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So long, brown sauce of the suburbs 

The Rochester area has plenty of excellent dining options for the adventurous eater. When asked to pick a favorite, I usually mention places in several categories: the Seoul Garden, Food at Fisher's Station, Ming's, the Rio, Thali of India, or Le Lemongrass, depending on my mood.

            But no restaurant has demonstrated consistent excellence like the Victor Grilling Company, where Mark Cupolo has an inability to serve anything that isn't great. I've done my level best to steer diners out there, but, sadly, Cupolo has decided to sell the building and move on with his life. You have until November 16 to experience it for the last --- or perhaps the first --- time. Make a point of it.

            Mark Cupolo is a CIA-trained chef, though he credits Max chef Tony Gullace as an important influence (they worked together at the Grill at Water Street). The background matters, but Cupolo is also gifted. He's a finicky chef, for one thing, bothered by special requests that upset the careful balance of his dishes. It's this sense of balance that sets him apart. At the recent Festival of Food, his grilled lamb with Concorde grape chutney and herbed olive salad was the only dish that made my palate dance, revealing its flavors slowly as it passed through the mouth, perfectly simple yet full of surprise.

            Cupolo doesn't lie awake dreaming of new food creations. Rather, where his mind goes these days is toward a new restaurant concept. Unfortunately, any concept he has won't come to fruition soon, but it's likely fans will be able to eat his cooking at Max. If and when he gets around to opening a new place, it's going to be completely different from VGC.

            "I've made so many gallons of brown, veal-based sauce," Cupolo says, "and it's just so time- and labor-intensive." He still likes that European style of food, but wants to go with a simpler concept that appeals to more basic tastes. He also says he's tired of the suburbs, and plans to move into the city proper. Any future Cupolo venture would likely be in the city as well. Maybe pizza and ice cream; perhaps with a single soup offered. He expresses great admiration for Rick Stewart's streamlined concept at Food at Fisher's Station, and the idea of Mark Cupolo doing something in that vein is exciting.

            Still, it's sad that we won't be eating that grape chutney anymore, whether with lamb, or with mustard-and-herb-marinated quail over wild rice griddle cakes. Of the dozen most memorable things I've eaten in town, four or five were at VGC (including that quail). Another was roasted beet and goat cheese bruschetta. Ever-so-slightly burnt bread (this matters) was rubbed with fresh garlic, then topped with roasted beet, goat cheese, caramelized onion, salt, and pepper. Then there was smoked salmon with dill mustard and red onion on apple walnut toast. Simple? Sort of.

            Cupolo's recent taste for simplicity did spill over into VGC. The $10 menu featured the grilled meatloaf City Newspaper called "the best low-budget succulence" last year, as well as chicken and biscuits and pulled pork. And I once got a kick out of finding pimento cheese --- a southern, white-trash staple I grew up on --- featured as an appetizer.

            Cupolo and his partner, ex-wife Sue, are selling not VGC, but rather the property, to their neighbor there, the owner of Mickey Finn's. It will be some kind of restaurant, perhaps Italian, but it will be the end of VGC. The Cupolos weren't losing their shirts, but the business wasn't growing, and given Mark's changing interests and desire to live and work in the city, the timing seemed right to sell. He says he won't miss all those steaks --- he made the best in town --- though the customers certainly will.

            Mike Bommelje, Cupolo's terrific sous-chef, was also a big part of the success of VGC, and he's decided to go to school for computers in Florida. This seems a succinct statement on our times. Mark and all of us wish Mike well.

            My 2001 review said VGC "might just stand alone as our best restaurant." Nothing since has convinced me otherwise. Every guest --- effete epicures, cash-strapped 20-somethings, and even cynics with simple tastes --- left satisfied in every way. It's good to know Cupolo will be cooking at Max, and even better to believe he'll launch a new venture in my neighborhood at some point in the future. Good luck, Mark, and thanks.

Victor Grilling Company, 75 Colville Street, 924-1760. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10:30; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. through November 16.

Food tip

The South Wedge restaurant scene is even more diverse with the opening of Ly-Lou's Pearl of the Orient (489 South Avenue, 232-2790), where Teresa Giron serves Philippino food. Teresa is working for permission for table seating, but right now Ly-Lou's is take-out or delivery only (no credit cards). Ly-Lou's is open seven days a week: Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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