LAGRANGE, Ill. -- When I first stopped into La Grange's fourteensixteen, shortly after its early-September opening, I thought that, well, it would do.
The restaurant felt more concept-driven than chef-driven, its decor assembled by checklist, its "New American Craft" manifesto (printed on the menu) a bit too earnest (and a masterwork of gobbledygook besides).
I still have some of those issues with the place, but on my return visits, executive chef Bret Bohning has shown sparks in his cooking that make me think fourteensixteen, already popular with the locals, has destination potential.
Bohning's opening menu cast a wide, leave-no-taste-behind net, offering pot stickers and Asian-seasoned chicken salad along with burgers, flatbreads, crudo and beef "poke." The revised menu, introduced about a week ago, narrows the melting-pot cuisine somewhat, giving the selection more of a Midwestern, even Chicago, accent.
For instance, the overly fussy rack of lamb, which crusted the meat with bacon and foie gras, has given way to a more elegant grilled loin of venison, accompanied by a chunky hash of diced celery root and roasted beets, over a stout reduction sauce perked up by pickled cranberry puree. Also new is octopus salad, a warm jumble of bite-size tentacle pieces, black kale and pumpkin puree, united by chorizo vinaigrette. Golumpki, or Polish-style cabbage rolls, are a nod to the area's ethnic history, although Bohning chefs it up a bit by using pork shoulder, carnaroli rice and roasted-garlic puree. Walleye is distinctly Midwestern, though its shredded-crab crust and micro-shiso adornments convey a certain world-traveler status.
Through it all, Bohning keeps it as local as he can. His menu identifies the farms that supply him with chicken, pork and cheese curds, and in a cute nod to that ethos, the lobster roll (a very legit version, by the way) is listed on the menu as the "Out of Towner." A substantial number of menu items are available in vegetarian and/or gluten-free preparations.
The default starter choice should be the flatbread pizza, of which there are three topping combinations: prosciutto with Gouda and apples, mushrooms with pecorino cheese and tarragon, and the day's chef's pick, which might offer shaved speck, smoked provolone and figs. The toppings arrive on brittle, wafer-thin crusts, pre-cut into thoughtful, finger-friendly pieces atop a thick wood board.
Other appetizers include an oddity dubbed "lamb nachos," which contains ground lamb, tomato confit and feta-cream sauce, over and above pieces of grilled pita. It looks like the result of a cooking challenge involving making biscuits and gravy using nothing but ingredients available at a Greek diner. It's a beige mess to the eyes, but guess what — it's one of the menu's best-sellers.
Wood-fired steaks are a kitchen specialty, though the menu mentions them only in passing. There are four cuts available daily, and your waiter will tell you about the aging processes (which vary). I had a very nice Kansas City strip one visit, and though the bordelaise sauce drenching the beef was a good one, it would be more judicious if the sauce weren't quite so omnipresent. And surely there's a better way to arrange the steaks besides propping them awkwardly on a scoop of mashed potatoes.
Desserts are simple and decent enough. There's a fudgy flourless chocolate cake topped with sweetened whipped cream, a rather elegant-looking apple tostada with caramel sauce and salted-caramel ice cream, and a cute "Snickers bar" dessert of chocolate, nougat and peanuts.
The wine list is interesting, once you get past the sticker shock; there are fewer than a dozen bottles priced at less than $90, an odd circumstance in a restaurant whose main courses are generally less than $25 (steaks excluded). Here's the secret: By-the-glass wines, which range from $10 to $17, are available by the bottle for quadruple the glass price. It would be good if the wine list made that clear; as it is, you only know if your server clues you in. Fortunately, servers are very good about doing just that.
The dining room, noisy but comfortable, is a pastiche of urban-rustic design elements. Walls are clad in reclaimed wood or weathered brick; air ducts and other mechanicals are visible between the exposed rafters; Edison bulbs and a steam-punky, plumbing-pipe light fixture provide illumination. It's a dime-a-dozen look in the city, but out west, its freshness date has yet to expire.
One of fourteensixteen's niftiest touches is the rooftop, wrapped in rough cedar and protected, somewhat, by overlapping triangular fabric. It wouldn't hold up to a severe rainstorm or protect from bitter cold, but it's surprisingly pleasant even on less-than-pleasant days. The owners plan more permanent roofing and heaters, at which point the rooftop could become the most popular venue in town.
14 W. Calendar Ave., La Grange
Tribune rating: One star
Open: Dinner Monday to Sunday
Prices: Entrees $14-$36 (steaks market price)
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible