillas ($3.95) with both tomato and tomatillo salsas or the potently peppered but excellent shrimp risotto ($5.25) with chunks of mushrooms mixed in. Oven-baked crab cakes with a chive butter sauce ($4.95) are less interesting but pretty good, although they look pathetically small huddled together fashionably off-center on an enormous white plate. An excellent Caesar salad ($3.95), large enough to share, has the requisite anchovies but no croutons.

Daniel J's don't know from a la carte, so main courses are both taste- and value-intensive. The perfect pork tenderloin ($9.50), roasted in an herb sauce redolent of fresh thyme, tarragon, chives, and basil, comes with potato pancakes, sugar-baked apples, tiny asparagus, fresh spinach, and ratatouille. Firm yellowfin tuna ($12.95), grilled over a seaweed salad and subtly scented with ginger, lemon grass, and wasabi, is served with rice, sauteed peapods, and a mixture of other vegetables. The chicken breast ($8.95), though uninspired, is still tasty, marinated and grilled with porcini mushrooms and dressed up with an herb sauce composed of fresh thyme, tarragon, and chives, more fresh vegetables, and the wonderful mushroom polenta. With a bit more effort, the seafood linguine ($14.95) could easily be the best thing on the menu: half a fresh Maine lobster is prettily posed in its shell alongside shrimp, clams, and calamari. But the pasta is bathed in a tomato-basil sauce so fiery it could set off the alarm system, and our lobster was undercooked.

Save four bucks for dessert, preferably the key lime pie with raspberry, mango, and vanilla sauces. It's the real McCoy, pale yellow and refreshingly tart. Chocolate lovers won't be disappointed with a similarly sauced dense, rich chocolate espresso tart. Other fine options include a deep-dish apple pie topped with pastry leaves and sitting in a pool of caramel and bread pudding laced with egg custard in a caramel sauce. Our only quibble is that the desserts are served on such busily decorated plates that we could barely tell the presentation from the china pattern.

There is no cappuccino yet, but the Joneses are saving up for a machine. I'd be willing to take up a collection.

Daniel J's, 3811 N. Ashland, is open for dinner 5:30 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 4:30 to 8:30 Sunday. Reservations are recommended. For more information call 404-7772.

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

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