Inovasi means Innovation in Indonesian, and adapting and changing the menu has been important to owner and executive chef John des Rosiers since the restaurant opened three years ago.
“We're always changing to make ourselves better,” des Rosiers said.
Those changes came rapid fire last month, with Inovasi beginning lunch service July 23. The restaurant had offered lunch when it first opened, but stopped in August, 2011, because it was too costly and didn’t allow enough time to train their staff. But when Noodle Bar closed, des Rosiers saw demand build.
“There's no place in town to get lunch anymore,” he said.
The menu is totally different from the dinner selections, offering sandwiches, salads, soups and small entrees meant to get diners going quickly. Lunch only runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. so there’s still plenty of time for staff training.
Building a local following
Inovasi has attracted a loyal following, with half of the restaurant’s customers coming from more than 10 miles to eat there. But des Rosiers said he still had some problems getting locals to try his restaurant because they were uncertain about its small plates format.
Des Rosiers responded by upping the size on some of his “medium plates” to create a large plates section of the new menu, which launched July 18.
“It doesn't make any sense to me, but as long as it makes sense to them that’s OK,” he said. “It's worked out well so far. People have been ordering them like crazy.”
The new menu is truly stellar, showcasing des Rosiers’ creativity and attention to detail. Ingredients are locally sourced, with many traveling just an hour before winding up in the Inovasi kitchen, and des Rosiers proudly gives credit to his farmers with dishes like his Surry Farms Virginia ham.
The simple dish combines buttery ricotta cheese, lightly salty prosciutto-like ham, grilled bread and a local honeycomb to incredible effect. The yakitori chicken thigh is also wonderful, with the meat almost burnt on a Japanese grill and served over creamy goat cheese that cuts through the charred taste.
On the dessert side, the Klug apple donuts tasted like the ones you can usually only find at apple orchards. The manjari chocolate disk reminds diners that the Aztecs once thought cocoa the food of the gods, not tampering with it by adding any butter or sugar but instead complimenting the rich, bittersweet taste with roasted walnuts and syrupy cherries. The fruit panna cotta could be mistaken for a cocktail, served in a lowball and topped with berries and a moscato gel that resembles ice.
A tasting menu for the daring
As impressive as these options are, the daring would be best served by putting their faith in the chef and trying their $62 tasting menu, which includes six dishes that aren’t on the menu. At a tasting Thursday night, des Rosiers admitted he was making things up as he went along, but the results were always delicious.
There were tempura shallots served atop a spicy sauce that tasted like the best blooming onion ever. The duck fat-fried pork shoulder served with a light, sour and spicy Thai-style broth was so tender it was only served with a spoon.
The duck was the best I’ve ever had, with a deep rich flavor nicely complimented by a bit of creamed corn and tart slices of pickled onions. Roasted baby chicken served a top a cabbage mix is meant to be eaten with your fingers, which is good because the juicy meat was so good it would be a shame to lose any to etiquette.
The tasting menu can be ordered with pairings from the restaurant’s massive wine list for $24, but you’d also be well served trying a cocktail or two. Railing against the tendency for mixed drinks to be overly sweet, the Bluff Sunset is a potently tart and pulpy mix of Campari, grapefruit juice and lime simple syrup with a frothy top. If you’re not a grapefruit fan, try The Boardwalk, a super smooth and refreshing blend of gin, lime, lemon and ginger beer.
Des Rosiers is a busy man, waking up at 7 a.m. to start at Inovasi and the Lake Bluff location of his prepared food store Wisma, and then spending the day driving to Highland Park and back to divide his time between Inovasi and his newly opened Moderno. His day doesn’t end until midnight, but his crazy schedule is a boon to local diners who get try his truly unique food.