It is a truth universally acknowledged that any restaurant aspiring to haute cuisine must be expensive. There's no denying that the tab for dinner for two at, say, Le Francais, La Tour, or the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton, would feed a dozen or more at any number of Polish, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Thai, or Korean restaurants around town. For this reason, Chicagoans who are short on cash but long on appetites have tended to gravitate toward ethnic eateries. Those who like it haute either have had to save their pennies for the occasional big splurge or do without.
In recent years, however, a number of restaurants have sprung up whose cuisine fits into the same general category as the aforementioned three, but whose prices do not call for a second mortgage on the house. One such is Winnetka Grill, which provides serious dining that reflects classic French preparation moderated by the lighter saucing of nouvelle cuisine and uses, as often as possible, typically American ingredients. Visual presentation is emphasized, as are elaborate and unusual combinations. Gustatorily complex and satisfying, dining at Winnetka Grill will not make you feel that you have just devoured a measurable chunk of your children's college education.
Situated on an unprepossessing stretch of Green Bay Road, Winnetka Grill belies its name. It isn't a grill, and doesn't look like one. It looks genteel and suburban, the kind of place to which members of the tennis set take their favorite aunt. Four cutesy pillars form a corridor from the entrance through the center of the single large room that is the restaurant, bisecting it, and providing a waiting area on busy evenings. On one side of the room, light green walls shade progressively, as the eye moves up, into a pale blue trompe l'oeil sky festooned with clouds; on the other side they abut windows that look out into the parking lot. White tablecloths, pink napkins, and pink recessed lighting complete the decor.
A special four-course dinner menu for $19.95 allows one to choose from six appetizers, three hot and three cold, and six entrees. Salad is included in the price, as are side dishes of vegetable and starch, and dessert. Those ordering before 6 PM and leaving by 8 PM get an additional 10% discount. The menu changes every three months, but recent offerings have included, among the appetizers, salmon tartare, oysters with whipped horseradish and caviar, and pasta with cream, gorgonzola, and walnuts. Entrees have featured such choices as breast of duck with cracked peppercorn sauce, grilled salmon with cilantro and avocado sauce, and grilled filet of tenderloin with wild mushrooms. A more extensive a la carte menu is also available.
For starters, we opted for grilled shrimp with Cajun butter sauce ($6.95), four sweet, crunchy shrimps bathed in spicy mustard butter. Though delicious for dunking bread, the sauce threatened to overpower the delicate crustaceans. Taken in alternate bites, however, both shrimp and sauce were excellent. Oysters Copa ($6.95), our other opener, featured six sparkling bluepoints on the half shell, each under a dollop of dilled sour cream and horseradish and topped with golden caviar. Despite our having had them in August, which is definitely not an "R" month (according to tradition, oysters should be eaten only during months that have an R in them), the bivalves could not have been plumper, and the sauce made a pleasant alternative to the more traditional tomato-based horseradish accompaniment.
Our soup of the day was hot cream of watercress ($2.75), thick, creamy, rich without cloying, the essence of the herb. Black bean with sour cream ($2.75), a menu staple, was smooth and unctuous, with smoky overtones. A salad of Boston lettuce and full-flavored beefsteak tomato slices in mustard vinaigrette followed the soup, cleansing the palate and preparing the taste buds for the next course.
Soft-shell crabs with macadamia nuts ($17.95) was among the evening's specials. Three medium-sized naked crustaceans, delicately breaded and sauteed, flanked by two steamed red potatoes and a mound of still-firm cooked zucchini, squash, and carrots, were brought to the table. The crabs were dry on the outside, moist within and crunchy, pleasantly counterpointed by the macadamia nuts. Mesquite-grilled breast of duck with cracked peppercorn sauce ($15.95) accompanied by the same vegetable mixture was equally successful, the rosy duck slices rich and flavorful under a creamy sauce. Unfortunately, the wild rice served alongside was overcooked.
The jury was mixed on desserts. While flourless chocolate cake was properly dense, it also tasted slatey and too sweet. The raspberry mousse served alongside, on the other hand, was ethereally light, the fruit overtones subtle, and easily preferable to the chocolate. Chocolate crepes folded over white chocolate ice cream, served with fudge sauce, suffered from poorly executed crepes and vulgar fudge, but was redeemed by first-rate ice cream. Skip the crepes and sauce and go for the white chocolate ice cream if smooth, clean tasting chocolate cream turns you on. The regular coffee and cappuccino are equally good, the former brisk and full bodied, the latter pleasantly rich.
Wines are moderately priced, with California predominating. A William Wheeler 1984 chardonnay from Sonoma County ($21.50) accompanied both duck and crabs with panache. Service was informed and professional.
The Winnetka Grill is at 64 Green Bay Road in Winnetka. It is open for dinner on Sunday from 5 to 9, Tuesday through Friday from 5:30 to 9, and Saturday from 5 to 10. Closed Mondays. Carte Blanche, Diner's Club, Mastercard, and Visa are accepted. Free parking is provided. For reservations call 441-6444.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.