I love bowling. In fact, I can't think of a better way to spend an evening than drinking pitchers of cold beer and engaging in competitive banter with friends as Billy Squier plays in the background. Sometimes, I throw strike after spare, ending up with a score that would make even the Dude proud. Other times, I cannot seem to knock down more than three pins at a time, and I'm shamed out of the alley with a score that is less than my age. Does this mean that I am a good bowler who sometimes has off nights, or a bad bowler who can come up with fluke moments of pin prowess?
I suspect it is the latter. If there is one hallmark of greatness — whether in athletics, academics or the arts — it is the ability to perform consistently. This is especially important for restaurants; in order to be successful, they must work in the hurricane's eye providing well-crafted dishes and professional service with a steady hand in the midst of the spiraling chaos of uncontrollable circumstances.
As one who has worked for more than a decade in the restaurant industry, I can fully appreciate that sometimes you just have an off night. Servers call in, kitchen staff gets cut before an unexpected rush, and every now and then, you just don't have your qi. I get this. However, on my three visits to Prasino, I had vastly different experiences. At times, it soared with perfectly executed dishes and flawless service. At others, both the food and the service completely flopped, leaving me confused as to how something that worked so well could veer so far off course.
Built at the junction of I-70 and Fifth Street on the hallowed grounds of the iconic Noah's Ark (a shipshape, literally, restaurant if ever there was), Prasino is a bastion of eco-chic in the middle of the new "Streets of St. Charles" development — one of the area's latest takes on the reimagined "town square" trend of faux main streets, pricy apartments and trendy dining and entertainment venues. Prasino heralds itself as an environmentally conscious restaurant, featuring hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, sustainable seafood and organic produce. Its green philosophy is not limited to the kitchen — diners will note that reclaimed wood, recycled glass and cardboard, and old seat belts are incorporated into the restaurant's design. Prasino boasts that even its cleaning products are environmentally friendly, and I commend the restaurant on its comprehensive commitment to sustainability while so many other restaurants pay it mere lip service. In fact, Prasino is Greek for "green," a nod to its ecological mindset. But don't be fooled; Prasino isn't a Greek restaurant.
"Contemporary American" is how the menu describes the cuisine, which I assume means "America as a nation of immigrants" since the menu has everything from sushi to tacos to kefte (Greek meatballs). It's a comprehensive and ambitious menu, leaving one to wonder whether giving patrons options for such a diversity of foods is a good thing, or if the wide array of options makes the menu difficult to execute and is the source of the consistency issues.
Slideshow: Inside Prasino in St. Charles
Intrigued by the prominent presence of tacos on the menu of a distinctly non-Mexican restaurant, we began our menu tour with the pork belly and scallop taco. When this dish hits its mark, it is outstanding. The melt-in-your-mouth pork was the perfect pairing with buttery scallops, and a tangy red-wine reduction added necessary acidity to such a rich dish. The stars of the show, however, were the housemade tortillas that wrapped the pork and scallops in a warm blanket of perfectly seasoned roasted corn. According to our server Prasino has hired a woman to make nothing but tortillas, chips and waffle cones. I'd like to meet her and encourage her to go out on her own — if the tortillas are any indication of her talents, she has a bright future ahead of her as a restaurateur.
The problem is, on a subsequent visit, the pork belly and scallop tacos were mere shadows of their former deliciousness. What once had been succulent and tender meat was now chewy and bland — I am not sure there was even scallop in the dish this time around, although it was hard to tell from how overcooked the protein was. The tacos tasted as if they had been left to languish under a heat lamp. Even the sauce tasted completely different. What was once a tart red-wine reduction now tasted like watery teriyaki. I can't even say for certain that it was the same sauce. However, the eternal optimist in me recommends that diners try this dish — when they're good, they are out of this world.
As the third location of a Chicago-based chain, the St. Charles Prasino is the company's first foray outside of northern Illinois. Paying tribute to its latest locale, the menu was so bold as to feature St. Louis-style pork steak with a Fitz's barbecue sauce. The pork steak was fork tender, but the tangy tomato base of the sauce played oddly with the vanilla and licorice notes of the root beer. Perhaps in a smaller dose, or with more of a molasses-style barbecue sauce, the root beer would have added a nice sweetening element, but it ended up overpowering this preparation. The jalapeño-cheddar corn bread was dry and salty to the point of being unpalatable. Fortunately, the accompanying vegetable slaw with pecans and feta provided welcome refreshment.
Hands down, the beef short ribs were the best things I had during the course of my three visits to Prasino. I did not need to use my knife to glide through their slow-cooked, fall-apart tenderness. The perfectly reduced cooking liquid in which the ribs had soaked for hours was rich with the decadence of beef and mushroom-infused red wine, elevated even further by the essence of truffle. The braised Swiss chard served as a bed of welcome bitterness that balanced the richness of the ribs, while the truffled white-cheddar cauliflower gratin that accompanied the dish was a savory muffin of awesomeness. This dish alone makes me cautiously optimistic of what Prasino is capable of providing.
Would I go back to Prasino? I think so. Sure, there were some gutter balls. (I should spare my poor server, but his bussing my knife and side plates while I was mid-bite into my half-eaten dish was pretty egregious.) However, the short ribs and tacos were enough to demonstrate that Prasino is capable of delivering great food and service. I just wish they could ensure that my next drive to the streets of St. Charles is worth its carbon footprint.
Slideshow: Inside Prasino in St. Charles