Wed. October 16, 2013 12:00 AM
by Rick Karlin
I don't know what's wrong with people in the western 'burbs. If Waterleaf was in the city, you'd be hard-pressed to get a table. On the day of our visit for brunch, we were one of only three tables. With food that is sublime, service that is polished and friendly and prices that are quite reasonable, you'd think this place would be mobbed.
Perhaps many folks out there don't know about Waterleaf. It is on the campus of The College of Dupage, and part of its culinary arts program, so it isn't something you'll easily find, unlike the unending row of chain restaurants lining the streets of this suburb. That's a shame, because unlike chain restaurants you'll find inventive cuisine at reasonable prices.
On the day of our visit on an unseasonably hot day, we opted not dine on the patio overlooking the campus' lake, but instead chose the elegant dining room. As we perused the menu we enjoyed a tasty (if weak) Bloody Mary. With four courses, each listing a dish more enticing than the next, deciding what to order proved difficult. The appetizer course, at least, offered one dish we all agreed upon immediately; crab and corn soufflé. It didn't disappoint, arriving puffed up and fragrant. When we cut into it, the cloud of steam parted and we were left to enjoy the rich, pastry lush with fresh lump crab and corn. It was worth the 45-minute drive from the city just just this dish. Our other appetizer, smoked salmon offered up a generous portion of the succulent house-smoked fish, but the horseradish crème fraîche was a bit overpowering. Bagel chips served alongside this dish were tasty and fresh, but were difficult to maneuver with the salmon.
Normally, I wouldn't order a soup or salad course with brunch, but the descriptions of soup of the day, butternut squash with coconut cream, the house's signature French onion soup and a special salad Niçoise, proved impossible to resist. They all lived up to their descriptions. The squash soup was rich and creamy, the coconut cream adding an exotic touch to this classic. The French onion soup had a depth of flavor to the broth the indicated hours of simmering stock, with just enough melted cheese on top to augment, not overpower the flavor. Salad Nicoise is one of my favorite dishes. Waterleaf serves a deconstructed version in a soup bowl, with the ingredients sorted and forming a sort of pyramid. The classic ingredients; haricot verts, and fresh tuna (a tad overcooked) were present and, instead of the traditional hard-boiled, a poached egg. It was a beautiful presentation, but the salad was under-seasoned and dry. It was served without dressing. I imagine the yolk of the poached egg was to serve as such. However, the egg was overcooked, so it lacked the moisture that it should have added to the dish.
The entrée that piqued our interest the most was poached lobster Benedict, and it didn't disappoint. A generous portion of perfectly cooked lobster was topped with a poached egg (this one cooked correctly) atop, toasted brioche. Pork hominy was flavorful, if a bit salty, and was served topped with an olive oil fried egg and spicy ancho chilé sauce. The pork loin tasted exactly the same as the pork in the hominy dish and also was served with an olive oil fried egg (which again was over-cooked) and delicious fried onion strings and a smoked paprika sauce that added just enough kick. They say that the hardest thing to cook correctly is an egg, and that proved to be the case for many of the dishes at Waterleaf, which otherwise were perfect.
Desserts after such an extravagant meal seemed decadent beyond belief, but I've always adhered to Mae West's saying, "Too much of a good thing is just enough."
Waterleaf's version of a banana split is delicious, yet doesn't feature ice cream. You won't miss it with this terrine of brownie topped with banana cheesecake. Small scoops of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate Bavarian on the side mimic the ice cream in this thoroughly delightful dish. For those who crave caramel and chocolate (moi!), the pave of dark chocolate, richer and denser than a flourless chocolate cake, adorned with caramel corn and a small scoop of peanut butter ice cream, will be heavenly. A lighter option, rhubarb parfait, again, deconstructs the traditional dish to offer crisp rhubarb and a tang rhubarb sauce with a creamy filling binding together the dish. The portion sizes are smallish, perfect after such a decadent brunch.
Waterleaf is open for Wednesday through Saturday, dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday. In addition to the regular restaurant menu, the culinary college also features multi-course dinners, with wine pairings from $40 - $55 per person. There is an extensive wine list and full cocktail service.