A restaurant in a grocery store, not necessarily a unique idea (Eataly in NYC has nearly a dozen in their store), but I’ve never seen it integrated so thoroughly. Walk through the doors of the Lemon Tree Grocer and the shop wraps around the restaurant, which spills outside and across the front of the store. Located in our village of Downers Grove, it’s a restaurant we’ve visited for lunch here and there, we’ve shopped in the store, my wife Laima has even brought our daughter’s Brownie troop for a field trip. Tim Canning and Shaun Black, the owners, have made it a priority to reach out to the community. Being located in our little downtown at the train station, they have become an integral part of the Downers Grove experience.
Zest Bistro is envisioned as a part of the daily routine of the grocery store. The barista opens early – so grab a cup of coffee and a freshly baked pastry to satisfy your sweet tooth. Fresh fruit is available to carry-out and snack on. The menu offers freshly caught seafood, custom cuts from Niman Ranch, generous burgers, pasta dishes, locally sourced produce, wine and cheese flights, cheese plates, craft beers, and made-to-order sushi. Zest Bistro also features gluten-free and vegetarian options and is family-friendly. The restaurant hosts a variety of monthly events and happenings including wine tastings, live music, daily menu specials and more.
Even though the restaurant area is enveloped in the store, there is also separation, a coziness and a different vibe. Modern design and furniture, along with a curtain wall give it a separate identity while remaining part of the whole.
As an aperitif, we both immediately chose the Bele Casel Prosecco Colfòndo, a welcome start to a meal on a warm summer night. This is sparkling Prosecco sur lie with no dosage, quite dry, with almost foamy small bubbles.
Next up, for me, the Alpha Estate Axia Malagouzia 2010 – a yellow, almost greenish white wine, this was a balanced charmer, with some melon qualities in taste and floral aromas on the nose. Laima ordered, at my request, the Domaine Saint Gregory Pinot Meunier 2010 – an acidic wine, with berry flavors, and a mid-length finish, this went well with all our food choices (Laima even had a second glass!). Both these varietals were new to me, so additions to the Wine Century Club!
Appetizer choices, unfortunately, were limited to three seafood options, which we found puzzling. I chose a side, Spicy Garlic Broccolini, while Laima ordered the Mediterranean Chopped Salad (Romaine Hearts, Cucumber, Grape Tomato, Chickpea, Kalamata Olive, Red Onion, Feta Cheese, chopped rotisserie chicken, pita crisps, Greek dressing). Both were very tasty, and Laima’s salad could have been a dinner entrée easily.
Main courses were a tougher choice for Laima, not so much for me as they only had one vegetarian option. The Berkshire Pork Chop, with Tuscan Kale, Bacon Lardon, Roasted Seasonal Root Vegetable, and Apple Mostarda was ordered for Laima, while I chose the one and only option, the Vegetarian Burger (Lentils, Bulgur Wheat, Vegetables, Mushroom), with Bibb Lettuce, Tomato, Red Onion, on a pretzel bun. It was offered with Pesto Mayo and Pepper jack cheese, but I took it without those. Both entrees were outstanding, my vegetarian burger was one of the best I’ve ever had, by far, and probably the best at a restaurant. Laima’s pork chop was humungous and delicious, with the sides doing their supporting act wonderfully. I also added a side of sweet potato fries with curry aioli – the fries were crisp, well-seasoned, and very good. Though I didn’t taste the aioli, Laima did and thought it went very well with the fries.
For dessert we opted for the molten chocolate cake with housemade salted caramel gelato – truly dynamite. Lighter than many molten cakes we’ve tried before, it was full of flavor and the caramel gelato was the perfect accompaniment.
The wine list is quirky and innovative, offering little known varietals as well as a few safe standbys, which makes it ideal. I got to add two new varietals to my Wine Century Club list, which is pretty amazing. We sat near the grocery’s wine area, which seemed huge for a relatively small store – great variety in there as well. Kudos to Beverage Director Todd Hoffman, who clearly is a beer aficionado as well.
Thinking that a Wednesday night, early, would be relatively quiet at the restaurant was incorrect. The tables around us filled up and stayed filled for the approximately two hours we were there. The bar, with 6 or so bar stools remained full up. Johnny Don’t played guitar and sang, people ate and drank and talked. It really had the feel of a neighborhood joint, reinforced by seeing people we knew.
We had the opportunity to meet with Shaun (one of the owners), who circulated amongst the tables, chatting up the patrons, offering help, even busing tables when needed – very hands-on. We had hoped to meet Tim, the chef, but unhappily for us and happily for him, the restaurant remained busy, so he couldn't come out. Next time.
We were ably served by Cori Jenkins, who turned out to be one of the Zest managers. She seemed to be everywhere at once and was able to answer all our questions regarding the food and wine.
Most of the items on the menu are also offered in the store; one dessert menu option is to stroll over to the pastry case and choose what you like, very cool touch. Both the store and restaurant are constantly evolving, based on new products, response to the community, and fresh ideas from this creative duo. One can tell that the support staff is top-notch, and everyone pitches in to make sure customers get what they need.
Can improvements be made? Not many. I obviously wish there were vegan options, or at least more vegetarian choices. The food we did have seemed fresh, was well-made and tasty, and, apart from the lack of non-seafood appetizers, had some interesting variety. Even though their website states they have wine flights, I didn’t see it (or missed it) on the menu - this would be a dynamite list to choose a sampling of wines to try with the food. With just a few tweaks here and there, I can see this becoming the go-to place for eating in Downers Grove.
|Lemon Tree Grocer|
Lemon Tree Grocer offers the highest quality produce, wine, meats and cheeses. Purchase sushi, artisanal cheeses, have a coffee or espresso. Shop to eat at home, get prepared food, heck, they even cater!
Proximate to the expressways, steps from the train, Zest Bistro is well-worth seeking out whether you live in Downers Grove or make a special trip to dine here or shop in the store. Both Lemon Tree Grocer and Zest Bistro have become a charming and essential part of our community.
Disclaimer: This meal was comped for me for review purposes, courtesy of Zest Bistro at Lemon Tree Grocer. I was not compensated in any other way for the review, was not obligated to give the restaurant a positive review, and all opinions are my own. Some information in this review was taken from the company website.
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