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Restaurant Tours: low prices, expensive habits 

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Right in the heart of kielbasaland, across the street from Carl Schurz High School and the jutting hot dog of Pig Outs, is a little bistro where "cuisine naturelle" is no tasteless Polish joke. Although the term may not show up in French cookbooks or culinary dictionaries, owner/chef Wieslaw Sawicki uses it in place of "cuisine minceur" and "nouvelle cuisine" to refer to lighter food and fresh ingredients (although not to smaller portions--this is doggie bag territory).

Before opening Helena's Bistro last September, Sawicki spent three years as a chef in the homes of the rich and private on the Gold Coast as well as in Lake Forest and Highland Park, and he developed some expensive habits. He uses only the finest ingredients, the leanest meats, Corsican feta cheese (the only one made with reduced-fat milk), extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt instead of the regular kind. He insists it's less salty. (I wanted to ask him why he didn't just use less salt, but I was afraid it would sound like an ethnic slur.) He grows his own pesticide-and-fertilizer-free vegetables and herbs, and there were even fresh mint sprigs from his garden in our water glasses. (Mint, which has always been a symbol of hospitality, was supposedly once the nymph Mentha. She angered Pluto's wife Persephone, who unhospitably turned her into a julep ingredient.)

Sawicki (Helena was briefly his partner) cooks everything to order and with a little advance notice will honor special requests. Although there are a few traditionally Polish items--sausage, goulash, and pierogi--his menu, which changes daily, is eclectic.

He has a repertoire of 200 soups; if it's available, don't miss the delicately flavored thyme (also a member of the mint family) buttermilk soup ($2) laced with fresh bacon, carrots, and potatoes. Ditto the feta cheese and basil (the mint family strikes again) salad with a light vinaigrette ($3.50 small/$5 large). We learned too late that all entrees come with a nice-sized salad full of cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, and other goodies. All entrees also come with potato and vegetable, on our visit some of the best mashed potatoes ever (they're simply made with milk, sea salt, and a little butter) and crisp, fresh green beans. We also found out later that the pate, pizza, and salad come in two sizes, though you can't tell by looking at the menu.

Excellent entrees included grilled chicken breast ($6.95) marinated in balsamic vinegar and nicely spiced Cajun grilled chicken breast ($6.95). My companion enjoyed the gingered grilled pork loin ($6.95), although it was short on the ginger. Stuffed cabbage ($5.50) filled with ground beef and rice was another hit, especially since the delicious juice seeped into the mashed potatoes.

Some of the dishes were too bland. In the Vienna schnitzel ($7.95) the substitution of a well-browned, crunchy-crusted pork loin instead of the usual and more expensive veal cutlet was fine, but it could have used a spark of spicing; ditto the chicken liver pate ($1.95 small/$2.25 large) with honey mustard. Fresh spinach pizza ($10.95), with fresh basil and cherry tomatoes, needed garlic. The olive oil that accompanied the French bread, infused with garlic, rosemary, juniper berry, thyme, and peppercorn, tasted like bottled salad dressing.

Sawicki also needs to work on his desserts. Premium vanilla ice cream with orange blossom water, pistachios, and raspberry sauce ($2.50) was just OK. The apple cake ($1.95) and the fresh beet (yes, you read right) cake ($2.50) covered with melted chocolate and sitting in a pool of strawberry puree weren't rich enough. The best dessert was. It was the homemade cheesecake ($2.50) topped with glazed peaches, strawberries, and kiwi.

Although Helena's Bistro looks like a place where you'd expect cooking, not cuisine--linoleum floors, beige everywhere--there are cloth tablecloths and napkins, and Sawicki has started some redecorating. Food presentation is attractive, featuring the swirls, sprinklings, and real flower garnishes usually reserved for more expensive restaurants.

Our dining experience was a linguistic challenge. We couldn't read the handwritten menu, one per table. What looked like "pima" was pizza. After eavesdropping on our waitress's conversations with other customers, we decided that she spoke every language but English. We asked questions but couldn't understand the answers, so when she told us one of the desserts was "beet cake," she was like the boy who cried wolf.

Sawicki, who speaks perfect English, says the problems with the menu and the waitress will be remedied immediately. I know it's the right thing to do, but I'm bummed. With the dollar so low, Helena's is the closest I'll come to foreign travel.

Helena's Bistro, 3592 N. Milwaukee (286-0389), is open for dinner from 4 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to midnight Friday, and noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday. In a few weeks--when he's done remodeling--Sawicki plans to open the place up for lunch.

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