A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner at Tallgrass in Lockport, near Joliet. It was FANTASTIC. Here is my report.
Before I proceed, I should add that this is the second time I have eaten there. The first time was a long time ago, perhaps 1990 or thereabouts. It was a wonderful dinner at that time, and for the past seventeen years, I have been saying that I would like to go back, but just haven't had the chance or gotten up the initiative to return. This is one of the downsides of living in an area with as many great restaurants as Chicagoland; there are so many to choose from, with new ones opening constantly, that returning, even to one that I enjoyed, just doesn't happen that often. But a few weeks ago, friends said that they were planning their birthday dinner there and asked if we would like to join them, so we jumped at the chance.
Our previous visit, we had sat in the small (30 seats) main dining room on the first floor, a few feet above street level; the main dining room has traditional decor, with wood paneling, tin ceiling, etc. This time, there was a special dinner and jazz concert taking place there, so we were seated in the lower level dining room; it's even smaller (six tables seating 2-4 people each) and has ultra modern decor.
I was a bit surprised to see people dressed casually (business casual attire, gentlemen without jackets) at a couple of the other tables, as opentable.com specifies "formal attire", which usually means jacket and tie is customary/required. Perhaps, with the jazz concert and the fact that it was a Sunday night, this was a more casual time of day/week, or perhaps the attire there has evolved since the opentable listing was written.
We were presented with our menus, and the server explained their approach to us. The menu contains groupings of items (vegetable, seafood, meat/poultry, and dessert/cheese, with a separate page of specials). Each person orders three ($48), four ($58), five ($68), or seven ($75) courses from these items. With the 3-, 4-, and 5-course options, one course is specified (by you) as an entree and comes in a larger portion size; with the 7-course option, all are smaller portions.
Two of us decided to get five courses and the other two decided to get seven courses. We ordered the various dishes we wanted and asked the server to bring them in whatever order made the most sense.
Here are some of the dishes we had:
Asian Pear, Mixed Greens, Goat Cheese, Pecans, Currants, Tangerine Vinaigrette
Saute Fresh Northwest Morel Mushrooms & Fiddlehead Ferns (specials page)
Wild Alaskan Sea Scallops, Cashews, Carrot Terrine, Orange and Parsley Sauces
Tempura Calamari, Pont Neuf Polenta, Spiced Wild Honey Glaze
Lump Crab in Three Styles: Gratin - Salad - Beignet (specials page)
Saute Heartland Veal Sweetbreads, Creamed Savoy Cabbage, Bacon, Mustard Sauce
Tallgrass Beef Tenderloin and Short Rib, Potato Terrine, Red Wine Sauce
Trio of Birds: Roasted Capon Breast, Grilled Duck Breast and Saute Duck Confit (specials page)
Assortment of Five Mini Desserts: Lemon Panna Cotta, Apple Puff Pastry, Chocolate Souffle, Raspberry Brulee, Baba Rhum (they have the assortment on the main menu, but they identify what the five are on the specials page)
Mango Puff Pastry, Vanilla Glace, Caramel Sauce
Virtually EVERYTHING was absolutely WONDERFUL. And not just the main ingredient of each plate, but the sauces and sides as well. The carrot terrine, for example, was layered like a lasagna, fluffy, light and moist, and was to die for. The sweetbreads were amazing, the short ribs were incredibly tender, and on and on and on. It's one thing to come up with creative cuisine, but quite another to make everything taste incredibly delicious, and Chef Burcenski manages to do both.
There were only two tiny flaws in the entire meal, both on the dessert assortment - the mini chocolate souffle was underdone (I know the center is often served while still basically liquid, but the only part of the souffle that was solid at all was the top skin) and the baba rhum was a bit dry. On the other hand, the other three desserts were exquisite! The apple puff pastry consisted of minced, spiced apple over a small piece of puff pastry and it was perhaps the best apple dessert I have ever had in my life. The raspberry brulee was served inside an egg shell, the shell of a whole egg with only the very top neatly sliced off (how does he do that? another item was also served the same way), stuffed with the creme brulee in the top half, and the raspberries in the bottom, served with a tiny spoon. Amazing! And oh, the lemon panna cotta... mmmm...
The service was efficient, friendly, and unobtrusive. Our decision to leave the sequencing and pacing of the dishes to the staff was a good one. The dishes were paced perfectly, without us feeling rushed or having to wait too long. What was particularly intriguing was that there were a couple of instances in which different people ordered the same dish but it was served as different courses at different times to them, rather than both receiving the same dish at the same time. Maybe that sounds like it doesn't make sense, but it absolutely worked.
One other note. I don't normally comment about the design of the bathrooms unless there is a problem of some sort, which there wasn't. But the styling of the bathrooms at Tallgrass is... well, I'm not going to spoil the surprise, but I can tell you that whoever designed the fixtures has a great sense of humor. You WILL laugh when you see them.
Looking back on this wonderful meal, I have several thoughts about it. One, of course, is the immense satisfaction of having such delicious food that I'm still thinking about how delicious everything was even days and weeks later. But there are two other things that are, I think, fairly unique about Tallgrass:
1. One is just how MANY foods you can try there in one meal. Chef Burcenski doesn't just present an item with a garnish and a sauce, like most chefs; instead, in many cases, one course consists of three or even five main items. The dessert assortment is one example; you order the assortment, and you get five different desserts. Similarly, the lump crab was served three ways, and there was the trio of birds. Another example on the menu was the appetizer assortment plate, in which one course (one dish) consisted of all of the following items: Lobster Lasagna / Parmesan Egg / Lump Crab Beignet / Smoke Salmon Gnocchi / Mushrooms, Artichokes, and Asparagus. So even though you may be ordering three or five or seven courses, in many cases each of those courses consisted of three to five different items. Thus 3-7 courses can easily turn into as many items as a 12-20 course tasting menu elsewhere.
2. The other thing that struck me was the tremendous value. I should note that a few of the items had small surcharges: $5 for the appetizer assortment plate, $7 for the lump crab three ways, $3 for the dessert assortment plate, etc. But still, the prices at Tallgrass are extremely reasonable for all the different kinds of food you get, and are significantly less than you would pay for similar variety of food at many other top restaurants with tasting menus. The bottom line including moderate alcohol and tax/tip was under $120/person, which is what many of our best casual fine dining restaurants with three or four courses often comes to. The experience is far beyond those, and is closer to that of the uber-expensive top tables in Chicago that often cost twice the price or more.
Tallgrass is just an amazing dining experience, with spectacular food, and a terrific value to boot. It is one of the very best restaurants in the entire Chicagoland area, and is worth a long drive for those who don't live nearby (which I don't). I HIGHLY recommend it (and I can't wait to go back!).
1006 S. State St.
Lockport, IL 60441
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