So many of the outings we took for granted two years ago have now become cherished events. High up on that list? The opportunity to dine in at a good restaurant. Restaurateurs whose entire purpose is to give guests delicious and memorable dining experiences have had to meet unimaginable challenges during months of stop-and-go restrictions. Coming through has required great flexibility, resiliency, and resolve. Northbrook’s Prairie Grass Café—celebrating its 17th anniversary this month—has exhibited all of these. Plus, through deepened commitments to farms and suppliers, staff, and other industry workers in need, it has strengthened the community.
Two-time James Beard Award-winning Chef Sarah Stegner, who co-founded Green City Market with food-writer-emeritus Abby Mandel 22 years ago, has always nurtured (and encouraged) strong relationships with local farms. Partly for the local/ seasonal/sustainable fare she and co-chef business partner George Bumbaris bring to guests at Prairie Grass. But more altruistically, because when farms thrive, everyone benefits.
This is vividly apparent on the plates that come to the table. The brilliant orange, deep purple, and creamy white cauliflower florets on one of our appetizer plates arrived in the kitchen this morning from Nichols Farm & Orchard.
There are menu mainstays such as the generously portioned crock full of house-made lamb sausage (Slagel Family Farm) with rainbow Swiss chard, fennel (Adam’s Acres Organics), and Tropea onion (Nichols Farm & Orchard) meant to be scooped with a crackling fresh baguette.
The Grilled Ora King Salmon has a corn-balsamic glaze and nestles next to mixed greens (Soil and Soul Therapeutic Farm), corn (Three Sisters Garden), and a medley of stone fruits (Mick Klug Farm). And Prairie Grass’ crispy half boneless chicken (antibiotic and hormone-free from Harrison’s Poultry) with a warm pesto zucchini (Three Sisters Garden), Minnesota wild rice, and pine nuts.
But Stegner’s natural métier is cheerfully improvisational.
She’s in constant contact with her farmers and loves to go with the what’s available-this-week flow, which makes the specials list very special. Now that it’s fall, menus have morphed to autumnal flavors such as the medley of dishes Stegner makes with squash and heirloom varieties of pumpkins Three Sisters Garden grows just for them.
For Rohit Nambiar, Prairie Grass’ sommelier and Stegner’s husband, who joined the team after a decade with the Four Season’s hotel chain, the constant flux makes for fun pairings. That runs the gamut from the Ramona Ruby Grapefruit Spritz special we enjoyed, featuring organic Sicilian zibibbo wine Nambiar found during a trip to Malta, to year-round cocktails like the crystal-clear British Gin & Tonic, with Hendrick’s gin, elderflower tonic, lemon, and a sprightly nestle of juniper berries.
To get you salivating before your visit, you can preview weekly specials on the Prairie Grass website—a great idea for those who like to thoughtfully deliberate options before they eat. While there, you can also view some of the novel perks the restaurant started offering during the pandemic: There’s the chance to purchase fresh fish flown in daily to prepare at home. Or you can order farm goods from Three Sisters Garden (threesistersgardenkankakee.com) for pick up at Prairie Grass Tuesday and Saturday mornings.
Which brings us back behind the scenes. A grateful recipient of the LEE Initiative Restaurant Reboot Relief Program that helped the restaurant stay solvent during the shutdowns, Prairie Grass earmarked some of the funding to cook free meals for furloughed and laid-off restaurant industry members. The efforts also kept supply and support flowing to and from partner farms, which provided ingredients for those meals.
With the pandemic also more sharply highlighting stark difficulties suffered by women in food service, Stegner also joined with Chef Beverly Kim (of Chicago’s Parachute and Wherewithal) and others to launch The Abundance Setting, a mentorship and meal-relief nonprofit supporting the advancement of working mothers in the culinary industry.
“As we return to the business of serving guests in restaurants, our aim isn’t ‘back to normal,’” sums Stegner. “It’s ‘forward with better.’”
Prairie Grass Café is located at 601 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, 847-205-4433, prairiegrasscafe.com. As weather permits, Prairie Grass Café will continue to offer outdoor seating under white tents surrounded by its herb gardens. In Prairie Grass’ spacious interior, a hospital-grade air filtration system has been installed to ensure clean-air breathing.