3-STAR DINING REVIEW

The power of now

30-year-old Lockport restaurant remains inventive and modern

Pineapple gazpacho

Modern yet inventive: The corn-pineapple gazpacho with a toasted brie sandwich for a bit of crunch. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

If you haven't visited Tallgrass restaurant in a while, or worse, have never had the pleasure of this singular restaurant, let me humbly suggest that you make your plans now, or at least, soon.

Because I don't care how many times chef/partner Bob Burcenski and sommelier/partner J. Thomas Alves maintain that they have no intention of retiring for years to come; the duo has been at this for 30 years (the 31st anniversary will be in November), and the clock is ticking. One of these days, Tallgrass will be gone and a lot of us will be sorry. So saddle up.

Just don't visit expecting nostalgia. It's easy to think of Tallgrass as a throwback sort of place, situated as it is in the historic canal town of Lockport and housed in a restored, turn-of-century (the previous one) Victorian building. But this restaurant is firmly in the now, the kitchen's output as fresh and relevant as anything in downtown Chicago.

Indeed, Burcenski has been on a health kick of late, and dishes asterisked as "transcendent cuisine" (which is most of them, desserts excepted) are generally rich in antioxidants, low on the glycemic scale and high on omega-3 fats. Not that anything, I mean anything, tastes of deprivation.

Yes, the food emerges from the kitchen on carts, and main courses arrive at the table beneath silver domes. But that's about it for yesteryear. Beneath those cloches you'll find dishes such as Burcenski's Prawn BLT, a salad featuring a large Madagascar prawn topped by a crisp-fried, paper-thin slice of prosciutto, flanked by overlapping slices of heirloom tomatoes. Equally impressive is the multiple-textured composition of crunchy endive supporting a creamy slab of red-pepper panna cotta topped with asparagus, feta cheese and crispy cheddar biscuit. If I could be a regular here, I'd order that panna-cotta creation every time.

The menu is divided into seafood, vegetable, meat, combination and dessert categories; from these, one assembles three- to seven-course dinners at set prices. Enough dishes require modest up-charges ($2 to $6 for the most part) that your actual meal will likely be slightly higher than posted.

It's easy enough to skip the extras, if you're so inclined. Start with a sweet and savory corn-pineapple gazpacho, in which floats a toasted brie sandwich for a bit of crunch; or a "tartare" of smoked (not raw) salmon and chunky avocado alongside pickled shallots and yellow-curry sauce. Move on to three-cheese ravioli with sweet English peas and brown butter, or house-made tomato spaghetti with an intriguing artichoke emulsion. Definitely opt for the prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin topped with pear chutney, served over stilton-fortified polenta, and finish with the lemon quintet: a citrus symphony of lemon cake, lemon curd and mousse topped with a lemon cracker, accompanied by a shot glass of lemon yogurt.

But I'd pay a little extra, even more than a little, for the assortment plate, which includes bechamel-rich lobster lasagna (a menu mainstay for 20 years, now in small-bite form), a farm egg filled with Parmesan custard and topped with a tiny bit of white-chocolate mousse, crab beignet in a mini-pool of tarragon emulsion (think health-conscious bearnaise), chorizo tostada topped with shrimp and smoked-salmon gnocchi. I saw this dish head to more tables than any other menu item, and I understand why.

I'd also stretch the budget (all of $3) for the chocolate quintet, which presents Belgian chocolate in various guises: A pot de creme laced with orange essence, a truffle served in a tiny dish (a 49-cent Ikea candleholder), a chocolate-sheet cylinder filled with white-chocolate mousse, sugar-dusted chocolate mousse and a folded crepe containing chocolate, peanut butter and banana. Tallgrass is a terrific place to drink wine, by the way; Alves manages a well-rounded list that is remarkable for its good value. There are eye-popping bottles for those in a celebratory mood, but average imbibers will be pleased at the number of budget-conscious options.

Service isn't super-polished but is very conscientious. One peculiar dynamic to Tallgrass is that, although the main dining room has just 10 tables (a lower-level private dining room sometimes sees service on busy nights), most parties arrive within a two-hour time window. Pacing isn't slow, but it is leisurely, and if you're the sort who demands a cocktail in hand in the first five minutes, some deep-breathing exercises might be in order.

When Tallgrass turned 30 last year, Burcenski and Alves used the milestone to undertake a little decorating, abandoning the old white-linen look in favor of Biedermeier wood tables and black napkins. The room's vintage wood wainscoting and elegant tin ceiling were left alone; it would be a crime to do otherwise.

"Jackets requested" is still posted on the website, but in practice, it's more of a suggestion. In my visits, those of us in sport coats were a clear minority.

Tallgrass is a bit of a haul from the city, but because the state extended the I-355 highway a few years back, my ride to Lockport takes 15 fewer minutes than it once did. I need to write somebody a thank-you note.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

Tallgrass

1006 S. State St., Lockport; 815-838-5566; tallgrassrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Prices: Three-course dinner $48, four-course $58, five-course $68, seven-course $88
Credit cards: A, M, V
Reservations: Required
Noise: Conversation-friendly
Other: Wheelchair accessible; jackets requested

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel
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