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Article posted: 1/30/2013 6:00 AM

St. Charles gastro pub wild at heart


St. Charles is home to several pubs, but the newest, Wild Monk, distinguishes itself from the rest with surprisingly eclectic food, a huge craft beer list and a downtown building that's almost new.

Located at 51 S. First St. in the corner space formerly occupied by the more upscale and short-lived Prasino restaurant, Wild Monk, named for the European monks who were expert brewers, doubles as a sports bar, complete with a dozen or so large flat-screen TVs. The surprise comes in with the kitchen's inventive menu that draws from wide-ranging culinary influences.

Chef Anthony Burgess has some impressive experience, including a stint working with Amanda Freitag, well-known New York chef and frequent judge on the Food Network's "Chopped" series. More recently, Burgess worked at Niche in neighboring Geneva.

Opened last June, The Wild Monk is a good fit for the Fox Valley, which has familiarity with craft beer bars, said Dan Fijolek, general manager. The demographics are somewhat similar to those of the concept's original location in West suburban LaGrange.

An impressive 30 beers are on tap, sure to offer something for everyone who likes beer even a little. A few specialty cocktails tempt those who want an alcoholic alternative to beer, but wines are not an emphasis.

An interesting collection of tapas-style small plates made choosing one a challenge. They range from crabcakes with guajillo sauce and cilantro crème to the house chili. Everything is made from scratch, Fijolek noted.

We finally settled on a Spanish classic to start -- dates wrapped in bacon and served with romanesco sauce. This sweet-savory combination proved to be a good choice. The bacon was crisp, but there could have been more of the romesco sauce, a tasty classic Catalonian purée of spinach, red bell pepper, almonds, onion, garlic and olive oil. Two skewers of four bacon-wrapped dates made this starter easy to share.

Next we tried the chicken mole tacos, which we figured would be a good test of the kitchen's skills, since mole is a complex and laborious dish to make. This one passed our taste test, and the tacos helped to absorb the moderate heat. More cilantro, with stems removed, would be an improvement.

We passed up a tapa that Fijolek said is a best-seller -- pan-fried brussels sprouts with bacon jam, lemon and sea salt. No doubt a Belgian ale is a recommended accompaniment.

Two of us shared one of the entrees, salmon with risotto and grilled asparagus. The risotto was appropriately creamy and contained a colorful mix of fresh corn, carrots and peas. The pan-seared salmon was crispy on the outside and moist on the inside -- perfectly prepared. Tiny dollops of bright green basil oil around the food made for a pretty plate.

The Lobster Mac and the signature Monk burger are two popular items we'll have to try another time. Definitely a luxurious version of macaroni and cheese, this dish contains Maine lobster chunks, bacon, creme fraiche and panko crumbs.

Several burger variations are offered, but all are based on an 8-ounce Angus burger on a pretzel bun. The Monk burger is adorned with marinated mushrooms, bacon, bourbon onions, aged cheddar and mixed greens.

We had saved room for dessert but learned, to our dismay, there was no dessert that day except ice cream. I later learned that the pub was in the process of hiring a new pastry chef and decided not to serve desserts prepared elsewhere in the interim.

There also was no decaf coffee that day, which Fijolek said is not the norm. He suspected the day's shipment had been delayed. We did order the regular coffee, which tasted fresh-ground and was very good. Our server told us it comes from a local coffee roaster.

Service was friendly and efficient. Overall, eating at the Wild Monk was a pleasant experience and one we hope to repeat.

Ÿ Reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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