V. Picasso has been open in Downtown Champaign for a little while now. Like a blooming flower, the restaurant opened slowly: first for dinner, then dinner and brunch, and then lunch, dinner, and brunch. With a chic interior space and wine on tap, it’s a cool looking place meet up for a drink or two. Turns out, it’s a pretty tasty place to meet up for dinner, too.
I met a friend at V. Picasso for dinner not too long ago. It was a lovely Friday night, and 40 North’s Friday Night Live program was in full effect, which meant no available outdoor seating. The interior space is dimly lit, with a handful of booths on the walls and tables in the middle of the room; it’s sort of old world contemporary, with warm wood, warm lights, and dark metal. We sat at a very cozy table for two, and it quickly became even more cozy when our oversized plates arrived.
Our waitress was friendly, and took our drink order immediately. My friend opted for a rosé on tap, and I ordered the Golden Monkey Gin and Tonic ($13), a g+t with saffron. The drink arrived in a lovely little glass, filled to the brim. The saffron created a very yellow hue that in most other contexts, or especially this context, would have been/was reminiscent of concentrated pee. But the addition of a very generous amount of saffron strands quickly removed the pee-read of the drink, and helped justify the $13 price tag. The drink was dry, and quite saffron-y. With such assertive flavors, it was a sippable drink, and I nursed it over the course of the entire dinner.
V. Picasso’s menu isn’t exactly Spanish, as it sort-of was in it’s short-lived Urbana days, but there are some Span-ish items on the menu. Bar snacks include marinated olives, Marcona almonds, and fried chickpeas, as well as deviled eggs and stuffed olives. These items are ubiquitous in Downtown Champaign — you’ll find the same things on the menus of similar restaurants. Where V. Picasso sets itself apart from its competition is on the make-your-own charcuterie/cheese plate. Diners can choose from a selection of meats and cheeses (priced a la carte, $6 and $5, respectively). These selections are served on a very large wooden board with bread, olive tapenade, honey, mustard, and grape jam. My friend and I opted for the V. House Made Beef Jerky ($6), and the Prairie Fruits Farm selection ($5, Little Bloom on the Prairie). Served alongside those choices were the breads, charred grape jam, olive tapenade, and honey. This board was arranged beautifully, but took up most of our cozy table. The beef jerky was smoky and just a little spicy. It could have been softer, but was otherwise a nicely done, in-house jerky. To order PFF’s cheese selection was a no-brainer; all PFF cheeses are amazing. The accoutrement were the perfect companions to our humble bit of dried meat and two wedges of cheese. The bread — done by Kaya Tate/Hopscotch — was delicious and soft. The olive tapenade was salty and garlicky, and worked perfectly with the jerky and soft cheese. The charred grape jam was just sweet and sour enough to balance out the tapenade.
Since we were treating ourselves to a nice (ahem, expensive) dinner, my friend and I also ordered the Parmesan fries ($6) and the fried green tomato with house-made mozzarella ($10). I was quite surprised by the portion sizes when the dishes arrived to the table. For as small as the jerky and cheese portions were, the fries were plenty big to share with more than one other person and with a soup or salad or bar snack, the tomato and mozzarella could have easily been part of a light dinner. On the menu, the fries were described as “garlic, chili, parsley, saffron aioli.” A more accurate description would have included raw shallot and jalapeño. The fries were thick and potato-y, but not crispy. The shallots were entirely way too overpowering, and should have been left off the fries. The saffron aioli seemed more like a weird cheese-like sauce. The Parmesan was sprinkled throughout, but was not a prominent component of the starter. It felt like I was eating a French fry salad instead an appetizer. The individual components were good, but as a whole didn’t meet my expectation of “Parmesan fries.”
The fried green tomatoes and house made mozzarella was also beautifully presented. A tower of alternative creamy white cheese and crispy golden discs sat in the middle of an ornamental plate drizzled with balsamic reduction and dusted with burst cherry tomatoes. The house made mozzarella was awesome. Creamy and indulgent, it was the perfect soft foil to the crisp tomatoes. The breading on the tomatoes was nice, but fell off of the tomato upon touch. The tomato slices were thick, and the tomatoes firm and slightly tart. The balsamic reduction was super sweet and tangy, and unified the individual flavors nicely.
Entrées appear to be carefully curated, and undoubtedly meat-centric. Of the nine entrées on the menu, there is only one vegetarian option, and it changes (presumably). The Always Vegetarian ($17) entrée on my visit was a summer vegetable risotto. Allow me to rant for a moment: I am sick of seeing vegetarian risotto as the singular vegetarian option on the menu. Winter? Mushroom risotto. Summer? “Summer vegetable,” i.e., squash risotto. How boring and uninspired. I know that the chef is more interesting and creative than vegetable risotto. Just look at the meat entrées! It not only limits the options for vegetarian diners, it also discourages them from returning. But wait, you say. Aren’t there vegetarian flatbread options? Well, yes, there are. In fact there are two veggie flatbread options. But flatbreads are stupid and boring. I’m sure V. Picasso’s taste good (that house made mozz is really, really, yummy), but the idea of a flatbread is insulting to me. Ruby Tuesday and TGI Friday’s serve flatbreads, for crying out loud. Let’s do better.
So lucky for me, I eat meat. I ordered the half chicken (fried, duh, $22, also available grilled), which was served with herb gnocchi and spinach. It was incredible. As you already know, dear, loyal reader, I’m not entirely easy to please, but pleased I was. That chicken was perfectly fried and moist and tender and flavorful. It was absolutely delicious. The spinach was well seasoned, and not too slimy (as cooked spinach can sometimes be). The herb gnocchi was pillowy, and herby, but fell apart upon touch. This wasn’t so bad, because I quickly shoveled it into my mouth. I wish there had been more of the side dish. The entrée was served — like the meat and cheese plate — on a huge wood board. This was lovely, but took up a ridiculous amount of space on the table that was already too small.
It’s worth pointing out that while the chicken was awesome, it was probably the least exciting item on the entrée menu. More interesting or adventurous dishes included shrimp and pork belly with polenta, pork shank, roasted quail and bone marrow, and pan roasted duck breast.
Even though I had already put away a week’s worth of calories, I had to get dessert. Desserts are prepared by Hopscotch: Cakes and Confections — Kaya Tate. Tate was the pastry chef at Silvercreek about a year ago, but has since left Silvercreek and started her own business. Part of her business is the desserts (and breads) for V. Picasso. This is a fantastic partnership, because her desserts are amazing. My friend and I shared the ricotta poundcake with strawberry ginger compote, balsamic caramel sauce, and pink peppercorns ($7). The cake was soft and tender and moist and completely delicious. That balsamic caramel sauce? Awesome. The balsamic caramel is one of Tate’s go-to confections; a version of it appeared at the Ancient Ales dinner last summer. You can sometimes also buy it from her at the Tuesday Champaign Farmers’s Market and/or the Saturday Urbana’s Market at the Square.
By the end of the night, I was completely, totally, and uncomfortably full, but ultimately satisfied with my meal. My dinner was not cheap — splitting the starters and dessert still brought by bill to over $50 before tax and gratuity. It’s hard to imagine swinging by for a casual dinner with the kids. (Although surely they could share a flatbread.)
Even though a few of the starters weren’t quite perfect, my entrée and the dessert more than made up for those missteps. If you’re looking to spend some money while wearing your fancy pants, V. Picasso is where it’s at — but I might suggest something with an elastic waistband. Or a billowy shirt.
V. Picasso is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is closed Mondays. For lunch and brunch menus, or to make a reservation, visit the restaruant's website.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.