When Rich Melman first stepped up to the fine dining plate in 1977, he bought the historic Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel and turned to Gabino “Gabe” Sotelino, a Spanish-born French chef, to show the world he could run a restaurant that was haute as well as hot. Sotelino had been the chef at Le Perroquet, then the city’s very best. Though the Pump Room never gave that vaunted citadel any serious competition, it at least was on the same playing field. Three years later Melman and Sotelino would collaborate on a spot that would immediately vie for top honors and often carry the day.

That spot was Ambria, which remains in the gastronomic stratosphere today, especially when Sotelino does the cooking. Only the Everest and Charlie Trotter’s share the same rarefied air. People who wondered why Melman had so many successful places finally figured out his big secret: take in a top chef or manager and make him or her a managing partner. Give them a stake in making things work.

With Sotelino, things worked out beyond expectations. Not only was he a master in the kitchen–he is the first non-French chef to be named to the exclusive Academie Culinaire de France–but he turned out to be both an idea man and a solid manager who added two more gems to the Melman diadem: Un Grand Cafe, the classy bistro across the lobby from Ambria in the Belden Stratford, and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, the city’s first full-fledged tapas bar.

How does he keep up the pace–cooking at Ambria while supervising and developing the others? Sotelino rolls his eyes, whistles silently, and admits the strain. “This has been my baby. I am sure I never spent enough time with my family. I never saw my kids enough. Now they’re grown, and the marriage is over. But this is my life.”

That life began 51 years ago in Vigo, a village on Spain’s Atlantic coast, where his parents sent him into training for the priesthood. But he had other things on his menu. At 13 he got a gig as a bellboy at Madrid’s elegant Ritz hotel, then a year later he became a kitchen aide. He says, “I worked from 7 AM to midnight every day,” establishing his workaholic pattern.

At 20 he made his way to Paris and the Plaza Athenee, where “I learned to cook a lot like a Frenchman.” That, coupled with his hotel experience, landed him a job with Hilton International, traveling the world opening hotels with fine-dining rooms in Cairo, Alexandria, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Montreal. Sotelino was brought into Le Perroquet’s kitchen by Jovan Trboyevich, the hard-edged Serb who fought as one of Tito’s Partisans in World War II and went on to revolutionize the Chicago dining scene in the 1970s. A recent round of dining at the Sotelino trinity shows how well the workaholic still makes things work.

One way he keeps Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! working is to bring in a top chef from Spain every few months to sustain the spark he struck in 1985, when few knew what tapas were and everyone made bad jokes about “topless.” This bubbling maze of rooms with their bright, Miro-inspired murals remains a fun place to nosh. I’ve always loved the simple potato salad bound with garlic mayonnaise ($1.95) and found it made a perfect match with the piquillo peppers stuffed with codfish salad and zapped with sherry vinaigrette ($5.25). A couple of other favorites that have held up well are the sauteed shrimp with garlic and peppery olive oil ($5.95) and the lemony grilled squid ($5.50).

Among the hot dishes, croquettes of lobster, shrimp, and cod formed into little sausage-shaped tubes ($4.95) were disappointingly bland–they might as well have been Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. But my tastebuds were immediately reinvigorated with a mixed grill of spicy chorizo and unctuous morcilla sausages ($5.95). I didn’t need dessert, but couldn’t bypass the caramelized bananas with caramel ice cream ($3.95).

Un Grand Cafe, with its clatter and bustle amid brass and mahogany fixtures, is quintessential Paris bistro–in looks and cuisine–right down to the new four-course, fixed-price ($29) menu supplement that changes daily. This is one of the few local bistros that could thrive in the City of Light without missing a beat.

Something called “open” ravioli–squares of tender, tasty pasta flopped over a filling of spinach, wild mushrooms, and artichoke–was a lovely mouthful, sparked by a well-spiced splash of tomato sauce ($7). The fisherman’s soup was also in a suave tomato-based broth yielding nicely done nuggets of monkfish and plump mussels ($6). A classic bistro dish–sauteed skate wings with a buttery, caper-laden grenobloise sauce ($17)–was rendered perfectly, right down to the traditional accompaniments of spinach and tiny boiled potatoes. This is one of the nicest fish dishes in town. The entree on the day’s fixed menu was lamb shank with mashed potatoes–another item found on more and more menus–and the flavor was as impressive as the portion.

Sotelino’s talents really come to the fore, however, in Ambria, where his compositions blend the best of today’s culinary fillips–seasoned herbal oils, “tall” presentations–with classic French hauteur, and prices to match. This is one of those ageless rooms with dark patinated wood banquettes, mirrors, lace curtains, and art nouveau floral wall lamps. It exudes quiet elegance, as does every dish.

Take my starter: a dozen tiny crayfish embedded in a circle atop a “cake” of aromatic, finely minced veggies seasoned with fresh herbs, artistically surrounded by dollops of flavored oils ($14). My companion went with a three-layered napoleon of the sweetest scallops tasted in years, set off with crisped yucca–what a combination ($14). Both yielded tier upon tier of flavor. And I’ve never had a more intense bouillon than the splendid, deep-amber, mixed-game consomme, awash with morsels of celery root and earthy flageolet beans ($8). Grilled Dover sole was a revelation: fresh, firm, and rich, touched with an ever-so-delicate Asian-style sauce, accompanied by a layer cake of potatoes Anna ($25). I opted for the panned sweetbreads mated with a sweet-tart quince confit and a pool of satiny marjoram sauce ($25). It called to mind another organ-meat entree from Ambria’s earliest days–liver studded with mustard seeds, one of the delectables that helped build Sotelino’s reputation 16 years ago.

So where does Sotelino eat when he finds time to get away from his own places? Does he go to some burger, Chinese, or Mexican joint? Of course not–he visits his French-chef buddy John Claude Poilevy at Le Bouchon.

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! is at 2024 N. Halsted, 935-5000; Un Grand Cafe is at 2300 Lincoln Park West, 348-8886; and Ambria’s at 2300 Lincoln Park West, 472-5959.

–Don Rose

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