City eatery uses fresh, local ingredients

April 30, 2010 (CHICAGO)

It seems after success beyond the city borders, more than a few operators have attempted to do the same downtown.

George Bumbaris and Sarah Stegner had an amazing run for two decades at the Ritz-Carlton in the Gold Coast. A few years ago, they opened their first restaurant, Prairie Grass, in Northbrook. Then, just a few weeks ago, they opened a second location in the West Loop. Like Hackney's, Zealous and Emilio's Tapas before them, they are now attempting to find success downtown, after establishing themselves in the suburbs.

Only a few blocks East of Greektown, and yet, on the menu at Prairie Fire in the West Loop - which houses two of the city's most consistent chefs - there is a fabulous dish of moussaka. Blame George Bumbaris. His Greek heritage is reflected in the roasted strips of potato and eggplant, along with a hefty scoop of ground lamb, all coated in a rich bechamel sauce that's baked together and browned on top. Bumbaris and his business partner, Sarah Stegner, split duties in the kitchen, kind of like they did years ago at the Ritz-Carlton.

"I think we both became chefs at the Ritz. Ya know, we worked there for 21 years and a lot of the influence and recipes and our cooking came from those days back at the Ritz," said George Bumbaris, co-owner of Prairie Fire.

Stegner is a huge supporter of Chicago's Green City Market, and that commitment is reflected in simple pizzas, which can be spread with compound butter containing ramps, or wild Spring onions, then goat cheese from Indiana and some more ramps, followed by smoked bacon.

"I think it's part of what drives our menu. It's a big influence on our cooking technique and our style to use a lot of fresh local ingredients," said Stegner.

Stegner is also known for her fascination with sustainably-raised seafood. You won't find Chilean Sea Bass here, but rather, wild Alaskan halibut rubbed in bread crumbs, served over local potatoes and shallots, plus baby turnips and carrots.

Former TV anchor Bill Kurtis is a partner here, and so his Tallgrass Beef shows up as a sliced, braised brisket, showered with root vegetables.

Dessert should be a requirement: Stegner's mom's pie recipes dominate - this seasonal rhubarb pie was particularly intriguing - and even though the apple tart is thin, it's powerful fruit flavor is balanced by the not-too-sweet pastry base. Both chefs say their sophomore effort will reflect the original in Northbrook, but will most likely take on a few quirks of its own, like the ambitious cocktail list.

"I don't think it's a huge difference. But each restaurant has its own character and personality and that's what we wanted. We didn't want it to be the same. We wanted to have a couple of dishes that are different and let it have its own inspiration," Stegner said.

Prairie Fire is open for lunch and dinner; plus, they now serve brunch on the weekends.

Prairie Fire
215 N. Clinton St.

Prairie Grass
601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook

Some other city restaurants with roots in the suburbs:

419 W. Superior St.

Emilio's Tapasbr
215 E. Ohio St.

733 S. Dearborn

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