Barry Bursak has taken a long, convoluted path since his hippie days in Haight-Ashbury, but he’s carried a bit of the 60s metaphysic most of the way. For more than a year now he’s owned a nifty River North restaurant where, in addition to pursuing the usual entrepreneurial goals, he’s out to make a point: cuisine can be haute and ecologically correct at the same time.

At the restaurant, called Earth, virtually all the food is organically grown and chemical free, right down to the wine. Water used for drinking, for ice cubes, and in coffee is micron filtered. Dairy products are from hormone- and antibiotic-free cows. The bacon and chorizo are nitrite free. (Yes, he serves naturally raised meat and poultry, but there are vegan dishes as well.) Even the tables and walls are finished with nontoxic paints and coatings with no volatile organic compounds.

When Bursak first left the Haight in 1971, he opened a shop in Milwaukee selling medicinal herbs–no cannabis, he assures me. But the health department shut him down anyway, suspicious of what it considered the unlicensed sale of possibly dangerous pharmaceuticals. He switched to herbs and spices for cooking, which led to selling coffees. After his partner bought out that business, Bursak took up selling organic grains, then moved on to kitchenware, and eventually became a supplier to Crate & Barrel, a business he kept up on and off over the years.

In 1977 Bursak moved to Chicago and opened Granfalloon, on Huron between Wells and LaSalle, a shop offering hip housewares, lighting, and furnishings for apartment dwellers. When he needed more space in ’82, it was on to Institute Place, where the store morphed into City, carrying designer-name everything, from furniture to Japanese clothing.

The crash of ’87 spelled the end of that citadel of indulgence and helped Bursak rethink his life. Always environmentally conscientious, he says, “I really yearned for being part of the solution.” In 1991 he opened Home, a restaurant at Wells and Superior, his first attempt at serving organic, environmentally sound foods. But he couldn’t find enough certifiably correct product in those days to offer it consistently, so he sold out to a partner after a year and returned to the design field. By the end of ’96 he was ready to try the restaurant business again, and it was time for Earth.

“I want to change the old ideas about healthy foods by this–that it’s all boring and tasteless,” he says.

Assisting Bursak in his quest is chef Charles Warshawsky, a graduate of Kendall College’s professional culinary arts program who received his classical French training at Carlos in Highland Park and put in stints at Antoine’s in Los Angeles and Cafe Central in Highland Park.

“My cooking was naturally low in fat and very healthy,” Warshawsky says. “Remember, I trained in California. Earth has pushed me to do more. It’s French based, but it has a lot of Mexican and Asian influences.

“As a chef I look at whatever material I have and try to make it the best I can. Since this is organic food, I don’t just throw nuts and seeds into the thing.”

A tasting supported his statement. Only one dish gave any suggestion of “health” food–a zesty salad appetizer of five different spring shoots, including wheat berries for body and radish sprouts for piquancy, all in a yogurt-and-pink-peppercorn dressing ($4.95). The rest of the menu could conceivably be served at any fine dining spot in the area.

Small, sweet Prince Edward Island mussels (a favorite among today’s chefs) were steamed in lightly spiced fresh apple cider, a tasty alternative to the typical white wine broth ($7.95). But the best starter was a platter of perfectly grilled scallops–lightly browned on the outside, pearly in the center–sitting in a golden pool of citrus sauce and surrounding a small mound of jicama and endive ($7.95). The sauce, composed of lemon and orange juices with oil, was just the right, light accent for the delicate shellfish.

Among the entrees, in one of Warshawsky’s Asian touches, a strudel was stuffed with julienne leeks, peppers, and carrots, cut on the bias like a wrap, placed upright on a mat of slivered seaweed and sesame, and surrounded by grilled shrimp ($15.95).

Then there was a bison sirloin, American buffalo cooked very rare to keep the almost fat-free meat moist ($18.95). It had a lot of flavor, very close to beef, but with the chewiness of grass-fed cattle. As accompaniments, onion confit, spicy mashed sweet potatoes, and crunchy, sauteed jicama produced a nice meld of flavors and textures.

My favorite was a beautifully arranged platter of alternating slabs of lamb loin and whole crayfish radiating out from a dark hub of japonica wild rice blended with that nitrite-free chorizo ($17.95): a really creative mix of flavors, all working together beautifully, from the sweetness of the crayfish to the pungency of the sausage.

Earth, 738 N. Wells, is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 to 2:30, for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9, and Friday and Saturday until 10. Call 312-335-5475.

–Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Barry Bursak, Charles Warshawsky photo by J.B. Spector.