As winter sets in, the images on the walls of The Gallery offer a glimpse into yet another artist’s bounty, this time the hauntingly straightforward stills and landscapes captured by Chicago photographer Casey Sills. At a table in the center of the room, between sips of wine and deliberately composed courses, friends offer musings on this or that piece, noting their favorites as the evening ripens. Things are going exactly as planned at The Gallery, where Lake Forest’s most intriguing restaurant serves up art and dinner with equal aplomb.
Partner Cecilia Lanyon first moved into the space with an idea called Re-invent—a showcase and gathering spot for local artists. Meanwhile, chef Dominic Zumpano was busy gathering multistarred reviews (Umami Moto, Charro’s, Graffito) and a James Beard Award nomination in Milwaukee before returning to his roots in Illinois with stints at Market House on the Square, PM Prime and other lauded restaurants. The chef met the art doyenne when she asked him to cater an opening—birthing a new business partnership and, more recently, a marriage proposal.
“One of the challenges to both fine dining and art is the intimidation factor. As a gallery owner, I noticed many people had a preconceived notion of art as unapproachable or stuffy. Pair that with contemporary food and it can sound unwelcoming to some,” Lanyon says. “Dominic and I created The Gallery to dispel that notion and offer the exact opposite, a place where everyone feels comfortable and happy.” Mission accomplished. You feel like a guest at a collector’s cozy outpost the moment you walk through the door.
Zumpano shines in this space, free to experiment and deliver food that complements the art (and sometimes steals the show), using a loose interpretation of an artist’s work as a guide. “Though I spend a few hours talking with the artist about their process and technique, it’s not so much that a specific dish goes with this piece of art,” he says. “A menu selection could be reminiscent of a town we both once passed through.”
For the current Sills exhibit, A Way of Seeing, newly imagined menu items reflect the artist’s rural compositions, beginning with an exquisite squash toast featuring pureed butternut atop pepper-flecked cornbread, strewn with julienned compressed apple that is perfectly flavored by star anise and cardamom, and drizzled in pumpkin seed oil. An earthy venison tostada and a surprisingly spicy tuna tartare, which is tossed in a bit of sesame and chili oils and served with a bowl of kimchi-flavored chips—a delightful riff on chicharrones—round out the openers. Note to regulars: Don’t worry, a few well-loved items, like the black-garlic deviled eggs, remain menu staples.
For a winter tamer, tender short rib is braised in a veal stock reduction and served over a parsnip puree scattered with smoked mushrooms and crunchy parsnip shavings. The seared Hawaiian Ono dusted with togarashi is a knockout, resting on a pad of toasted sticky rice surrounded by fried Brussels sprout leaves. Another hearty entree, lamb osso bucco, is served with creamy polenta, roasted garlic and eggplant marmalade. Enticing finales include a sweet potato cheesecake over bourbon maple foam or a collage of neatly molded ice cream, poached apple, sugar cookie and cinnamon custard.
You’ll leave feeling that the imaginative artists creating what is on the plate and within the frame hosted an evening as welcoming as it was entertaining.
202 E. Wisconsin Ave., Lake Forest
Starters, $8-$14; entrees, $17-$24;
desserts, $10; beer and wine menu or BYOB
($5 corkage per bottle)