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Fife whips up American dream

The former chief of Tuscany Grill's kitchen cooks home-style food that easily exceeds ho-hum

Residential Northeast Beaumont, with its lovingly landscaped homes, quaint shops, yoga studios and one amazingly encyclopedic rubber stamp store, is prime soccer mom territory, not a depot for the hipoisie. But in a few short months, the strikingly good-looking, improbably named new restaurant Fife has fostered a demographic shift, drawing style mavens from all corners of.

This could not have been predicted. Chef Marco Shaw, who owns and operates Fife along with his wife Julie, a Tribune sales rep, earned a shining reputation for himself heading up the kitchen. His proposed menu Ñ revealed last spring Ñ sounded far more homey than happening. Maybe it was the restaurant's tag line, 'An American Place,' that skewed expectations. After all, the touchstones of American food Ñ steak, meatloaf, chicken potpie Ñ don't scream innovation.

With Fife, Shaw is proving that a chef needn't turn a cuisine on its head to wow the crowd. What Shaw does is cook, very well. Relying on fresh, top-grade ingredients, he crafts superbly satisfying meals that are at once earnest and clever.

Fewer meals could be humbler than chicken cooked in a cast-iron pan. Fife's generous breast-and-thigh serving is insanely juicy, deep with flavor from an accompanying mushroom sauce. Sprightly spinach with lovely, underused pearl onions is right at home on the plate.

It could be the season or it could be Shaw's commitment to using ingredients native to the United States, but much of the menu smacks of Thanksgiving. A recent vegetarian entree was half an acorn squash stuffed with the indigenous grain quinoa, red peppers and, for some welcome fruity tang, chopped apricot. There's a robust rabbit potpie, thick with chunky carrots and potatoes; braised lamb shanks atop celery root-potato purŽe; and tiny roasted quails, sweet from their own juices and shallot-garlic confit, served on a bed of autumnal wild rice.

But Fife is not just meat and potatoes. Market-driven fish selections such as Alaska cod, Pacific sea bass and white Alaska king salmon receive just as much TLC as slow-roasted meats. In fact, the most remarkable item on the menu Ñ at least for anyone who's spent some time devouring seafood in the mid-Atlantic region Ñ is the crab cakes appetizer. Many restaurants in the Northwest boast Maryland-style crab cakes, but few deliver. Fife makes the real thing with peppery Old Bay seasoning and heavenly sweet Chesapeake Bay blue crab, an entirely different flavor from Dungeness. Thank you, Chef Shaw!

Fife's charm owes much to its architecture. The beautifully boxy building is architect Kevin Cavenaugh's latest triumph. One to watch, he brought some sharp edge to boho Southeast with his Box & One, which houses the eateries Noble Rot and Florio Bakery.

Fife's spacious, square dining room is warmly cast in the color of red-dirt fields and has a ceiling that feels as high as the sky. Oversize lampshades hung as chandeliers are visually arresting and provide ideal lighting: bright enough to read the menu, low enough to imbue diners' complexions with a rosy glow. A bilevel bar near the entrance allows for even less formal dining in an already casual restaurant and provides a great perch for checking the scene.

It's a scene that was itching for a home. Fife is, as they say, blowing up. It's only slightly more packed on a Friday than it is on a full-house Wednesday night. But don't get the wrong idea: It is as much of a neighborhood joint (with the reasonable price points to match) as it is a white-hot destination.