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
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