Tucked within the massive College of DuPage campus in the gleaming Culinary & Hospitality Center, steps from the student kitchen, is an upscale, approachable gem of a restaurant: Waterleaf. Adding to its appeal -- and cred -- Nadia Tilkian of erstwhile Maijean Bistro is in the kitchen, overseeing what is, from start to finish, sublime fare.
The prairie-style setting is sedate and sophisticated, though not fussy. And while the restaurant does host student-run dinners on Mondays and Tuesdays, the spot proves an impressive, professionally run find, one with a celebrated wine list to match.
WaterleafThe Culinary & Hospitality Center at College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-6881, cod.edu/w/waterleaf.htm
Setting: Tranquil, prairie school dining room overlooking a pond
Entrees: $18 to $36
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; dinner 5 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
We began with the braised rabbit gnocchi, which sits in jus with mushrooms and shards of grana padano cheese; on a chilly spring night, it managed to be both light and rib-sticking at once. The pitch-perfect chicken liver mousse with toast points and sweet-savory cherry-balsamic compote was a solid choice, too.
Other starters include cold, poached shrimp with tomatoes, radishes, carrots and cilantro in chile-lime broth; mussels steeped in white wine; and a cheese platter with kumquat chutney and Marcona almonds.
On the soup front, there's French onion as well as a seasonal selection. Salads continue the restaurant's fresh, farm-to-table theme, with options that include a fava bean and English pea mélange with hazelnuts and chervil vinaigrette.
Tilkian has a way with seafood, so don't pass it by, especially if the lovely halibut -- teamed with nubs of chorizo in sweet corn chowder -- is on offer. Of course, the fig-basil-stuffed duck breast with springlike pea purée is every bit as delicious, its sweetness tempered by tangy balsamic gastrique. Alternately, there's seafood stew with a garlicky, Pernod-spiked broth; filet finished with bone marrow butter and peppercorn sauce alongside a potato tart; and spice-rubbed pork tenderloin, coupled with white bean chili, chicharrónes and maple-agave syrup.
Desserts are beauties so save some room. We were pleased with both the rich, walnut-studded chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and the playful take on PB&J, peanut butter mousse offset by grape gelée with a chocolate brownie.
Lunch is an equally civilized affair, with starters like ratatouille with a poached egg and toast points, a fattoush salad with sumac vinaigrette and a classic croque madame sandwich, served alongside frites. Also consider brunch, which offers up the likes of chicken leg confit with biscuits and chicken sausage gravy.
The Wine Spectator-awarded, global-leaning wine list is long on appeal, with a decent number of midpriced finds.
Throughout our meal service was appropriately polished and informed, a fact that only cemented the fact that Waterleaf is a destination-worthy dining experience, one that easily debunks misconceptions about the caliber of "suburban dining."
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.