I don’t think there is two-word combination in the English language more beautiful than “cake” and “buffet.” I experienced my first cake buffet at the age of four on a river boat in Mississippi. Those tables of petite pies and cakes were calling my name. After one bite of the first cake, I decided that I didn’t like it and had to try another one. I brought another cake back to my table and took a bite. Again, it was just not up to my standards. I went back and forth to the buffet until I was surrounded by partially-eaten cakes at my seat. I had an impeccable palate from a young age, even though when I ask my mom about this story today, she says that I kept bringing the same type of cake back to my table. And the photo evidence that she dug up proves her point… In my defense, I genuinely thought I was trying a new flavor each time.
Despite my record with cake buffets, I was invited to try one at Prairie Grass Cafe almost 20 years after the Mississippi Cakegate of 1997. Prairie Grass Cafe’s Chef Sarah Stegner came together with friend and fan Cindy Kienzle of Hungry Monkey Baking Company to create a one-night-only cake buffet for their guests. The duo prepared five different types of cakes for guests to enjoy after their meals. Since my party was seated near the cake buffet, it was difficult to not want to skip to dessert. I’m glad I didn’t because I was in for a treat during and after the main meal.
Prairie Grass Cafe is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. The restaurant is tucked away between a highway, a busy road, and office buildings in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook. Despite its inconspicuous location and facade, the restaurant was packed during an early dinner seating on a Tuesday. I was shocked that a place could be so busy on a weeknight. I also noticed that most of its clientele were senior citizens out to dinner with friends and family.
Prairie Grass Cafe’s decor is subtle but intentional. In the main dining area, TVs display photos of prairie flowers rather than sports (this is a win in my book). The windows are frosted in a wave-like pattern that I imagine mimic swaying wheat fields of the prairie. Stone and wood architectural details add to the organic design concept.
For my appetizer I ordered the Tempura Day Lilies. You understood that correctly. I consumed battered flowers — the orange lilies you find growing all over Chicago in the summer. I was a little freaked out at the prospect of this, probably because I have day lilies growing next to my alley, but the dish was unique and delicious. The flowers themselves don’t really have a flavor, which is where the soy sauce came in handy. Instead, the lilies have a soft and stringy texture that reminded me of okra. The tempura batter carried the flavor. The lilies were fresh out of the fryer, so the tempura was hot and crispy.
In addition to my appetizer, I tried a little bit of what everything had at my table. Prairie Grass Cafe’s Tomato Leek Soup is for purists. The soup was very rich and tasted like a gourmet tomato sauce. I couldn’t taste the leeks and would have liked a little more variety in the soup had I been the one to order it.
Next I tried the Fresh Black Mission Fig and Pancetta Flatbread, which was beautiful but a little light on flavor for me. The pistachios, however, added an interesting flavor to the mix.
If you love beets, the Local Baby Beet Salad ($10) is for you. The dish was topped with goat cheese, mandarins, hazelnuts, and arugula.
I had to order the Moussaka ($22) for my main course because this is a dish that my people (the Serbs) have adopted from the Turks while they were under Ottoman rule, so I grew up with it. Serbian moussaka is typically made with ground beef and potatoes, while the traditional version also consists of eggplant. Prairie Grass Cafe added a twist to the traditional recipe by using pulled lamb instead of ground beef. I am sad to admit that this moussaka was better than my grandma’s (sorry Bako). The moussaka was served in a personal-sized casserole dish, kind of like a shepherd’s pie but without the crust. The components — potatoes, lamb, and eggplant — were baked under a layer of creamy Bechamel sauce. The perfect bite is when you get all of these components in one fork full. The sauce ties the layers together perfectly. The moussaka is a must-try while you’re at Prairie Grass Cafe.
A close runner up for the best dish was the Homemade Lamb Sausage ($21), which was made from scratch in-house. The lamb sausage is a feast for the senses. First you see the beautifully plated dish, accompanied by potatoes and goat cheese. Then you inhale the savory scent of the sausage and wonder if it could possibly taste as good as it smells. Yes it can! This was my first lamb sausage and it was absolutely delicious. The sausage was savory and well spiced, although I couldn’t quite figure out what the spices were. The sausage is a delicious enigma of flavors that you’ll have to uncover yourself.
I sampled the Grilled Wild Alaskan Salmon ($36) entree which was quite hearty for fish. I thought it was very good even though I’m not a seafood aficionado. The edges were crispy and my party told me that the salmon was firmer than others salmon they had had in the past.
While I didn’t have room to try the Wild Alaskan Halibut Fish and Chips ($28), I was told that the fish was light and fluffy, the cole slaw was fresh and crunchy, and the sauce didn’t overwhelm the flavor.
Dessert: The Cake Buffet
I sadly had to box up most of my beloved moussaka (flash forward: it tastes just as good as a leftover) to make room for the cake buffet. Where to begin? (My life is really hard, I know.)
I decided to start with the Double Chocolate Cake, which was topped with mascarpone buttercream. I don’t usually particularly like chocolate cake as a result of one too many store-bought birthday cakes at friends’ birthdays parties growing up, but this cake stood out. The chocolate cake was very moist and tasted like a brownie without the heaviness. The buttercream was also surprisingly light and had a slight saltiness to it. My favorite part of the cake was the chocolate chunks inside, which added a surprise crunch.
I love hot, sticky, gooey desserts so the Toffee Cake was right up my alley. It would have gone perfectly with a scoop of ice cream.
The Fresh Lemon Cake was topped with a lemon buttercream glaze. The tasty cake was light and had a nice zest to it.
The Carrot Cake was executed perfectly. It was moist and delicious.
Hummingbird Cakes were foreign to me before this night, but now I will forever be a fan. The hummingbird cake is popular in the South and consists of banana, pineapples, and walnut. Because of this, the cake is moist and naturally sweet.
Chefs Sarah and Cindy were manning the cake buffet all night, slicing and serving pieces to hungry customers. It was a delight to be able to enjoy this one-night-only event with them and learning their stories.
Chef Sarah Stegner is a two-time James Beard Award winner who spent most of her career at Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton before opening Prairie Grass Cafe with chef and friend George Bumbaris. The humble chef can be credited for bringing gourmet dining to Chicago’s northern suburbs for a reasonable price.
Chef Cindy Kienzlie of Hungry Monkey Baking Company says that most good things came to her later in life: her husband at age 47, her daughter at 48, and her company at 50. After losing her job six years ago, Cindy took her passion for baking chocolate chip banana bread from a hobby to a career. Fortunately for you, you can order her baked goods online!
I really hope Sarah and Cindy reprise this collaboration soon because the cake buffet was delicious.
The service was pretty solid all night long. At times it took a while for our beverages to be refilled, but this was to be expected on such a busy night.
The Bottom Line
A family-friendly establishment in the suburbs with high-end American classics at a reasonable price.
601 Skokie Blvd.