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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Road Trip! For foodies, Chicago's Old Town Brasserie is worth the drive

Posted By on Tue, Jan 15, 2008 at 2:22 PM

Among NEO diners of a certain age, bemoaning the passing of the French restaurant ranks right up there with polishing the chafing dish as a food-related hobby. But if our recent weekend getaway to the Windy City is any measure, the format may be poised to make a comeback -- and in a fashion as lively and hip as our times require. Consider the Old Town Brasserie, an airy soufflé of casual elegance that opened on the city’s north side in August, featuring polished service and extraordinary French cuisine. Don’t let the name fool you: This is no lowbrow tavern, boasting sausages and beer. (Click 'More' to read on ...) Instead, expect a concise but tempting menu that bounces easily between familiar bistro fare, like the buttery squab pate and crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken, and inventive, upscale indulgences -- a mahogany colored duck consommé, say, that wraps the tongue in velvet (and yes, Iron Chef judges, it was totally clear), or a pairing of succulent braised Kobe beef with two of the most voluptuous roasted lamb chops I’ve ever tasted. Four-star Chicago chef Roland Liccioni is the brasserie’s top toque, and his menu reflects both his French training and his Vietnamese heritage, particularly in out-of-the-ordinary dishes like wonton-wrapped “ravioli” filled with lobster mousse and served with pickled cucumbers and Vietnamese foam. Prices are reasonable, with entrees pegged at $20-30 -- although portion sizes are modest by Cleveland standards. Probably the best approach is to do as our party of four did, and order an array of dishes for sharing around the table -- a sort of impromptu, 4-course “tasting” that began with the consommé and the evening’s special salad (baby frisée practically buried beneath translucent sheets of black truffles) and ended with a pair of ethereal soufflés, in hazelnut and chocolate. A solid wine list, and spot-on suggestions from our well-seasoned server, were bonuses. Be warned, though, that reservations can be tough to snag: Even a month ahead of our visit, the best we could manage on a Saturday night was a 9 p.m. showtime, so advanced planning would be wise. But don’t feel the need to pack your formal duds: While beautifully appointed, the room’s energetic vibe is anything but stuffy. For now, Francophiles both young and old can only hope to see something like this pop up on the local dining scene. Until it does, though, remember: Chicago is just a 6-hour car trip away. To read Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel’s three-star review of Old Town Brasserie and for more info on the restaurant, click here . -- Elaine T. Cicora

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