Playing with Fire

Three new suburban glamour spots have city folks programming the GPS to points west and north.

Three well-oiled machines in the suburbs proudly wave the American flag and turn up the heat in their kitchens-not to mention in their bustling dining rooms
by Dennis Ray Wheaton

beef wellington at Sage Grille in Chicago
Sage Grille’s decadent beef Wellington with green beans, forest mushrooms, and black truffle bordelaise sauce

For smart food and metropolitan bustle without the big-city attitude, suburbanites have it made. Sage Grille in Highwood, Entourage on American Lane in Schaumburg, and Brockway Chophouse in Palatine may differ in sophistication but are all American with the heart of a steak house beating underneath the hype. And even when facing crowds, the attentive servers are as friendly and warm as the fireplace adorning each restaurant.

 

Sage Grille is a fine addition to Highwood’s already busy restaurant row. Unlike its French and ethnic neighbors, Sage’s cooking is contemporary American with a Euro twist. That fits the modern, understated room with painted walls and graceful tied-back drapes-both sage-colored, of course. Tables are nicely set with orchids and votive candles, although I wish they’d lose the paper over the white cloths.

Chef Greg Darrah (previously at Lincoln Square’s short-lived Acqualina) does some pretty sophisticated dishes, but they suffer the indignity of riding alongside a grill section with strictly à la carte options-pure steak house fare. This being the sinning suburbs, I immediately homed in on his nicely seared foie gras with a warm Alsatian tart and dried fruit compote of currants, cherries, and raisins. My companions’ Dungeness crab cake with curry sauce quickly became mine, and I also coveted the odd gnocchi with lobster in mushroom nage with roasted pumpkin and pearl onions, although it teetered on being too rich and too busy. The delightful crisp-skinned balsamic glazed quail with braised endive and roasted shallots came with a too-precious garnish of golden raisins lined up in a row-a mere quibble.

The best entrée is also the most retro: beef Wellington for one with forest mushrooms and black truffle bordelaise. The Wellington is cut in half and looks like two pastry-covered igloos revealing the rosy tenderloin topped with a layer of duxelles. Caramelized sea scallops are a close second, set on French lentils enriched with shredded oxtail and apple cider beurre blanc: it’s a fashionable pairing in a 21st-century surf and turf.

Steaks and chops come with a choice of sauces, another 21st-century innovation. For the New York strip we picked roasted garlic cream, which was brought in a small pitcher. The steak was OK, but not quite top steak house quality-the sauces alone should have tipped me off. Veal T-bone was much better, especially with the option of truffle-peppercorn sauce (you can also get bordelaise, béarnaise, and maître d’hôtel beurre with steaks and chops). If you plan to explore the à la carte sides, look into the generous portion of green beans topped with a slab of tomato/herb butter.

Pastry chef Brenda Manfredini does a fine upside-down gingerbread pear cake with poached Bosc pears, cinnamon crème anglaise, and pear sorbet. Lemonheads will enjoy the very tart lemon tart with blueberry coulis and lemon sorbet. The wine list is enticing, especially since Sage Grille doesn’t mark up its bottles as much as many restaurants do. The fabulous medium-bodied 2005 pinot noir from Oregon’s stellar Ken Wright Elton Vineyard, flavored with candied fruit and spice, is alone worth a visit-even at $90.

 

gingerbread cake from Sage Grille in Chicago
The glory of Sage Grille: pear-topped gingerbread cake with cinnamon cr`eme anglaise and a pear sorbet nested in a poppy-seed tuile

Entourage on American Lane is a hugely ambitious enterprise. Developed by Mark Barati’s Restaurant Group and 34-year restaurant veteran Michael Vai, it’s a gleaming $17-million fortress with a futuristic façade sitting on five acres across from Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall. The enormous wood-accented main dining room with leather banquettes and a view of the glassed-in kitchen opens into two smaller rooms, while a big chandelier and staircase lead up to private dining rooms.

All very impressive but, at first glance, Entourage seems more about booze than beef. The bar in the huge lounge has floor-to-ceiling glass shelving highlighting its premium liquors, and a frozen martini tap handle that dispenses 20-degree vodka martinis. High rollers out to wow a date can order one of the half-dozen luxury cocktails, which top out at $90 for a Stoli Elit vodka that comes with a black pearl necklace. More to my speed, some wines on the ambitious list are 40 percent off on Mondays; I was more than pleased when I lucked into the elegant 2004 Joseph Phelps “Le Mistral” red blend from Monterey County at almost $32 off its regular $79 price.

Chef Scott Wegener serves contemporary and traditional American food, including plenty of steaks. The best appetizer was lightly fried calamari tossed in hoisin-

serrano chile sauce with crispy garlic and scallions. Bruschetta made with toasted sea salt ciabatta and sporting unorthodox slices of melted Brie surround a bowl of chopped marinated tomatoes; the affair makes a satisfying, shareable start. Crisp, tightly wrapped won ton rolls filled with smoked chicken, andouille sausage, and spinach were a little spicy and a little heavy, but the accompanying smoked pepper emulsion helped.

Entourage is one of those places where several items are called signatures, but our waiter said the biggie was filet medallions topped with little crab cakes that are in turn topped with a sprig of frisée and a few kernels of corn and served with both citrus butter and sage veal sauce. It’s predictably rich and overly extravagant, but I suppose it makes perfect sense after a $90 martini. I preferred the full-fledged bone-in filet mignon with blue cheese butter, horseradish apple potato purée, and dried Mission fig and port reduction-although that, too, is a lot of folderol for a nice hunk of beef that can stand on its own. Even more, I liked the simple but satisfying prime rib au jus and horseradish sauce and the juicy grilled skirt steak with jalapeño sour cream demi-glace and chipotle mashed potatoes.

There’s a lovely baked Alaska fashioned of mint gelato layered with chocolate angel food cake. Handsomely wrapped in swirled meringue, it’s flamed tableside to toast it. If you prefer modernity to pyrotechnics, try the ginger stout cake layered with roasted pineapple and topped with coconut macaroons and a coat of rice pudding; it’s excellent. Dishing food as elaborate as the flashy setting, the owners make no pretense of modesty; they intend to expand the concept to ten other cities, including Chicago.

 

interior of the Brockway Chophouse

Brockway Chophouse, next to the Palatine Metra station, does its best to live up to its brawny name. I like the comfortable tavern atmosphere, which has several dining areas spruced up with white-clothed tables and vintage photographs of Palatine and surroundings; the big upstairs bar has a tavern menu with burgers and lighter fare, and some nights the bar boasts live jazz. The giant space once housed Emmett’s Tavern & Brewery, and Brockway’s managers (the same group that owns Jilly’s Piano Bar on Rush Street) have kept the former owner’s microbrewery, a real plus. The serious 150-bottle wine list includes some unusual steak-friendly choices like a 2002 Abundance Mencarini Old Vine Zinfandel ($39), but I like ordering the six-beer sampler to get an idea of what’s brewing, and maybe follow up with a full pint of my favorite.

Meals start with a touch your grandmother would like: a vegetable relish tray with cream cheese red pepper dip, along with a loaf of fragrant onion bread. Executive chef George Zimmett III has concocted a shellfish tower ($60) that’s a smile-inducing spectacle of an appetizer for a party of four-or more. A framework of soaring king crab legs and huge upright head-on freshwater prawns holds suspended jumbo shrimp encircled by bowls of lump crabmeat, smoked mussels, smoked salmon, and minced whitefish with an abundance of garnishes and dipping sauces. Another winning starter goes perfectly with the beer: seared mild Anaheim chili peppers stuffed with cream cheese mixed with crumbled spicy chorizo sausage and fresh herbs.

A big iceberg wedge salad with blue cheese dressing or the day’s soup comes with most entrées. Prime wet-aged steaks are the core of the menu, served with an Asiago–covered baked tomato. I tried most of the steaks and favored the New York strip and the filet mignon with horseradish crust despite the kitchen’s tendency to go past the requested rare or medium rare-so be firm when you order. But when it comes down to a favorite, I’ll go with the French-cut veal chop, thick and tender and flavorful. I was much less impressed with the baby back ribs in the slow-roasted, fall-off-the-bone style with a Palatine Porter BBQ sauce-the accompanying coleslaw and beer-batter fries were better than the ribs. So were the seared sea scallops sautéed with leeks, chardonnay, tomatoes, and apple-wood-smoked bacon, for that matter.

I wasn’t keen on the gigantic desserts. Seven-layer carrot cake topped with nuts and coconut shards-and stabbed à la Gibsons with a big steak knife-tasted more of frosting than cake. Banana cream pie smothered in whipped cream with caramelized split bananas was clunky at best, and on one visit the plug-ugly, gloppy mess looked as though it had been thrown at the plate from several feet away. On my last visit, I decided that a fine chocolate martini was a better way to wind up a Brockway meal.

 

BROCKWAY CHOPHOUSE-110 North Brockway Street, Palatine; www.brockwaychophouse.com. Appetizers $4.50 to $60; entrées $9.50 to $64.50; desserts $6 to $13. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-963-0600.

ENTOURAGE ON AMERICAN LANE-1301 American Lane, Schaumburg; www.entourageventures.com. Appetizers $4.25 to $21; entrées $16 to $62; desserts $7.50 to $10. Lunch Monday to Thursday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-995-9400.

SAGE GRILLE-260 Green Bay Road, Highwood; www.sagegrille.com. Appetizers $8 to $16; entrées $17 to $32; desserts $6 to $8. Dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-433-7005.


(ON WINE)
Americans adore Tuscan red wines-the romance of the region fairly oozes from the bottle-but far too many of them are becoming overpriced for everyday enjoyment. Tuscany has its share of prestigious labels, from Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano, but it also boasts a number of inexpensive sangiovese-based and international-style blends that are getting better all the time. They offer a mix of fruit and tannins with a touch of acidity that matches up perfectly with pasta and meats. I recently tried the all-sangiovese 2003 Monte Antico ($9); the 2004 Santa Cristina Antinori ($9), mostly sangiovese with a little merlot; the 2004 Banfi Centine ($10), a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot; and the 2003 Avignonesi Rosso ($11), a blend of prugnolo gentile, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Winners all. Think I’ll whip up a batch of my favorite tomato sauce and start grating the Parmesan.
–D. R. W.

Photography: Peter Wynn Thompson

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