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The Purloined Menu

Cassis

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We'd each had a lumpy day, what with parking tickets and pushy colleagues, misplaced snapshots, bad news. By the time we settled into a sidewalk table at Cassis, we were ill prepared to savor the season's first sultry evening. But some alchemy of olives and Bordeaux coaxed us into the giddy illusion that summer vacation had set in.

Cassis unfurled the white tablecloths six weeks ago downstairs at the Radisson, giving it the slightly embarrassing status of hotel dining room, but affording the opportunity to serve all day. At lunch, the buses that clog Saint Clair dampen the plein air appeal.

Owners Roger Greenfield, Ted Kasemir, and Giovanni Garelli, united as the Restaurant Development Group, have been serving basic fare at Surf and Turf, Kinzie Street Chophouse, Bar Louie, and Saloon for some time. Lately they've ventured into the mildly ethnic with Mambo Grill, Nick & Tony's, the promising new Grappa, newer Barcelona, and newest, Cassis.

Grand vegetable aioli: Sounded appealing, as anything doused with garlic will. But the waiter confided it's merely crudites, so we abstained.

Hors d'oeuvres (Hot): There were also brussels sprouts, dreamily roasted in brown butter. The perfect blend of virtue and pleasure.

Cod fish cake, basil aioli: There was a calling for this dish for sentimental reasons, though it didn't perform the madeleine magic. Instead of the plump patties of some Beltway boyhood, we were confronted with a tiny salty--though tasty--puck.

Grilled octopus provencal: Presented, startlingly, whole: a small creature from the deep fanned out on a plate as though apprehended and grilled midswim. Charred and played across bright lemon, tomatoes, olives, and basil, it called a halt to the relentless octopus odyssey.

Oven roasted portobello mushroom, sauce pistou: Seems like everyone in town has a fat grilled mushroom on the menu, and we aren't complaining. This one provided the usual steaklike heartiness, but was nearly superfluous to the sauce--a triumph of Provencal grace.

Hearts of romaine, shaved parmesan, tapenade crouton: Caesar by another name--a tasty, if somewhat heavy-handed one.

Endive, roquefort cheese, walnuts, with champaigne vinaigrette: A charming gathering of old friends, scantily dressed.

Pan roasted black bass, whipped parsnips, nicoise olives: Delicately crisp outside, tender and flavorful in. This must be what chef Michael Altenberg (lately of Avanzare and Gordon) means when he enthuses about streamlined versions of French basics. The parsnips, however, bore a suspicious resemblance to the potato cake.

Grilled tuna with mache, white beans and tomato basil coulis: Closer to seared than grilled and marred by a hint of undue fishiness. Jolly white beans chortling alongside.

Roast chicken with Provence bread salad: Warmed by garlic and rosemary, reclining on a few greens, absolutely divine.

Specials included grilled swordfish paddling across a sticky pool of reduced port. We were tempted to lick the plate.

Nicoise potato cake: Too much potato, not enough cake.

Overcome with gratitude we marched directly to dessert, then recoiled in bitter disappointment to discover not one chocolate option. Chastened by the admirably wholesome selection, we opted for Tarte Tartin, an unfortunate bog of basil-soaked apples.

Vanilla bean ice cream: Actually now apple cider ice cream.

Meyer lemon torte: Crowned with a charming curl of candied lemon zest; otherwise unremarkable.

Caramelized banana tart, chocolate sorbetto: The distraught waiter sought to console us with this, which only disillusioned us further. Mushy fruit, sorbet (we are ostensibly in France here, right?) sullied by additional banana insult. Once we learned that pastry chef Kathryn Clapner had trained at Charlie Trotter's, where the desserts are overwrought and undergood, we gave up feeling outraged.

Had we paused before dessert we would have strolled home delighted. Even after, we're still looking forward to another vacation chez Cassis, 160 E. Huron. Call 255-1600 for reservations.

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