Restaurant Tours: colonial cuisine | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: colonial cuisine 

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Euro-Asian and Asian-American crossover cookery is all around town these days, thanks in large part to pioneering chefs Yoshi Katsumura of Yoshi's and Roland Liccioni of Le Francais. Even the purest sushi bars today feature California maki with avocado and other Western ingredients, while cooks at local diners think nothing of tossing a little fresh ginger and soy sauce into their turkey hash. In California, where the trend started, they don't even call it crossover anymore--it's "Pacific rim." In Australia, which is rapidly becoming a world culinary capital, the style is ubiquitous.

Now a couple of new places on the near north side check in with their own takes on East-West cuisine. Le Colonial has been insanely successful right from the start, while Foreign Affairs is still waiting to be discovered--and it will probably wait a long time unless some improvements are made in the kitchen.

The East-West culinary crossover caught fire in the mid-1970s, but its roots are in 19th-century European colonialism. Whether in Haiti or Vietnam, the French left a unique imprint in the kitchens where they settled, and fittingly French-Vietnamese was among the first haute crossover cuisines. Maintaining the lightness and character of the indigenous fare, the French subtly incorporated butter as a cooking medium for some dishes, tossed in an occasional vinaigrette, introduced a vegetable or two, and then laid things out in an "artistic," Western presentation. Vietnamese chef Viet Tran does the same at Le Colonial, an interesting effort to re-create a Saigon restaurant of the prerevolutionary 1920s.

The original Le Colonial in New York hit it big, leading its deep-pockets investors to establish an outpost here. In July investor Bill Bartholomay, former owner of the Milwaukee Braves and a major political player, invited a few hundred friends to an opening party, and since then favorable word of mouth has kept Le Colonial packed even without the benefit of reviews.

The place looks terrific, with ivory-colored enameled walls, a deep burgundy stamped-tin ceiling, and gently swirling fans. Its front wall of windows, set at an oblique angle to the room, has bamboo curtains. There are comfortable wicker chairs, with potted palms and banana plants everywhere, contributing to a somewhat authentic look that veers just to the tasteful side of hokum. Upstairs is a bar with deep cushy chairs and sofas and a small outdoor terrace that overlooks Rush and Oak.

The food is really tasty, though much higher priced than at Vietnamese home-cookin' spots. Argyle Street regulars will find nothing dramatically different here, but Le Colonial offers carefully prepared, delicate, and flavorful renditions of traditional items, such as greaslessly fried shrimp, pork, and mushroom spring rolls (cha gio) served with a sprightly nuoc cham dipping sauce ($6). The shrimp mousse--grilled on a stick of sugar cane and wrapped with mint, fine noodles, and daikon radish into a lettuce-leaf taco, abetted by a hoisin-tinged peanut sauce--was excellent.

Ginger-soaked roast duck was delightfully tender ($16), though the tamarind sauce could have had more kick. My companion and I were split as to which was better, the crisp-skinned, spicy-sour whole snapper ($16 or market price) or the sauteed shrimp with eggplant in a buttery, curried coconut sauce ($16.50). Our veggie of the evening was steamed okra--how's that for crossover?--hit with a lovely lime and ginger vinaigrette ($4).

Foreign Affairs, which opened a bit before Le Colonial, is decorated in deep earth tones and has some unusual textured designs on the thick pillars that divide the room. Situated in the recently refurbished Claridge Hotel, it's contemporary yet oddly claustrophobic. Scott Marutz, an American chef steeped in Asian techniques, heads the endeavor, which is supposed to be a combination noodle shop and Japanese-continental dining room. Our dinner was higher priced but certainly no better than your typical Japanese restaurant on Clark Street.

We had a wide selection of starters, varying in quality from excellent to just so-so. The best was a compact bundle of asparagus with a great combination of flavors. The asparagus was cut into three-inch lengths, wrapped in a thin strip of tasty sirloin, then grilled with a teriyaki glaze ($3.50). The salmon cake was also pretty good, perked up with a shoyu sauce ($3.50). The steamed crab dumplings were flat and tasted like the prepackaged, frozen variety ($4). Boneless slices of country-style pork ribs with Asian barbecue sauce were unremarkable ($3.50), grilled chicken kabobs even more blah ($3.50), and deep-fried beef brochettes slightly oily ($3).

Also oily was the tempura entree. There were big shrimp, fresh and intrinsically well flavored but marred by the oil, and an assortment of veggies, including huge green beans and slices of zucchini that wound up underdone because they were too big for tempura frying ($14). The ahi tuna steak, on the other hand, was quite wonderful--cooked sashimi-rare as requested, with a fine cilantro crust ($16). The accompanying basil-infused mashed potatoes were superb, though the pale sauce for the tuna really needed more tang.

Le Colonial, 937 N. Rush, is open for dinner daily and serves lunch Monday through Friday. Call 255-0088. Foreign Affairs, 1244 N. Dearborn, is open for dinner daily and serves lunch Monday through Saturday. Call 787-4980, ext. 676.

--Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Le Colonial, by J.B. Spector.

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