Near North is so full of pricey steak houses these days that it’s become a home on the range for conventioneers, Gold Coast fat cats, and other aging carnivores. But head west and you’ll find plenty of people on a very different diet. It isn’t just a matter of finances: the older set may have just found out that they don’t have to pay attention to cholesterol counts if they can make it to the age of 70, but younger gourmets can’t think that far ahead. And belonging as they do to the first generation to grow up with yogurt in their lunch boxes, they’re accustomed to deprivation. So while their elders are still into heavy leather, they’re emptying out their naturally shed oak-bark wallets for organic produce from Fresh Fields and Whole Foods. They’re going for the mostly vegetarian Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food at Cousin’s and the global cuisine at Eat Your Hearts Out!, whose produce is organic and whose meat is free-range. And they’re jamming Jane’s, the six-month-old vegetarian place in Bucktown that calls its food a combination of “clean” (chemical-free) and “indulgent.”

According to co-owner Arden Nelson, “indulgent” means the cuisine at Jane’s reflects culinary influences from different cultures and uses more spices and richer ingredients–sour cream, olive oil, and avocado–than most vegetarian restaurants, which she calls “bland.” Do the ingredients and the multicultural slant make Jane’s version of vegetarian better than most? The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no.

As seems to be the case in most places, the appetizers suck you in. Take the California chicken roll appetizer ($5.95): avocado and sour cream join tomato and chopped spinach in a flour tortilla over an avocado sauce for a rich, if calorie-laden, treat. Farm-fresh Monterey Jack or soy cheese mellows the grilled veggie quesadilla ($5.95). Mild, sweet sesame noodles ($4.95), made from homemade corn spaghetti and served hot, are equally soothing.

But then come the greens. If there’s anything a vegetarian restaurant should do well, it’s salads, yet Jane’s house version ($2.95), full of a nice assortment of fresh greens, was so badly dressed it could’ve been married to the mob. Both the walnut garlic (roasted garlic and walnut oil) and cucumber yogurt (also with garlic) dressings tasted downright peculiar, as if miso-based, although they’re not. I can only describe the result as bulk without flavor. Our waitress was nice enough to warn us beforehand that the salad is large enough to share. The “classic” Caesar ($3.95) is excellent, although it’s not really a Caesar: the lettuce was red, not romaine, and we couldn’t taste one iota of garlic.

As for the entrees, go for the beautifully green, artichoke-stuffed spinach ravioli special ($9.95). The rich, creamy Gorgonzola sauce surprises your palate with a hint of lemon. Wild mushroom risotto ($8.95) made with brown rice reminded me of the “classic” Caesar salad: though it’s a good dish in its own right, it doesn’t taste like risotto because it isn’t made with Arborio rice. The regulars at the next table raved about Tony’s black beans, brown rice, and grilled vegetables ($7.95) sauteed with fresh oregano. We liked it too, although we couldn’t detect the oregano. But blandness wasn’t a problem with the corn spaghetti frutti de mare ($10.95), chock-full of plump scallops, shrimp, and sliced calamari in a peppery tomato basil sauce.

You can usually count on desserts not to disappoint, but the mixed berry crisp tasted, well, vegetarian–that is, it wasn’t sweet enough. The chocolate mousse cake–a dense sponge cake topped with mousse–tasted fat-free even though it contains egg yolks. The surprise winner was a carrot cake: not the usual rendition, but an original creation made mostly of grated carrots and coconut, with a light glaze of lemon and sugar. All desserts are $4. The coffee is Starbucks. There’s a full bar and a nice selection of micro brewery beers and wine, along with smoothies and fresh-pressed juices.

Nelson and her co-owner, Jeff Auld (the name Jane’s was chosen for its simplicity and friendliness), wanted the decor to reflect the “health-conscious life-style.” The color scheme is blues, greens, and earth tones. Even the exterior is green, and in case you don’t get it one wall is hung with three-dimensional fruit and vegetable artwork. Tabletops are hand-stained, the tin-faced bar (that’s old tin wall paneling set into its base) is attractively decorated with a long row of candles interspersed with little vases of flowers, and there’s an open kitchen. The vaulted, wood-beamed ceiling, exposed brick wall, and hardwood floors could account for the noise level, reinforced by background music. It may be less annoying to the eardrums of the MTV-raised, boom-box-habituated clientele. The place is always packed, and the wait for a table can be agonizing. But with a little more attention to spicing, and less need to advertise simple dishes as something they’re not, it could be well worth the wait.

Jane’s, 1655 W. Cortland, is open for lunch and dinner 11 AM to 1 AM Tuesday through Sunday (the bar is open until 2 AM). Carryout is available. For more information call 862-JANE (5263).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.