Southern food, charm land Mint Julep Bistro in the winner's circle

 
 
  • Several dining rooms offer an intimate atmosphere at the Mint Julep Restaurant in Palatine.

    Several dining rooms offer an intimate atmosphere at the Mint Julep Restaurant in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • You can sit near a cozy fireplace in one of the dining rooms at the Mint Julep Restaurant in Palatine.

    You can sit near a cozy fireplace in one of the dining rooms at the Mint Julep Restaurant in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Chefs Rich Meierdirks, Diana

    Chefs Rich Meierdirks, Diana "Lady Dee" Davenport and sous chef Margaret McCarthy recently opened Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Fried chicken with sawmill gravy is a Southern favorite at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine.

    Fried chicken with sawmill gravy is a Southern favorite at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Cheesecake won raves at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine.

    Cheesecake won raves at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Shrimp appetizer comes with minty flair at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine.

    Shrimp appetizer comes with minty flair at the Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Published: 10/21/2008 12:05 AM

History books vary when it comes to the origins of the Kentucky Derby's signature mint julep, but the record surely will be undisputed when local historians chronicle the rise of Mint Julep Bistro in Palatine.

In its first few weeks of business Mint Julep Bistro has already seen customers returning for the casual, well-executed fare and Southern-hospitality.

We found the restaurant, located in the heart of downtown Palatine, full on a recent Saturday night. The warm, contemporary space is divided into four rooms that allow for an intimate dining experiences. A small lounge provided a place for us to start the evening with a glass of wine. Red cushions cover the metal chairs, though they still weren't very comfortable and we were glad the wait for a table was brief.

The menu reflects the Georgia upbringing of chef Diana "Lady Dee" Davenport. Co-owner and chef Rich Meierdirks works with Davenport to deliver classic and modern fare to our Midwest masses. Dave Davenport works the front of the house, mingling with diners and putting his energy into developing the eclectic wine list.

Classics like fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits share the menu with innovations like the Mint Julep shrimp appetizer, a perky take on shrimp cocktail that finds mint-infused shrimp paired with a spiced bourbon sauce. Green tomatoes combine with apricots for a relish that balances with the sweet coconut rice that serves as a bed for the pecan butter-smeared chicken skewers. Just typing those words has me hungry for more.

The dinner salad isn't anything special, but the house soup is. Butternut squash soup was a popular item at the now-shuttered Savannah's in Barrington (where Davenport and Meierdirks first worked together) and this silky soup proves its staying power in its new house.

Buttermilk-soaked fried chicken didn't fail to please; its crisp coating cloaking the tender double breast. While mashed potatoes and sweet corn are traditional fried chicken sides, I would have liked to see some other color on the plate.

The grilled steak came with a Southern Comfort-spiked sauce and red beans and rice. Daily fish specials reflect seasonal availability and the pan-fried tilapia hit the mark.

A pulled pork platter also is available at dinner; a sandwich version at lunch. Lunch also offers crepes and quiche and there's a kids menu. Look for french toast, frittata and French-pressed coffee on the brunch menu.

I'd never liked okra before I sampled it at Mint Julep Bistro (it was fried, need I say more?), though the seemingly harmless sauteed spinach contained too much salt for all at my table.

Peach cobbler and Kentucky bourbon pecan pie hold spots on the menu, but the Mint Julep Cheesecake garnered our attention. Imagine the best chocolate chip cheesecake you've ever had. Now add fresh-picked mint to the mix and you get an idea of how delicious this dessert is. Sweet flaked coconut and cherry coffee liqueur pair up to turn simple vanilla ice cream into a decadent treat.

I didn't try the homemade bread because a basket never made it to our table. If the beignets (fried dough that resembles ravioli) and the chai tea-spiced brioche cooked french toast-style served at brunch are an indication of the kitchen's bakery work, I'll make it a point to get a bread basket next time around.

The restaurant seems well staffed and our server was quite attentive and pleasant. It was nice to see Lady Dee and chef Meierdirks pop out of the kitchen to meet and greet their diners. I expect the bread issue and the failure of busers to clear dishes before another course arrives to be smoothed out as the restaurant gets more meals under its belt. With that extra training, Mint Julep Bistro is destined for the history books.

Mint Julep Bistro

53 W. Slade St., Palatine; (847) 934-3000; mintjulepbistro.com

Cuisine: American with a Southern accent

Setting: Intimate dining rooms with high ceilings, fireplace

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Price range: Appetizers $5 to $8.50; soup and salad $3 to $5.50; entrees $9.50 to $28; desserts $6 to $10

Accepts: Reservations, credit cards

Also: Afternoon tea Tuesday through Saturday; children's menu