Great Wolf Lodge's Barnwood scores with friendly Northwoods atmosphere
Barnwood, the only restaurant inside Gurnee's new Great Wolf Lodge that's open to the public, has a Northwoods feel -- something you notice immediately with a large mural of the forest on one side and rustic-chic decor throughout. The other side of the restaurant, past the bar, is all windows looking out over the water park.
Exceptionally friendly staff sat us immediately; the restaurant was nearly empty on a Monday night. Keep in mind that Barnwood does not take reservations. We had to speak to the manager to ensure they could accommodate our party of 12 when we needed to come in.
The menu at Barnwood is small but varied, offering local favorites like pretzels, poutine and cheese curds, plus a selection of steak, pork and chicken. There's a single option for fish and a risotto entree that would work for vegetarians. The bar has a full menu of wine, cocktails and beer. Use the waitstaff to your advantage -- they're very friendly and completely honest about which menu options they prefer.
For our appetizers, we ordered the Bavarian pretzel, short rib poutine, roasted golden beet salad and fried cheese curds. The cheese curds were the highlight, though we had to remind the staff to bring the sriracha ranch dipping sauce the appetizer comes with (don't worry, it's not too spicy). But the curds were nicely fried, perfectly melty in the center, and not greasy at all. We were a bit disappointed with the other appetizers, unfortunately. Though the beer cheese served with the pretzels was good, the pretzels themselves were cold and a tad stale with no salt. The poutine had a few positives -- a large amount of tender meat and flavorful gravy -- but the fries were mushy and the entire dish was only lukewarm. The roasted beet salad was a bit of a saving grace with delicious ricotta and flavorful dressing; it just needed some lemon and salt to really reach the next level.
Our entrees were the pork porterhouse, filet mignon, local beer-brined barbecue chicken, creamy wild mushroom risotto and pan-seared walleye. For sides, we had the macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, grilled asparagus and sautéed green beans.
We thoroughly enjoyed the mushroom risotto. The rice was cooked well, and the Parmesan reggiano and thyme really came through in the sauce. We especially enjoyed that the mushrooms were a highlight, the main flavor of the dish rather than filler.
The barbecue chicken was good as well, tender and with an ample amount of sauce on the sweeter end of the barbecue spectrum. It comes served with cornbread muffins made with Aleppo pepper and smoked jalapeño honey, both of which were delicious. We equally enjoyed the filet, served on a bed of broccolini and housemade chimichurri. The meat was cooked perfectly (all the meat we ordered was made exactly to our specifications) and had a nice light seasoning. The broccolini was the star, though, perfectly lemoned and cooked to a lovely al dente.
The pork porterhouse came with the same vegetable and chimichurri, but this is unfortunately where the entrees began to fall apart. We had to send the pork back to the kitchen to be reheated because it was cold, and the texture was a little strange. Most of the table described it as "turning into mush in your mouth." Nevertheless, it was tasty -- though perhaps a better preparation would be as a pulled pork sandwich. We found redemption in the walleye, which was seasoned well and cooked nicely albeit a bit oily from the lemon browned butter. It was served with delicious chorizo hash.
Most of the vegetable sides were relatively standard, except the green beans seemed to be lightly steamed rather than sautéed. Neither the beans nor the asparagus especially stood out. The creamed corn was a star of the meal for us. It was absolutely delicious, with a heavy Parmesan and garlic flavor that really supplemented the taste of the corn. Everyone loved it. The macaroni and cheese was good as well, though it didn't have the herb crust the menu suggested, and it could have used a bit more cheese.
Desserts were the highlight of the meal. We ordered one of each on offer: the apple cobbler, the strawberry shortcake, and the s'mores. To me, the apple cobbler tasted like fall. Nice and hot, a bit heavy on the nutmeg, stuffed full of sweet apples, and covered with a crisp oat crumble. (Barnwood gave us the cobbler for free because we had to send back the pork.) The strawberry shortcake was equally good, with fresh and sweet berries, a light biscuit and a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
We enjoyed the s'mores the most though; the dessert comes served in a Mason jar, layered with graham cracker crumbs, marshmallow fluff and chocolate ice cream. The whole thing is topped with roasted marshmallows. It was absolutely delicious.
Overall, with a few tweaks to the food, the entire menu could be elevated in taste enough to match the higher resort prices and excellent atmosphere. It seems like Barnwood is just at the cusp of true greatness.
• • •
1700 Nations Drive, Gurnee, (844) 482-9653, greatwolf.com
Hours: 7 to 10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m. daily
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.