Not so long ago, the Loop was something of a culinary desert. Those who wished to dine in some degree of comfort or elegance found their choice pretty much limited to basic beef, lamb, pork, chicken, or (at one time frozen) fish. Those willing to forgo napery and attentive service didn’t fare much better–fast foods, uninspired coffee-shop or hotel cooking, and a smattering of ho-hum oriental and Italian offerings. Culinary excitement could only be found elsewhere–the Gold Coast, Lakeview, or the suburbs.

In the past few years, however, Loop dining has undergone a significant change. Though the area still abounds with red meat (a legacy of the stockyards, perhaps, or the result of an unwillingness to disappoint all those conventioneers who expect the hog butcher to the world to live up to its name), a new attitude toward food has emerged. A greater number of Loop restaurants seem willing to experiment with ingredients, combinations, and preparations. One can now find, in that section of town, striped bass steamed with mussels, pumpkin-filled tortellini, escargots, and fried baby octopus, dishes that would have been daring a decade ago.

Michael Stuart’s, in the heart of the Loop at Adams and Wells, reflects this trend toward innovation. At the same time, those for whom steaks and chops are a sine qua non of dining will find that the regular menu offers, for the most part, a fairly standard selection of appetizers and entrees of the shrimp cocktail/filet mignon variety. The daily specials, on the other hand, listed on a separate sheet, exhibit chef John Lindsay’s considerable creativity. On our most recent visit, late in September, 7 appetizers and 11 entrees appeared on the supplementary list, almost as many of each as were on the regular menu. Typifying the specials are such starters as hot seafood pate and feuillete of asparagus and bay scallops, and main dishes like braised red snapper with lobster quenelles, salmon en croute with pike mousse, and breast of duck with fois gras and chanterelles. It’s the perfect place to take that out-of-town guest whose gustatory predilections you are unsure of.

One enters Michael Stuart’s on Wells Street, passing through a largish bar area. Here one can dance on weekends, when a modern jazz trio holds forth after 8 PM. Three well-appointed rooms paneled in dark mahogany inset with beveled glass greet the eye, once it has adjusted to the dim lighting. Above the paneling, a floral design in subdued taupe tones provides some visual contrast. Carpeting is muted, and the well-spaced tables are partnered with Chippendale-style chairs. Booths and banquettes line some of the walls, fresh carnations grace linen-bedecked tables, and classical music can be heard in the background. The total effect is of subdued and civilized elegance. The only element missing is a section set aside for non-smokers. Although cigar- and pipe-puffers are relegated to the bar area, cigarette smokers at an adjacent table can still trouble those sensitive to the weed.

We began with sauteed chanterelles and shallots ($6.95) from the supplementary menu, a splendid opener of meat-glazed, chewy-sweet fungi. Green-lip mussels Normande ($5.50), six gaping bivalves resting in a pool of rich, wine-infused cream, was our second appetizer from the specials menu. The superb sauce almost redeemed the less-than-perfect mussels; though they ranged from good to very good, they had been allowed to become a bit too dry. Among the regular offerings, carpaccio ($5.95) stands out, paper-thin slices of fresh and tangy beef garnished with an herbed mayonnaise that made a pleasant alternative to the more usual olive oil and coarsely grated Parmesan.

Among the soups, one offered regularly belongs in the don’t-miss category–cream of Minnesota wild rice ($3.95). It looks like a bowl of cereal but tastes like ambrosia. We also sampled duck consomme with aioli ($5.50), a special, an excellent full-flavored broth swimming with carrots, celery, and duck. The aioli, however, served on the side with toast, needed a bit more garlic to offset its too-tart flavor.

A house salad comes with all entrees, but we opted for a special of roasted sweet peppers with goat cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts ($5.95). More appetizer than salad in the usual sense, six roasted red and green pepper strips fanned out from a center round of creamy white goat cheese, to which a sprinkling of pine nuts and olive oil added an unctuous touch.

Among the regular entrees, roast duckling with black currant and cream sauce ($18.95) is a good bet. Should braised golden tilefish ever appear among the specials, go for it. Accompanied by a lightly piquant cucumber-dill sauce, it tasted fresh and heavenly. Another time, braised John Dory with French green beans and escargot ($23.95) caught our fancy. Served on a puddle of delicate lemon-scented cream sauce, visually enlivened by tomato cubes sprinkled on top, and flanked by still-firm haricots verts and superfluous canned snails, the moist white fish was pristine. Sauteed sweetbreads with apples and calvados sauce, garnished with watercress ($18.95), another special that evening, demonstrated chef Lindsay’s ability to produce dishes that would not be out of place in any excellent Parisian brasserie. Sweet without being cloying, the calvados-enhanced sweetbreads contrasted pleasantly with the fruity, crunchy apple slices. (It ought to be noted that waiters routinely ask patrons whether they would like wild rice with the entree, but neglect to mention that it costs $3.95 extra. Though it makes a nice accompaniment, it isn’t necessary, given the excellent dark, moist onion pumpernickel served with the meal.)

Desserts achieve the same high standard as the other courses. White chocolate mousse, flavored with candied ginger and orange peel and resting on a drizzling of dark chocolate ($4.50), tastes as good as it sounds and looks. Similarly, chocolate terrine ($4), a dark, rich slab of smooth chocolate served in a pool of raspberry puree swirled with creme anglaise, invited comparison with the best of its kind. Even apple cobbler ($6.50) was a pleasant surprise, its crust flaky and apples tart, the whole topped with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and served with a cinnamon horn on the side.

The dark and smoky coffee ($1.25) was excellent, but cappuccino ($1.95) suffered from an anemic foam. Tea drinkers can choose from Earl Grey, Keemun, or decaffeinated ($1.25).

Moderate wine prices help the meal go down easily. Chateau Saint Jean Fume Blanc, smooth and dry, was a very reasonable $18, and Robert Young Vineyards Alexander Valley Merlot, a soft but full dry red, was almost a bargain at $22.

Michael Stuart’s, 200 W. Adams, is open Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 9 PM, Saturday from 5 PM to 10 PM, and closed Sunday. American Express, Visa, and Mastercard are accepted. Free dinner parking is provided in the lot opposite the Wells Street entrance. For reservations call 558-4700.

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