On a cool summer evening we walked past a native plant and fresh herb garden toward the doors of Prairie Grass Café. The restaurant’s amber polished wood interior glowed underneath giant shaded chandeliers suspended from a track-lit warehouse ceiling. The dining room resembled a spacious manor hall filled with tables and edged with cozy booths in front of huge half frosted windows that looked out onto a violet sky above shimmering cottonwood trees. Several wide-screen monitors continuously displayed dazzling photos of garden blooms, prairie flowers, and water lilies. No intrusive music filled the space.
At the table it was a pleasure to find a large, white cloth napkin alongside heavy cutlery and a small wooden Peugeot salt and pepper mill. We marveled at the active hum among a congenial group of diners, many of whom seemed to be regulars, business associates or groups of neighborhood friends. After a chat with chef Sarah Stegner and a few words with our knowledgeable waiter José, we selected a salad and soup from the daily specials, then a steak plus sausages from the regular menu and two glasses from the thoughtful, well-priced wine list. A special highlight, something often lacking in today’s restaurants, was a crusty baguette with a generous slice of sweet butter, which arrived at our table immediately. That crisp nibble while perusing the menu was a generous welcome.
The warm leek and potato soup had full leek flavor and light dairy. Crispy fried leeks on top fancied up the classic potage. My summery salad featured a mound of Three Sisters Farm tender pea shoot greens sparingly dressed with sherry vinaigrette and sprinkled with julienne of tart apple, a sprinkling of Capriole goat cheese crumbles and scattered crispy fried shallots. We were also treated to a sample of the Nichols farm marinated beets embellished with cheese and roasted hazelnuts. Thankfully, we were given plenty of time with our first plates and a comfortable pause before the entrees arrived.
Beautifully orchestrated presentations announced the main course plates that deserved time to behold before tucking in. The generous and perfectly grilled skirt steak sat on a bed of melting white beans with wilted broccoli rabe. The ancho-marinated steak topped with a tender, thick slice of roasted red onion, drizzled with jus, was showered with matchstick fried potatoes. This novel rendition of steak/frites was remarkably delicious! Meat-eating diners should note that skirt steak this good is a rare find.
Two nicely browned thick Greek-style, lightly spiced lamb sausages topped a chili-laced chunky tomato ragout alongside a roasted, peeled poblano pepper generously stuffed with sautéed mushrooms creamed with goat’s cheese. Chef Bumbaris brings his Aeolian heritage to play in this house-made full-flavored sausage light on fat. Each slice of savory sausage met the tomatoes and morsels of stuffed pepper with happily blended flavors.
Known for its homemade desserts, Prairie Grass Café makes incredibly tempting sweets. As we pondered ordering one selection to share, Chef Stegner sent three samples of her signature delicacies, and we eagerly tasted each one. A tradition of “Mom’s Seasonal Pies” features recipes from Chef Stegner’s mother, an accomplished Midwestern baker. Her fruit-cream pie based on a buttery short crust filled with whipped cream and soft cream cheese was topped with deftly glazed pristine red raspberries—an exquisite summer treasure. For chocolate lovers, there’s a decadent, moist layer cake filled with whipped fudge filling and an extra-dark chocolate glaze. This cake will send you home with memorable chocolate dreams. And finally since the evening was cool, we enjoyed samples of PG’s Sticky Toffee Pudding. Always a favorite of mine, this moist, date baby cake is served warm in a pool of brown sugar caramel sauce and topped with vanilla ice cream—the love child of the best British puddings.
Prairie Grass Café has a spacious bar across from the dining room. This is the only place where you’ll find a TV. The roomy bar top would be a comfortable spot for someone to dine alone or to wait with a drink.
Plenty of restaurants crowd Chicago’s North Shore, but in many ways it’s a desert for the diner who has no patience with mediocre food. Prairie Grass Café is an oasis for those who care where food is sourced, how it is prepared and presented. The Prairie Grass team, both in the kitchen and the front of the house, works with care, precision, and honed technique that has continued to ring true over the ten years of their brilliant run. Hats off to Chefs Stegner and Bumbaris with wine director Rohit Nambiar—geniuses behind this winning crew.
Prairie Grass Café
601 Skokie Blvd, Northbrook, IL 60062
Photos: Mary Jo McMillin unless otherwise noted.
Mary Jo McMillin is also a chef. She has written a book and has a blog with great recipes.
Mary Jo’s Cookbook is available at Amazon.com