Visit Champaign County’s Restaurant Week kicked off on Sunday, featuring about eighteen participating restaurants across Champaign County. There is a wide variety of dining: casual and fine, lunch and dinner, meat and vegetables. Some restaurants are offering prix fixe menus at $15, $25, or $35; a few are offering $8 lunch specials. Over the course of this week Smile Politely food writers and I will venture out, taste the tastes and drink the drinks. We’ll report back with daily updates, so be sure to check back over the course of this week. Plan on participating, or have you already? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
Check out the menus for each participating restaurant here. Restaurant Week continues through Sunday, February 5th, 2017.
— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink section editor
Baxter's American Grille |100 Trade Center Drive, Champaign
Baxter’s American Grille has a great selection of menu items available for Restaurant Week. A three course meal for $25 is an unbeatable price. For each course there are three different options to choose from. Lucky for me, my husband ordered from the special menu as well, so we got to try two thirds of the menu.
Salads (or the soup of the day) made up the first course. I chose the Baxter’s salad while my husband opted for the Caesar salad. These items also appear on their regular menu. The Baxter’s salad was comprised of baby greens, smoked Gouda, tomatoes, candied walnuts, apples, red onions, and carrots. All were diced fairly small so each bite was well balanced and nothing was too overpowering. The smoked Gouda was broken down to a light creamy glaze that coated the baby greens. The apple vinaigrette was mild and tangy and tied all the flavors together nicely. The Caesar salad was true to its classic form, complete with shaved Parmesan and croutons, and it was light on the dressing.
The second course was our choice between three entrées. We chose the poached cod and beef burgundy. Both were outstanding dishes. I overheard one of the waiters stating that the beef burgundy seemed to be going fast as it was the most popular. Of the two dishes we ordered, beef burgundy was my favorite. It reminded me of home. Some places can really fancy this type of dish up but this was good, flavorful, hearty home cooking. The garlic mashed potatoes were dense, but in a good way, so as to help soak up the savory veal-burgundy sauce. The punch of garlic in the potatoes was just right and there was a wonderful earthiness to them, perhaps a mushroom stock was used in them as well. The beef was tender and fell apart easily and I loved the small button mushrooms. There was a perfect balance of proportion between the meaty sauce and the mashed potatoes.
The cod filet was just as tasty. It was poached in a white wine sauce with a bit of lemon. It stood out as a very simple, crisp flavor. The fish was firm and flaky with a lovely mild flavor that allowed the lemon and white wine to speak up and introduce themselves. The cod was placed on top a generous helping of long grain white rice and sautéed spinach and shallots. Both were cooked perfectly. The rice wasn’t too starchy and really soaked up the flavors well. It was a nice, light dish that will definitely fill you up but not sit too heavy in the stomach.
With dessert being the third course, we chose the gooey butter cake and chocolate mousse. The gooey butter cake certainly lived up to its name as the thin, buttery cake was smothered with a rich caramel and, I think, marshmallow sauce. It was delicious, but it was very rich. It’s also easily shareable. Two scoops of chocolate malt ice cream with a sprinkling of fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries helped to balance out the richness of the cake. The chocolate mousse was well presented with a bright green sprig of mint and colorful, fresh berries on top. The mousse was light and fluffy with tiny dark chocolate chunks throughout.
This was my first time dining at Baxter’s American Grille and I really enjoyed it. The service was fantastic and they had a very attentive wait staff. We can’t wait to go back and try more. You don’t want to miss this week’s special menu though!
— Bobbie Bonebrake, February 3, 2017
Baxter’s American Grille is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 8 p.m. All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.
Big Grove Tavern | 1 East Main Street, Champaign
While all of Big Grove Tavern’s entrées sounded delicious, two of the entrées stood out to me the most: the Ladybird chicken (yogurt and tequila marinated chicken served with sautéed Brussels sprouts, fingerling potatoes, chorizo and Fresno chilies) and the top sirloin (sirloin from Gibson City Meats, served with grilled carrots, zucchini, red onion, parsnips and fingerling potatoes, finished with a red wine glaze). My date and I decided to split the prix fixe menu ($24) that comes with the southwest salad ($7 a la carte), your choice of entree (he chose the sirloin) and the maple bacon doughnut ($6 a la carte) and I ordered the Ladybird chicken ($16) separately.
The southwest salad was our first course and was presented on a bed of romaine lettuce with black beans, corn, tomatoes, red onions, and crispy tortillas with a chipotle cream dressing, and topped with sliced avocado. The salad was crisp and fresh with a mild spice from the chipotle cream dressing. It was more than enough for both my date and I to share.
After our salad was finished, our entrées were served. I was very impressed with how visually pleasing both the chicken and sirloin were presented. The chicken was cooked perfectly, with the skin being slightly crisp on the outside and the meat was juicy on the inside. The yogurt and tequila marinade was tasty but not overpowering. The shaved Brussels sprouts, fingerling potatoes, chorizo and chilies were a wonderful addition and kept my mouth guessing with each of bite of the different flavors and textures. The chilies brought the heat out in this dish quite a bit, which I enjoyed, but if you are not a fan of spice, I would suggest ordering without.
My date was kind enough to let me try some of his sirloin and grilled vegetables too. The sirloin was cooked to a wonderful medium rare and was warm and succulent. I was impressed with the amount of sirloin that was served for the price. The grilled vegetables accompanied the sirloin very well and made me long for warm, summer days when our grill is used often.
Lastly, we were served with a maple bacon doughnut for dessert. I personally like salty and sweet desserts, so the bacon and peanut butter combination for the doughnut was exciting for me. The doughnut's outer edges were crisp but the inside of the doughnut was fluffy and dense. I don't eat doughnuts very often, but this one was incredible. The peanut butter and bacon balanced each other very well with a good amount of both sweet and salty. We split the doughnut between the two of us and it was just the right amount and a great ending to our delicious entrees.
If you need a reason to treat yourself to an incredible meal at a great price, I highly recommend trying one or all of the options that Big Grove Tavern is serving up during Restaurant Week.
— Brittany Busboom, January 30, 2017
Big Grove Tavern is open Monday through Friday, 11a.m. to 10 p.m. and open 10a.m. to 10p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. All photos by Brittany Busboom.
The Bread Company | 706 South Goodwin Avenue, Urbana
If you’re looking for a cozy, casual, but romantic dinner for two, considering ordering from The Bread Company’s Restaurant Week Menu. The welcoming lit fireplace, low light from bare Edison bulbs, tango music and candles makes a charming scene to stage your three-course dinner. The prix fixe menu offers it for $35, and it is enough to feed two. You have several light options for the first course, a skillet of melted raclette or fondu for the main course, and two options for dessert.
For drinks, I started the meal with a glass of the Bex Reisling (2013), which is an off-dry white wine whose sweetness is balanced by just enough acidity and sourness. It’s refreshing and a fun way to relax into what would be a lovely dinner. My partner ordered the Riggs American lager which was light, wheaty, and slightly sweet.
Our first course was Mediterranean themed: the lemon garlic baby greens salad and the goat cheese bruschetta. The salad was incredibly light and had a zingy lemon vinaigrette. The sweet pop of cherry tomatoes and briny capers added texture and contrast, while the parmesan cheese added umami. A favorite part was the croutons, which are savory and herb-tastic. The bruschetta is made with thin toasted bread and a topping of goat cheese, green and black olives, and tomatoes topped with a tangle of basil. These brightly flavored dishes provided lively and light flavors to preface the rich second course.
There’s something hedonistic, but also refined, about sharing a large plate of melted cheese. The melted raclette cheese is nutty, creamy, with a faint murmur of funk. It is sprinkled with rosemary, and topped with a beautiful mound of rosemary roasted potatoes. You also get baguette slices, pickled onions, and cornichons.
For dessert, I had zabaglione. The custard is topped with a slice of pain au chocolat, and has strawberries on the bottom of the glass. It is sweet and delicate, and the tartness from the strawberries keeps it balanced. My partner had the chocolate bread pudding, which is surprisingly dense and tastes of cocoa. There is also a berry sauce that brings some tartness to lift the dessert.
If you’re looking to indulge in a robust yet elegant (and child friendly) dinner, The Bread Company might make the perfect first stop amongst the roster of Champaign County’s Restaurant Week roster.
— Jean Lee, February 1, 2017
The Bread Company is serving its Restaurant Week menu Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. All photos by Jean Lee.
Crane Alley | 115 West Main Street, Urbana
Restaurant Week is in full swing and I was lucky enough to sample the menu from local favorite Crane Alley. In my early 20s I spent a lot of time at Crane Alley playing pool and hanging out with friends. As I got older, I started to be more of a homebody and go out more to eat than to drink and socialize. After tonight I realized that Crane Alley is not only an awesome place to find unique beers and play pool with friends, it’s also got some of the best “bar” food around.
I decided to try every item offered on the Restaurant Week menu, starting with the fried mac and cheese and the spiked Thai iced tea (both $8). The fried mac and cheese came to the table hot and golden brown. The exterior was well seasoned and crispy. The cheese sauce was also well seasoned and the noodles were a nice al dente. The fried bites were served alongside a tangy ranch dipping sauce.
The drink was made with black tea, Madagascar vanilla, coconut milk, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and blended scotch. Despite the creaminess of the drink, I found it to be refreshing and light. I loved all of the aromatic spices. I’m not a big fan of scotch, but I really enjoyed this drink.
Next was the city slicker burger on a beautifully toasted house made brioche bun ($15). The chef cooked the patty to a nice medium-rare and it was juicy and well seasoned. The beef patty was topped with peppery arugula, perfectly cooked cremini mushrooms, gooey mozzarella cheese, and was drizzled with a savory cremini-laphroaig (laphroaig is single malt whiskey) demi glace. I hope they make this burger a part of their regular menu, because it is a total burger triumph.
The entree was a blackened tuna steak with roasted fingerling potatoes and Brussels sprouts, topped with chimichurri sauce and an over easy egg ($17). The presentation of this dish was so elegant, I would expect this kind of dish from a fine dining restaurant. The tuna was flaky, tender and cooked to perfection. When I cut into the egg yolk it spilled over the fish into a glossy yellow pool, it added a luxurious richness to the dish. The Brussels sprouts and potatoes were both tender and salted nicely.
The dessert special was a chocolate raspberry trifle ($8) made with chocolate cake, chocolate liquor mousse, chocolate chip cookie, raspberries, and whipped cream. When the vessel of chocolatey goodness was set before me, I knew I was in for a treat. The chocolate mouse was silky and rich and the chocolate chip cookie pieces mixed throughout added a nice crunchy texture. The chocolate cake was dense and chewy almost like a chocolatey brownie. The fresh tartness of the raspberries was a perfect way to balance all the rich sweetness. What a truly divine dessert, the stuff of chocolate lovers dreams.
Head over and try this spectacular Restaurant Week Menu from Crane Alley. You won’t be disappointed!
— Rebecca Wells, January 30, 2017
Crane Alley is open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. The kitchen is open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Photos by Rebecca Wells.
Nando Milano Trattoria | 204 North Neil Street, Champaign
Of all the Restaurant Week menus, Nando Milano appeared to be one of the better “deals,” on first glance. Without crunching numbers, $35 for an appetizer, entrée, and dessert at fine dining establishment with a pretty high price point seemed like a steal. Most salads and appetizers are $10 and up normally, and meat or seafood entrées are $20 plus.
I visited the restaurant with some friends last night, and three of the four of us ordered from the prix fixe menu. The arancino al nero (squid ink rice ball filled with crab, lobster, and scamorza cheese) was lovely to look at. The ball was crispy and well cooked; the textures of the cheese, seafood, and crispy rice all played well together. The carpaccio tartufato dressing was vinegar-y and acidic; the truffle and meat with the mushrooms was super earthy. It was a really nice appetizer. The instalata valentino (on the regular menu; arugula with fennel and parmesan) was exactly as you’d expect it to be: green and peppery, with a bright citrus dressing.
All of the three entrées were well received: ravioli al nero, merluzzo alla puttanesca, and the galleto Garibaldi. The ravioli al nero (pictued above; squid ink ravioli filled with crab, lobster and halibut, served with mussels and clams) were striking — in looks and in taste. A friend described them as totally delicious, bursting with filling, and “fishy in a good way.” The merluzzo alla puttanesca (cod served with olives, capers, red onion and chili) was served over creamy polenta. The mellow flavor of the cod absorbed the briny flavors of the puttanesca sauce. The creamy polenta was a lovely vehicle for the flavorful sauce and flaky fish.
The real star entrée, however, was the galletto Garibaldi (roasted half chicken with lemon glaze). Look, chicken is all fine and good, and often a “safe” menu item. What I'm saying is that I don’t typically go out of my way for chicken. But for some reason, this chicken spoke to me. The chicken dish was one of the best, maybe the best chicken dishes I’ve had in C-U. It was perfectly cooked. It was flavorful. The lemon glaze wasn’t too cloying or too tart — it was perfectly balanced. It was half a chicken, which is more than enough for one person. I know it’s easy to overlook the chicken item on the menu — I do it all the time — but if you eat nothing else this week, get the bird.
The dessert course was another solid performance: tiramisu, trio of mini panna cotta (vanilla, pistachio, almond), and a cannolo appeared and then quickly disappeared. I haven’t had a dessert from Nando that I didn’t like, so I encourage you to indulge and pick the dessert item that appeals to you most.
If you’re looking for an opportunity to have fine dining food at slightly more affordable fine dining prices, treat yourself to dinner at Nando Milano this week.
— Jessica Hammie, January 31, 2017
Nando Milano is open Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 5 to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Photos by Jessica Hammie.
Siam Terrace | 212 West Main Street, Urbana
I had never visited Siam Terrace in Urbana until this week, though I have continuously heard nothing but good things from friends who are regulars. When I saw that Siam Terrace was participating in Restaurant Week this year, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to see why it comes so highly recommended.
Siam Terrace has a three course menu for Restaurant Week that comes with your choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $15.99. My date and I saw that hot Thai soups were featured on the menu and thought it would be a perfect meal for a cold February night.
We both decided to try the summer roll for our first course. It was one roll cut up into three smaller rolls that were filled with cabbage, carrots and cucumbers and served with a sweet and spicy Thai peanut sauce for dipping. The rolls were light and crisp and were a great choice to be paired with the hot soup that was coming our way next.
My date ordered the Thai beef noodles soup which looked like a Thai inspired pho dish. It came in a huge bowl with big slices of beef, which was very appreciated by my carnivorous date, and included rice noodles, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, celery and green onion in a warm, savory broth. I ordered the tom yum noodles soup. It was also served in a huge bowl with thin rice noodles, ground chicken, bean sprouts, celery, green onions, cilantro and crushed peanuts and topped with a big helping of crispy wonton skins. There were a great mix of textures and flavors in my soup. From the soft noodles and ground chicken in the hot, sour broth, to the crisp crunch from the crispy wonton skins and the distinct flavors from the cilantro and crushed peanuts, made each bite a delicious guessing game as to what I would be tasting next. We slurped our soups down to the last drop and we were comfortably full with warm, satisfied stomachs.
Of course we couldn’t forget about our last course of desserts. My date ordered the molten chocolate cake and I ordered the Key Lime pie. The chocolate cake was warm and gooey with a delicious chocolate syrup to dip the cake in. My pie was light and tangy, which made a refreshing end to my meal. Both desserts were served with two dollops of whipped cream and a cherries.
If you are looking for a meal to warm you up from this cold winter weather (we do have six more weeks, after all) do yourself a favor and visit Siam Terrace in Urbana.
— Brittany Busboom, February 3, 2017
Siam Terrace is open Monday through Friday, 11a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 11a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Photos by Brittany Busboom.
V. Picasso | 112 North Neil Street, Champaign
For Restaurant Week, V. Picasso is offering up a fantastic three course dinner menu. And I do also love that they have the option of ordering all three as a prix-fixe menu ($35) or as individual items. I chose the prix-fixe and to no surprise, was NOT disappointed. Everything I’ve eaten (or sipped) at V. Picasso, has been spot on.
The first course was a beet salad ($9). Known for their farm to table mindset, I was curious to find out what ingredients in this special menu came from local farms. I was thrilled to learn that all three courses incorporated local ingredients. For the beet salad it was the cream in the crème fraiche that came from Prairie Farms. Roasted beets tossed in a lemon vinaigrette were placed atop a healthy dollop of crème fraiche. Tucked in and around were thinly sliced discs of watermelon radish and it was all topped off with shavings of preserved lemon. Upon first bite I got a mouthful of tangy, earthy goodness. While lemons and beets are both very strong flavors, they marry beautifully. The beets themselves were cooked perfectly. The addition of crème fraiche cut the tartness and added a layer of decadence to the dish. The slices of watermelon radish were tender and crisp (and oh so pretty!) with a very mild flavor of their own and just a hint of flavor from the beets.
The second course, the entrée, was mushroom pappardelle ($18). I took my time with this one. It was oh so delicious. The house-made pappardelle (large, flat pasta noodles) was made with eggs from Willow Creek Farm. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente and tossed in a creamy mushroom/rosemary sauce. A generous helping of shiitake and cremini mushrooms mixed in with the pasta rounded out the dish. The shiitake mushrooms seemed to be lightly fried, which I thought was a really lovely touch. It was a generous portion and well worth the $18. I’m torn for saying if you go for anything on this menu this week go for this pasta, but I’m also going to say the same thing about the shortbread dessert.
The third course means its dessert time. Halva shortbread ($9) consisted of two pieces of shortbread that sandwiched a house-made mascarpone and for good measure it sits atop more mascarpone (the cheese coming from Prairie Farms). Two fresh blackberries crown the top along with a drizzle of blackberry and port compote — holy wow, it was tasty! It tasted rich without being too rich. The mascarpone was very light and airy, creamy but not heavy on the tongue. Halva is a broad term used to describe desserts that are made with a base of flour or nut butter, such as sesame tahini. I’m not usually a big fan of shortbread but these little slices had such wonderful, nutty flavor and weren’t too crunchy. The blackberries tasted so fresh and were perfectly sweet. For someone who usually favors savory over sweets, this was a perfect dessert. Do you want to know the coolest part? Those little granules you can see in the photo are bee pollen. Talk about a super food! See, it’s a healthy dessert! Tasting that was a first for me. Try a little by itself. For me, my mind and my taste buds immediately took me to tea flavor. It’s slightly bitter and a bit floral. It was a pretty neat little touch.
I highly recommend you check out V. Picasso’s dinner menu for Restaurant Week. They are offering a really great, high quality menu for an unbeatable price ($35 for all three).
— Bobbie Bonebrake, January 31, 2017
V. Picasso is open Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m. All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.
Correction, February 1st: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the cream for the entrée and dessert came from Prairie Fruits Farm. It came from Prairie Farms.
Watson's Shack & Rail | 211 North Neil Street, Champaign
Watson’s has two different options for Restaurant Week, both of which are prix fixe menus featuring items on the regular menu. Aside from Dancing Dog Eatery & Juicery in Urbana, which is explicitly a vegan restaurant, Watson’s appears to be the only other restaurant to offer a vegan meal on its Restaurant Week menu.
Option 1 (vegan) $15
Fried Brussels Sprouts (shallots, maple pecans, vadouvan aioli)
Fried Tofu Po’Boy served with potato wedges
Side of Red Island Sea Peas and Dirty Rice
Option 2 (meaty) $25
Fried thigh and leg served Nashville style served with potato wedges
Side of creamy coleslaw
Slice of pie and scoop of gelato
Both of Watson’s options basically result in getting a free side dish, or a savings of $3. Option 2 is a solid choice, as all of the components are delicious. The chicken is available in mild, so if you’re afraid of heat, don’t worry. And have you ever had a bad slice of pie from Hopscotch? No, I didn’t think so.
In spite of my love for spicy food and pie, I selected option 1, the vegan option. I’ve had the tofu po’boy before, so I knew that it was a good, solidly delicious option, but I was particularly intrigued by the fried Brussels sprouts.
Sometimes with prix fixe items, it’s unclear if the appetizer serving sizes will be for one or for sharing, so I was a little worried that I would have to share a single serving with my friends. Served with shallots, maple pecans, and a vadouvan aioli, the sprouts were plentiful enough to share. (Vadouvan is French-inspired blend of spices, usually curry with shallot, onion, or garlic aromatics.)
The sprouts were really delicious. The aioli’s earthy notes enhanced the vegetal cabbage flavor of the sprouts. The maple pecans, though, were the best part of the dish. They were sweet and obviously maple-y, which cut through the earthy notes of the aioli and married all of the flavors together.
The tofu po’boy was really fantastic. The tofu was perfectly fried, the bread was soft but held together, the remoulade was tangy and delicious, the pickles were perfect, and, perhaps most importantly, the red onion was sliced thinly enough to actually be edible. If you’re not into tofu, this might be the sammie that makes you reconsider. Seriously. It’s that good. The potato wedges are always good. I wasn’t in love with the rice and peas. The amount of food I received for $15 was quite generous.
If you need a thinly veiled excuse to eat at Waston’s this week, tell yourself you need to eat more vegetables.
— Jessica Hammie, January 30, 2017
Watson's is open Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; and Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Photos by Jessica Hammie.
Editor's Note: This article will be continually updated throughout the week, so the publish date and time at the top of the article will appear differently each day.