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Down-home mainstays delivered with flair

Jan 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

West Madison Street isn’t likely to morph into a restaurant row overnight, but as a result of all the residential development, the dining possibilities are improving. One of the latest newcomers is Phil & Lou’s, an American bar and restaurant that combines down-home cooking with upscale innovations.

The deep, dimly lit storefront has a by-now-familiar appearance: exposed-brick walls, plum-painted ceiling with exposed ductwork, a long bar and a few booths upfront, rows of butcher-paper-covered tables in back, along with the kitchen. Eclectic decorations include colorful paintings, oversized retro-’50s hanging lamps and a gleaming motorcycle (on an overhead shelf).

Michael Dean Hazen, formerly of Rushmore, is the chef, and his lunch menu touches lots of bases, from burgers to pizzas. He likes to tweak classic sandwiches, offering both traditional and unorthodox versions of peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese and the BLT. The hot entrees are listed on a blackboard as daily specials, though some are available every day.

The appetizers betray just how international so-called American food has become. My favorite is the ahi tuna tartare, coarsely chopped raw fish swathed in spicy oil billed as “Asian love sauce,” covered with a thick sesame cracker crowned by bright-green seaweed salad. The wild mushroom quesadilla also turns out well, thanks to tangy goat cheese and pine nuts boosting the mushrooms in a carefully griddled flour tortilla. Buffalo chicken wings and crispy calamari are bows to typical bar food.

Of the four salads, two can be turned into main courses with grilled chicken or shrimp. Even without these additions, the Cobb is a meal-size serving of baby greens topped with sliced hard-boiled egg, high-quality bacon, blue cheese, green beans, cherry tomatoes and avocado. The creamy herbed dressing could use more pizzazz, but it’s decent.

A daily frittata, served with a small green salad and fresh fruit, is another light entree. Laden with crunchy asparagus and sauteed mushrooms on one visit, the omelet looks messy but tastes good.

However, my barbecued chicken pizza is just a mess. So much piquant, sweet barbecue sauce is slathered on the limp, thin crust that it masks the flavors of the chicken, caramelized onions and fontina cheese. Wilted arugula in the middle makes a sad garnish.

The grilled cheese sandwich with Wisconsin Gorgonzola and Granny Smith apple also is a failure, though it sounds intriguing. The partially melted cheese is so strong and salty, it overwhelms the few slices of tart apple, and the toast is burnt. The coleslaw is fine, and the fries would be if they were hotter.

Hearty mainstays, typically accompanied by homey mashed potatoes, are hit or miss. I’m not sure exactly what makes the “Midwestern meat loaf” Midwestern, but the greasy, salty, tomato-accented, fall-apart slices remind me of what Mom would make if she were a really bad cook. Broasted chicken, on the other hand, is as crunchy-crusty as fried chicken on the outside and soft and moist within. No wonder it’s a big seller-even prompting takeout orders from downtown business people. Chef Hazen’s mac `n’ cheese, a standout when he was at Rushmore, is sometimes a lunch special (but not on my visits); at dinner, it’s gussied up with lobster.

For dessert, old-fashioned bread pudding gets a delightful modern twist with poached pears in rum sauce. It hardly needs the vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce that come on the side. The Key lime tart surpasses a chocolate tart with a filling so dense and fudgy, it resembles sludge. Intelligentsia espresso and cappuccino are well-made on one visit, but on another, the espresso is lukewarm and the cappuccino has no foam.

Casual servers ranging from skilled to inexperienced tend to be surprisingly forgetful and less than attentive. A final tip: If you don’t get delicious hot rolls to start, ask for them.

Crain’s Chicago Business uses a four-fork system of rating restaurants, with the following values: one fork-above average; two forks-very good; three forks-excellent; four forks-world-class. In addition, there are “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” categories, which rank below one fork.

Phil & Lou’s1104 W. Madison St.(312) 455-0070Open: Lunch and dinner dailyLunch entrees: $7-$11Rating: 1/2 forkFood quality: Hit or miss for both the upscale dishes and the down-home onesAmbiance: The exposed-brick, upscale tavern look; fairly quiet at lunchTidbits: Non-smoking section; wheelchair-accessible; reservations not necessary