Farm-to-Table Restaurant Review: Browntrout

Risotto with bacon, sunchoke, and ramp.

There are two types of people in the world, those who eat to live and those who live to eat. I am the latter and picking a restaurant for me is similar to picking a travel destination. If I am going to spend money on it, it has to seemingly be able to offer the kind of exciting experience I want to have.

For this experience, I wanted to try a farm-to-table restaurant where the food spoke for itself, no frills attached. I found what I was looking for at Browntrout, a restaurant in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood that boasts sustainable, organic menu items sans the pomposity of many farm-to-table establishments. According to Browntrout’s website, the name Browntrout comes from an experience Chef Sean Sanders and his wife Nadia had while honeymooning in New Zealand. They caught wild trout in Lake Wanaka, brought it back to their cottage, and fixed it up with herbs, nuts, and vegetables from the land. The experience impacted them to the level that their idea for the restaurant was born. They envisioned a restaurant where things like trout (an abundant fish that doesn’t need to be commercially farmed or fished) can be eaten along with locally grown produce done right. That is the mentality behind the restaurant: sustainable, local food of the highest quality.

My friends and I arrived at Browntrout on one of those warm yet breezy autumn nights, the outdoor seating was complete with hanging lights cascaded along the awning and decorative flowers and plants strung along the tables. Although romantic and inviting, we sat inside which was just as charming. Colorful art pieces, dim lighting, and a jazzy tune made for a relaxing ambiance. What I noticed right away was that the restaurant had plenty of intimate seating arrangements yet in the center of the restaurant there was a large communal table capable of accommodating large groups.

The waitress, although a bit distracted by the Saturday night crowd, was friendly. It took a bit of time to get our drinks but once the craft cocktails started to roll in, it ultimately didn’t matter. Then, I saw the menu, and all irritation was replaced by me salivating over an array of savory choices. The cheese and charcuterie plates looked delectable. Of course, each artisan cheese was from either Illinois or a bordering state and all the farms they bought from were listed on the back page of the menu.
I couldn’t decide on a cheese much less an entrée. The Mint Creek Hangar Steak? The Pan-Seared Walleye fished out of Lake Michigan? Would it be bad if I got more than one?

I decided on a Nordic smoked cheddar from Wisconsin. It was accompanied by grapes from a local farmer’s market and apple butter. The combination was fantastic, the grapes felt like they sparkled each time I popped one in my mouth and the cheese had that perfectly smoked zing.

I reluctantly decided on just one entrée (I have to keep up appearances sometimes) so I went for the Lamb Neck Sugo Raviolo. If you can imagine tender lamb swimming in its own flavorful juice topped with mint flowers that came from the restaurant’s rooftop garden (yes, they have their own garden where they grow herbs and veggies) then you can imagine the look on my face as I took my first bite. The carrots on the side were served up sous-vide, a style that seems to pop up frequently on the menu.

I stole a ricotta stuffed gnocchi from my friend and although delicious, I was satisfied with my original choice.
Next it was on to dessert. I am actually not much of a dessert person. I am that person that will refuse to order dessert but will pick at someone else’s. “I just want a little bite!” I always say to my dates who roll their eyes when they realize their dessert is half gone. Oops.

The main reason I don’t like ordering dessert is that I am not big on sweet-carb-type things. It isn’t because of the calories. It is just that my poison choice usually runs more toward the butter and salt department. That being said, I was extremely happy with what surfaced on our table. We decided to split the most interesting version of blueberry pie I had ever seen. All the elements of the pie were broken up on the plate. Two different varieties of blueberries, (one that had more of a citrus taste) small circles of crust, brown sugar in the corner, and all drizzled with cream. The blueberries were heavenly. One of the servers mentioned they came from a southern Illinois farm. She also told us the chef preferred to get blueberries later in the season because of their increased tartness. Tart, tangy, terrific. It was one of the times I actually ate dessert.

Overall, Browntrout gave me the experience I was seeking and upon leaving I felt truly satisfied. The food spoke for itself and it told me I could feel good about eating it.

-Monica Bologna

Photo Credit: Flickr/Opacity