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Pub grub revolution — Firkin doesn’t yield to stereotypes

The half-pound Tallgrass hormone- antibiotic-free grass-fed burger with Gorgonzolcheese is popular chocie Firklocated 515 N. Milwaukee Rd. Libertyville. | Tom

The half-pound Tallgrass hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed burger with Gorgonzola cheese is a popular chocie at Firkin, located at 515 N. Milwaukee Rd. in Libertyville. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times photos

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515 N. Milwaukee Ave.,

(847) 367-6168

Hours: Food is served Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Bar open longer hours.

Prices: Appetizers, $3.75-$12; burgers, tacos and sandwiches: $8.25-$13; entrees, $13-$21.

Try: First and foremost: the beer, local and international selections. Queso fundito, grass-fed beef, soft shell crab “burgers.”

Wheels: Street or valet parking in an adjoining lot.

Tips: Reservations not accepted. 30 beers on tap. Live entertainment on Tuesday and Thursday nights.

In a bite: Pub food has had a bad rap, and in many cases deservedly so. But there are exceptions, and a good example is 14-year-old Firkin in Libertyville, which does a bang-up job with its beer, wine and cocktails and also has a kitchen whose output is a cut above the norm.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good;
Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: October 15, 2012 4:08PM

Let’s be honest: pub food doesn’t enjoy a sterling reputation.

What people like about their favorite watering hole varies, but most will agree on the importance of a well-stocked bar, attentive service and congenial atmosphere. They generally don’t come to their neighborhood bar and grill expecting to be bowled over by culinary feats from a kitchen where a greasy burger is often the best it has to offer.

Firkin, a fixture in downtown Libertyville for more than 14 years, breaks out from the mold. Not only does this friendly place offer a well-rounded drinks menu, but it also turns out an eclectic assortment of hot and cold fare.

Wine and specialty cocktails are available, but Firkin’s strong suit is an extensive beer list. Some 30 local and international brands are on draft, complemented by an equally well-lined cooler of bottled artisanal brews. Try a pint — or half-pint — of Blanche De Chambly, a Belgian-style wheat beer produced in Quebec for a complex taste sensation that includes hints of lemon, orange peel, coriander and pepper.

Other excellent choices sampled by our party included a full-bodied Hofbrau Hefeweizen, a German import; Irie India Pale Ale from Tighthead Brewing in Mundelein, and Gypsy Rose, a lambic-style beer flavored by fermented raspberries.

Queso fundido, listed as a daily special, should be a regular on the menu. Firkin creatively reinterprets this shareable Spanish melted-cheese appetizer, eliminating chorizo and substituting sauteed calamari, shrimp, mushrooms and onions in a blackened tomato sauce over which rests deliciously gooey chihuahua cheese.

Chicken wings, another appetizer option, are elevated from the standard-issue preparation by a spicy sriracha butter and blue cheese sauce. In addition, artisanal cheeses from Wisconsin — Gouda, Gorgonzola, Romano and aged white Cheddar — are plated in one-ounce servings.

If they’re still available, I recommend the spider burgers ($16.95): two large, flavorful fried soft-shell crabs sandwiched on buns with tomato, lettuce and a mild horseradish sauce. A black beluga lentil salad with a moderately sweet dressing worked well as the side dish.

For her main course, my dining partner opted for one of Firkin’s most popular items: a half-pound Tallgrass hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed hamburger. Oddly, a hefty $1.75 supplement is charged for including Gorgonzola. Slightly deeper pockets might go for the eight-ounce Akaushi burger ($13.95) made with Texas-syle waygu beef from Japan.

Chicken, flank steak and salmon also were featured as entree possibilities. And a dish like macaroni-and-cheese dressed up with Wisconsin cheddar, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, artichokes, walnuts and truffle oil, helps Firkin live up to its growing reputation as a gastropub.

Desserts, made off-site, include such regulars as carrot cake and chocolate mousse. Alas, the ubiquitous tiramisu, while respectable, was shy of rum flavor.

The dining room — casual, with colorful lights strung from a high ceiling — is long and narrow. A bar (without a TV in sight!) runs most of its length and can seat about 24. Most guests find themselves occupying closely positioned tables with mismatched chairs.

And when Firkin is jammed, which can happen early on weekends, it’s no surprise that quiet conversation goes out the window.

Live music further enlivens the scene Tuesdays from 8 to 10:30 p.m. with rockabilly by Harry and Peter and Thursdays by Vance Kelly and the Backstreet Blues Band, from 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.

Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.

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