by Lee Barrie and Cindy Kurman
Original story appeared in StreetWise
215 N. Clinton, Chicago
(312) 382-8300; http://www.prairiefirechicago.com/
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
$9-$23 (lunch); $13-$27 (dinner); $39 for the Tallgrass Beef Filet Mignon
When veteran 4-star chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris left the Ritz-Carlton in 2004 to open the casual Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, their foray into everyday dining, with a sustainable/organic emphasis, was an instant hit. Now they’ve expanded their empire from one to two with the recent opening of Prairie Fire in the Fulton River District, just across the Chicago River from the Merchandise Mart (Clinton is one block west of Canal St.). We’re very happy—the food is wonderful, the room is beautiful and comfortable, and it’s just a two-block walk from our office.
Even if you’re trip is a bit longer than ours, you will be very pleased with the experience (and valet parking makes it convenient). The restaurant, open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, offers a wide selection of contemporary American creations, crafted with a master’s touch yet simply presented and perfectly appropriate when you’re in a casual mood. The menu is similar to that of Prairie Grass Café, and their signature wide screen TVs, showing scenic video footage from Bill Kurtis’ Kansas ranch, are in full display.
Speaking of Bill Kurtis, the menu features his delicious and healthful Tallgrass Beef that he and a network of beef suppliers raise on their prairie grass ranches, following Kurtis’ exacting standards. But beyond the beef dishes, the menu offers many choices that will please fish and poultry lovers as well as vegetarians.
The lunch menu features a delicious assortment of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers, entrées and desserts. There is some overlap on the dinner menu, but the evening selections focus more on the inspired entrées. We’ve eaten lunch and dinner at Prairie Fire, so here is our first take.
The appetizers are wide-ranging and one could easily create a meal from a combination of them. Among the intriguing choices are Baked Feta Cheese with slices of spicy banana peppers and tomatoes; Duck Ballotine Pate with cornichons, whole grain mustard and Cognac marinated prunes; Nueske’s Bacon Pizza with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese; Tender Braised Mint Creek Farm lamb with cucumber, mint and yogurt sauce; French Lentils slow cooked with tomato marmalade, crumbled Capriole Farm goat cheese and crispy shallots. Do justice to the apps and share them with your tablemates; this is no time to be stingy.
Salads are creative and very tasty, with sublime flavor combinations derived from primarily organic ingredients. The dinnertime Farmer’s Salad, with Green Sister’s Garden greens, chopped Romaine, roasted root vegetables, pomegranate, pumpkin seeds, Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese and herb dressing, is excellently conceived, large but not huge. The Citrus Honey Marinated Beets, with sliced pears, Capriole Farm goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts, are fresh, crisp and enchanting. The “Chicago Magazine’s #1 Sirloin Burger,” served at lunch and dinner, is made from Tallgrass Beef, topped with mild Amish Blue Cheese and served with a roasted beefsteak tomato slice and homemade potato wedges. Good call, Chicago Magazine. We loved it—it’s rich and satisfying and the cheese topping has the most wonderful texture.
The flavorful “Tallgrass Beef” Penne Pasta, with basil and a crispy bread crumb topping, was is a perfectly prepared lunchtime dish. It’s hearty and zesty without being over-spiced. We also enjoyed the dinnertime Sautéed Lake Superior Whitefish, served with delicious roasted Portobello mushrooms and creamy mashed Yukon Gold potatoes.
Another wonderful dish is the Tallgrass Beef Slow Braised BBQ Brisket, served as a sandwich at lunch (served on Ciabatta with French fries) and as an entrée at dinner with a Yukon Gold potato purée and mirepoix (butter-sautéed vegetables). The brisket is nicely seasoned and subtle enough to avoid the heavy smoky flavor that often characterizes barbecued brisket. It’s a homemade, wholesome experience.
Here are some other choices that may interest you: Mint Creek Farms Handcrafted Lamb Sausage with giant Greek-style beans—Chef George is a sausage master and his lamb sausage, which we’ve had at Prairie Grass Café, is a work of art. The Moussaka, with braised lamb, potato, eggplant and Bechamel sauce, is a treasure of texture and flavor. The Boneless Half Chicken, with rosemary, thyme and garlic, pan seared until crispy, with roasted honey-glazed sweet potatoes, is a showcase for their mastery of rustic fare.
At Prairie Fire, the excellent desserts are a perfect end to a comforting meal. The homemade pies change often, according to the season. The Double Chocolate Cake is done right: moist, rich with a well-balanced chocolate flavor. The Thin Apple Tart with Crème Anglaise is light, fruity and refreshing. We predict that the Warm Sticky Toffee Date Cake—moist and rich but not cloyingly sweet—will become one of their most popular signature desserts. It’s different in a very good way.
Prairie Fire is a superb addition to the burgeoning Fulton River District. It will be welcomed by the growing residential community, but it’s also a great destination restaurant that’s surprisingly close to the Loop and River North. Spring for the taxi fare and have a great time among very appreciative hosts.
While you’re in the neighborhood, walk south two blocks and stop in at the fabulous new Chicago French Market. There you can purchase the Tallgrass Beef to prepare at home.
Cindy Kurman Barrie and Lee Barrie are the principals of Kurman Communications, Inc., a Chicago-based marketing and public relations agency. Please visit their blog at http://www.gotbuzzatkurman.com/