Prairie Fire (CLOSED)

Restaurants, American West Loop
3 out of 5 stars

Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris were the chefs of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton for two decades, currently operate Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, were instrumental in founding and guiding the development of Green City Market, and have managed to open a West Loop restaurant that does not buzz. Literally. Even when every seat is taken. It’s like a library in here.

Prairie Fire was built for comfort to the point that it’s almost aggressively anti-trendy. Its design is so transparently undesigned that to describe it is to almost make fun of it: Flat-screens play cheesy nature scenes; prints and sconces recall fire in the tackily abstracted way that a Real Housewife’s leggings evoke a leopard. There are no communal tables, no backless stools, no condiments served in miniature canning jars. This is not to mention the servers and bartenders, who are just so unbelievably nice and eccentric, it all starts to feel quite folksy.

Or at least very Midwestern. This is the unmistakable charm of Stegner and Bumbaris, the anti-aesthetic aesthetic that has won them so many loyal followers. It’s logical, then, that the heart of the menu is meat: brisket. Steak. Not just a burger, but the burger. And all of it Bill Kurtis’s Tallgrass beef. (Lest you forget, his portrait looms behind the bar much in the way Victory’s Banner pays homage to its guru.)

But it’s not all straightforward cuts of beef on this menu, and I felt challenged to test its range. “Crispy rolls of tender braised Mint Creek Farm lamb”? (Yes, this is the actual language of the menu.) It was as though they were daring me to order it—to see whether what came out of the kitchen would transcend the image I had in my head of a lamb egg roll. (Cucumber-yogurt dipping sauce aside, it didn’t. I couldn’t get over the texture of the lamb, which I found akin to that of second-rate refried beans.) The “Farmer’s salad” is big enough to be a generous lunch entrée or dinner appetizer for two, but the “roasted root vegetables” in it made the whole thing taste like a decent salad tossed with room-temperature sweet-potato fries.

Does all this complaining make me a bitch? The Internet will most certainly say “Yes.” But a restaurant like this places its onus on execution more than on creativity, leaving little room for blunders. There are a handful of omelettes on the brunch menu, and I was surprised when the one I ordered came out an unattractive mess. But not as surprised as I was when I tasted that Tallgrass brisket at dinner. To me, the brisket dish symbolized what this restaurant wants to do: turn out expert renditions of the simple food that holds a special place in Midwestern hearts. But when the brisket is juiceless and stringy, the plan flops. It’s not that the brisket is inedible. It’s not that the lamb egg rolls are terrible. It’s just that when you’re serving food this basic, it has to be a lot better than “not bad.”

For dishes that fit that bill, you have to turn to the menu’s indulgences. If nothing else, cocktail fans should plan a visit to the bar, where the drinks are creative and the atmosphere is livelier. “Ronnie’s Old Fashioned” is a beautifully made drink—citrusy and smooth—but paying $14 for a cocktail rings a tad too much of extortion for my taste. Next time (and for the bar at least, there will be many next times), I’ll stick to the drinks in the $8–$10 range.

At brunch, there’s a completely unadorned plate of lemon-ricotta pancakes. It looks like the most boring thing on the planet. But these pancakes are surreal, both rich and light, zinged with bits of lemon zest. And no one should leave without dessert. The apple tart is stunning: It tastes as good as it looks. The coconut-cream pie is the best I’ve ever had. And there’s molten-chocolate cake, which I ordered with the same skepticism as the lamb egg roll. Prove me wrong, chefs. Make this the most flawless, gooey, chocolatey rendition of molten-chocolate cake I’ve ever had.

What do you know? Stegner and Bumbaris, you win.

By: Julia Kramer


Venue name: Prairie Fire (CLOSED)
Address: 215 N Clinton St

Cross street: between Lake and Fulton Sts
Opening hours: Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner
Transport: El stop: Green, Pink to Clinton. Bus: 14, 20, 56, 60, 124, 125, 130, 157.
Price: Average main course: $20
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