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C-House leaves initial hype behind to become a sea of good taste

The Gulf Grouper is plump fillet pan-seared perfectiserved atop an arrangement risotstudded with pine nuts chiles. roasted cauliflower fluerettes. |

The Gulf Grouper is a plump fillet pan-seared to perfection and served atop an arrangement of risotto studded with pine nuts and chiles. and roasted cauliflower fluerettes. | Richard A. Chapman ~ Sun-Times photos

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C-House ★★

166 E. Superior, Affinia Chicago hotel; (312) 523-0923;

Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Prices: Dinner menu appetizers, $8-$14; entrees, $18-$29; desserts from the “Candy Bar,” $2 each.

Try: 1, 2, 3 lunch special, smoked trout terrine, ravioli, grouper.

In a bite: A casual yet stylishly modern restaurant that floats outside the box of most hotel restaurants in that it is small, warm, comfortable and approachable. A good place to keep in mind when shopping on North Michigan Avenue. The service staff has been trained well in the fine nuances of the menu, and they pretty much allow you to choose dishes as you please without any attempt at upselling. Impressive wine list, with wines by the glass sensibly priced ($8-$9). Reservations are accepted.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;

★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;

★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: May 26, 2011 6:16AM

There was much ado about C-House when it opened in the Affinia Chicago hotel on East Superior almost three years ago. “Most anticipated opening” and other superlatives were thrown around with abandon.

The ado was not about the location — a few steps off the Mag Mile — but rather the toque, Marcus Samuelsson, whose name was attached to the restaurant. Samuelsson’s picture and bio are still prominently displayed on the restaurant’s website, but with all that this celebrity chef has on his plate (“Top Chef Masters” winner last year; a couple of restaurants in New York City that went nowhere in no time flat, and a recently opened restaurant in NYC called the Red Rooster), he is one busy guy. And with that kind of schedule, I doubt he has stepped a foot or two into C-House in recent months.

Not that it matters all that much, because Nicole Pederson is running the kitchen, and she is doing a bang-up job. And there is much to like about this version of C-House. The menu, though not as seafood-centric as it was when C-House first opened, does have enough going for it to hold your interest. There’s a selection of oysters (three from the East Coast, three from the West Coast) that change relative to availability.

Of the eight entrees listed on the dinner menu, four have some connection to the sea (as in C-House). Also, the atmosphere is most inviting. This is not your typical sprawling hotel dining room arrangement. You will find nicely spaced tables and a few comfortable banquettes. “Civilized” is the word that comes to mind. And, considering the location, the prices are quite reasonable.

A recent lunch gave me an option called “1, 2, 3,” a choice of soup or salad, any sandwich and one “candy bar item” (more about this later). That arrangement is priced at $15. Quite a deal, considering that one of the sandwich choices was a lobster club, which was as much about the lobster meat (no skimping) as the club part, a construction of slices of toasted bread, crisp bacon and avocado. While the soup choice — potato and Cheddar — could have been better (and hotter), this was still a handsome deal. Included in the price are fries, and they were acceptable but not astonishing.

On the dinner menu, plucked from under the “C-Bar” heading, the mini yellowtail tacos — eight bite-sized tacos — were as much about the avocado and pickled red onion as the fish, but there was a sense not only of the elaborate presentation but of value for the price, so it all worked out. Another C-Bar selection, smoked trout terrine, was excellent in every way. The trout was sandwiched between layers of lentils (giving it something close to the look of an ice cream sandwich). A cloud of frisee was piled atop the terrine, and there were some slices of rye bread, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Two entrees were sampled, and both were quite good. The Gulf Grouper could not have been better or composed more elegantly. The fillet of fish, which was pan-seared to perfection, rode atop a sublime arrangement of risotto studded with pine nuts and chiles. Also on the plate, for good measure, were “flowers” of roasted cauliflower.

Beyond the fish and seafood entrees, one of the better choices for meat would be the maple-glazed pork chop that was paired with sweet potatoes and sunchokes (a hot ticket right now). A black walnut chutney (very inspired) added a pleasantly acidic note to the sweetness of the pork.

And, just for the fun of it, I tried the “handmade” ravioli. I am sure I picked this pasta as much for the made-in-house, hand-formed idea as the sauce, a sage and brown butter affair, one that goes so well with pasta. The ravioli — five in all, rectangular in shape — were filled with a hard-to-find buttery cheese, Valcasotto (an Italian cow’s milk cheese), and that took these ravioli from ho-hum to delicious.

The Candy Bar is a separate menu that is broken down into three categories: chocolates, confections, and cookies & such — with four to five choices listed under each. As the name implies, these are small bites (two bites at the most), but they eat big. For example, I chose the vanilla bean cupcake as part of my 1, 2, 3 lunch, and it was good.

A couple of dessert finishers at dinner were much better. The Candy Bar salted fudge brownies were excellent. Even better, from top to bottom, was the gingerbread baked Alaska with its swirl of toasted meringue cap and assertive gingerbread cookie base.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780).

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