by Chuck Wemstrom

About four months ago we heard the good news. Ben Johnson and Molly McDonough were planning on opening a new restaurant in Mount Carroll right downtown on Market Street. We were so happy! Mt. Carroll needed another good restaurant; our theory is you can never have too many. The restaurant is Molly’s Kitchen and Bar.

The building had been the site of a restaurant previously, but with the help of Ben’s parents, Pati and Michael Johnson, who helped with the remodeling, the garden and some recipes, everything got completely changed. First they took out everything but the bar. They stripped the kitchen; everything in it is new. They got new furniture (check out Ryan Bess’ table for six in the front), a new back bar and best of all, a smoker, a Cookshack fec120—definitely state of the art. It burns hickory hardwood pellets. A computer regulates the heat and feeds the pellets. They have a char broiler which also uses pellets. All the meat and fish are prepared on one of these two cookers.

Molly and Ben have created a wonderful relaxed and casual space. They spent a lot of time picking out comfortable seating, the right lighting (vintage Blubulb fixtures), new paint and eye-catching art for the walls.

But none of this is as important as the food. And the food is delicious. You can go there and have the works, everything from sophisticated cocktails to delicious desserts, or you can have a beer, nice selection from Bud Lite to Bent River Stout, and sliders, or you can just sit at the bar and have a drink after Timber Lake Theater. They also have a small but sophisticated wine list.

Just look at the menu; you can tell right off that a lot of care and thought went into creating the right choices. The menu is limited, on purpose, but there’s something there to delight everyone. The bread is homemade, one of Ben’s specialties. As you know, it’s nearly impossible to get good bread in America. Ben’s bread is outstanding.

When we walked in the first time, a friend said, “Get the ribs.” He was right. They were smoked just right with just enough sauce, their own recipe. Nothing is out of a bottle. The whipped cream is real cream whipped to order; the salad dressings are made from scratch. The chicken and ribs are smoked right out back, the greens and fresh herbs, the rhubarb (sorry, you’ll have to wait until next year), are from Pati Johnson’s garden, and the black raspberries are from their woods.

We discovered some new things. Smashed potatoes and budino, a butterscotch pudding with salted caramel and whipped cream. We didn’t try ribollita; it sounded too weird, but someone said to think of it as a delicious fried soup in the form of a patty, pan-fried and drizzled with olive oil. Molly explained, “Ribollita is vegetables that are cooked down and concentrated in their own juices. Usually served as a soup or stew, we chose to form it into little patties.” We also learned that it’s originally from Tuscany, and now we’re anxious to try some.

The night we were there we had the ribs and the pasta. The pasta and the sauce are both homemade. They have only one pasta dish at a time and the plan is to keep changing the dish from time to time using local ingredients.  My wife Patty doesn’t usually like coleslaw but she thought Molly’s was exceptionally tasty and the smashed potatoes, new to us, were a treat. Another friend had the burger and fries. Again, just the sight of the half-pound burger made us put it on the top of our to-do list.

Molly and Ben use many ingredients so as to make their wonderful dishes fresh. It’s obvious that nothing comes out of a plastic bag, gets warmed-up in the microwave and then presented as “homemade.”

They don’t have a webpage yet, but visit them on Facebook for daily updates. When they picked the first cucumbers they went into the salad that night and when they tried a new dessert, it was announced on Facebook. Customers gobbled it up; we were disappointed that we missed it.

Molly’s a pastry chef and Ben loves to make bread. One customer came in and when he saw the fresh homemade pie at another table he ordered a slice in place of an appetizer. He thought it was so good, he order another piece for dessert. But Molly and Ben are perfectionists; they’re still tweaking their recipes. It seems that perfect isn’t good enough.

Even though the menu is limited, it is evolving and will change with the seasons. Nest year, they want their herb garden to be out back so that the fresh vegetables and herbs will be even fresher. They have plans for a more robust winter fare, including smoked meatloaf, meat pies, brisket, sausage, and a hearty winter pasta with meatballs. Molly explained that they believe in local and seasonal when possible, and definitely a back-to-basics approach.

Molly has always loved to cook. By the time she was twelve she was preparing her mother’s dinner parties all by herself. She did everything. She picked out the menu, shopped for the ingredients, set the table with place cards and homemade menus, prepared and served the food. In college she worked in a bagel shop, loved it and became part of the family, visiting with the owners when she didn’t travel home. She also worked for Mozza Pizzeria and Mozza Osteria in California, where she soon became sous pastry chef.

The beautiful room, the food, the service, the drinks create a surprising treat. They’re our friends so we were expecting something special, but they exceeded our expectations.

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