Milwalky Trace (that’s how it’s spelled, folks…not a typo!) is a small restaurant with big, bold flavors. The compact menu is packed with winners.
Located in downtown Libertyville on the main Milwaukee Avenue business strip (known as the “Milwalky Trace” back in the 1800s, it was the trail that led from Chicago to Milwaukee), this new restaurant already feels lived in. Perhaps it’s the rustic brick walls, or the de rigueur funky lightbulb fixtures, reclaimed wood tables and Mason-jar tumblers that you find in most hip urban restaurants these days. More likely it’s the comfortable vibe and the delicious, accessible food that keep this place full, even on an early weekday.
By all means, start with a cocktail (all $11). Loved the refreshing French 75, a citrusy blend of gin (I subbed in Death’s Door), fresh lemon juice and sparkling wine. The Paloma, made with Lunazul tequila, fresh-squeezed grapefruit and lime juice, topped with club soda and garnished with a big grapefruit wheel, is hugely popular.
Chef/Owner Lee Kuebler, who worked previously at Restaurant Michael in Winnetka and Chicago’s Ada Street and the Union League Club, knows how to get the most out of his ingredients.
Take, for instance, the Gruyère Dip ($13), a skillet full of luscious goodness, the Gruyère bubbling together with bacon and caramelized onion in the best possible way, served with toast points. We ran out of toast points and argued over the crusty, crunchy corners of cheese. It’s a home run.
Tuna Tartare ($14), a “contemporary American” menu regular, here gets a Latin spin with the addition of radish matchsticks, chopped cilantro, scallions, cucumber and Serrano chile. Served with a smooth avocado crema and super-fresh homemade tortilla chips, this dish quickly disappeared.
More happy sighs accompanied the appearance of steamed fresh Spring Asparagus ($8), set in a pool of miso-enriched butter sauce and topped with a perfectly runny poached egg. Likewise the large, crispy-exterior Arancini ($8, pictured top right), risotto balls stuffed with house-made Italian sausage and fresh mozzarella, fried and placed on a pool of emerald-green arugula pesto and fresh tomato sauce, topped with a lemon-dressed tangle of arugula. Not the lightest dish going, but truly scrumptious.
Tapas classic Chorizo-Stuffed, Bacon-Wrapped Dates ($12) arrived four to an order, plump and ready to be devoured, the slightly acidic roasted tomato and piquillo pepper sauce the perfect foil to their porky yumminess.
Mussels ($9) are another menu standard elevated by Kuebler. They bathe in a coconut-milk broth accented with hits of ginger, garlic, chile and cilantro. We asked for a spoon to finish the broth we couldn’t soak up with the accompanying toast.
Our only quibble was with the Grilled Apricots & Burrata Cheese ($12); I liked the concept of stone fruit (rather than the ubiquitous tomato) with the creamy burrata and salty prosciutto, but the apricots weren’t ripe enough, so the flavors didn’t quite pull together. I’m sure by mid-summer this dish will sing.
In the entrée category, we shared the Latin-style 1/2 Roast Chicken ($23), and it turned out to be one of my favorite birds of the past few months. So moist, so juicy, each bite mixed with a little of the grilled red and green onions, some grilled avocado (a revelation—stealing that idea for this summer’s barbecues), sprigs of cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Fabulous.
You will be surprised to see French Toast ($10) as a dessert option. Get over it and order the dish immediately. Big chunks of day-old baguette are soaked overnight in a custard mixture, then sautéed to order and served with pure maple syrup and fresh berries and a sprinkle of confectioner’s sugar. It is a heavenly combination, done to perfection.
A more traditional choice would be the Warm Double Chocolate Chip Cookie ($5), placed atop a coffee cup of cold whole milk for dipping. It’s tasty, sure, but not exceptional. End with the French Toast and you’ll be glad you did.
It’s saying something that I’d be willing to drive back up to Libertyville for another visit. I thought the food was really delightful, and 45 minutes is certainly not too long a ride when there’s Gruyère dip at the end of the trail.
4 out of 5 stars (A-)
603 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Photos courtesy of Milwalky Trace.