Heading Downstate: Road Trip

If you think good restaurants are strictly a “big city” phenomenon, check out the scene in Champaign/Urbana (C-U). Home to the University of Illinois’ main campus, the adjacent towns were a veritable food desert back when I lived in Urbana. Not anymore. In fact, there are so many good bakeries and restaurants in C-U that it’s impossible to list all of them. So consider the following to be just for starters.

If you’re in town on a Saturday morning in the summer or early fall, head over the Urbana Farmers Market to check out Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery. Owners Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell participate in the Saturday edition of Chicago’s Green City Market, so you may already be familiar with their excellent fruit and cheese.

I timed my recent visit to C-U to coincide with one of Prairie Fruits’ Wednesday afternoon markets at the farm (4410 Lincoln Avenue, Champaign 217.643.2314, www.prairiefruits.com). It was a good call. The goat’s milk cheeses are excellent, the goat’s milk gelato is a must, and Stewart’s Artisan Breads, a vendor whose home base is in nearby Mahomet, sells “don’t miss” bagel “holes.”

Leslie  washing eggs at Prairie Fruits

Leslie washing eggs at Prairie Fruits

Urbana’s Lincoln Square mall is home to the Common Ground Food Co-op (300 S. Broadway, Urbana), which has a persona reminiscent of the early days of Whole Foods and an inventory to match. The market has an outside entrance and lots of convenient parking.

Back when I lived in C-U, “bakeries” were located in supermarkets. Now there’s Pekara Bakery & Bistro (116 N. Neil Street, Champaign 217.359.4500), Sweet Indulgence Bakery & Espresso Bar (1121 Windsor Rd. Champaign 217.352.2433) and Mirabelle Fine Pastry (124 W. Main St. Urbana 217.384.6460).

Mirabelle was the first to open, and all it took was one bite of their baguettes to know that the food drought was over. At Sweet InduIgence, the sugar cookies, cinnamon rolls and cupcakes are a must, as are Pekara’s baguettes, bagels, and pain de campagne made with a mix of whole wheat, rye and whole grain flours.
Like Mirabelle, Timpone’s Restaurant (710 S. Goodwin, Urbana 217.344.7619) and Radio Maria (119 N. Walnut St. 217.398.7729) have played an important role in C-U’s burgeoning culinary scene. Expect dishes like Korean braised pork short ribs with an Asian pear/kimchee slaw and flourless chocolate cake with brown butter ice cream at Radio Maria and bucatini with an Italian sausage ragu and duck breast with a blackberry port glaze at Timpone’s.

The eclectic menu at Milo’s Restaurant (2870 W. Philo Road, Urbana 217.344.8946) is complete with entrée salads and main courses like grilled shrimp with a tequila/lime/tomatillo sauce. Black Dog Smoke & Ale House (201 Broadway Ave. Urbana 217.344.9334) is known for its pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs and smoked catfish, and like Big Grove Tavern (1 Main Street, Champaign 217.239.3505), the restaurant serves a lot of burgers.

The chicken and waffles at Big Grove Tavern

The chicken and waffles at Big Grove Tavern

Big Grove’s fried chicken paired with sweet potato waffles spiced with cloves, vanilla, and a sprinkle of allspice is a frequent special. The waiter suggested pairing the dish with a glass of the featured Spanish Rioja, and he was spot on. Bacaro (113 N. Walnut, Champaign 217.398.6982), which opened as a wine bar in November, 2001, eventually morphed into a full service restaurant with an interesting menu that runs the gamut from squid ink agnolotti to seared ribeye with Romesco sauce.

Heading south on the price point, Sun Singer Wine Bar Café (115 W. Windsor 217.351.1115) is one-part specialty shop and one-part café with a full-service bar menu. Chicken salad made with apple and walnuts, a spinach and pear salad tossed with a pear vinaigrette, roasted garlic hummus, and a smoked salmon club made with lemon tarragon mayonnaise are a few of the possibilities. And should you find yourself at the Aroma Café (118 N. Neil St. Champaign 217.356.3200) at meal time, I can give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the turkey wrap with cheese and a tomato chutney. Definitely delicious.

Filed under: Road Trip

Leave a comment