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The Art of Cooking?

At the Restaurant at the Art Institute, professional cookingis taught -- sort of

Lunch offered a similar mix: good presentation, good (generally) taste, lousy service. The gumbo I tried was much too thin. Not only did it lack the dense texture and dark, swampy color so necessary in a memorable gumbo, but the all-important file powder was missing. When I asked about this, I was told that one of the chefs was allergic to file. A taste of the soup of the day -- black bean -- made me wonder if he was likewise allergic to heat. The black bean soup had a nice smoky flavor, enhanced by thick chunks of ham and sausage, and was topped with some fresh pico de gallo that added bright colors to an otherwise dull spectrum, but it was also barely warm. A little lecture on the value of temperature, I mused, might be of help to the Restaurant's students.

As, for that matter, might a talk about how less is not always more. The house salad of baby fresh field greens was barely covered with enough vinaigrette to give it any flavor, though what was there was adequate. And the vegetarian focaccia pizza, even though it was covered with ample stringy mozzarella cheese and finely sliced vegetables, was short of distinguishable flavors; it was too subtle for its own good, which seems to be a recurring problem. Better was the grilled rib eye steak, which was nicely done over charcoal, something that imparted an excellent grilled flavor to the meat. Too bad the meat was fairly tough.

As I tallied up my criticisms, I began to question whether I should be so critical of students in training, people who, for the most part, seemed to be trying. No, I decided; the prices I was being charged were not student prices, but full fare, and so full service was required.

The Restaurant opened two and a half years ago on the fourth floor of the Art Institute's building on Yorktown near the Galleria. The idea behind it was to give students in their final quarter of study practical experience. The culinary program is under the directorship of chef Michael Nenes, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, and while the placement rate of his students indicates the school is doing something right, the Restaurant itself could still use some work.

Actually, it wouldn't take much to improve the overall perception of the place. The first thing to do is change the name -- "the Restaurant" isn't particularly inspired, or inspiring. Then there's the decor, or lack thereof. The Restaurant has an institutional feel akin to that of a hospital cafeteria. Even the white tablecloths at dinner fail to transform the space into something inviting. Since the Art Institute has classes on interior design, an excellent project might be to have those classes come up with a more enchanting look. And then there's the art on the walls, which is also institutional. Why not use the wall space to show off the works of the Art Institute's budding fine artists?

But the most important improvement would be to shoo some of the Robert del Grande wannabes out of the kitchen and into the dining room. They need to learn that no matter how brilliant and beautiful their creation may be when it comes off the stove, if it doesn't reach the mouth in a reasonable time, then it's all for nothing.

The Restaurant at the Art Institute, 1900 Yorktown, 966-2756.

The Restaurant at the Art Institute: gumbo (bowl), $3.45; soup of the day (cup), $1.75; house salad, $1.95; vegetarian focaccia pizza, $4.50; rib eye steak, $8.95; Great Chef's Club dinner, $35; five-course culinary dinner, $19.95.

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