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Half-roasted rack of lamb with preserved lemon-spiked greek yogurt

The Path Less Traveled

by Michael Wren | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | NS magazine | July 8, 2014

If you want to get the most out of Milwalky Trace, the new small-plates spot in downtown Libertyville, you’re going to have to get your hands a little dirty.

Chef and co-owner Lee Kuebler isn’t interested in formal fine dining nor in the kind of burger and brew fare that has come to dominate Libertyville. He’s interested in tactile foods—homespun American fare that you’ll want to eat with your hands as much as your fork.

Think Gruyere-onion dips with toast. Ruby-colored tuna tartare that has to be scooped up with tortilla chips. And fried arancini that gush gooey ribbons of
mozzarella cheese.

This is a menu built for sopping. Whether it’s a Low Country seafood boil with Old Bay butter broth or a casserole of roasted garlic dressed with balsamic vinegar and sea salt, almost everything Kuebler creates comes with some kind of toast—an invitation for diners to soak up every last drop of his rich broths, gravies and sauces. 

Kuebler, who worked at the classically French Restaurant Michael in Winnetka and the cocktail-centric Ada Street in the city, named the restaurant after the Native American trail that once linked Milwaukee to Chicago. Along with his fiancée and co-owner, Kristine Kurtzman, he’s tried to grace his space with subtle homages to rustic days gone by.

Cocktails are served in mason jars. Entrees often arrive in thick black skillets. And sepia-tone pictures of historic Libertyville line the dining room, which proves to be a cozy composite of pale brick, filament lighting and rough-hewn tables.

On warm nights, the restaurant’s gigantic garage-like front facade can be retracted, ushering in warm summertime breezes along with the sounds of downtown Libertyville. But when the windows are closed, you can smell everything being prepared in the open kitchen, which has been positioned near the center of the room so that the sweet aromas of roasted garlic and grilled apricots envelop the space.

Before deciding to be a chef, Kuebler grew flowers for a living—mostly poinsettias, lilies and mums—in West Central Illinois, an experience that might explain his talent for showcasing intriguing textures, colors and aromas.

I was particularly smitten, for example, with Kuebler’s decision to dapple his grilled apricot and burrata cheese salad with fresh mint leaves. There’s a lot going on in that salad—smoky citrus notes from the apricot, a pudding-like cream from the burrata, salty tangles of prosciutto and crushed red chiles for heat—but it’s the clean, palate-cleansing lilt of the mint that elevates the salad above similar dishes of its ilk.

I confess to using my hands a lot during our meal. The roasted tomato and piquillo pepper sauce that accompanies Kuebler’s chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates is a nice riff on a classic romesco sauce, and I enjoyed the house’s slightly spicy braised pork shoulder: a hulking mound of crispy pork bathed in a spicy chipotle butter, with clams and tufts of cabbage braised in pork fat.

But Kuebler’s most memorable creation is a special—a plank of Skuna Bay salmon draped in a paloise, a minty bearnaise sauce. It’s a homespun taste of Americana with a pinch of French decadence thrown in for good measure. The dish’s textures run the gamut from crunchy to silky, tossing together lardons that are as crisp as croutons, soft greens brimming with lemon and bacon grease and that memorable paloise. It’s a great dish—a symbol of where Kuebler has been and where he’s going.

Right now, Kuebler’s sweets list is slim. Luckily, he offers an irresistible $10 French toast dessert that’s worth every penny. Thick-cut slices of French baguettes are dipped in a vanilla-orange zest egg bath, and then softly fried until they melt like the interior of a chocolate molten cake. It’s soft and supple and, like so much of the fare at Milwalky Trace, proves to be finger-licking good.

603 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Libertyville, 847.530.7172

Tue.-Thu. and Sun.: 5PM-12AM (kitchen closes at 10pm)
Fri.-Sat.: 5PM-2AM (kitchen closes at midnight)

Small plates: $8-$14
Medium plates: $9-$13
Large plates: $23-$35
Desserts: $5-$10
Cocktails: $11

What to Eat
Asparagus, miso butter, poached egg, $8; grilled apricots & burrata cheese, prosciutto, chiles and mint, $12; sustainable fish, seasonal preparation, market price; braised pork shoulder, clams, confit cabbage, chipotle butter, parsley, $24; French toast, pure maple, seasonal fruit, $10.

Table it
The tables inside Milwalky Trace were handmade by Kuebler, who painted each with a white stripe down its center, what he refers to as an “unconscious homage” to his favorite rock band, The White Stripes.

Take a Sip
Milwalky Trace’s stellar cocktail list offers gentle variations on classic cocktails including an Old Fashioned made with Evan Williams single-barrel whiskey and demerara sugar, and a refreshing Moscow Mule mixed with Tito’s vodka, lime, soda and a housemade ginger syrup.