The last time I was in downtown Libertyville, I was hanging two stars on Tavern in the Town, an ambitious steak-and-seafooder with an impressive wine list. In my view, that was about the only reason to dine on this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue.
That was more than 10 years ago. Tavern in the Town is still around (its name shortened to Tavern), but these days, it has plenty of company. The downtown area, built up and spiffed up, packed with dining options and boasting plenty of free parking (proximity to the Metra station probably doesn't hurt, either), has become a shopping and dining magnet. Stroll along the six-block stretch of Milwaukee Avenue on a Friday night, and you won't find many, if any, unoccupied tables.
Today I'll focus on two relatively new restaurants: Year-old Shakou and 11-week-old Milwalky Trace. They sit just a few doors apart and play to capacity crowds, but otherwise, the two operations couldn't be less alike. Shakou is bright-white, date-night energetic; Milwalky Trace is laid-back brick and dark wood. Shakou is River North dress-up; Milwalky Trace is Wicker Park simple.
Chef/partner Lee Kuebler logged a couple of years at the Union League Club, a little more than two at Restaurant Michael and was sous-chef at Ada St. for 21/2 years. Working under Michael Garbin, Michael Lachowicz and Michael Kornick will teach you a few things, and it shows in Kuebler's ingredient-driven food.
The restaurant opened the first week of March, and already Kuebler is swapping out quite a few dishes, and not just for seasonality. "Initially, I didn't give Libertyville diners as much credit as they deserved," he says. "I kept it simpler, not pulling them out of their comfort zone. But people just loved the more interesting dishes."
So goodbye to fried potato planks with truffle-Parmesan aioli; hello to caprese-inspired poutine with mozzarella curds, tomato gravy and basil chiffonade. (It's still a fried-potatoes dish, but the newcomer has a little bit more going on.)
The poutine arrived after my visits, so I can't recommend it; I can point you to the tuna tartare in a cast-iron pot, spiced with sliced serrano peppers and cooled by avocado crema; the house-made tortilla chips are a nice touch. Asparagus over a puddle of miso butter and topped with a poached egg is simple and delicious.
There are only four entrees on the menu, and no wrong choices. The straightforward roasted half-chicken has very good flavor, and it gets a little Latin accent from lime, cilantro and grilled avocado. The day's sustainable fish — branzino with roasted potatoes and mushrooms on my visit, these days Skuna Bay salmon with spring vegetables and sauce paloise — is a good bet.
A big hunk of braised pork shoulder shares a bowl with clams and cabbage confit, in a broth fortified with chipotle butter, is a terrific dish, easily the best of the main courses. But if you're splurging, the $35 dry-aged steak (other entrees are $23 or less) is worth its price and more. Kuebler gives the 28-day beef the au poivre treatment, punching it up with plenty of cracked pepper and basting it with garlic-thyme brown butter, and it's one sweet steak.
Desserts are nothing fancy, but they're down-home yummy. There's a large double-chocolate cookie, balanced on a large cup of milk from a local dairy. A very good Key lime pie with just-whipped cream and a crumbly graham-cracker crust was a bit messy — the crust on our slice was falling apart — but tasted fine. The must-try dessert is the thick-cut, custard-enriched french toast, covered in maple syrup and fresh berries; it's breakfast for dessert, but all that custard gives the baguette slices a bread pudding mouth feel.
The restaurant's name and unusual spelling comes from the history of Milwaukee Avenue, at one time a Native American trail leading from Milwaukee to Chicago. If Kuebler keeps this up, Chicagoans will be beating a path here once again.
Shakou translates to "social life," and this year-old Japanese restaurant certainly celebrates that. The restaurant takes up more than 5,000 square feet on two levels, and seats as many as 300 in the main dining room, sushi bar and front lounge. There are private and semiprivate spaces. Wavy silvery wall treatments, cobalt underlighting, bright chandeliers and oversize wall graphics add to the party atmosphere.
Opening a Libertyville restaurant was an easy choice for partners Adam Garvannian and Aleks Dupor, two Libertyville High School graduates with restaurant experience (Garvannian via culinary school and Dupor via 20 years of running restaurants in the area). The choice to open a sushi specialist (bringing in Sang Choi as executive chef) was inspired by a lack of sushi competition.
"We also offer the steaks and chicken teriyaki," says Garvannian. "I can't tell you how many people have told me they've never had sushi before."
Accordingly, Shakou functions largely in Sushi 101 mode, carefully defining its terms and offering plenty of cooked items to balance the mostly raw nigiri, sashimi and maki items, and moderating the heat even on dishes that are nominally termed spicy. That said, the nigiri and sashimi list includes a few lesser-known options (mackerel, fluke), includes four distinct tuna choices and calls the infamous "super white tuna" by its correct name, escolar. So it's not that basic.
The signature maki rolls get a little repetitive (spicy mayo for days), notable exceptions being the Black Widow roll (black rice, battered unagi and sauteed scallops with unagi sauce) and the Urban Heat (which has enough spicy tuna and jalapeno to get your attention). There's an appetizer called Seven Spicy Ahi that's rather like a Japanese bruschetta, the fish and chilies arriving on squares of molded rice that are butter-seared on the bottom. It's a cute idea that needs more flavor.
Beyond the sushi realm, there are slices of duck over Chinese broccoli with an orange-based sweet chili sauce; the same sauce dresses the katsu (panko-breaded chicken breast), which is one of the best dishes I sampled. Chilean sea bass (toothfish) with garlic-soy sauce is refreshing inasmuch as it isn't miso-glazed, which seems to be the only way Asian-accented restaurants treat bass or cod these days; bul go gi, reflecting Choi's Korean background, is a good option as well.
Beverages include a short wine list and signature cocktails; the sake offerings are particularly budget-friendly. Weekend nights, the kitchen serves a limited menu from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.