Grille No. 43 Matures to Local Mainstay in Just One Year
A Labor of Love by Two Restaurant Brats Brings Sophistication With the Occasional Surprise.
In the year it has been open on North Waukegan Road in Lake Bluff, Grille 43 has made the leap from new local curiosity to a mainstay restaurant with a devoted following. It was busy early the night I visited, from the after work business-suits crowd to some lingering shorts and flip-flops on the outdoor patio.
The brainchild of two homegrown "restaurant brats," Ted Boufis and Dina Boufis, Grille 43 opened Sept. 27 of last year very near the former site of Dina's father Gus Pappas' longtime Lake Bluff restaurant, Little Nick's, which was named after her uncle Nick, Gus's partner. Before he moved to Lake Bluff, Ted and his family ran steakhouses in Indiana and he opened two restaurants as owner and six others as general manager in Michigan.
Some of the pair's fledgling restaurant's success must be attributed to a dearth of interesting local choices in an area awash in disposable income.
But even more credit should go to the food.
Occupying a niche just below fine dining both in atmosphere and in price point, its seasonally changing menu occasionally reaches a little higher.
Young chef Paul Caravalli, who helped write the menu, has a penchant for surprise in his comfort-food classics.
His bacon-wrapped shrimp are "drunken," wrapped with an intensely smoky and crisp jalapeno bacon, served with an acidic tequila-lime sauce and perfectly offset with the creamy fat of an avocado pico de gallo (5 for $12).
What Caravelli calls Smokey Cuban Cigars (5 for $8) would have been great if he had simply rolled the wonton wrappers around his tender pulled pork. But more closely evoking a Cuban sandwich, he also includes tiny bits of fresh tomatoes and dill pickle.
Of course, with risks come inevitable failures.
I was both surprised and skeptical to see "homemade tater tots" on the menu, believing, (correctly as it turns out), that the phrase is an oxymoron, a food feat impossible outside the laboratory world of mechanical extruders and chemical bonding agents.
I wanted to love it, but it just didn't happen. The enormous tots were beautifully browned on the outside, though kind of dry, while the interior remained dense and almost raw.
I also loved the idea and the flavors of the calamari appetizer ($10), which was tossed with pickled banana pepper rings, roasted red peppers and what the menu said was a tomato beurre blanc. I started eating it almost immediately after it arrived, but the crispy coating on the perfectly cooked calamari was already sogged down in the chunky tomato butter.
The entrees include a pan seared ruby trout with whipped potatoes, perfect green beans and a strangely sweet almandine sauce ($19). Take it from a Kansas City native; the ribs are perfect smoky and tender and are swabbed with a fair approximation of K.C. great Gates and Son's barbecue sauce ($13.5 half-/$19.5 full-slab).
The menu gets some themed additions through the weekdays, with Monday being American comfort food night; Tuesday Latin; Wednesday Mediterranean; and Thursday smokehouse. The Thursday night I visited featured a nice pillowy homemade gnocchi with a sauce that could easily have been too heavy for it: wild mushroom alfredo. It was rich, but not off-puttingly so and the white truffle oil was an added enticement.
Grille No. 43's full bar offered a few unusual cocktails, including the namesake 43 French, a mixture of Belvedere vodka, Chambord and pineapple and orange juice ($9) and, if you're in the mood for a "healthy" martini, the Antioxidant, balances Van Gogh acai blueberry vodka with pink lemonade and blueberries marinated in Grand Marnier ($9).
There were several regional to local beers on offer and the wine list, while not deep, is broad and well-chosen.
Despite the occasional misses, borne of creative overreaching, Grille 43 has a solid menu and occupies a too-lonely niche for creative, homegrown and locally owned eateries.