In the Outdoors 

Al fresco dining at Brandt's Market & Cafe

The crocuses are blooming, and that means the question on everybody's lips is, "Where can I go to sit outside and drink expensive Welsh spring water from cobalt-blue bottles?" Now that the Ackert Wall has come down -- forcing the diaspora of an entire population of scary county kids with green hair -- the squeamish might try Brandt's Market and Cafe. Owner Jay Brandt pioneered sidewalk seating in the Loop, installing a chef in his gourmet market to serve up unusual pseudo-health foods to upscale artsy types who don't mind the roaring fumes of Bi-State buses. The idea caught on, and now you can hardly swing a cat on Delmar without beaning a feeding bohemian.

But eating at Brandt's has always been dicey. It can feel claustrophobic, and both the service and the food can tend toward the capricious. A recent visit suggested that this is still the case. Although the vegetarian spring rolls were excellent (they featured wonderful smoked tofu and a spunky chile sauce), the turkey Reuben was ineptly constructed, with all the meat on one half and the kraut and cheese on the other. The field-green salad came with feta instead of blue cheese (which they were out of), but the dressing was delicious. A bowl of Brandt's signature black-bean chili was lackluster even after it was sent back to remedy a temperature problem, and our server actually attempted to flick a bit of muck off a plate with her thumbnail before presenting it. You pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

BRANDT'S MARKET & CAFE, 6525 Delmar Blvd., 727-3663. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri. and Sat., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-11 a.m.

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