It's a schlep out to Inovasi, John des Rosiers' Lake Bluff restaurant. The 30-mile drive from the city takes you past paradigmatic North Shore exits like Chantilly Boulevard and Park Avenue West as well as gleaming roadside showrooms for Lexus, Land Rover, Corvette, Saab, BMW, and Humvee. It's not my kind of scene—but for all that, I'd call Inovasi a destination restaurant. And for a more scenic trip there's always the Metra, with a stop a mere block from the place.
A cozy wood bar welcomes you, offering top-notch spirits—there's no Maker's Mark here, but rather artisanal bourbons from makers like Noah's Mill and Prichard's. North Shore Distillery custom makes Inovasi's No Drama Gin, the schnapps are made in-house, and there are craft cocktails such as the Remember Summer, house-made rose noir iced tea and limoncello with citrus vodka and ginger liqueur. The extensive, reasonably priced wine list, overseen by des Rosiers and general manager Dave Ligon (formerly of Ambria and Trio), emphasizes smaller producers, many of them sustainable or organic, and includes an artisan sake—Konteki's Pearls of Simplicity—by the glass. Draft beers, including selections from Ommegang, Bear Republic, and Metropolitan, are listed in order of strength; there are also several bottles and cans (all craft brews).
The Prairie-style dining room and private room in back are hopping—as is the semi-open kitchen, where des Rosiers works intently alongside two other chefs. A veteran of Trotter's and Gabriel's, he says that as is the practice at those restaurants, he never writes his recipes down. Instead he improvises his seasonal, sustainable menu with the help of his staff, changing about three to four dishes a week. It's divided into vegetable, meat, and seafood categories and reasonably priced, with many dishes around $13. Another option is a six-course tasting menu; it's $62 per person, with wine and beer pairings available for another $24.
Preparations are eclectic—cheese curds, for example, are tossed with Thai chile, honey, and Japanese citrus juices ("These handmade artisan curds are not your typical squeaky crappy bites," the menu says). A salad of local organic arugula and red oak lettuce stood out, served with hearty house-made bacon and slivers of fried ginger and shallots to complement a sesame vinaigrette. Even better were the Manila clams in a spicy sriracha broth that may leave you longing for additional toasts. Clams, along with sustainably raised shrimp, also figure in an Asian-influenced seafood stew that caught my eye.
I wish I'd gone with it. Instead, I chose the lamb ravioli—the evening's sole slight misfire. The elements, including pronounced citrus notes and a bunch of walnuts, never came together for me. But a nice Malbec helped to compensate—as did the "inovacchia," cappuccino capped with thick goat's milk froth. Dessert offerings included a refreshing, deliciously creamy house-made gelato with cranberries and amarena cherries.
The dining room has a comfortable, neighborly vibe, with servers in jeans and quite a few customers hailed as regulars. With several menus, including a kids' menu, des Rosiers seems to be seeking to offer something for everyone—and judging from the crowd, succeeding. (He estimates that 20 percent of his weekend traffic comes from the city.)
Across the street is Wisma, the casual carryout spot he's growing into a small chain, with locations including one in the Chicago French Market and plans for moving onto college campuses. He says it's done "twice the business we were hoping for."