Updated: January 6, 2013 9:33AM
Two of the most romantic things you can do — dine and roll through the night on a train — come together when you board a Metra car and leave the city for dinner at one of the best restaurants in the Chicago area.
Bring two glasses and a half bottle of dry white wine to get things started — imbibing is fully sanctioned on Metra trains — and at the end of the night enjoy some dessert wine (but don’t skip dessert at the restaurant) as the train whisks you back to Chicago. This is a truncated vacation to a destination you would not otherwise have considered. It is a journey, an adventure and a night of fine dining that rivals or exceeds the experience available at the majority of restaurants in the city.
Union Pacific/North line,
$6.25 one-way fare from Ogilvie Transportation Center to Lake Bluff
Inovasi (28 E. Center Ave., Lake Bluff, 847-295-1000, www.inovasi.us) is the flagship restaurant of outspoken chef John Des Rosiers, who has made it clear on social media venues that many of his suburban customers just do not get what he is trying to do with his food. Surely he would be delighted to welcome seasoned city foodies into his comfortable restaurant with Prairie Style accents for a night of multi-course dining — smaller, delicate portions carefully matched with wines.
Des Rosiers oversees both the food and the wine at Inovasi (he also operates Wisma prepared meal shops in Lake Bluff, Libertyville and Chicago) and he would be happy to suggest wines or just pick them for you to match his six-course tasting menu, or your a la carte selections. But the beauty of Inovasi’s wine list is its clarity. Wines are described in the following categories: body/fruit, aroma and flavor/acidity level/alcohol level/wood influence from barrels/sugar level. You will feel like a master sommelier when you match a glass or bottle with a medium-size plate of grilled leg and breast of Kentucky squab with Thai curry coconut broth, oyster mushrooms and Virginia peanuts ($18); or a large plate of slow-cooked pork shoulder with caramelized onions, balsamic reduction and purple cape beans ($26). But never hesitate to ask for help. Let the conductor drive the train, let the chef drive your meal.
Union Pacific/West line, $6.75 one way from Ogilvie to Geneva
Niche (14 S. Third St., Geneva, 630-262-1000, www.nichegeneva.com) actually owns a sustainable farm in nearby Elburn, and the restaurant’s produce — even the centerpiece flowers — come from there. Niche’s all-American wine list (with the exception of Champagne) was created by general manager and sommelier Vince Balistreri. He collaborates with chef Serena Perdue to come up with pairings for entrees such as pork loin with black barley risotto, orange supreme, black mission figs, Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, pistachios and Cognac jus ($28); and white pheasant stew with sweet parsnip puree, caramel turnips, celery root, Yukon potatoes, roasted pheasant breast, confit of leg and consomme ($27.50).
A soft soundtrack of mellow, classic rock balances the dark wood and white tablecloth elegance of Niche’s small dining room, which is refined but not stuffy. Despite the restaurant’s beauty, the exquisite food that Perdue turns out, with a nod to her traditional French training, would not be out of place in an even fancier room. Niche is comfortable and unpretentious along with all of its other high points. A compact wine cellar greets guests at the entrance, setting the tone for an evening of dining on eclectic American cuisine. The walk to and from the train is the longest here but still is only about 10 minutes. You will not mind the walk, as it is straight up the main drag of charming, picturesque Geneva.
BNSF Railway, $4.25 one way from Union Station to Western Springs
Vie (4471 Lawn Ave., Western Springs, 708-246-2082, www.vierestaurant.com ) is where chef Paul Virant made his name before opening Perennial Virant in Old Town (he still oversees both kitchens). Vie was the suburban restaurant that turned everyone’s heads. The ’burbs had some fine restaurants but Vie was different; it was young and energetic but still faithful to the finest traditional cooking and service practices.
Today the contemporary restaurant, awash in stylish white and silver, turns out first course items such as pan-seared scallops with red beet puree, huckleberry-braised onions, local celery root and arugula ($19), and roasted quail with smashed white triumph sweet potatoes and black truffle butter in a maple and sherry glaze ($18), two courses that were featured recently in the eight-course tasting menu — there’s also a five-course — and on the a la carte menu. Go with the tasting menu and wine pairings. Virant, a master of pickling and canning, is inventive in the kitchen, and his food dazzles. You should get as many little tastes of it as you can. The restaurant offers lots of great wines by the glass (generally $12 to $15) and a nice bottle list. To finish the evening, make sure to indulge in dessert by pastry chef Elissa Narow, who recently offered a dark chocolate ganache cake with popcorn ice cream, cocoa caramel and cocoa nib nougatine paired with a ruby port.
That alone is a memory you could savor all the way home. Then again, one more glass for the ride wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail email@example.com.