Zest Bistro’s chef, Tim Canning, need not look far for the fresh market ingredients he incorporates in his fare.
In fact, much of what he requires — fresh-caught seafood, top-quality meats, organic produce — can be found just steps away from his kitchen. And that’s because his kitchen is right inside the Lemon Tree Grocer, an upscale market in west suburban Downers Grove.
“The grocery store and restaurant work off each other and play hand in hand,” says Shaun Black, who co-owns the bistro and grocery store with Canning.
So guests can actually saunter into the store and pick, say, a gorgeous Niman Ranch ribeye or a nice piece of sustainably caught Florida grouper, and off to the kitchen it goes. And new products often find their way from the market onto the menu.
The restaurant serves “simple American classic, bistro-style [food], while using the best ingredients possible,” Black says of Zest’s familiar, made-from-scratch dishes.
In addition to its elevated American plates — honey-mustard grilled salmon, rotisserie chicken, Niman Ranch burgers — Zest also offers a fairly extensive sushi menu. “We noticed from early on that [sushi] really fit with everything we are trying to do. Everything is fresh and made in-house,” Black says.
Sushi, sashimi and rolls — prepared by Lemon Tree’s sushi chefs — sell briskly in both the market and bistro, he says.
And sashimi was one of several dishes The Eating Machine ordered during his recent farewell tour. (The Eating Machine is now taking his meals in a college dining hall. And, yes, he’s on an unlimited eating plan.)
Along with a bowl of steaming miso ($3.50), The Eating Machine selected the Lemon Tree special ($16) — sea scallops and fresh kiwi paired with ponzu jelly and yuzu vinegar. “The kiwi really adds to it,” was The Eating Machine’s in-depth analysis.
The Eating Machine is not good at sharing. But in a last gesture of goodwill, he equitably split two appetizers with his younger sister (The Girl) and me.
We divvied up an enormous pile of fried calamari ($9) that was jazzed up by a chunky, basil-flecked marinara dipping sauce. The sauce had great heat and would, we decided, make a great toss with pasta.
Ricotta-filled zucchini blossoms ($14) were tender and flavorful, but we found their breading to be a bit gritty.
The Girl settled into a lovely Asian ahi tuna salad ($14) with soy-sesame vinaigrette. The star of the bowl was, of course, the seared sesame-encrusted tuna slices that graced the top. But other goodies — field greens, segmented fresh oranges, avocado, crispy wontons and more — kept her going straight on down to the bottom.
Admittedly, I sometimes get enamored of an entrée’s sides. And that was the case with the rotisserie chicken ($14), whose plate companions caught my eye. The generously portioned half bird was served atop a pile of Yukon Gold potato purée and snapping-crisp spicy broccolini. No disrespect to that chicken, but Canning could have subbed practically any protein and I would have still been hyperfocused on the sides — the broccolini in particular.
And speaking of sides, I certainly didn’t argue when The Eating Machine and The Girl suggested we order up a few extra ones. Truffled mac and cheese ($7) was a straightforward rendition of comforting cheesy shells, here gussied up with a pleasant wave of truffle oil. Plump sautéed Brussels sprouts ($6) had a luscious smokiness that came from the addition of crisp bacon bits.
Desserts are limited — there are only two on the menu. But diners are also encouraged to take a trip into the store and select something from the pastry case if molten chocolate cake ($7) or vanilla bean crème brûlée ($6) doesn’t do it for them. A bit too full to move, we ordered from the menu. (For the record, the house graciously treated us to dessert.)
Classic crème brûlée was spot-on with its vanilla bean-speckled creamy custard and crisp and crusty sugar top, and the molten chocolate cake was accompanied by satiny, salted caramel gelato. Yes, salted caramel has become a bit clichéd. But Canning’s version was one of the best I’ve tasted — rich, a touch smoky and with just the perfect dash of saltiness.
Sometimes, staying put has its rewards.
Zest Bistro at Lemon Tree Grocer
935 West Burlington Avenue
Downers Grove, Illinois 60515