The Pygmalion Festival got stared a week early this year with its inaugural Food component. Just in case you were wondering:

The Pygmalion Festival is an independently produced, multi-faceted, week-long celebration of culture. From its humble beginnings in 2005, and over the span of a decade plus, the festival has always remained true to its mission: showcase the best of what’s out there, alongside the best of what’s here.

Here is Champaign-Urbana.

In the last handful of years, The Pygmalion Festival has indeed begun to encompass and celebrate culture, generally. The addition of programming surrounding literature, craft and artisan goods, and technology rounded out a discussion of cultural production. This year’s addition to food pushed that conversation a little further.

The super small list of participating restaurants (bacaro, Black Dog, Farren’s, Maize, Watson’s, and The Pop Stop) was certainly intentional. Pygmalion Food was conceived to be a celebration of some of the best C-U has to offer in dining, and an opportunity for people to sample some of that fare. There was live music, but this was a food event. The focus, intention, and monies spent by attendees were directed exclusively to eating and drinking. There was no secondary currency; you simply ordered your food from the vendor and paid that vendor directly. At first it seemed strange to not have a bunch of tickets to keep track of, if only because every other festival with food in town uses a secondary currency. I understand why tickets are used, especially if the festival organizers are collecting a percentage. But I have to say it was quite liberating to simply give the vendors my money and get my food in return.

The festival took place in the parking lot just west of The Accord (North Market and East Main, Champaign). I stopped by early on Friday, just as the festival opened, to avoid the rain that threatened (and delivered) later that night. Because it was 5 p.m., there were hardly any people there, and some of the restaurants were still finishing set up. By 5:30, though, people were trickling in, young families with young kids showed up, and there was a small, but engaged crowd. Saturday saw a larger and livelier crowd. The weather was gorgeous, which undoubtedly helped. Certainly a bonus was that the event was family friendly; because the food prices were under $10, it was an affordable way to feed the adults and kids, save for those with healthy appetites.

I’m sure that the restaurants and organizers would liked to have seen a larger crowd. Business is business, and everyone needs to get his or her investments back. It’s not cheap or easy to take a restaurant off site and serve hot, tasty food. However, the smaller crowd made it so much easier for attendees to get food. There weren’t excessively long lines or wait times, and I’m sure most folks appreciated this, even if they didn’t notice it consciously.

I have two curmudgeonly complaints, and one fair one. My fair complaint was that there were limited options for vegetarians: zucchini blossom taco or tlacoyo; black bean burger; or ricotta gnocchi. My two curmudgeonly complaints were that at times the music was too loud, making it impossible to have a conversation with anyone; and that I would have liked to sit down in a chair. The high top tables were essential, but perhaps a few picnic tables or communal seating arrangements can be considered for the future.

Five restaurants participated: bacaro, Black Dog, Farren’s, Maize, and Watson’s. The Pop Stop also participated. Each restaurant offered a dish at $4 and most offered a dish at $8. Pop Stop’s popsicles were $3. Triptych and Goose Island beers were available, including a collaboration between the two called Curtis (made with Curtis Orchard apple cider). All drinks (beer, cocktails) were $5, which was reasonable. Columbia Street Roastery was also on hand with caffeine; coffee beverages were $3 or $4.

I tried just about everything, and almost everything was what I expected it to be: delicious. The participating restaurants know how to make good food, and have proven so in their brick and mortar (or wheeled) spots. A little temporary cooking situation in a parking lot was not going to change that, though if there were excessively long lines I think it may have been different. I think there was some fun in being able to directly compare one dish to another in both flavor and price, but that the differing price points made it seem like some things were better deals than others. For instance, Black Dog's $4 dish was so excellent it made the $8 dish seem less so. 

It’s no secret that we have some great eats in C-U. Even the most cynical residents can concede that much. The Pygmalion Food Festival, as I understand it, was intended to be a celebration of some of the best chef-driven restaurants in town. It was meant to be an opportunity to sample some food, mingle with friends, family, and other folks in town, listen to some music, maybe even have a chat with the folks who run the restaurants. In that sense, I think the festival was a success. I look forward to next year's. 

My thoughts on the dishes are below. Did you attend the festival? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Bacaro

Ricotta gnocchi with fall vegetable ratatouille, herbs, parmigiano-reggiano | $4

Braised beef short ribs with roasted fall vegetables, potato puree, braising reduction | $8

Of all the participating restaurants, the food from bacaro was undoubtedly the best deal, at least in terms of what you paid at the festival versus what you’d pay in the restaurant. Bacaro is not cheap, and if you’re on any sort of reasonable budget it’s hard to justify an expensive dinner. For $12, you were able to get a taste of bacaro, and maybe you’ll make it your next special occasion spot. I found the gnocchi dish to be less than exciting. The gnocchi were well cooked, but the dish was lacking some pizzazz. It needed some more herbs or spice or maybe something crunchy to bring it all together. The short rib was the standout of the two. The carrots were delicious, as was the potato puree. The beef was tender and flavorful. If you see braised short rib on bacaro’s menu in the future, do yourself a favor and go eat it. It’s good.

Black Dog Smoke & Ale House

Whole hog sandwiches with Lexington dip BBQ sauce | $4

Piemonte beer sausage with grilled peppers and onions and Triptych beer | $8

The whole hog sandwich was the winner for me. The pork was moist, and tender, and flavorful, and super, super delicious. The beer sausage itself was good, but I felt that for $8, it wasn’t quite the best deal. The grilled peppers and onions were, at least on my sandwich, mostly onions. I think that had I not also had the whole hog sandwich, I’d have enjoyed the sausage a bit more; that sandwich was so good it overshadowed the sausage.

Farren’s Pub

A selection of Farren’s burgers as sliders: The Russell, The Motherlode, Green Chile, Cheeseburger, Chipotle Black Bean yellow mustard, red catsup | $4

In my preview I expressed some disappointment that Farren’s wasn’t doing something different than the burgers already on the restaurant’s regular menu. I’m still bummed that I didn’t have an opportunity to try a new and exciting, off-menu burger, but damn those Farren’s burgers are good. I opted for the simple cheeseburger, and it was awesome. Each burger was cooked to order, so it took a few minutes to be ready, but it was well worth the wait.

Maize Mexican Grill

Tacos: skirt steak, marinated pork, white fish, zucchini blossoms with cebolla, cilantro, smild or spicy salsa | two for $4

Tlacoyos: skirt steak, marinated pork, white fish, zucchini blossoms with sour cream, cheese, onion, cilantro, mild or spicy salsa | $4

Maize has the best tacos in town, right? And the tlacoyo, an item I never order because I’m currently obsessed with the nachos and huaraches, was delicious. I had the taco and tlacoyo al pastor (marinated pork), and they were superb. Hubby had the carne asada, which was also tasty. Tacos are usually $2.75, so two for $4 was a deal. Next time I get Maize, I'm getting one of those tlacoyos. 

Watson’s Shack & Rail

Jerk Wings with local habanero and scotch bonnet peppers
Choose full pound or half-pound | $4/$8

I was very excited to eat these wings, and I was not disappointed. They were super delicious, and tender, and super spicy. On Friday night a few of us shared a half-pound of wings (about 6 wings). I ate one, and didn’t think it was break-my-face spicy. On Saturday, the spouse and I shared a full pound, and I soon learned that yes, indeed, they were break-your-face spicy. They brought tears to one friend’s eyes. The accompanying jerk ranch sauce was a necessary coolant; I generally dislike all things ranch, but this was well balanced and creamy, without tasting like it came out of a concealed valley.  I can’t wait for these to show up on special at Watson’s.

The Pop Stop

Frozen Novelty Bars: Pistachio, cucumber melon, pineapple habanero, fudgesicle, strawberry watermelon | $3 each

The Pop Stop’s frozen novelty bars never disappoint. You’re not going to find a better fudgesicle in this town, that’s for sure. These were a much needed palate cleanser and digestif (of sorts). 

Columbia Street Roastery

Pour Over Pygmalion Blend | $3

Dirty Chata: Maize’s horchata blended with ice coffee | $4

Columbia Street’s Pygmalion blend was a smooth and slighty fruity brew. The dirty chata, made with Maize’s horchata, was sweet and refreshing. The paper straw, while festive and cute, is a terrible idea. It's made of paper, and coffee is wet. 

Triptych

Curtis: a collaboration with Goose Island | $5

It was quite the pleasure to meet Curtis last weekend. The beer was crisp and apple-y, but not too sweet or overbearing. It was super easy to drink. I’m looking forward to having this one again soon.

The Pygmalion Festival continues this week. For more info, check out the festival schedule.

All photos by Jessica Hammie.