Milwalky Trace in downtown Libertyville is a little difficult to find -- its only signage is a round dish with "MT" on it, flush against the building -- but the discovery is well-worth it for fresh, seasonal food inspired by cultures across the world.
The restaurant is the first for chef Lee Kuebler, who trained at Chicago's Kendall College. Its name pays homage to the town's history -- old maps refer to a Chicago to Milwaukee trail as Milkwalky Trace -- and its menu shies away from the modern appetizer-salad-entrée setup. Instead, Kuebler offers shared plates in small, medium and large sizes, plus a selection of desserts.
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Milwalky Trace603 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 530-7172, milwalkytrace.com
Cuisine: Globally influenced American
Setting: Modern casual
Entrees: $8 to $40
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday; closed Monday
"I'm really into food that you can sit down with a group of people and all share together and talk about it, have it be part of the experience, instead of everybody having their own thing and separating themselves from the experience," Kuebler says.
That mentality is echoed in the restaurant's design, with a garage-style front that opens to the street, an open loft feel, tables close together and communal seating on the patio. Diners can even sit at the chef's counter to watch and chat with Kuebler as he plates the dishes. As for the menu, the food is American with a worldly twist that changes with the seasons and to highlight local farms. The bar serves craft brews, pre-Prohibition-era cocktails and a small selection of wine.
We began our meal with two of the small plates: the roasted garlic and tuna tartare. Aged balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sea salt season the roasted garlic; it was practically spreadable and the vinegar provided a nice sweet tang. The dish came with sliced crusty bread that was toasted but still soft, so we didn't have to worry about cutting our mouths on hard crust.
The tuna tartare was one of my favorites of the meal. Cubed yellowfin tuna mixed with scallions, cucumbers, radish and serrano chilies is accompanied by avocado cream and house-made tortilla chips. The tuna was sushi-grade and not fishy at all. Salt from the tortilla chips brought all the ingredients together, but for me, the best part was the serrano chile. I didn't always taste it, but every now and then it would sneak in and add another level of complexity to the dish.
From there we moved on to the Gruyere dip and caprese poutine, both on the medium portion of the menu. We had high hopes for the Gruyere dip, which comes with caramelized onions and chunks of bacon on top of the warm, stringy cheese. But unfortunately, my dining partner bit into a piece of what appeared to be clear plastic that found its way into the dish. The incident was handled immediately by the manager who came over and removed the charge from our bill.
Our poutine was plastic-free and featured hand-cut french fries smothered in a tomato gravy and topped with cheese curds and fresh basil. The dish reminded me of a vodka marinara pasta, just with fries instead of spaghetti. Make sure you eat it with a fork so you can get some of every ingredient in a bite.
We finished with one large dish -- the beef short rib -- and a slice of key lime pie. The short rib is anything but short. It's a full 12 inches long and several inches around, and sports a massive chunk of soy-glazed meat that fell right off the bone. If I could go back to the beginning of the meal and just order five of these, I'd be happy as a clam. The rib sits atop a bed of jasmine rice, ginger and a Vietnamese herb salad. I couldn't find much visible ginger, but I could taste it in the rice. The peppery greens tied everything together and seamlessly combined Asian and American cuisine.
The Key lime pie was light and airy, wasn't overly sweet and had just the right amount of lime. We could see the vanilla seeds in the freshly whipped cream, and it was topped with blackberries and lime zest.
Milwalky Trace blends past and present with ease, highlighting historical photos of Libertyville on the walls and a visual display of Libertyville street names. Whether you sit inside or out, you'll feel like you're dining surrounded by old friends at a new place in no time.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.