Restaurant Tours: three buffets for gluttonous gourmets | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: three buffets for gluttonous gourmets 

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The first definition of gourmand, according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, is "glutton." Then comes "judge or devotee of good eating." I plead guilty on both counts, which is also why I am so fond of buffet dining--especially some of the buffets around town where even a nongluttonous gourmet ("connoisseur of eating or drinking") can walk away satisfied that quality was equal to quantity.

Take the evening antipasto buffet at Cafe Angelo. This place, at the northern outskirts of the Loop, is one of the best pan-Italian eateries in the city. It was serving lovely northern Italian dishes long before most of us started calling spaghetti "pasta."

New York native Angelo Nicelli introduced dozens of dishes to this town, such as Ionian seafood salads and porcini sauces for pastas, and has kept abreast of the new without losing the Old World flavors of the classics. Still he is too often overlooked in the tide that carries local foodies from last week's chic trattoria to this week's rising ristorante.

He introduced his evening buffet about a year ago for an anniversary promotion, and it proved so popular he's kept it on four nights a week. The dishes are rotated every so often, but you are almost certain to find veal tonnato every time. This is room-temperature slices of roast veal adorned with a savory sauce based on tuna, capers, and mayonnaise--a great dish not found on many menus in these parts. You'll also find a hefty baked stuffed artichoke as well as cold artichokes vinaigrette. Then there are cold mussels in a tangy green sauce and a mixed seafood salad worth having as a full meal.

The favorite of my favorite companion is the grilled polenta square topped with a big juicy porcini mushroom, but she would eat almost anything topped with a big juicy porcini.

Roasted peppers are usually matched with anchovies, and every so often there will be lush trout marinated in a balsamic vinaigrette. There is almost always a full-bodied panzanella or bread salad, plus a zesty shrimp and rice salad. Prosciutto and melon? Naturally, along with cured salmon, mushroom salad, cheese and tomato salad, and any number of crostini--the little open-face sandwiches of pate or other spreads on toasted rounds of Italian bread.

There are at least a dozen items--sometimes close to 20--each put together with the care of an individual appetizer serving. You can make one pass at the table, loading your plate high, for $7.50, or, as I usually do, blow a whole $14 for as many gluttonous trips as you want.

A few blocks down Wabash, in, of all places, the Palmer House, lies another bargain available during the lunch hour every day and for dinner on Friday. One of the city's best-kept secrets is the restaurant called the French Quarter, a few paces off the grand lobby and a few steps up. It has been serving New Orleans cooking for a long time now, way before Justin Wilson hit the airwaves. But they too keep working at updating and refining the dishes, often in consultation with major Louisiana chefs like Wilson.

Every lunchtime buffet brings on a different aspect of the state's microregions. Mondays it's Cajun specialties such as shredded pork casserole, chicken breast picante, and blackened amberjack with crawfish Nancy sauce--plus red beans and rice, natch.

Tuesdays, are, of course, Mardi Gras, with sticky chicken, jambalaya, and fettuccine with crawfish and tasso, the spiced smoked ham, topped with creole mustard sauce.

Wednesdays are Italian-creole, featuring such stuff as alligator stew, creole (meaning specially spicy) lasagna, and country-fried steak and gravy.

Thursday is barbecue day, with beef ribs, pecan-fried catfish fillets, and Cajun cabbage with andouille sausage in the mix.

But Friday, fish day, remains my favorite. Last visit I relished the dense crawfish etouffee and did away with two big helpings of baked crab imperial--a spiced mayonnaise-based dish that still displays the sweetness of the crabmeat. Then there was a terrific angel-hair pasta with oysters that also sustained their briny taste. Plus there's the traditional Chicago dish, the Palmer House breaded fish fillet, halibut in this instance, with the hotel's fantastic tartar sauce, which would make shirt cardboard taste like a gourmet treat.

For the most part these entrees--seven daily, eight at Friday's dinner--hold up well on the steam table. But they are only part of the story, for there is also a rich and sinful dessert assortment. All of this comes in at $9.75 for lunch Monday through Saturday and $12.95 for Friday's seafood dinner, where they throw in baked stuffed crabs.

One of my favorite cuisines is Indian, whose complex, dizzying assortment of flavors drawn from dozens of special herbs and spices creates a culinary idiom matched only by France and China. The best of the city's Indian restaurants are mostly on Devon Avenue, which is where Standard India started out. (For years it and Gandhi were my absolute favorites on the street.)

Then Standard's proprietor, Pardip Kamboj, tried to bring his wonderful flavors to the Rush Street area and then to Belmont Avenue in the heart of Lakeview.

Rush Street said no, and in the financial crunch the restaurant on Devon closed, leaving only the Lakeview spot--which is just dandy. Like Angelo Nicelli, Kamboj offered a buffet initially as a kind of promotion, then expanded it to all meals. Like Angelo's, it worked beautifully because the expert quality of the individual dishes held up splendidly, and both lunch and dinner buffets are an exceptional bargain.

Tuesdays and Thursdays the food is all vegetarian, but of the kind that could convert the most ardent carnivore. The other days there are a lamb dish and a chicken dish plus tandoori chicken--an item that can be a meal in itself. It's very well flavored here, though it doesn't hold up quite as well into the evening as the stewed and braised dishes such as curries and vindaloos.

There are always samosas and pakoras, stuffed patties and deep-fried fritters, to start the meal, along with those crisp, peppery wafers of lentil flour called papadums and an assortment of hot and sweet-and-sour chutneys and relishes to pep them up more.

There is always a soup; one evening it was an aromatic lentil and veggie, another it was mulligatawny. There are always lettuce and tomato salads. And almost always sag paneer, one of my very favorite Indian dishes, a dazzlingly spiced version of creamed spinach with homemade white cheese. Another act of extraordinary spicing involves a curry of mixed vegetables in a light cream base.

Lamb vindaloo one evening had a lovely, full flavor but was several degrees below the spice level expected from a vindaloo. Kamboj acknowledges that he tones it down for the American palate, but it still has lots of taste. Chicken curry, however, had all the zip and bite you could ask for short of scorching your mouth.

All of this exotica and then some comes for only $5.95 at lunch or dinner ($6.95 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights), seven days a week, and you can bring your own beer or wine (it takes a robust red to match these hearty tastes). You can also order a la carte from an extensive menu.

Cafe Angelo, 225 N. Wabash, presents its buffet from 5 to 9 PM Wednesday through Saturday. Call 332-3370.

French Quarter in the Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe, serves its buffet lunch Monday through Thursday from 11 to 2, Friday until 3, and Saturday 12 to 3, and the dinner buffet Friday from 5 to 10. Call 726-7500.

Standard India Restaurant, 917 W. Belmont, offers its buffet seven days a week from noon to 3 PM and from 5 to 10 PM. Call 929-1123.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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