There are eateries that you go to because they are conveniently located near work or home, though you probably wouldn't frequent them if they were further away. They're convenient, but aren't necessarily required to be deeply fulfilling experiences.
Then there are the places that you seek out and expect something different from. For me, this category breaks down into two camps: the kind that are worth the money and those that aren't, regardless of price.
Avec, mk, Vanile Patisserie = expensive, and worth it
Cafe Spiaggia, Starbucks pastries, Nine = expensive, but not worth it
Roseded, Spoon Thai, The Marketplace on Oakton = cheap and worth it
Lulu's (Evanston), Joy Yee, Cafe Iberico = cheap but not worth it
I'm picky because I have a nearly year-round garden for produce, I make a lot of our staples (breads, preserves, sauces, ice cream) and all of our meals, and part of the price/value ratio to me is food that I don't cook (or don't do well), or something done so well the food/dining experience becomes a symbiotic relationship that plays off itself to grow into a greater whole.
I felt like we got that last night at North Pond Cafe - food very well done and thought out, great service and a great atmosphere (dining in the waning light of a nearly perfect autumn afternoon overlooking the lagoon - a movie set designer couldn't have gotten it more perfect).
We ate early, around 6:00, and both rooms were filled by the time the first courses arrived. A crowd skewed toward the 45-and-older crowd, plus families with teens. This could change later in the evening, though.
Our server was polite, friendly without interfering, knowledgable about the dishes and could speak about the wine list as well. The other servers were attentive without being rushed, and the bus boys could also speak about the dishes they dropped off, a real plus for those of us who forget what that green sauce was supposed to be served with the scallop.
We ate in the newer room, which I'd recommend for the fireplace, but not so for the vents lining the ceiling near the walls that chilled our table. I'd either sit near the fire, or ask for a table away from the windows in the cooler weather. The older room to me has its coziness robbed by the fluorescent lights intruding from the semi-open kitchen.
But the food won us over:
A fennel soup with scallop and carrot emulsion was distilled essence of the bulb, sweetened and colored by the splash of carrot...juice, really, all centered on a sweet, meltingly soft scallop.
A dish of rock shrimp with pumpkin gnocchi with spoke to me of autumn. Fragrant with sage and butter, the dumplings were pillowy soft, the shrimp tender and flavorful.
We both had fish, so I can't speak to their skill with red meat. One dish had John Dory with lentils, celery root and chantarelles, was great - a fish I only occasionally run into, but whose preparation I loved.
The other was Arctic char, mussels and clams with thick cut bacon, peppers melted into a sauce and leeks (or shallots?) caramelized into a scoop. The fish was cooked sous vide
, not my personal favorite method, but I enjoyed how the plate's elements worked together.
The desserts I enjoyed. I enjoyed them for their creativity seasoned with a desire to present basic ingredients in a relatively straightforward manner (the dessert menu has plates highlighting ingredients, listed like this: Pear, Chestnut, Carrot, etc.). Ultimately, though, they verged on being a bit too fussy for me, though again this is a personal view, and I'd definitely order them again.
The Carrot dessert was a small square of rich carrot cake topped with fried carrot strips (or maybe candied), a carrot mousse with whipped cream was next to that, and a scoop of cranberry preserve finished it out. Like a mini-sampler, and all nicely done, maybe just too much going on for me.
Likewise the Chestnut plate was, from the top down, chocolate shavings on a chestnut panna cotta on a chocolate tuile, on a chestnut puree, on a chestnut sponge cake sitting in an orange juice/tea liquid. This last part I didn't prefer (I want my cake dry, I guess?), but there was so much going on that I missed the chestnut flavor (a mild thing anyway).
We asked for the wine label, by the way, and they presented it on an embossed North Pond postcard, a really nice touch. In addition to the menu, we had an amuse of, essentially, brandade, and an assortment of the smallest petit fours I've ever seen that came with the check. Oh, and also a set of heirloom beet seeds that came with the credit card slip as well, complete with a N.P. logo, a nod to their focus on sustainability, seasonal food, etc. A nice touch.
This plus one bottle of wine, plus tip, was $170. I would definitely return.
2610 N. Cannon Drive
Chicago IL 60614