Chris and Mary Spagnola cook for a living, which means they lack the time—and the expendable income— to waste money on pricey branding advice. Given the choice between cleaning out their bank accounts to pay for a “high-impact, analytics-driven, solutionbased, brand-relevant marketing strategy” or huddling up with their co-owners—Steve and Mary Jo Quirk and Sharon Owens—to pick a name for their new spot in La Grange, they prudently chose the latter.
Thank the culinary gods—and the marketing gods, for that matter—because I can’t think of a more idyllic name for their cozy little American bistro than the one they’ve selected: The Milkstop Café.
Makes one think of Norman Rockwell prints, baked pies cooling on a country sill, and mounds of fresh-churned butter. (The latter, admittedly, shows up in all of my daydreams). If there isn’t already a piece by Thomas Kinkade with the word “milkstop” somewhere in the title, there certainly should be.
During the evening, however, the space glows less with Kinkade’s patented amber brushstrokes than the bright blankets of white florescence you’d expect from Edward Hopper.
There are globe lights. Original hexagon tile floors. Snow white tin ceilings. All bright and inviting. Plus, the accents are clever nods to the former lives this building once lived. Brown apothecary bottles sprout native grains to honor the time when this space housed a medicine shop. Shadowboxes are made from old frosted glass. And an old sign reads, aptly enough, “cream and sugar.”
The Spagnolas, who previously ran Back Alley Burger and cooked at Emilio’s Sunflower Bistro, say they’ve always dreamt of opening up a casual neighborhood bistro similar to the French one they frequented while in culinary school in San Francisco. Although there are a couple of French-inspired staples (a chicken mousse made with Bulleit rye comes to mind), their offerings feel more inspired by a multiethnic Chicago diner. Coconut arancini and lobster tostatas share menu space with prime rib sandwiches and huge Cobb and wedge salads.
Only the offerings are more clever than they read. The house sliders? No ground beef. No cheese. No pickles. They’re more Jamie Oliver than Guy Fieri. Medallions of red wine-braised beef served on an eggy bun smeared with horseradish cream and topped with crispy onion rings. There are no puck-shaped crab cakes here. Rather, tufts of moist crab meat are stuffed into a crispy eggroll wrapper and set atop a bowl of spicy sriracha coleslaw.
The Spagnolas have an affinity for this particular flavor combination—creamed sweetness warmed by sparks of gentle heat—which are best captured in their double-fried chicken thigh small plate. It’s pan-fried, breaded, then fried again before it’s drizzled, breakfast-style, with sticky bands of cinnamon-honey. It’s Nashville hot chicken’s gentler doppelganger. The flavor leans on warm baking spices instead of Buffalo wing fire, in a way that recalls a snazzy platter of chicken and waffles.
Diners are free to dine as they like, grazing on small plates, munching on salads and burgers, or coursing out their meals. The Spagnolas think their new burgers are their best yet. More brisket meat has been used this time around, plus guests can choose between “flat” (two griddled patties) or fat (one hulking half-pound burger).
But if you’re going full dinner date, course things out. You can’t go wrong with the French onion soup—umami blasted with brandy and bits of steak—and then order either the Roasted Slagel Farms chicken or the pistachio-crusted Lake Superior walleye. The citrusy chicken—a half bird marinated for 24 hours with lemon and garlic, then roasted—is surrounded by fluffy olive-studded saffron rice. But our catch of the night was the breaded walleye, packed with enough pistachios to make a pudding, and paired with sun-dried tomato couscous. The portion size is pure Chicago, but the flavors play wonderfully with the sun-dried sweetness you’d find along the southern Mediterranean.
For dessert, continue along the southern Mediterranean and order the sumptuous ricotta-mascarpone mousse. It’s incredibly light and drizzled with saba, a reduced grape must syrup that’s reads like a light balsamic. For those aching for something more sweet, the house’s sugar pie tastes like renowned pastry chef Christina Tosi’s famous crack pie, a custardy caramelize sugar delight. It offers the gooey texture of a pecan pie filling with the flavor of a Werther’s Original, made—you guessed it—with lots of cream and sugar.
Milkstop Café is located at 700 West Burlington Avenue in La Grange, 708-937-9158, milkstopcafe.com.
There are plenty of classic cocktails—note the rye sazerac with absinthe—but Milkstop Café seems particularly enamored with wine-topped cocktails. Here are two to try.
A Nice Evening: Gin can be a dominating spirit, but not here, where a tidal wave of tropical notes—citrus oleo-saccharum, pineapple, and sauvignon blanc—artfully redefine the idea of “gin and juice.”
Tequila Moonrise: An elderflower margarita? Yes, please. Arandas tequila, lime, and simple syrup are turned floral thanks to some elderflower liquor. But it’s a crown of prosecco that gives this a welcome effervescent buzz.