Chef Rick Starr has come a long way since opening the first Ruby Tuesday in northern Lake County.
Today he dons his whites behind the counter of his own place, Lake County's sustainably focused, globally influenced eatery.
Ad-Lib Geocafe475 S. Route 45, Lindenhurst; (847) 245-7328, adlibgeocafe.com
Cuisine: Farm-to-fork fine dining
Setting: Casually intimate
Entrees: $18 to $36
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday
Ad-Lib Geocafe sits along Route 45 in Lindenhurst in a quiet strip mall with hardly any signage. And that is, quite possibly, intentional. The small dining room feels exclusive, like you've been invited to dinner at a passionate chef's home.
That spirit carries into the food as well. Chef Starr is dedicated to using only local farms and seasonal ingredients in his frequently changing menu. Aside from the good food quality and small business support, "it's cool to see a small farm grow to superstar status," he says. Starr still gets lamb from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms in Delavan, Wis. -- his was the first restaurant the farm sold to -- and now Pinn-Oak sells to the bigwigs in Chicago. "You grow with them. It's like family."
The menu at Ad-Lib may be small, but it packs a powerful punch with fresh, local ingredients. Every day, diners find a selection that varies with the seasons. As spring was late in coming ours included root vegetables and hearty meats. An extensive beer and wine list, also matching the season, are available as well. The pasture-to-plate experience ensures that every last bite or sip will be exquisite.
We opted for the Chef's Spontaneous Tasting Menu. And no, not every dish served is necessarily on the print menu. For $40 a person you get two appetizers, one entrée and one dessert -- the only caveat is everyone at the table has to order the special menu. Allergies and food aversions are taken into consideration as the chef's personal ambition and creativity come together to create a customized experience. It is absolutely worth it.
My meal started with the Wild Burgundy snails with River Valley Ranch mushrooms and snail butter, and the baby kale salad with blueberry vanilla goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts, prosciutto ham, and roasted blueberry dressing. A tiny bitter bite hit me with the snails, but the sweet and salty butter and a slight lemony aura evened out the dish. The salad ... the salad was divine. The marriage of sweet, crisp and cream with clearly fresh ingredients put me right up in culinary heaven. I could eat that salad every day.
My dining partner started with portobello mushroom with a Gouda crème fraiche, pine nuts and microgreens, and a spinach salad with a poached egg, bacon, red onion, pomegranate seeds and aged blue cheese. Both dishes were robust with an earthiness that grounded and centered us -- we really felt like love of the land came through.
Veal steak topped with a sour cherry reduction and shaved black truffle served on a bed of micro-herbs with seasonal vegetables and celery root mash showed up as my main course. My partner had a pork filet with apple jam atop seasonal veggies, mashed potato and Korean barbecue sauce. Both meats were juicy and cooked to perfection. I wasn't quite sure about the sour cherry or Korean barbecue aspects at the start, but both matched the flavor of the meat with an intensity all their own that truly brought out the essence of the dish.
Dessert was decadence in dark chocolate and Nutella. I had the bittersweet flourless chocolate cake with coffee mouse and fresh whipped cream, topped with Pop Rocks and strawberry rhubarb sauce. I'll give you an insider secret: The cake's mystery ingredient is five spice. Clove and cinnamon mixed with rich chocolate tastes like a cozy autumn day. This dessert is a must-try.
My tablemate indulged in an equally delightful banana Nutella kolacky with vanilla bean ice cream and praline. The dish's only downfall was the kolacky dough -- it was a little hard to cut with a fork and ended up mashing the dessert into a messy (but tasty) lump.
Ad-Lib's space is currently quite small, so head over now to experience the boutique feel before chef Starr moves locations to a bigger space at the other end of the mall. The new restaurant will be larger and attached to a wine bar and the current space will only be used for cooking classes and private parties.
Starr has a preview party planned for June 3; to get tickets for that and the grand opening of the new space, sign up for the Community Supported Restaurant package. For $1,000, you get $1,100 in gift certificates, a bottle of wine on your birthday, the ability to make reservations, an invitation to one of the wine dinners and admittance to the aforementioned events. You'll have to act quick though -- only 75 packages are available, and 40 are already gone.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.