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Restaurant Tours: Vinyl records more hits than misses

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Chicago isn't New York. Big Time Productions' Cal Fortis and Ken Smith (owners of Angelina, Oo-La-La!, Neo, Ka-Boom!, and Crobar) aren't Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. And Vinyl, their newest venue, isn't Schrager and Rubell's Royalton Hotel, though its spectacular, futuristic environment is reminiscent of the work of French designer Philippe Starck, especially upstairs in the nightclub/lounge. Those Brobdingnagian chairs are strikingly similar to the ones in the Royalton's lobby; local designer Thomas Schlesser assures me he's never been upstairs at the Royalton, but the dimly lit, bluish-purple walls with porthole-shaped lights look a lot like the Royalton's bluish-purple corridors with porthole-shaped backlit room numbers. Both also have black-hole bathrooms, functional only for customers with white canes.

The Royalton's guests include Sandra Bernhard, Johnny Depp, and Madonna. Celebrity spotters at Vinyl settle for the likes of pricey hairdresser John Lanzendorf, the film festival's Michael Kutza, and interior designer Bruce Gregga. The rest of the crowd look like the same people I saw last month at Cafe Absinthe, and will no doubt see next month at whatever spot is newer and hotter. But for the time being, Vinyl is the standard-bearer for Second City chic.

There are gimmicks aplenty. On Sundays, wait staff sporting bouffant hairdos and fake sideburns serve a down-home, Southern "Breakfast With Elvis." Sunday night is family night, with a special menu served on platters. On Monday and Tuesday, dinner for two is on the house with a purchase of a bottle of "super premium" champagne. On Wednesday, 60614 residents receive a 25-percent discount. And on Thursday, there's "Pop Culture," featuring martini, bourbon, and champagne specials to start off the weekend. Another gimmick is that most dishes are priced according to the size of the plate. All appetizers, served on nine-inch plates, are $5.75 each. Big pasta bowls are $9.95. Soup and salad prices vary, as do those of the main courses; but all sides are $2.50, and sweet plates cost $4.50.

Chef Jill Rosenthal, who also oversees the kitchen at Oo-La-La!, has devised an eclectic menu. The results, while mostly good, occasionally veer off course, as does the service. French bread comes with an olive oil, garlic, and parsley dip that is far too oily; the parsley sinks to the bottom as if humiliated by its lack of personality. Our favorite appetizer was the martini-marinated grilled shrimp. Like olives, the shrimp soak up just enough of the martini to give them a delicate zing. Crab cakes are excellent, though too many capers render the celery root remoulade rather salty. Our server informed us the grilled vegetable melange was supposed to be cold, but we would have liked it better hot. Smoked eggplant soup is topped with a swirl of harissa (a fiery-hot Tunisian sauce) that adds a pleasant bite to its creaminess. Hearty black bean soup is similarly graced by a cilantro cream swirl, and would have been even better if it hadn't been cold by the time our waiter got around to serving it. Classic Caesar salad ($5.95) is too long on the horseradish--when did it become a "classic" addition, anyway? The good news is that you can order half a salad if you need to clear your sinuses.

The best entree is the tender, mild BBQ pork tenderloin with lemony sauteed spinach and a simple, not-too-sweet apple and sweet potato side ($12.95). Grilled salmon on a chilled lentil salsa ($13.95) tastes great, but is served unattractively, with the tail, skin, and some bones intact. Big pasta bowls include wonderful fettuccine with prosciutto, peas, and mushrooms in a cream sauce; or, more simply, with fresh broccoli, prosciutto, and a hint of garlic. There's a tangy grilled chicken breast with Dijon sauce, sweet little roasted new potatoes, and spinach ($11.95). The grilled tuna steak ($14.95), although on the thin side, is firm and tasty; the chopped Greek olives topping it may be too salty for some tastes, but it's sensationally sauced with a Moroccan charmoula vinaigrette (a spicy mixture that includes cumin, ginger, garlic, and scallions) and comes with basmati rice and sauteed spinach.

Among the sweet plates is a creme brulee that's more eggy than creme-y, like the custard grandma used to make. The obligatory tiramisu is quite good, but the chocolate espresso cake is as dry as a peanut butter sandwich without the jelly. Strawberries in a tuille are okay, but Devonshire cream would be a divine substitution for the creme fraiche. There's a good-sized three-Merlot, nine-champagne wine list, although premium beer lovers will be disappointed by the lack of choices.

Aside from a few drawbacks--such as the high noise level, tables for four that are too small for three, and confusion about the location of the nonsmoking area--it all adds up to more hits than misses, making Vinyl more than a faddish stopover for those who can't fly to New York.

Vinyl opens for dinner at 5:30 PM every night and stays open until 11 PM Sunday through Wednesday, until midnight on Thursday, and to 1 AM on Friday and Saturday. "Breakfast With Elvis" is served Sunday from 10 AM to 3 PM. It's located at 1615 N. Clybourn; for more information or to make reservations, call 587-8469.

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

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