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Thursday, April 15, 2004 03:56 am

Defying description

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You won’t find anything ordinary at August Mrozowski’s Augie’s
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

Describing Augie's Front Burner is no simple task. It's not a high-concept restaurant offering tiny helpings of obscure foods: Augie's serves generous portions of lamb, chicken, grouper, and filet mignon. This is not a basic "American food" place, either: The chicken breast is flavored with Dijon mustard and served with sweet-potato ravioli. The filet mignon boasts a raspberry-merlot reduction. The grouper comes encrusted in potatoes and lobster cream.

And it's not a pretentious, decadently expensive restaurant. True, Augie's offers pleasant, efficient service and a long wine list, but the prices are manageable -- $22.99 for the filet, for instance, and $15.99 for the grouper. The atmosphere at the downtown restaurant makes the wait as pleasant as the food. Owner/chef August Mrozowski's love of art is evident in the eclectic décor, which is as colorful as the food. The restaurant comprises three dining areas, separated by antique oak panels and glass. Some walls display provocative large nude figures painted by Tanya Brodsky, which are layered over dark and vibrant murals created by artist Michael Mayosky. The murals, which drench the walls in tones of cobalt blue, orange and gold, are interesting and unique but could be overwhelming, even garish, to some. The back of the restaurant is decorated with posters and colorful Mike Manning paintings of Springfield sites and even Abe Lincoln, sporting a red bow tie. The artistic touches add to the festive atmosphere.

Mrozowski often makes an appearance to chat with diners. There is plenty of laughter and conversation, but the noise level is not too loud.

Augie's offers an intriguing lineup of appetizers such as escargot, duck nachos, quesadillas and black-bean cakes. The salads, which are first-rate, include Caesar, Greek, and a selection made with wine-soaked pears and candied walnuts paired with blue cheese and balsamic vinegar on a bed of mixed greens. The sweet tastes mingle wonderfully with the sharp. Likewise, the seared-salmon salad is a treat. The mix of baby greens, tossed with slivers of asparagus, yellow and red tomatoes and couscous, topped with a nice piece of fish and dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette, is refreshing yet filling. The melding of flavors is splendid.

It's not easy to decide on an entrée: Elk or tuna? Shrimp-and-shiitake risotto or Szechuan crispy roast duck? On a recent visit, our waiter helped us make our selections by providing thorough descriptions of the food, as well as recommendations that went beyond the typical "Oh, everything here is wonderful." (He also recommended an excellent wine.)

We decided on the filet mignon and the grouper. The fish was terrific: light and flaky, wrapped in slightly browned mashed potatoes and drizzled with lobster cream, which brought the dish to another level without overwhelming it. When the beef arrived overcooked and we mentioned it to the waiter, it was briskly replaced minutes later with another filet, perfectly executed medium-rare as requested. The light sauce of wine and raspberries gave the filet a sweet, subtle flavor. Perfection isn't easily achieved, but a good restaurant will make you forget about any problems by correcting the situation quickly. Augie's did just that.

Augie's is a perfect place for a business lunch or if you simply want to treat yourself to more than the average soup and salad. You won't find anything ordinary here. The specials, such as a fresh-seafood stir-fry, are always interesting. You can choose from such soups as lobster bisque and 16-bean and from a list of sandwiches including a bison burger, a smoked-turkey Reuben, and a Cuban sandwich piled high with turkey, smoked ham, and pepperoni and dressed with a vinaigrette. The lobster bisque is creamy, rich and so full of flavor it can be shared by two people.

Mrozowski has earned a reputation for his creative dishes, among them Maine-lobster salad with cognac sauce; chef salad made with roast tenderloin, Saga blue cheese and red endive; and lamb loin in a crust with Madeira sauce. He offers such tempting homemade desserts as apple crisp à la mode, bread pudding, crème brûlée, and chocolate-truffle tart. Any one of them is a great way to cap off a meal.

In the end, maybe the best way to describe Augie's is to simply say that it's a success.

Augie's Front Burner, 2 W. Old State Capitol Plaza. Phone: 217-544-6979. Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Organic produce

If you'd like to find out about buying locally produced organic food and meet the people who produce it, here's your chance. The Land Connection Foundation (TLC) will present "Close to Home: Local Food that's Good for Everyone," at 7 p.m. Monday, April 19, in the Carnegie Room at the Lincoln Library, 326 S. Seventh St.

Terra Brockman, executive director of TLC, will speak about the environmental, social, health, and economic issues surrounding local food. Local farmers who sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and eggs at Springfield's Downtown Farmers' Market will discuss their farms, give food samples, and make local residents aware of the broad spectrum of food-buying options.

TLC works to save farmland from urban sprawl, assists organic farmers market their products, and creates partnerships with the state Department of Agriculture, universities, and other institutions.

For more information, call 309-965-2407 or 309-678-2672, or visit www.thelandconnection.org. For more information on the event, call Nancy Huntley at the Lincoln Library at 753-4900.

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