Although food pundits and prophets are busily proclaiming the demise of nouvelle cuisine and the return to favor of steaks, chops, hearty stews, and old-fashioned alliances of red meat, potatoes, and gravy, Anne Finance, owner/manager of N.E.W. Cuisine, is betting otherwise. This small bistrolike River North eatery emphasizes grains, vegetables, and fruit; the animal kingdom is represented only by fish–the finny variety, for shellfish, as well as mammals and fowl, have been banned to keep cholesterol down. On the other hand, N.E.W. Cuisine is not your basic bean-sprouts-and-brown-rice parlor–whose typical clienteles George Orwell once dismissed as “bearded fruit juice drinkers and high-minded female sandal wearers.” While it shares with those modest establishments an emphasis on fresh, wholesome ingredients, it also offers variety, imaginative combinations, complex preparation, and the attention to visual presentation and garniture characteristic of more ambitious restaurants.

The decor reflects a concern for comfort, even elegance. Its second-floor location requires climbing some steep stairs, but once inside you’ll find linen-covered tables, cloth napkins, bentwood chairs, and handsome cutlery. Walls are white; the high, beamed ceiling is painted black for contrast and punctuated by bright red ventilation ducts and track lighting. Near the entrance, a glass-enclosed counter displays wines and pastries. Wooden pillars break the space, as do a few anemic-looking plants. In keeping with the current vogue in restaurant design, it looks like, and is, an industrial space that has been turned into a restaurant.

Let me hasten to note that, despite its emphasis on healthful diet, N.E.W. Cuisine serves freshly whipped cream on its desserts and excellent butter with its dark, rich, whole-grain millet bread (baked on the premises). Wines are offered by the glass or bottle, and cheese is used–judiciously–in many preparations. The menu changes every day, depending on what is available. All dishes are prepared in spring water; no frozen or canned items are used. Prices of entrees include soup or salad, and those ordering before 6:30 PM receive an additional discount. No smoking is permitted anywhere in the restaurant.

Two soups were featured the evening we were there, vegetable veloute and cream of caraway and cabbage ($2.50 each). The cream of cabbage was mildly sweet and pungent, more like a puree than a soup. The vegetable veloute was a puree–a smooth and earthy concoction of broccoli, onion, cabbage, and potato, sprinkled with parsley. Among the appetizers, terrine de cashew ($4.50) is a menu staple, a rectangle of brown and pink stripes in a pool of sweet red pepper sauce artfully surrounded by slivers of zucchini. The center of the terrine is made from sweet pepper and Edam cheese, the outside crust based on cashews. Though the dish looked extremely attractive, its taste was musty and bland. Pave of leeks ($4.50), though tough in spots, was a better bet–a slice of alternating dark and light green stripes, napped with a very pleasant vinaigrette and garnished with a pea pod and a strip of red pepper. Gourmet pizza ($6.50) is regularly featured, and from time to time a tart made from adzuki beans with vegetables and fruit ($4.50) appears among the appetizers.

For entrees we chose sauteed salmon in fresh ginger with spinach fettucine ($13.50) and cabbage farci ($10.50). The salmon came rare in the center, as requested, and was indubitably fresh. Surrounded by green noodles, and flanked by two wedges of lemon, it made a pleasant presentation. Unfortunately, it was a bit too simply prepared. There wasn’t enough sauce, and what there was lacked oomph. The spinach fettucine was simply boiled green noodles. Cabbage farci was more interesting, cabbage leaves rolled around nuts and cheese, served with a star-shaped timbale of rice and a fresh tomato coulis. It tasted sweet, crunchy, and tangy–a fun dish, the kind one puts together in a crazy mood and is surprised by when it turns out so well. Other entrees offered periodically include a tart of leeks and chevre, or leeks and gruyere ($8.75); hazelnut zucchini terrine ($8.75); bluefish en papillote ($12.75), and eggplant stuffed with vegetables, nuts, and cheese, served with basil rice ($10.75).

Desserts include homemade pastries (from $2.75 to $3.50) and fresh sorbets ($3.50). It was an agonizing decision, but we finally settled on the pastries. Chestnut cake was a moist banana-nut cake rolled, jelly-roll fashion, around dense chestnut-enriched whipped cream. It was sweet, buttery, and delicious. Pear cake was a spicy version of the banana-nut cake, layered with fresh pear slices and topped with light whipped cream. N.E.W. Cuisine serves the best decaffeinated coffee I’ve ever had, a brewed, organically grown mocha java. Regular coffee, herbal teas, espresso, and cappuccino are also available.

The limited wine list runs from $13 to $19 a bottle. We had a 1986 Vouvray Chapin Landais ($14) that made a sprightly, light-bodied accompaniment to the meal.

N.E.W. Cuisine, at 360 W. Erie, is open from 5 to 10 PM Tuesday through Saturday. American Express cards are accepted. Call 642-8885 for reservations and information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.