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Prairie Fire Blazes into Downtown

By AMELIA LEVIN
   There’s a first impression Prairie Fire sends when you walk through the doors in the historic former railroad station building. It doesn’t have to do with the food or décor, but rather the bar. This makes sense because—“Prairie Fire” can refer to a shot of equal parts hot sauce and alcohol, that’s set aflame and downed by only the very brave.
   Co-owners and chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris named Prairie Fire after their first restaurant, Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, and have joined in the artisan cocktail culture that’s made a comeback in the city. Mixologist Daniel Sviland’s classic and inventive creations use local, small-batch spirits, and guest-bartenders shaking things up, literally, on Tuesday nights.
   If cocktails aren’t your thing, a robust wine list and handful of craft beers stand up to the hearty, comfort-food dishes that shape the menu here, with favorites from the original location and a slew of some fun newbies. Local, seasonal foods again serve as stars here. Stegner and Bumbaris have brought their prowess back to the city limits since leaving the Ritz Carlton Dining Room to start up their first casual dining outlet in 2004. Stegner, an active Green City Market board member and part of the founding team, showcases the best of Midwestern fruits, vegetables, meats and more, starting even with the bread and butter.
   This winter, one menu standout took shape as a slow-braised brisket made with grass-fed beef from the expansive 60-acre farm in Kansas owned by TV journalist Bill Kurtis. Surprisingly tender slices of the Tallgrass beef rested atop a silky smooth and buttery puree of Yukon gold potatoes, speckled with a carrot-celery mirepoix.  And the top-rated sirloin burger, a bunless delicacy slathered with tangy blue cheese and sweet, caramelized onions, draws just as much popularity here, although it meets its match with the homemade Mint Creek Farms lamb sausage. Another favorite, the boneless half-chicken with its crunchy crust and juices flowing pairs up with a couple of other treats: super-flakey Lake Superior whitefish basted with butter and a crunchy duck leg and confit duo.
   Desserts are as good as expected—from a strong and dark, double chocolate cake that melts from the inside at the pierce of a fork to crusty pies stuffed with seasonal fruits, made by Stegner’s mother.
   From the looks of the smaller-sized eatery, little has changed since the former Powerhouse moved in and then out within six months. It’s clear some work needs to be done, perhaps a few updates for the back dining room where the lights are sometimes off. And, while carpeting can scream hotel restaurant, here it brings the noise level down to a more comfortable, intimate experience you don’t find as often elsewhere in the city. This is good because here it’s hard to keep from talking loudly—and happily—about your meal.
215 N. Clinton St., Chicago, 312-382-8300.

Quick Bite: Happ Inn’s Sunrise Burger
   Burgers are everywhere these days, from the thinly pounded, greasy spoon delights to the thick and hearty, topped with every condiment imaginable, to the gourmet versions using Kobe beef and even fois gras. Northfield newbie Happ Inn (by Carlos and Debbie Nieto) has joined in the trend, with a certainly unique take. The Sunrise Burger gets its name from the sunny-side egg sitting on top, ready to melt over your meat like a decadent hollandaise when cut in half. Beneath that, a layer of sharp cheddar cheese drapes over smoky bacon, and a dab of Tabasco adds a little heat. Here’s a new one—not only do fries come on the side, but they also hide underneath the burger, giving each bite a little secret crunch.
305 Happ Rd., Northfield, 847-784-9200.

Open-Faced Radish “Sandwiches”
   A champion of local foods with her own produce and herb garden at Prairie Grass Cafe, it’s no surprise that Stegner, like many chefs in Chicago, can’t wait for spring vegetables, the first out of the earth after a long, snowy winter. Here, she offers her take on a very simple, but delicious, radish and sweet butter appetizer, perfect for entertaining.

1 bunch spring radishes, rinsed*
1 French baguette, cut into horizontal slices (about 18 slices)
1/4 cup whipped, unsalted sweet butter (fresh from the farmer’s market or store bought)**
Fleur de sel (fine French sea salt) or other sea salt

Using a mandolin or sharp knife, slice the radish bulbs very thinly. Spread one teaspoon of the whipped butter on one side of each of the baguette slices. Sprinkle each slice with a pinch of sea salt. Layer 3 to 4 radish slices on top, overlapping, if necessary, to fit. (Can be made 1 hour ahead, covered and left to stand at room temperature.)

*Look for a combination of white, pink and purple radishes from the farmer’s market (if available).

**If store-bought whipped sweet butter is not available, look for standard stick-style, unsalted sweet butter and using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip two sticks until airy, about 2 minutes.

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue