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Restaurants & Bars 1

Weekend in Chicago and surrounds (long)

Julie | Jun 3, 200309:10 AM

In order to make a pilgrimage to Ikea, my sister (from Madison) and I (from MSP) spent last weekend in Oak Brook and journeyed into the city for a couple of meals. Before going I checked out several places on the Metromix site. My experiences turned out to be almost the complete opposite from what I was expecting in view of the postings on the site. Here's where we ate and how we regarded the chow.

First stop was lunch at Le Francais in Wheeling. I had wanted to go there for 15 years or more after first reading an entry for the place in the Relais and Chateau guide. Turns out the stop was a lucky one if I was ever to get my wish to dine there fulfilled. We overheard the staff talking among themselves and from what we could gather of the conversation the place will be closing its doors June 28. Am I behind or ahead of the general knowledge here? Or am I flat out wrong?

It's hard to judge a place that's been at the top and is now apparently going under. Maybe not hard, just sad. Difficult to know if what you find is because of the impending closing or the cause of it. At any rate the restaurant itself seemed non-descript. Blond wood with alabaster chandeliers was nice but plain. We were there for lunch on a Friday which is obviously sparsely attended because they'd closed off half the room with blond movable screen partitions. It made the place look like a Chinese restaurant that does banquets and closes off the banquet area when not in use. We had the $25 three course prix fixe luncheon menu. The food was competent but nothing special. I started with two grilled shrimp on a bed of greens with balsamic drizzled over and followed with a veal shank, nicely done but with two chunks of carrot the size of my little finger to the first joint, two or three pieces of celery similarly sized and three pieces of fingerling potato the size of my thumb--cut in half. Hard to tell whether the veggies were to eat or for garnish. A frozen grand marnier souffle was rather tasteless. Both my sister and I thought this was the least interesting food experience of the five we squeezed into the weekend. If you're a real fan of this place in its former glory days you might want to go one last time for a last hurrah. If so, do it soon. If there are no sentimental reasons to go there, forget it and presume it was once a culinary powerhouse that you should have gone to much sooner--as we should have.

Dinner Friday evening was at Wildfire in the Oak Brook mall. Metromix reviews were pretty unkind about this place and I'd not have booked it at all based on them but it was my sister's pick and I'm glad she picked it. It was the best meal of the trip. We booked for 9 p.m. and stopped by the place about 7 or so before shopping at the mall. They put us on the wait list even with our reservations and gave us one of those buzzer things to carry. It had a range to cover the entire mall and worked perfectly. We were seated ahead of our 9 p.m. reservation in a perfect spot for people watching (which is half the fun here) and provided an attentive waitress. Food was first rate. Wonderful chopped salad, yummy and plentiful scallops in butter sauce and tasty creamed spinach. We left completely satisfied, even raving about the experience having suffered none of the slights complained of in the Metromix reviews of the place. I'd go there again, and again, and again.

Saturday was one of those days that makes Chicago the windy city. I thought I was going to blow away. End of May and the traffic cops had their hats on with the ear flappers down. We blew into Emilio's Tapas bar on Ohio St. No one there but the food was pretty good and I could see how the place could be great fun. Great decor. I sat facing a stylized view of the Tuscan hills in tones of purple and orange. The Spanish omelet was a little on the limp side and the toilets had an unfortunate smell of sewer gas but otherwise the place had the right stuff to be a fun time for a repeat visit.

Saturday evening we went to Lutnia, a Polish restaurant on Belmont, after driving the length of Milwaukee Ave. to see more of the Polish neighborhood. Next time I'm there I'd like to spend more time exploring it--during the day. Lutnia bills itself as Chicago's only upscale Polish restaurant and Metromix posters claim it puts on airs. I guess that's true but it kind of adds to the experience. Everything is white linens and lots of silk flowers. It was the only place we went that had live music--a pianist seated at a white baby grand playing standard piano repetoire heavily loaded with showtunes. I had the Bigos (Polish meat and mushroom stew) for an appetizer--no small portions here. I make this myself and I'm proud to report that mine and theirs taste identical, both excellent. I followed with their Polish sampler plate--something the Metromixers claim makes the place totaly unauthentic. It was fun. Polish sausage fried with onions, pierogi with a couple different fillings and stuffed cabbage. Ok, so it's kitschy but it was a good time.

Our final meal before catching a plane home was back at the Oak Brook mall at The Clubhouse. Metromix calls this a meet market but there were no aging lounge lizards in gold chains there for the brunch, generally agreed to be the best meal they serve. It was terrific. For $28 they had some really wonderful, attractive, tasty food. My favorite was a seafood salad with chunks of calamari, scallops, and shrimp joined by mandarin oranges, yellow pepper strips and a creamy cilantro dressing. At a buffet I always look for those things I've not had before to be my second helpings. This one actually became also my third helping as I had it again instead of dessert. Besides the usual breakfast kinds of things they had excellent bruschetta--both a tomato and a chicken pesto, tomato/feta/asparagus salad, salmon with a wonderful onion cream sauce, and exceptionally well seasoned prime rib. They also had the obligatory cold seafood platters including crab claws. The whole thing was classy and good. The decor is fun with a wonderful curving staircase to ascend and murals of elegant 1920-40's something parties. I can see how it would appeal to the well-over 30 but still-looking types that Metromix posters claim it attracts. I'd say they have pretty good taste. A good feature of their Sunday brunch is that it starts at 10 a.m., great for anyone leaving town on an early afternoon flight.

All in all a fun, foodie weekend with the burbs holding their own against the central city places in contrast to the conventional wisdom.

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