By Kathleen McCann Published Mar 06, 2002 at 5:45 AM

A grand dame of Midwest hotels, The Pfister hotel (pronounced by non-natives with both its "p" and "f," thanks to Laverne and Shirley), has undergone a transformation over the past few years. Its strongest assets -- its elegant, gilded lobby and its art collection -- were restored to their 1893 grandeur for new generations of appreciative guests and visitors. And its stagnating restaurants and lounges were updated.

Nightclub/lounge La Playa still offered panoramic views from the 23rd floor, but the view inside was thread-worn and unappealing (especially the window where you could see less-than-svelte businessmen taking laps in the adjacent health club pool). In autumn 2000, it was given a new name, Blu, and the '80s art deco-inspired interior was replaced with brass-tacked club chairs. It now features big martinis, wine-tasting flights and strategically placed blue glass dishes filled with decadent whole cashews (munch too much and you'll feel like taking a few laps yourself).

Perhaps the most dramatic makeover was the 76-year-old, stiff-lipped restaurant, The English Room. Located in the hotel's lower level, it was a dark and formal place that served Steak Diane and roasts to an ever-dwindling clientele. Last summer the space was overhauled into the critically lauded Celia, with its warm and glowing atmosphere that still serves classics with updated and elegant flair.

This isn't Afro-Asian, fusion fashion-food, although many dishes borrow ingredients that have a hint of the exotic, such as the dried apricot chutney, potato puree and cherry sauce that accompanies the duck breast; the marmalade made from quince, an ancient fruit still popular in the Mediterranean that comes dabbed on buttery foie gras; or drops of Italian white truffle oil added to tomato cream sauce and served over a sea scallop appetizer. The rich and musky oil is expunged from the highly prized and pricey fungus-like nodules that, under the cover of night, are rooted out of forest floors by farmers and their specially trained dogs or pigs.

Beginning Mon., Feb. 25, the restaurant took another step forward as it began to offer weekday lunches. The menu, as hotel General Manager John Williams describes it, is inventive and unique to lunchtime, not just smaller versions of its dinner offerings. Choices will include a scallop served with spinach, sweet potato chips and balsamic reduction roasted portabella mushroom, caramelized pears and pungent Gorgonzola with an herb vinaigrette, or a grilled tuna with seafood risotto.


For those who want to indulge in an ultimate culinary evening with friends, family or clients, Celia offers a special table located in the kitchen where groups of four to 12 are pampered by executive chef Tom Chin and chef Brent Hammer, by prior reservation Monday through Thursday evenings.

Chef's tables can be an exciting experience as you watch the chef and company busily prepare your dishes in a frenzied but synchronized dance of hands, feet, pans and china. But the reality is often hot and noisy, your table within the jostle zone of servers. Celia's is a glass-enclosed, temperature and humidity-controlled oasis that serves as the bakery by day. From this slightly elevated vantage point, you can watch Chin prepare a seven-course sampling of pure heaven, specially customized to your group's tastes.

At a recent chef's table dinner, the evening began with a vegetable dish, a small mound of beets -- when is the last time you had those! -- and leeks dolloped with chilled cream infused with black pepper. Next, a disk of firm and smooth panna cotta (cooked cream) with a slight hint of squash served on mixed greens and drizzled with oil and golden raisins.

A portion of glazed sea bass followed -- so melt-in your mouth tender, this fish must have been seabed-ridden its whole life -- accompanied by stir fried veggies. Next, a buttery foie gras and a tiny spring roll cone filled with duck confit.

Celia's classic American predecessor was rekindled when grilled veal tenderloin was served along with roasted corn kernels and sprigs of white asparagus, a delicacy anticipated each April by legions of European fans. Slices of roasted lamb followed, set upon layers of fire-roasted peppers and polenta (corn meal), and mint oil spooned over the whole. Dessert was a juxtaposition of temperatures, with a waffle wedge topped with chilly guava sorbet and a ramekin of warm and fluffy chocolate soufflé -- a cocoa-infused delight that wasn't spoiled by sugary sweetness.

The kitchen table meal can be paired with wines selected to enhance each course. Prices begin at $100 per person based on menu and wine selections. Celia's dinner menu in the dining room ranges from $6-10 appetizers, $5-7 salads, $15-28 entrees and $6-8 desserts. Lunches will average about $18 per person.

Address: 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. (at Jefferson Street)
Reservations: (414) 390-3832
Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. M-F; dinner 5-10 p.m.
All non-smoking
Parking: Pfister's garage (entrance at Mason Street) or complimentary valet.
Dress: business to dressy
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, AmEx, Discover, Carte Blanche.