In the mid 1800s, Lake County was the new wilderness. Pioneers advancing west from Chicago crossed the Des Plaines River and navigated the meadows searching for a superior life. Today adventurers cut from an alternate material will discover another motivation to go to the northwest rural areas. That reason is Countyline Tavern in Buffalo Grove.
With a menu that is as striking and persevering as early prairie pilgrims, the new gastropub on Lake-Cook Road (otherwise known as Countyline Road) guides explorers of the gastronomic assortment. The space is naturally comfortable with a wooden bar that seats two dozen and stays the fundamental room. The 280-seat eating region is cut into littler rooms; not private by any methods, but rather it makes the building (which used to house Winberie’s) appear to be less huge. Space is accessible for private gatherings, and I can’t resist the urge to think Countyline Tavern will be a mainstream spot for occasion social affairs.
Its early popularity was quite evident on a recent Saturday night when the wait time topped an hour. Despite showing up without a reservation, my friend and I were seated immediately when told a high-top table in the bar area was available.
We started our exploration of Countyline with the beverage menu. Want scotch on the rocks? Two dozen options tempt. The selection is even more dizzying for beer lovers. From the cocktail menu, I picked a pleasantly fruity gin concoction called the Sweet Tart, and my friend went for the Pumpkin Spice Margarita (’tis the season after all and we kind of wanted to see how bad it would be). Actually, it was quite good. No pumpkin puree in this glass, just notes of the familiar pie spices that played well with the tonsil-warming tequila. We’re still trying to decide if it would have been better with a salty/spiced rim.
The charcuterie board, an array of thinly sliced cured meats (the waitress said they weren’t made in-house; the website indicates otherwise), sounded appealing, but we opted for the popper-sized shrimp and spinach fritters with the perky sriracha aioli from the small plates menu. Yes, Countyline is the latest spot serving small plates, and that’s not a bad thing. Dining out tends to be communal, and shareable plates further enhances that experience. Other shareables include duck leg confit with stewed lentils, smoked chicken wings with honey-chipotle glaze and tacos of the day.
You could make a meal from the shareables by adding a soup (the French onion came dripping with melty Emmentaler and Gruyere, yet was a tad on the salty side) or a salad (the apple cider-spiked vinaigrette on the heirloom beet salad alone is worth another visit). Or, go the more traditional route and select something from the pasta, large plates or sandwiches categories.
Short rib and wild mushroom stroganoff has apres-ski written all over it, but since snow hadn’t fallen yet on our visit, we opted for the Cajun macaroni and cheese. Twisty cavatappi pasta does its best to hold onto the silky sauce. This is a well-crafted sauce, not just another bowl of goopy cheese. Andouille sausage is the required element in a Cajun mac, but Countyline doesn’t stop there, adding chicken and chunks of smoky bacon.
Burgers of the beef, turkey, veal and vegetarian variety command menu space, but it was the pork belly BLT that landed in front of me. Thick slices of braised pork belly held court on a pretzel bun with jalapeño pickled red onions and sriracha mayo that I feared would be too spicy. But it had the right amount of kick to counter the unctuous meat.
Those wanting something more substantial can try the chicken Marsala, chargrilled top sirloin, bangers and mash, or shrimp and grits, chef Eddie Jobin’s nod to North Carolina where he attended Johnson and Wales. Prior to joining “the Countyline,” Jobin put in time as sous chef at Parker’s Restaurant and Bar in Downers Grove, another locale in the Select Restaurant Inc. group.
If you’re looking to add more veggies to the meal, sautéed spinach, roasted brussels sprouts and spicy green beans are among the side dish selections.
The comfort food vibe carries through to the dessert menu in items like Tollhouse pie, chocolate flan cake and the croissant bread pudding studded with dried apricots and awash in a rich crème anglaise. I’d say the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the bread pudding was redundant, but then Homer’s Ice Cream is never redundant. The bourbon-spiked Italian-style pudding called budino is another winner. Dig deep, through the fresh whipped cream and luscious custard to get down to the gingersnap crust. The trio of textures in one mouthful is extremely satisfying. If you just want a smidgen of dessert, you’re in luck as Countyline offers a rotating selection of smaller portioned treats.
From the friendly faces at the hostess stand to our bustling busboy and our pleasant and helpful waitress, the service was well-paced and spot-on.
If this place had been around in the 1840, I don’t think Iowa would have been settled.