Having friends in neighboring states can be a bit problematic. With friends in Milwaukee and Chicago, it seems someone is always driving two or more hours to get together for dinner. It’s a pain, and, consequently, we don’t see one another as often as we like.
So I was happy to learn about Inovasi, an incredible restaurant in Lake Bluff, not too far south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border. Even if we didn’t have interstate friendships, I’d make the trip for the innovative (hence Inovasi) take on contemporary American cuisine.
Parking right in front of Inovasi in Lake Bluff’s picturesque downtown was a delight for us big city dwellers. Entering the gorgeous bar, we were greeted by a friendly hostess who took our coats and then showed us to our table in the spacious yet cozy dining room. The décor is a tip off to the care with which Inovasi’s owners take in all aspects of the dining experience. Even though the restaurant was full (on a Monday night, no less), the sound level never interfered with our conversation.
Inovasi’s menu groups dishes into three categories, vegetables, meat and seafood. All of the dishes are meant to be shared, and they are the equivalent of two-thirds of a typical entrée portion. Three of us shared about 10 dishes, and there was plenty left to take home for lunch the following day.
The Tuscan tomato soup was one of the few dishes that was difficult to share — and it was so good that you wouldn’t want to anyway. The rustic, chunky soup was rich in flavor, thanks to the use of Italian tomatoes, fresh oregano and extra virgin olive oil. A topping of crispy leeks added a nice textural contrast. The red oak leaf salad also was a step or two above the expected. Delicate leaves of lettuce were topped with Amish blue cheese, homemade bacon and hard-boiled eggs from Inovasi’s own chickens. In fact, much of the food served is grown locally on a farm with acreage devoted solely to Inovasi.
Fresh agnolotti (similar to a raviolo) were filled with garlic-infused cheese, more of Inovasi’s homemade bacon and black truffles, served in a spicy citrus sauce. The acid of the sauce provided a perfect complement to the rich cheese. Similarly, goat cheese tempura got a dose of black truffle, and the rich cheese played off a hearty tomato ragout served with brioche croutons and caramelized onions. Even the lowly tater tot got the artisan treatment, topped with Swiss cheese, fresh herbs, roasted hazelnuts, fresh mint and vanilla crème fraiche
One of the most beautiful dishes was the sautéed Lake Huron walleye, presented on canvas and “painted” with four sauces in Jackson Pollock style. This elegant dish was served with a tasty farro verde (a grain similar to couscous) and roasted almond-black olive tapanade. The most outstanding dish, among an evening of winners, was the pork shoulder, marinated then cooked confit and smoked over a four-day preparation period. Before being served, it was lightly sautéed and served atop polenta drizzled with basil oil. A watermelon radish and red wine reduction rounded out the dish. Absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
You might be tempted to skip dessert, but that would be a mistake. We had a hard time choosing from the menu, which included such temptations as coffee-pistachio mousse with crispy phyllo, pumpkin cheesecake, tres leches cake and the house-made sorbet, a delightful apple and Ceylon tea confection.
Inovasi offers a well thought-out and reasonably priced wine list, and wine suggestions for each dish were listed on the menu. There was also a lengthy list of exotic cocktails, most of which were too sweet for our taste.
Inovasi is the perfect destination dining spot and a great place for locals.
The Bottom Line: Five plates, which will provide more than enough for two diners, and a glass of wine or a cocktail will run about $40 per person, tax and tip included.