Class is in Session — Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage

April 2012 View more

Photos by Greg Shapps

This is more than just another dinner recap. This is a rescue mission made on behalf of every dining establishment that happens to be affiliated with a culinary studies program, an indignity so off-putting to some diners that the .edu replacing the .com at the end of the URL may as well be rendered in red as a trio of gastronomic scarlet letters.

NMAG0412_TableForTwo_4Why the high-minded bias? Maybe educational apprenticeships like these tend to bring to mind such unfortunate stereotypes as the botched dye job at the local barber college or the painful pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey vein hunt during a student nursing encounter. Who wants to take a chance on some kid’s potentially half-hearted homework assignment winding up on their plate?

It’s a point worthy of debate, but perhaps the best way to dispel any fears associated with the culinary school restaurant concept is to simply direct the doubters to College of DuPage (COD), where they’ll find the ever-delightful surprise that is Waterleaf.

Under the Radar

While indeed affiliated with COD’s Culinary Arts program, the students only do the actual cooking at Waterleaf on select nights each month (they do, however, fill out the hosting and service ranks more frequently). These nights generally lean toward a particular ethnic theme on which the classes have been focusing and the prix fixe menus are posted online several weeks out, so any aversion to student cooking—whether rooted in actual experience or just paranoid perception—easily can be accommodated.

NMAG0412_TableForTwo_3The rest of the time, Waterleaf is simply one of the most surreptitious fine dining options in the western suburbs—and a fairly remarkable one at that. Kitty-corner from the McAninch Arts Center on COD’s expansive campus, the restaurant does a brisk business on event nights, and even features a special pre-theater menu option for ticketholders. But with the stage lights dark and the temperature foreboding, we had the spacious, handsome dining room more or less to ourselves—ideal circumstances for an intimate Sunday dinner for two, but a pity considering the care and execution with which Chef Jean-Louis Clerc and his staff lay out the evening.

Combo Meal

While the compact dinner menu at Waterleaf will never be mistaken for the multi-page, order-by-number laundry list at your favorite carryout place, the array of intriguing ingredients and creative preparations woven throughout virtually ensures that almost any diner will find several options worth exploring. Fulfilling our senses of both discovery and economy, we opted for the build-your-own prix fixe spread, consisting of a starter, an entrée, and a dessert for one set price.

NMAG0412_TableForTwo_2Any concern that “fine dining” might mean “hungry later” was laid soundly to rest when my appetizer arrived—two substantial crab cakes that wouldn’t have been out of place on the entrée slate. After a nicely presented amuse-bouche of rich tomato soup and gorgonzola, the indulgence continued with several meaty braised short ribs flanking a mountain of horseradish mashed potatoes that would have made Richard Dreyfus proud. While my companion’s delicious champagne and morel-infused chicken seemed to better fit the expected artistic milieu of “fine dining”—the half-bird wading in a splash of persimmon compote and orbited by an imposing potato ring—it too turned out to be more than expected from a sheer volume perspective (not to mention delicious).

Of course, just because the heft of the entrées caught us off guard, there was no discussion of passing on dessert (we had opted for the full package, after all)—a wise decision in retrospect, as her chocolate trio of two tarts and a mousse and my black-and-white chocolate bread pudding (with banana ice cream!) proved to be the perfect extra credit on an already grade-A meal.

It turned out to be another of the evening’s courses that we wouldn’t mind repeating sometime soon.

Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage
425 Fawell Boulevard, Glen Ellyn