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  • Inovasi - Casual contemporary American

    Post #1 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:05 pm
    Post #1 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:05 pm Post #1 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:05 pm
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    I would like to nominate Lake Bluff's Inovasi for a 2012 GNR. Coming up on its third anniversary, I believe Inovasi belongs in the company of the other great restaurants on the LTHForum GNR list.

    Inovasi has become my regular "go-to" restaurant, and I am there at least once every three weeks. For a while, my daughter and I were making Monday nights daddy-daughter night in the Inovasi bar; her with her go-to handmade pasta on the kids menu, me trying out whatever new whim was coming out of Chef DesRosiers' kitchen.

    What I like about Inovasi the most is the contrast. The restaurant itself is a model of consistency. The staff has hardly turned over since the restaurant opened -- management, servers, even busboys are all the same smiling faces. The service is consistently good - menu explanations, water on the table right away, new cutlery between courses, never much waiting around. The bar and wine list are surprisingly consistent -- you won't find mass-market products, there's no bottle of Absolut Vodka behind the counter. Somehow they seem to find the interesting, small batch, local, craft, or just well-made products. Chef continues to try to convince me that there will be a California wine I like, some days he is right.

    Yet the menu is almost never the same twice. One week when I ate there twice, there were two dishes that changed in the course of that week. Not in major ways -- a new sauce, a different grain -- but enough to keep things interesting. Some diners are confounded by this variability -- the "fish swimming yesterday" pisses off a lot of people because the waitstaff can't/won't tell you what it is in advance -- but I love the surprise of learning to eat new foods, new preparations, or sharing that experience with others.

    The tasting menu at $50-ish a person is the best bargain in fine dining anywhere. You get four or five courses worth, about half (or more depending on the number of people at the table) of the items on the current menu are guaranteed to show up. It is a great way to experience the depth of the ktichen for sure.

    Not every dish I've eaten at Inovasi was wonderful. I think part of the jedi mind trick that Chef John plays on me is that I won't ding him personally for those failures. The creativity is worth experimenting. Maybe those popcorn shoots back in July were one of the weirdest things I've ever eaten, but I tried them, when they were seasonal, and they rotated off the menu (as everything does there eventually). Stinging nettles? I had to go look those up, but they were delicious. Cheese curd tacos - who would have thought to create such a thing? I still talk about the wonderful contrasting tastes and temperatures in that dish, along with the char-grilled tortillas and chile sauce. And when I mentioned that dish to a visiting friend several months later, and the waitress (Elkin) overheard us, suddenly the tacos were on our table 15 minutes later. Months after they had dropped off the menu.

    What I really think makes Inovasi GNR-worthy is that they do actually make dining in the restaurant a personal experience. One of the first times we ate there as a family, two dishes came to the table we had not ordered. I actually sent the runners away because I was sure they weren't ours. Elkin came by a few minutes later and explained that John had sent them out as an experiment. One was a seared foie gras over polenta with snails and a cherry-based sauce. Ooh, that was trouble as neither my wife nor I really liked foie gras. But we knew we needed to eat it since the chef had sent it out, off menu at that.... and we loved it. My wife is now known as "the Frisco", since that is the drink on their cocktail menu that she usually orders. My daughter knows Chef by name and he teases her about her limited palate. But this personalized service is not just for regulars, we have heard great stories from first-time visitors as well.

    There are other restaurants doing modern American food really well. There are other restaurants sourcing from small producers. There are other restaurants with charismatic chefs. But in the Northern Suburbs, there are few other restaurants in the same class and with the same consistently high standards. For all these reasons, I nominate Inovasi.

    Forum thread:
    http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f= ... it=inovasi

    Ronnie Suburban's Favorites of 2011 said
    "John Des Rosiers' casual-fine dining enclave in Lake Bluff is so off the radar, I fear that a lot of LTHers are missing something truly special by not checking it out. The 3 meals I had there in 2011 were delicious and memorable."
    http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f= ... si#p400371

    Inovasi
    28 Center Avenue
    Lake Bluff, IL 60044
    847-295-1000
    http://www.inovasi.us
    Open Monday to Saturday evenings
    Last edited by edb60035 on March 7th, 2012, 3:56 pm, edited 2 times in total.
  • Post #2 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:45 pm
    Post #2 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:45 pm Post #2 - March 2nd, 2012, 3:45 pm
    After seeing the LTHForum tweet about this nomination I felt like i should comment on the current fight between Chef John and the Yelp crowd. (see http://chicago.grubstreet.com/2012/02/j ... n_lak.html for background)

    I don't know if it is exactly admirable to attack your critics, but in my day job, I am used to calling a spade a spade online. I read some of the Yelp reviews of Inovasi and wonder if it is the same restaurant. It certainly doesn't map to my experience, and the reviews on OpenTable are all pretty different in tone as well. As I said above, I've had dishes that didn't work and the occasional lapse in service. But over the long run? I stick with what I wrote above (and what others have said in the main thread on the restaurant).
  • Post #3 - March 3rd, 2012, 12:22 am
    Post #3 - March 3rd, 2012, 12:22 am Post #3 - March 3rd, 2012, 12:22 am
    I base this on only one visit, and the Chef apparently wasn't in the house that night. And any restaurant can have a bad night.

    Consider this a single data point.

    That said, we had the tasting menu, and the quality of the dishes was amazingly uneven. Desserts were excellent, a beef dish was flavorful. Then there was a dish of excellent quality black sea bass (it was great tasting, taking a little piece on its own) but most of that wonderful, delicate fish flavor was totally overwhelmed by a glopped-on, aggressive cumin-saffron sauce. Several other dishes suffered from the same fate ... great ingredients masked, not complimented, by lots of strongly-flavored sauces piled on.

    Our server promised us there would be a few courses in the tasting menu that were created a la minute, that weren't on the menu. Every course we received was listed on the menu (thus, we ended up sampling almost every savory item on the menu).

    I can't deny that the tasting menu is a good value, considering the number of courses, but the wildly uneven quality of the food - some of which could have been easily mitigated with a lighter touch on amount of saucing - tells me that at this point I can't support it as a GNR. Even if the chef wasn't in the house that night, that's not an excuse for serving sub-standard product.

    Maybe, to be fair, I should go back, but with so many other great dining options out there, I doubt I'll return any time soon.
  • Post #4 - March 4th, 2012, 9:29 pm
    Post #4 - March 4th, 2012, 9:29 pm Post #4 - March 4th, 2012, 9:29 pm
    As I write this I am more than aware this will sound defensive, and for that I apologize. But I will not let comments I feel as factually untrue slide, and honestly this site encourages chefs to contribute. So here it is:

    First I would like to say that anyone giving advice on a nomination should have visited the restaurant more than once. This may not be a requirement but it should be something any honest person judging a place for an award. I also feel it is fair to write a review when it is fresh in your mind and not weeks or months after visiting the restaurant. I know it has been at least 3 weeks since you were in as we change our menu constantly and that dish has been off for a while.

    Second, it would be helpful that comments about a place be accurate. The dish was not bass but rather juvenile black drum, a fish used in creole cuisine. The sauce was not heavy in any way and was not a sauce (it was a broth based leek stew), and does not have any cumin whatsoever. It is a saffron broth made with the bones of the drum, leeks, white wine, and saffron. None of which can ever constitute "gloppy".

    Of the 30 dishes on our menu only 12 have a sauce of any type, we are not in the style of over saucing anything. We do have several stews on the menu of different densities, but they are listed as stew on the menu and as such cannot be "over sauced".

    I know not every person will like our restaurant and what we serve, but saying we serve a sub standard product is just not accurate, and it never has been accurate.

    See the threads from some of your best members here: especially the most recent comments and posts.

    http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=25226&p=407821&hilit=inovasi#p407821

    Thank you for allowing me to post as an owner LTH.

    john des Rosiers
  • Post #5 - March 4th, 2012, 11:12 pm
    Post #5 - March 4th, 2012, 11:12 pm Post #5 - March 4th, 2012, 11:12 pm
    John... thanks for posting and for doing so in such a polite and constructive manner. I agree with almost everything you've said here, and appreciate that you've stopped by to correct the record, so to speak, but there is one thing you mentioned that I feel compelled to address, not in an official capacity (that's Dickson's job :-) ) but as somebody who's been a member of this community for quite a while now.

    JohndesRosiers wrote:First I would like to say that anyone giving advice on a nomination should have visited the restaurant more than once. This may not be a requirement but it should be something any honest person judging a place for an award.

    I understand your concern here, but one of the strengths of a place like this is that it's understood that any one person's experience is just that -- one person's experience. Just as with your customers who don't choose to post about it online, undoubtedly some LTHers will leave disappointed after one visit. But I would strongly encourage people not to let that stop them from posting about their experience, so long as it's clear that their opinion is based on one night. What I object to most is the implication that writing after one visit is somehow dishonest. This is completely unfair, particularly in this instance where the poster bent over backwards to emphasize the nature of the experience on which the post was written. What would be dishonest would be to state or imply that one had more experience with the restaurant than one actually did, which is most certainly not the case here.

    Furthermore, everybody who posts here understands that every restaurant, no matter how wonderful, will not please everybody all of the time. It could be that somebody who went once and had a bad experience (for whatever reason, justified or not) would feel very differently if they went again (the same could be said of somebody who went once and loved it!), but that does not change the fact that that bad experience happened, and the fact that it happened on a single visit does not change its validity. If Inovasi is a fabulous place, one negative post will be flanked by plenty of positive ones that put it in context. The goal of online food chat should be, I think, to encourage more context, not less of it.

    I realize this is a fundamental difference of opinion we have (and have discussed before, if you don't recall), but it's also a fundamental part of how this site works. The GNRs are based on opinions that sometimes come from people who only went there once. There's nothing dishonest about that. Quite the contrary, I think we're completely open about how this whole thing works. And anybody who feels that our process is a fundamentally flawed one is free to disregard its results.

    Thanks again for engaging... again, an integral part of what this site is all about :-)
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #6 - March 5th, 2012, 7:55 am
    Post #6 - March 5th, 2012, 7:55 am Post #6 - March 5th, 2012, 7:55 am
    I would like to present an offer to everyone who uses LTH. Come to inovasi and let me know you are a member of the site. I dont need to know specifics or your names, etc.

    Tell me your alllergies and I will cook for you personally. At the normal $48 dollar menu price for our tasting menu. We will do 8 courses minimum, and each one will be off menu unless we have something very unique on the menu in which I want you to see (such as the quesa de torta cheese).

    All I ask is that you will come back to this thread about our nimination and write about it.

    There is no better restaurant for the money anywhere in the suburbs from every aspect and I am going to prove it.

    Thank you all, and I hope you will accept.

    John des Rosiers
  • Post #7 - March 5th, 2012, 8:40 am
    Post #7 - March 5th, 2012, 8:40 am Post #7 - March 5th, 2012, 8:40 am
    JohndesRosiers wrote:I would like to present an offer to everyone who uses LTH. Come to inovasi and let me know you are a member of the site. I dont need to know specifics or your names, etc.

    Tell me your alllergies and I will cook for you personally. At the normal $48 dollar menu price for our tasting menu. We will do 8 courses minimum, and each one will be off menu unless we have something very unique on the menu in which I want you to see (such as the quesa de torta cheese).

    All I ask is that you will come back to this thread about our nimination and write about it.

    There is no better restaurant for the money anywhere in the suburbs from every aspect and I am going to prove it.

    Thank you all, and I hope you will accept.

    John des Rosiers


    As generous as this offer sounds, and as much as I love the extent in which LTH engages restaurant owners and chefs; in context to an award nomination I find this offer inappropriate. The GNR awards serve as a resource to many people, LTH posters but also a multitude of lurkers and readers. If this type of behavior is allowed to happen it would degrade the credibility of the GNR awards process.

    As much as I appreciate your candor, the fact that you do not see this as inappropriate rubs me the wrong way. I would hope that an award is given based on the experience one may expect to receive walking in off the street, and I would hope that you would wish to win the award in the same manner, not based on a meal specifically catered to the people giving out the awards.
    Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

    -Mark Twain
  • Post #8 - March 5th, 2012, 9:46 am
    Post #8 - March 5th, 2012, 9:46 am Post #8 - March 5th, 2012, 9:46 am
    Dear LTH,

    My apologies. I didn't think about how my offer to come up and try Inovasi would look in the middle of the awards process. I am naturally enthusiastic about what we do and have often made similar offers to encourage people to make the trek to Inovasi (very convenient by Metra by the way) and give us a shot.

    I withdraw the offer for the awards season, though we will certainly be happy to host you during this time as we would any time. After the GNRs are announced, I extend the offer again and would simply appreciate your comments, good or bad, here afterwards.

    Of course, as a host who wants everyone to have a good experience, if you have an issue with the meal first and foremost I'd like you to tell me or my general manager, so that we can do something to rectify it during your meal, not later on the internet.

    I appreciate LTH's candor and interest in food, and hope to be able to serve you soon.

    John des Rosiers
  • Post #9 - March 7th, 2012, 4:39 am
    Post #9 - March 7th, 2012, 4:39 am Post #9 - March 7th, 2012, 4:39 am
    Chef,

    Please accept my apology for the errors of detail in my previous post. You’re right, that it was several months since my visit. At first I wasn’t going to post anything about it, but once your restaurant was nominated for a GNR, I thought it might be appropriate to share my experience.

    I tried to be clear that it was based on a single visit, and any restaurant can have an off night. I assume the people who vote on the sense of the LTH board with regard to which restaurants receive GNRs will note it was one visit, and will weigh my opinion appropriately compared to others who’ve made multiple visits. I’m certainly not the first person to add a comment about a restaurant based on one visit, and I’m not aware of anyone on LTH who discourages reporting what happened on a single visit to a restaurant. We’ve even had posts on experiences at a restaurant on its opening day. This is not reviewing a restaurant as much as it is sharing an experience with a community of friends.

    I really wanted to like your place. It was a decade birthday celebration (which we mentioned in passing to our server, but either we weren’t heard, or the staff didn’t care). But for the occasion, we chose Inovasi over any other place in Chicagoland. We were really looking forward to your food, and the experience of Inovasi.

    Again, any place can have an off night. I have spoken to a number of people, whose opinions I greatly respect, who speak glowingly of Inovasi.

    However, it doesn’t change the fact that we were promised off-menu creations when we ordered the tasting menu, and every course we received was well described on the menu. And it doesn’t change our impression that, while several courses were excellent, others were marred by a very heavy hand with accompaniments that overpowered the flavors of the underlying proteins. Would you have preferred that we send back items that we thought were heavy handed with aggressively flavored stuff? They weren’t terrible, they were certainly edible, they just seemed wildly unbalanced and didn’t work for us.

    Also, should we have asked for an off-menu creation at the end of the meal, when we realized we didn't get any off-menu items, and we were full?

    It was a Tuesday night, I don’t believe you were in the house, and I think your B team came up a little short.

    I also apologize for calling some of the food we got as “sub-standard,” since that implies that I know what your standards are. I don’t.

    In sum, it was an okay meal, but courses varied quite a bit. I may be an outlier, but I can’t support Inovasi as a GNR, based on my experience.
  • Post #10 - March 7th, 2012, 2:16 pm
    Post #10 - March 7th, 2012, 2:16 pm Post #10 - March 7th, 2012, 2:16 pm
    I heartily support this nomination. Having been to Inovasi 5 times over the past couple of months, I've become a huge fan. It's a distinctive, comfortable destination where food, beverage and service all shine in the great dining experiences that are provided.

    A vast majority of what I've eaten at Inovasi has been excellent. More importantly, though, several of the most successful, memorable dishes I've had in the past 4 1/2 months have come out of Chef des Rosiers' kitchen. Some of those dishes have been menu items and others have been 'on the fly' creations. In mid-February I had a meal at Inovasi when chef des Roisers wasn't in the house. Everything we ate that night was from the menu and several of the dishes at that meal -- Snails & Smoked Chicken, Queso de Torta, Grilled Octopus and Shrimp with Quinoa Truffle Balls, Mushroom Pierogi, to name just a few -- were exceptional. Our meal was very enjoyable from beginning to end. My most recent meal there, an 'on the fly' extravaganza, was every bit as wonderful.

    That's not to say there isn't some occasional unevenness at Inovasi, which is largely a matter of personal taste, anyway. Such is the entirely-expected result of a skilled chef who takes risks and makes bold, unorthodox choices (I've had some dishes I thought were unsuccesful at Alinea, too). Still, developing relationships with -- and sourcing ingredients from -- quality providers establishes a baseline at Inovasi that keeps the food at a consistently high overall level. Farm to Table has almost become a cliche over the past couple of years but Inovasi converts this simple and often mishandled philosophy into something that's meaningful and more than the sum of its parts. The roster of farms and suppliers with whom chef des Rosiers has cultivated relationships helps set Inovasi and its innovative menu apart.

    The beverage program is another great aspect of Inovasi. Their well-curated selection of wines, beers and spirits is largely populated with items from small producers that you don't see at very many places. The cocktail menu is interesting and varied; offerings are distinctive and nicely balanced.

    Service at Inovasi is also exceptional. We've had a few different servers and they've all been friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Jimmy and Elkin both stand out as top-tier professionals who could run any rooms (Jimmy did run Ambria for many years and Elkin will be managing the soon-to-open Moderno). At the bar, Abby is also a consumate professional. Dave Ligon greets guests in his friendly, seemingly effortless manner and makes everyone who steps into Inovasi feel welcome.

    So, while I don't think Inovasi is perfect -- what restaurant is? -- I do think it's great. IMO, it's definitely a great neighborhood restaurant . . . as long as you count Lake Bluff as a neighborhood. :wink:

    =R=
    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain

    Another beer before happy hour to put me in the mood for drinkin', uh huh huh, oh, forget thinkin' --Beaver Nelson

    I find it a matter of note that in New York or Terre Haute, school cookies always seem to be oatmeal --Mr. French
  • Post #11 - March 11th, 2012, 4:33 pm
    Post #11 - March 11th, 2012, 4:33 pm Post #11 - March 11th, 2012, 4:33 pm
    I too fully support the nomination of Inovasi for a GNR award. I won't recite the great dishes that I've had there over the past couple of years, which you'll find on the main thread. But here are my reasons for voting for the nomination:

    1. "Great" - The menu is supurb, innovative, and constantly changing. It can also seem edgy to some folks, which is an added attraction. I've had the rare slip-up with a dish, which the chef and I discussed at the moment and worked through what the dish was supposed to be. John's a perfectionist, and will always work it out.

    2. "Neighborhood" - this is an accessible place and many locals still flock there, mixed in with us travelling folk.

    3. "Value" - the tasting menu is a steal, period.

    Bottom line, I'm in for the GNR.
    John Danza
  • Post #12 - March 12th, 2012, 2:16 pm
    Post #12 - March 12th, 2012, 2:16 pm Post #12 - March 12th, 2012, 2:16 pm
    I strongly support this nomination. Inovasi is turning out food that is as creative and tasty as anywhere I have been, and the tasting menu is superior to ones that are twice the price. For me, it is also a truly neighborhood place. Not only is it my go to special occasion restaurant, it is also a place where I can get a beer and a burger (and listen to music) on a Wednesday night. I have been a fan of John's for many years, and I think that he is really hitting his stride right now. Inovasi did have its growing pains, and seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis for a while, going back and forth between aiming for the local business and trying to attract people from further away. Now, the renewed effort to turn out good and innovative (but not shockingly so) food seems to be attracting both.

    The tasting menu can be a bit confusing, as over time it has been described as both a survey of the menu, and the daily whim of the chef, so you are never really sure what to expect. The last time I had it, I am pretty sure everything was from the menu, while the time before there were a couple of things that were not. My only real complaint about the food is that it can be over-seasoned at times, or more specifically, the sauces/broths/stew bases can be over-seasoned, which can make the dish taste heavier than it is. I find this somewhat ironic since my one complaint about John's food at Bank Lane Bistro was that it needed salt.

    As Ronnie mentioned, the wine and beer selection at Inovasi is outstanding. There are a dozen distinctive beers on tap, and the wine list is very diverse, with many bottles that even a dedicated wino will not have heard of. The pricing is very reasonable. There are also interesting wines by the glass, and getting the wine pairings with the tasting menu is a good option. I am not a booze guy, but I like that I have never heard of most of the bottles behind the bar!

    Overall, I think that Inovasi is really firing on all cylinders, and is very deserving of a GNR, not only as part of my neighborhood, but as destination for others further away.


    -Will

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