ALGONQUIN – When partners George Kanellos and Dennis Koukounaras bought Montarra Grill from its original owners about eight years ago, the future looked bright.
Today, it looks even brighter. The economic pressure cooker of the past several years, however, made for a rocky ride, said Kanellos, whose Algonquin fine-dining establishment recently was named one of the 12 best Illinois restaurants not in Chicago by Thrillist.
“We bought Montarra right before the recession, about a year before the floor fell out,” Kanellos said. “The area had been exploding. Homes were being built. People had quite a bit of disposable income. ...
“Obviously we didn’t know the economy was going to collapse within 12 months.”
Hard economic times can be especially devastating to those in the restaurant business, as erstwhile diners’ disposable incomes dwindle. But, as Kanellos, his loyal staff and their repeat customers would declare, this is not your average eatery.
Even while the bottom line dipped into the red for a few years, attention to quality never wavered, they said. At Montarra, guests are greeted and treated as family, the surroundings are elegant, and the food, sublime.
“Our check averages were down anywhere between 10 [percent] and 13 percent,” Kanellos said of the lean years. “When you’re dealing with a restaurant, you’re already operating on a small margin, and when you have a decrease of that size, it takes a big bite out of the bottom line.
“But one thing we did not do was cheapen our brand,” he said. “We stuck it out, and I know it’s paying dividends now.”
In fact, Kanellos and Koukounaras have invested in another dining establishment, Terra, a bistro that opened a couple of years ago in Evanston.
Meanwhile, the Algonquin restaurant – a contemporary American steakhouse nestled somewhat oddly in a strip mall across from Algonquin Commons – thrills its customers with five-star service, creative and exquisite food, and surroundings that include not one, but two Chihuly chandeliers.
Executive chef Dave Perlick has been with Montarra since its 2004 beginning, and while he’s known for dishes such as truffle- and brie-crusted filet mignon with a sherry brown butter sauce, he believes there’s more to a winning restaurant recipe than culinary expertise.
“I’ve always had a passion to be around people and to be around the kitchen, ever since I was 3 years old,” Perlick said.
“But this business is about hospitality – not just great food and great wine and ambiance. It’s about hospitality.”
Perlick and General Manager Andrea Lekics said they are happy to accommodate special requests, from birthday celebrations to vegetarian or gluten-free meals.
“We try to treat Montarra as if we were entertaining guests in our own home,” Lekics said. “You want everyone to feel unique and special.”
The restaurant’s recent Thrillist accolade has brought a new surge of interest, which, of course, is welcome.
“People are fortunate to have a restaurant of this caliber so close by,” Kanellos said. “They don’t have to drive to Woodfield or Schaumburg or Chicago.”
The menu, which changes seasonally, is available online. Recent prices ranged from $19 for butternut squash ravioli to about $35 for a mixed grille of lamb rack, filet mignon and duck confit.
“The area has supported us,” Kanellos said, “and we’re very grateful.”
Montarra GrillWhere: 1491 S. Randall RoadHours: Opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday through SundayInformation: montarra.com; 847-458-0505