Come on people, as of May 6th chef/owner Colby Garrelts is a James Beard award winner! How can Bluestem not be packed every night? True, it’s not inexpensive, but for sheer value, it stacks up well with the other upscale restaurants in our fair city. And for a restaurant with a prix-fixe menu, it’s cheap compared to what you’d find in New York….and every bit as memorable.
Diners choose a 3, 5 or 10 course meal, custom designed from the selections on the menu. The more courses the smaller the portion of each dish. On a recent evening, our table of four opted for three courses since none of us are big meat eaters and preferred to stick to the starters and fish dishes. But if you’ve never dined at Bluestem, I encourage you to do it up. You won’t be disappointed.
We started with a brilliant green pea soup that was highlighted by mint, lemon ash and pink peppercorns. It had a touch of cream but wasn’t rich or heavy. The Meyer lemon and black pepper risotto with nettle puree was stunning. The rice had the proper bite and the the nettles added a unique character to the dish. I was tempted by the asparagus starter because I had seen pictures of the rye “soil” that accompanies it but since we have our own crop of asparagus growing, I get my fill of that particular vegetable on an almost daily basis.
Three of us then enjoyed the chitarra ( which is cut to resemble Italian guitar strings) with smoked clams, sweet bay scallops, wild ramps and broth. It was light on the sauce, but each bite had a lovely flavor all its own.
The wild salmon was cooked to a medium rare on parsnip puree that looked as though it had been applied by paint brush. The salmon was accented with peas and carrots, but not cooked to mush the way our mothers all used to do when we were growing up.
Instead of sampling one of Megan Garrelts’ justifiably acclaimed desserts (many of which are also available next door in the lounge), we opted to move from a smooth Cabernet to dessert wines with our cheese plates. The cheeses were all heavenly, and were offered up with crisp toast slices and chutneys.
Though each dish that comes out of Chef Colby’s kitchen is camera worthy (at least in the hands of Ulterior Epicure‘s Bonjwing Lee, with whom the Garrelts collaborated on a Bluestem cookbook), it’s the small touches that make a restaurant like this sing a bit louder than the rest. In addition to the evening’s amuse bouche of a homemade Cheeto, we were also presented with gifts of marinated Hamachi served in Japanese noodle soup spoon and a fried morel. The gorgeous tray of homemade breads also included the finest butter, and a jam so good I was tempted to ask for some to smear on my cheeses.
The polished service is exquisite. It’s formal but not stuffy; our server was appropriately friendly and GM Eric Willey was adept at directing our wine selections. Neither acted like we were doing them a favor by dining there, as is so often the case in big city restaurants of the same caliber.
It took Chef Colby seven nominations to finally win the coveted James Beard Best Chef -Midwest award, but while it was clearly an overdue honor, I would suggest that the experience has gotten better over the years and perhaps the judges recognized his continued dedication to excellence and innovation.
I am also delighted to support a chef who understands that he would be not be successful without his wife and partner, and proudly took her on stage with him to receive his James Beard medal last month. Bravo.