Benjamin Restaurant a fine addition to Highland Park dining scene
BY THOMAS WITOM March 14, 2012 4:26PM
BENJAMIN ★★ ½
1849 Second St., Highland Park (847) 748-8737;
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-8 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Small plates and appetizers, $6-$14; entrees, $17-$28; desserts, $8.
Try: Roasted pumpkin, blood orange and frisee salad; veal sweetbreads; grilled salmon; pumpkin bread pudding. Note: The menu undergoes frequent updates, so you may not encounter the same dishes.
Wheels: Street parking. Handicapped accessible.
Tips: Reservations accepted. Full bar service. On weekends, a pianist works the restaurant’s baby grand.
In a bite: Benjamin shows flair in its approach to contemporary American cooking. It’s a welcome addition to fine dining on the North Shore.
KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor
Highland Park’s lively dining scene has long attracted brigades of serious food devotees, both locals and those from far beyond the North Shore. You can confidently add six-month-old Benjamin to the list of restaurants worth getting to know.
The restaurant, a brainchild of adventuresome chef-owner Benjamin Brittsan, specializes in contemporary American fare with an emphasis on fresh, artisanal ingredients that are locally sourced when feasible. Its menu changes seasonally and undergoes frequent intermediate tweaks.
Dinner recently began auspiciously with fresh-baked soft pretzels accompanied by a mini chafing dish filled with a tasty four-cheese “fondue” sauce, which we consumed while making wine selections from among dozens of domestic and international labels.
Among the nine small-plate dishes on offer, Thai-inspired won tons beckoned. Benjamin’s sophisticated interpretation featured meat-filled turnovers with a red pepper and chorizo coulis and a leathery papaya chip.
Some of the other starter choices included wild mushrooms on toast, pork belly croquettes and beef bone marrow with bacon-and-onion jam and a grilled baguette.
The photogenic roasted pumpkin, blood orange and frisee salad shared with my dining companion came with fennel tops, ricotta toasts and a garnish of pumpkin and pomegranate seeds and a pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Main-course options, including ribeye steak, Amish chicken pot pie, braised lamb shank, grilled ahi tuna and pesto gnocchi gratin each held promise. But I was beguiled by the seldom-available veal sweetbreads listed on the appetizer menu and was able to upgrade that to an entree-sized portion for my dinner. This organ meat delicacy, prepared with a buerre blanc sauce, was delicious and arrived plated with puff pastry biscuits and sauteed oyster mushrooms.
From the other side of the table came praise for Benjamin’s Jail Island Atlantic-raised salmon, a special the night of our visit. The fish was cooked to perfection and came with a colorful profusion of vegetables, from brussels sprouts and cauliflower to green beans and onions along with a sweet potato puree.
Service was attentive and generally well modulated. The only slip was in the timing of our appetizer and salad, both of which arrived simultaneously.
Desserts, made on the premises, are worth the extra time on a treadmill, especially the shareable pumpkin bread pudding, a likable treat spiced and caramel-candied pecans. Double chocolate Kahlua mousse torte and banana-caramel crepe were among other possibilities plus ice cream.
Benjamin’s understated diningroom has a decided urban vibe. It’s adjoined by a small lounge area with a hand-crafted bar finished with a black granite top. Diners sit at tables in close proximity to their neighbors, which can be conversationally inhibiting. A more intimate loft level overlooks the main dining area. It houses a baby grand piano and can seat close to 20.
Tom Witom is a local free-lance writer.