The Holiday Inn Gurnee Convention Center is hiding a former White House employee.
Former White House Chef Christopher Solare and his restaurant, Spice, suffer from a serious lack of signage, both inside and out. Unless you're staying at the hotel, the only clue the restaurant even exists is a tiny sign along Tri State Parkway about kebabs. Signage inside is relegated to a simple menu placed on a counter with no clearly marked entrance.
Spice Restaurant and Lounge6161 W. Grand Ave., Gurnee, (847) 336-6300
Cuisine: Indian-American Fusion
Setting: Minimal, contemporary
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
And it's a shame, because Chef Solare's impressive credentials include training at Le Cordon Bleu and working in Washington before returning to his Chicago roots and opening the Gurnee restaurant.
Sadly, our waitress informed us Chef Solare was not in the night we visited Spice for dinner -- which may account for some of what I deemed rookie mistakes we experienced there. From overcooked meat to the comical -- donuts accidentally served with Asian sauce instead of the standard caramel -- the meal spoke of a novice level of kitchen experience. Nevertheless, the food stands out and certainly merits another trip. And it clearly accomplishes what chef Solare hoped for when opening: a unique food experience amidst the many chain restaurants that form the bulk of Gurnee's culinary scene.
According to the menu, Spice serves continental Khan cuisine. In reality, this means an American/Indian fusion with pizza, burgers and sandwiches, and entrees, appetizers, soups and salads with Indian spices on classic American pub fare. The lounge offers a well-sized wine and cocktail selection in addition to mostly craft beers on tap.
Pakora chicken -- deep-fried chunks of chicken and vegetables with a spicy sauce -- arrived slightly over-fried, but still carried a good punch of Indian spices. Our Crispy Calamari fared much better in the fryer, even with the light and flaky breading, and the squid wasn't tough or too rubbery. The samosas' soft and unobtrusive pastry came stuffed with a standard potato and pea mixture with substantial heat from the seasoning.
Avoid the cheesy tater tots appetizer. It was advertised with spicy cheese sauce, but there was ultimately no heat. The cheese tasted like the sauce you see with standard nachos, and the film across the top made it seem like it had been sitting under a warmer.
We also ordered soups before dinner, and they were gigantic -- big enough to fill you up before the rest of your meal arrives. The less adventurous might be drawn to the chicken dumpling soup. If you want to stray outside the box, try the French Onion or the White Bean and Tomato soups. Both are creamy and nothing like you'd expect. The French Onion is atypical without slabs of melty cheese on top; instead, Wisconsin white cheddar is mixed in the base to make a creamier version. Black garlic accentuates the White Bean and Tomato soup with a shot of sweetness. To me, it tasted exactly like a grilled cheese and tomato soup lunch from my childhood, except all in one bowl.
An absolute must-try at Spice is the Blackened Buzz Burger. It comes topped with Cajun spices, citrus mayo and duck bacon, and the "buzz" comes from the aptly named Buzz Button. This little flower bud is typically known as a Szechuan button and tastes citrusy and sour after you bite it. But give it a minute, and your entire mouth begins to tingle. The electricity lasts anywhere from five minutes on, depending on how big a bite you took. As a bonus, the button sends your taste buds into overdrive and everything gets a flavor boost. One bite and you'll be obsessed with the plant.
The chef brings the buzz in with his dessert as well, offering super-soft fried donuts rolled in Pop Rocks and drizzled with tingly cinnamon caramel sauce -- unless, as in our case, someone in the kitchen reaches for the wrong topping.
Save yourself some trouble and skip the Chicken Tikka Naan sandwich. It sounded fabulous: tandoori grilled chicken tikka, caramelized onions and a cilantro spread. There's no skimping on size, but the giant sandwich was difficult to pick up and eat, and after one bite, everything fell out. Both the chicken and cilantro spread lacked flavor.
A better choice would be the butter chicken, a dish of chopped tandoori chicken breast with butter, yogurt and rice. The spices pop, and the yogurt adds a sweetness that brings the whole meal together. Or you could order the lamb chops, which come covered in either an herb crust or a spicy Indian BBQ sauce, served with loaded mashed potatoes and grilled vegetables.
My dining party informed me that Spice's menu has shrunk considerably since the restaurant opened. So if you're aching for something outside the chain restaurant kitchen, give what they are offering a chance.
• Reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.