Inovasi in Lake Bluff (North Suburbs) - TERRIFIC!
This past Thursday night I had a TERRIFIC dinner at Inovasi in north suburban Lake Bluff. It was also a true bargain. Read on!
Inovasi is located on a corner in the small business district of Lake Bluff, on the North Shore in Lake County IL. It's a block from the Lake Bluff station on Metra, and a mile east of the IL-176 exit from the Edens Expressway (US-41).
It's a fairly large restaurant; the bar room is at the entrance, from which there are two dining rooms to the left, and a private dining room to the right. The tables are spaced fairly far apart so there is a nice feeling of spaciousness and privacy. There is also a decidedly casual atmosphere, despite the upscale creative menu.
Inovasi's menu is quite unique. Items are not designated as appetizers or main courses; instead, there are simply sections for seafood, meats, and vegetables/greens/soups. All of the menu items are designed to be in between the size of appetizers and entrees you would fine at other restaurants, roughly 2/3 the size of entrees elsewhere, and they are priced accordingly (most are $9-13). The intention is to allow you to structure your meal however you like.
The four of us decided to order five items for our first course, including three soups. As it turns out, the soup portion sizes were a fairly large bowl, so they are consistent with the "2/3 entrée" theme. The "honest mushroom bisque" was simply wonderful, one of the best mushroom soups I've ever had. The "Tuscan tomato soup" was a thick and hearty tomato soup, very good indeed. They had a daily special of "white truffle and cauliflower soup" which was garnished with an ample number of baby shrimp, and this was also wonderful, with lots of truffle flavor. We had the fried calamari which was made with roasted pecans, lemongrass coconut juices and a maple syrup and soy reduction; they were perfectly prepared and amazingly tender (although the bottom of the bowl was a bit gloppy due to the sauce). The final dish in this course was the sauteed foie gras, which is one of the best preparations you'll find anywhere, with a slightly salty crispiness to the oh-so-thin crust on the outside, and perfectly tender and warm on the inside. Just yummy!
For our second course, we ordered two meat dishes and two seafood dishes. One was the Duroc pork shoulder, which was one of the most awesome pork dishes you'll find anywhere, amazingly flavorful and tender. As described on the menu, they use "a 4 day process of marinating, grilling, confit, smoking, and finally sautee". The pork is in the shape of a disc, and it just falls apart as you cut into it - very tender, not at all dry (although not overly moist). Really delicious, even if you're not a big fan of pork. The second was the Tallgrass sirloin steak, which is dry aged in house for six weeks. It was very tender and flavorful; Inovasi is by no means a steak house, but this steak is as good as you'll find at any steakhouse anywhere. Another dish was the Dutch white sea bass, a grilled filet with a slightly spicy glaze on the outside, very tender and delicious. The final dish of this course was the most visually stunning of the entire meal. It was rainbow trout sauteed with a crispy corn crust. The trout was already fileted and boned, which is unusual for trout; even more unusual, the pieces were cut up into small, silver-dollar sizes, and stacked neatly along with the farro piccolo grain accompaniment. But the presentation, oh my! It was served on a rectangular CANVAS PAINTED with four sauces "Jackson Pollock style". Very unusual, and gorgeous!
Well, by this time we were nicely sated - two dishes there is plenty - but how could we resist the desserts? Fortunately for us, we couldn't; as it turns out, the desserts were every bit as good as the rest of the meal! One dessert was coffee mousse layered with phyllo and served with roasted pistachio nuts and a pile of small pieces of homemade smoked bacon. Yes, bacon. And it was very good. So was the tres leches cake, in the simple traditional presentation. My personal favorite was a chocolate pot de crème. This was a bit different from the traditional presentation; anywhere else, it's served in the cup in which it's baked. At Inovasi, the disc-shaped chocolate was served on a plate, and was slightly lighter than the typically dense and rich version; above it was a layer of a coconut cream, like a moist custard or panna cotta. And it was surrounded with slightly spicy chopped macadamia nuts. This was a great dessert, one in which there was a balance of different textures (smooth vs crunchy), as well as a balance of different tastes (strong chocolate and strong spice vs mild coconut). What a great composition!
Inovasi specializes in using local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients wherever possible. Of course, a lot of restaurants say that... but how many have a partnership with a local farm, in which the restaurant's own dedicated hens lay the restaurant's own dedicated eggs? When Chef-owner John des Rosiers stopped by our table - he stopped by most of the tables while we were there, a practice I think speaks well for any restaurant - he mentioned that this time of year they have fewer vegetable dishes than the rest of the year, because of their reliance on local and seasonal ingredients. He also noted that they can develop menus for specific needs, such as the three very distinct dishes he had recently prepared for a vegan diner.
Oh yes, I left out one important part. The price. My jaw practically dropped when I saw how LOW the bill was. Oh sure, I was aware of how much the individual dishes cost, when ordering them, but still! The nine savory dishes ranged from $8 to $15; granted, they were roughly 2/3 the normal portion sizes, but even after adjusting for that, they were inexpensive. Everything else was quite reasonable, too. We had two glasses of wine, for $6 and $9, and the desserts were $6-7 each, all of which is pretty darn reasonable nowadays. For the four of us, the grand total was $153 plus tax ($14). With tip, it came out to $50/person for a top notch dinner. That is an amazing BARGAIN; you can easily pay twice that much at comparable restaurants in the city.
Please forgive me for my effusive praise here. This was NOT a typical meal, and this is NOT my typical praise. Yes, I eat out a lot, and while I find a lot of good food in the restaurant business, it's very rare when I eat a meal and try a lot of different things and one dish after another after another is just amazingly delicious. This happens to me roughly once a year, if I am really lucky. And this was one of those dinners, one I will be remembering for months to come, even longer. (Of course, this ignores the fact that I want to return to Inovasi and try some of the dishes I missed, as well as repeating some of the ones I enjoyed the most.) THIS WAS A GREAT DINNER AT A GREAT RESTAURANT.
Incidentally, Inovasi (which has been open for only eight months) is doing a very good business these days, so reservations are recommended. On this mid-winter weeknight, about 2/3 of the tables were occupied, and for weekend evenings, it's best to make reservations several weeks ahead if you want a desirable time slot.
28 E. Center Ave.
Lake Bluff, IL 60044
28 E. Center Ave, Lake Bluff, IL 60044
We returned to Inovasi for dinner again last night, and it was another wonderful, memorable dinner. The menu was very different from our earlier visit, and somewhat different from the one on the restaurant website, but the style is very much the same. Which is to say, there were again a huge number of dishes that sounded great, making the selection process very difficult!
Some of the highlights of our dinner:
- chilled watermelon soup with chopped asparagus and a scoop of goat cheese ice cream - this was a wonderful way to start a meal on a warm summer night.
- sesame-coated chicken confit and seared foie gras - an excellent combination. Chef Des Rosiers's seared foie gras is one of the best anywhere. It has a thin crisp on the outside, slightly salty, that gives it extra flavor. The chicken confit underneath was great too.
- lettuce wraps with chicken and mushrooms - This was a good dish but I don't remember much about it and, like most of the dishes we had, is not on the current website menu.
- ishikura onions with romesco sauce - This was a very unusual dish. The onions were in the sauce (a tomato-based spread) topped with chunks of Dunbarton bleu cheese on top, served inside a glass jar to keep it warm, alongside slices of grilled rustic bread. Yummy!
- Sustainable Ocean Raised Sweet Shrimp - This was my favorite savory dish of the meal. The description on the menu is "spicy & sautéed with a little Thai chile, shiitake mushrooms, yellow fingerling potatoes, Japanese citrus marmalade, and a sauce made from Vietnamese coconut & lobster broth". This dish would be at home in most Thai restaurants, but they should only make it this good. The shrimp were a somewhat small size and cooked perfectly so that they were tender and succulent. The sauce was very nicely spicy. Wonderful.
- Chesapeake Bay Soft-Shell Crabs. My dining companion loves soft-shell crab and deemed these among the best anywhere. They are "done in a very light, crispy Japanese tempura style and served with a light salad made with organic cucumbers, daikon radish, jalapeno, cilantro, California red verjus, and single grove extra virgin olive oil". The very slight amount of breading was just perfect, allowing the crab flavor to shine through rather than overwhelming it.
- Cherry cake. This was a light, airy slice of cake, almost like an angel food cake in consistency, studded with cherries that may have been soaked in some sort of liquor. Very good.
- Whipped Coconut “Mousse”. The whole meal was excellent, but this dish takes my personal "best in show". Not because it's a dessert - yes, I do love desserts - but because it's so delicious and has so many delicious layers to it (both literally and figuratively). The top 2/3 of the dish is a very light, silky-smooth coconut-flavored mousse, and on top of it is a thin layer of coriander-pear sauce that adds a note of fruity sweetness. The bottom third has pieces of crushed graham crackers and toffee in the coconut mousse, and the texture is amazing - not crunchy (which would overwhelm the silky mousse) but what I would describe as soaked/crumbly. This was an amazing dish.
The only thing I would do differently next time is that I think we ordered too much food. As noted above, the items on the dinner menu are all about 2/3 portion sizes, so it's a free-form, "mix and match" which lets you structure your meal however you like. Last night, each of the four of us ordered three savory courses plus dessert, and that was a lot of food. I was feeling fairly full before dessert, and a bit overfull afterwards; next time I'll stick with two savory courses plus dessert for each of us. (This would be about the same amount of food as the customary three-course a la carte at most restaurants, I think.)
On Mondays, in addition to their regular menu, they offer a supplemental menu with five comfort-food dishes (e.g. chicken pot pie) and five particularly healthy dishes, but we didn't order any dishes from that menu. I was really hoping to have their "Becker Lane Pork Shoulder done in a 4 day process of marinating, grilling, confit, smoking, and finally bathed in cooking liqueur" which I had enjoyed so much during my previous visit there, but unfortunately they were out of it. They were also out of one of the seafood dishes, an Illinois amur.
I was surprised to see the restaurant about three fourths full on a Monday evening - an unusual sight in this economy - so as always, advance reservations are recommended. I'm glad the restaurant is doing so well, because this is a very special place, firing on all cylinders in both my visits. Even for distant city-dwellers, it's worth taking the trip up to Lake Bluff (35 miles from the Loop, an hour by Metra which stops a block from the restaurant) to enjoy what Chef Des Rosiers is doing. It's just wonderful. And it's priced very reasonably too. Highly recommended.
We went back to Inovasi last night and had another terrific dinner. Everything was just excellent, with intense flavors that were absolutely delicious. Right now Inovasi is as good as any contemporary American restaurant in the city, and it's also an incredible bargain. If you live near there and you've been there, you know how lucky you are to have it nearby. And if you haven't been there, GO!!! City dwellers, I gotta tell you, Inovasi is so special, it's worth the 35-mile drive or the Metra train ride, it's THAT good.
Here's more about what we had last night.
When we were seated, we were served warm bread and a very nice, interesting spread, which looked sort of like hummus but was much better; it was actually made of lentils, with chopped olives on top.
The menu has changed somewhat since my previous visit. One of the things I love about Inovasi is that the menu descriptions are unusually complete, giving an excellent idea of what a dish is actually like; it's one of the best menus I've seen anywhere for this. So I'll include the menu descriptions for each of the items we ordered, and add any appropriate comments. I won't bother to say that each one was delicious, though; they were ALL delicious. So if I'm not adding any comments, it's only because the dish's description speaks for itself.
"Tomato & Sweet Onion Soup ($9) - made from heirlooms & Italian organic tomatoes, sweet local onions, fresh ground tellicherry black pepper, Modena balsamic, and Domaine Rocheville olive oil". This was really unusual, and maybe my favorite dish of the entire dinner. It was rich and thick and full of flavor - very unusual for a tomato soup that isn't cream-based.
"Double Heirloom Bean Soup ($9) - Scarlet Runner and Ojo de Cabra beans, slow cooked then infused with clove and cumin and finished with chipotle chile & creme frâiche". I tried this and liked it, but apparently I missed out by not trying the dab of chipotle chile and crème fraiche in the middle; I understand it had a real kick to it.
"Local Organic Arugula & Red Oak Lettuce ($10) - done with fried ginger & shallots, shredded parmesan cheese, homemade bacon, and balsamic-horseradish vinaigrette".
"Warm Organic Roasted Beets ($11) - served warm with roasted macadamia nuts, Brussels sprouts leaves, Danish blue cheese, crispy handmade tortillas, and a sesame-ginger-sake vinaigrette". This was the first course I ordered for myself. The tortillas were thinly-sliced crisp strips on top, the vinaigrette was just enough to flavor and not so much as to overwhelm, and the beets were lightly cooked, a bit firmer than you typically find, and that worked out very nicely.
"Fresh Calamari ($11) - fried in a very light coating and served with a sauce made from
La Colombe Vetri espresso". We got this as an extra appetizer to split. The calamari was absolutely PERFECTLY cooked, and it was just amazingly tender.
"Organic Pork Shoulder ($14) - Becker Lane Pork Shoulder done in a 3 day process of marinating, grilling, confit, and smoking. served with Anson Mills civil war grits, a tiny salad made with raw Brussels Sprouts & homemade goat cheese with spicy chocolate sauce". This was the second course I ordered for myself. I had tried this dish in a previous dinner there and frankly it was the one dish I'd been lusting after since then. And it was worth the wait. The boneless pork meat was cut up and pressed into the shape of a square (it was in a round shape in my previous visit) so it was very easy to eat. Sort of like a really great barbecued pork rib, but without all the work to eat. And I loved the little bit of mole (that's the spicy chocolate stuff) spread on the plate underneath the grits; it gave the whole dish a little extra excitement.
"Grilled Cook’s Ranch Bison ($19) - sustainably raised in Wolcottsville, IN. It’s amazing, tender and juicy and served with wild autumn mushrooms, and a sauce made from Spanish chorizo, red wine, and a touch of cream". I only tried the bison part of this dish, not the sauce or accompaniments. It was a lot like an excellent, tender, perfectly cooked steak (beef) but with a lower level of fat.
"Sustainable Shrimp Risotto ($16) - we use organic aged Carnarolli rice, sustainable sweet shrimp from Belize, Korean black garlic, and top it with “carrot & tops pesto”". The shrimp were very large and grilled, and perfectly cooked. One dining companion noted it as a "great risotto".
"Homemade Frozen Custard ($7) - homemade custard with sea salt pretzels, manjari chocolate chunks and cashews with a caramelized maple syrup sauce". This dish was perhaps the most surprising to me. I mean, the description was accurate, but the actual dish seemed like so much more than the sum of its parts. I was thinking, soft ice cream with a few isolated chips and nuts, like most ice cream. No sir! Whereas most ice cream seems like 90 percent ice cream and 10 percent mix-ins, this was almost the reverse, consisting of mostly chunks and nuts and barely held together with the ice cream. And the consistency was totally different from ice cream as a result; it was almost like a cross between ice cream and something you'd find at an artisanal chocolatier/confectionery shop. This might have been my favorite dish of the dinner, too!
"The Essence of Valrhona Manjari ($10) - a rich, intense chocolate dessert with a firm, creamy texture". This was topped with whole toasted marcona almonds. This was a rich chocolate custard; in flavor, texture, and richness, I'd place it somewhere in between a chocolate pudding and a chocolate pot de crème.
"Cherry Cake Bread Pudding ($7) - made from Fabbri amarena cherry cake and drizzled with lavender vanilla cream sauce".
For the four of us, add in two glasses of wine (which were half price, which they do on Thursdays, so $9 for both), three cups of coffee and one tea, and it totalled $164 plus $15 tax and tip. So it was just a bit over $50 per person with everything. I gotta say, I still don't know how they can serve such great food for such a bargain price, because if you could get the same quality meal in the city, it would easily cost twice as much (and be worth it!).
28 E. Center Ave, Lake Bluff, IL 60044
For those who are not aware, Wisma is a store with carry-out food and drink, opened by John des Rosiers, chef-owner of Inovasi. Actually, it's two stores, because he has opened two locations, one in Libertyville and the other across the street from Inovasi in Lake Bluff.
We actually went into Wisma before our dinner the other night, and bought a bunch of foods there. (The folks at Inovasi were happy to put our stuff in their fridge during our dinner, since it was a warm evening.) The foods at Wisma are very good, but Chef John saves his most unusual and creative dishes for Inovasi.
You can find more about Wisma on their website at www.wisma.us
I would hesitate to mention any one dish at Inovasi as "don't miss", just because everything's been great. The one caution I would have is not to order too much. It's a bit difficult to judge the quantity of food, because everything is about 2/3 the size of entrees elsewhere. My suggestion is, if you're accustomed to ordering a typical three-course appetizer-entree-dessert elsewhere, then start by ordering two savory items per person. Then you can see how full you are at that point, and if you want something else before (or instead of) dessert, you can order it then.
Enjoy your dinner at Inovasi - you've got a treat in store!