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REVIEW Sweets & Savories * *

Sweets & Savories restaurant pares prices but not the flavor

Phil Vettel

July 16, 2009

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A good number of Chicago restaurants manage to survive without a liquor license, but Sweets & Savories might be the first to turn its back on one.

"It started at the back end of last year," says chef-owner David Richards. "I kind of saw people's spending habits changing. I saw friends going out less and looking for reasonable prices. And so many of them were seeking out restaurants [where] they could bring their own wine."

Richards resolved that Sweets & Savories would be such a place.

So, late last year, Richards tore up Sweets & Savories' modestly priced wine list and went BYO. He lowered his prices and added a few irresistible deals, including a $29 three-course option, a $14 two-course Sunday brunch and, incredibly, half-off the entire menu on Tuesdays.

A few Tuesdays back, I had a hefty slab of meaty, flaky amberjack, alongside a zucchini salad. For $11.

Why there isn't a two-week backlog for Tuesday reservations is beyond me.

"Financially speaking, it's not a moneymaker," says Richards about the Tuesday deal. "But it does help payroll, and it's good for our front-of-house staff."

Not that I'm suggesting that people patronize this place exclusively on Tuesdays. Food this good deserves an audience every day of the week, especially at these prices -- most entrees are in the teens, none higher than $22.

And yet Richards doesn't shy away from luxury ingredients. There is foie gras set atop bruleed pineapple on a plate bearing a smear of chocolate sauce, and large pieces of butter-poached lobster star in a memorable risotto entree (the appetizer risotto, filled with spring peas and asparagus, is very nearly as good). And the signature burger is made from wagyu (American kobe) beef and topped with pate de foie gras and truffled mayonnaise.

Those dishes are fun, but simpler creations, such as the roasted vegetable tart with goat-cheese cream, are more satisfying. Vichyssoise sports a lobster claw in the center of the bowl; gazpacho is another summery soup, and it's enhanced by a couple of hefty shrimp. Salads are a strength, none better than the sweet-salty composition of preserved figs, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese.

Richards changes up the menu often enough to keep even determined regulars from getting jaded. You'll always find steak frites on the menu, and I imagine if Richards 86'd the lobster risotto there would be rioting. But the fish options change every few days, as do salads and other starters. So you may get to enjoy the sea scallops over goat-cheese grits or an equally impressive roasted bass over lobster sauce. I hope the pork chop sticks around awhile; this is a grilled beauty, fragrant with rosemary and bearing a sweet garlic undercurrent balanced by a just-tart-enough pomegranate barbecue sauce.

There's a reason this place is called Sweets & Savories rather than Savories & Sweets; Richards conceived this as a dessert specialist, featuring up to 17 sweets daily. He's down to about eight now, and if I find one I don't like, I'll let you know. The strawberry-rhubarb pie won't be around much longer, sadly, but there's plenty of summer left for the berry cobbler. Two menu stalwarts are the Meyer lemon tart and the sticky toffee bread pudding, the former a model of restrained sweetness and the latter an absolute sugar revel. Richards has stopped making his chocolate fondant cake (pending the torch-and-pitchfork mob uprising), but he has replaced it with a chocolate cornmeal pie, a satisfying, brownie-like concoction.

The staff is small in number -- the restaurant seats only 40 or so -- but few restaurants of any size can boast servers as cheerfully personable as this crew. They're particularly adept at wine service -- the advantages of a BYO that used to serve liquor include decent stemware and servers who know how to uncork a bottle.

pvettel@tribune.com

Sweets & Savories

1534 W. Fullerton Ave. 773-281-6778

Open: Dinner Tue.-Sat., brunch Sun.

Entree prices: $16-$22

Credit cards: A, M, V

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Other: Wheelchair accessible; BYO (no corkage fee)