This review is about ten years past due, I'd guess.
The fact is, I know almost nothing about food by comparison to a fella like Thad Morrow, the proprietor and head chef at bacaro, now in its second decade in downtown Champaign. I've been fortunate enough to have eaten at some of the United States' finest restaurants due to having a wealthy Grammy and a penchant for enjoying fine foods whenever affordable; Commander's Palace and Brennan's in New Orleans were both delicious; Scarpetta and Babbo in NYC were of another world; Cafe Lula in Chicago is sublime; La Maison de la Truffe in Paris was one for the books; Sierra Mar in Big Sur was well, kinda silly, but nonetheless worth it upon having been engaged on the hillside there just hours before.
But I'd never been to bacaro, right here in Champaign, until this past week. The reasons why would likely bore you, and certainly, more than anything, I don't feel like dredging up a bunch of downtown drama for you. So, forget all that. The past is what it is. What I want to do is try to contextualize this fine restaurant in a way that you might understand it, and perhaps even, give it a shot one night coming up this year.
If you are like me, you'll walk out with a game plan in place for the next time. It's really just that good.
There are fine restaurants in Champaign-Urbana. And credit is due to them for both serving up great food consistently, and for operating in 2011, in the midst of a shitstorm economy. We try as best we can to eat out at these places to both support them and to satiate our need to live without having to do dishes here and there. It's that duality that makes it worthwhile.
But bacaro. It's really in a league of its own around here, and honestly, I'd put it up against any of the fine dining establishments that I've been to worldwide.
We were taken care of from start to finish. Upon being seated, we were offered plenty of space to decide on what we wanted, and were given as much information as we needed. Our server, admittedly, was a friend of ours, but you can't bullshit this type of thing; when I asked about something, she knew what I needed to know. She had been trained. It's her job, sure, but she did is so well.
She began the meal with a small plate of pea tendrils marinated in sea salt and olive oil with a piece of house smoked salmon and a kalamata olive, compliments of the house. It was perfect. Two bites — big and small — all in one.
After that, we started with two appetizers and a bottle of Côtes du Rhône ($24). We're big fans of octopus ($10), and Mario Batali does his right at Babbo in NYC. We ordered it with no debate and Thad's version went toe to toe with Batali's without question, and the portion was larger and more rewarding.
We were also easily swayed into ordering the special of the night: buratta ($12), an Italian cheese made by Brian McKay of Art Mart, which was served with grilled ramps and just a drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar. Again — delicious, and the portion, just silly large. And that should've tipped us off right there; bacaro doesn't fuck around when it comes to serving its patrons.
The prices aren't really that steep at bacaro, especially if you are comparing them to say, other formidable restaurants in town. But you get what you pay for here. These aren't nachos or wings, after all. And if they were, you'd likely pay, what — $6.99 for a portion? Great. You pay $10 or so for this instead. It's rich food. And you don't really need a lot of it. But, you get more than you should at bacaro. See? Makes perfect sense if you contextualize it. The bread alone, served warm, and with house churned butter, should be enough for it to all start to make sense.
A quick aside about the wine: I know nothing of what works and what doesn't. What I know about wine you could fit in a soup spoon. I have but one measurement about wine, and here it is: does it taste like rubbing alcohol? This did not, and for $24, it was a steal. That was about three 5 oz pours for each of us. Roughly $4 a glass. Please — find me a bar in town that serves wine at that price. I beg you.
Upon downing our first glass of wine, our server decided it was time to give us a taste of the house duck liver pâté, accompanied by a layer of black truffle and crostini. This is what food is supposed to taste like. It was so marvelous, that I ate my entire portion without batting an eye. The next thing I knew, my stomach was telling me I was likely in trouble for the rest of the night.
This is because we ordered not one, but two pasta dishes, and that was to be our greatest mistake on this night, but not because the food was poor, not by any means. Again, these portions are not for the faint of heart. Our Gnocchi with lamb meatballs and shaved pecorino ($17) was delightful, filled with flavor, both light and toothsome.
But it was the Risotto with peas and cured pork ($17) that was the star of the show. And it was a massive bowl, filled to the brim, and far too much for either of us to even consider eating any more than a few spoonfuls. It's so dense, rich, and creamy, that one has to pause between every bite. I cannot give this dish its due justice by writing about it. It was simply that good.
By the time our main course arrived, my wife and I were both lit up like a church, and filled to the brim with some of the finest food we'd ever consumed. About an hour prior to this, we'd thought it rational and pragmatic to only split one entree. We decided on the N.Y. Strip steak, served with fava bean puree and house made croutons and greens ($32).
When it came to the table, we started to laugh. This is no measly 6 oz bullshit portion reserved for the dainty type or those looking to cut back on the red meat. No my friends — this is thick cut, organic aged USDA beef — the good kind. 14 oz. And cooked to perfection.
I am the kind of fella that knows how to properly cook a steak. On the grill, sure — but better on the stove top for a minute on each side at searing hot temperatures, and then into a 550 degree oven to finish it off. Oh, it sets the smoke alarm off each and every time, but it's damn worth it.
So, I rarely, if ever, order a steak at a restaurant.
I'll leave hyperbole to speak for itself here. I will be ordering this particular steak again, and that right soon.
After having polished off the entire steak together, and with the bottle of wine long gone, we did what anyone else in this predicament might have done. We ordered dessert. The choices were plentiful, and bacaro also gives you the option of a cheese plate to end your night, but our sights were set on the Chocolate Tart, served with a chocolate dipped strawberry and a scoop of cassis ice cream ($6.5). It was tremendous, from top to bottom.
When Smile Politely decided to run a Best of the Decade series at the end of the Aughts, I knew it would come along with some controversy. After all, who among us doesn't feel passionately about food, to some degree? There were many restaurants that opened in the 2000s that didn't make the cut. I even lamented the fact that B-Won wasn't on the list. But what we published was the truth from those who had submitted. bacaro came in at 13 out of 27 restaurants and in the comments of said article, I, along with others, argued that it was likely because of the price point. And it's true — bacaro costs more than your average night out, and I don't think that spending this type of money on food is something to be taken lightly, no matter what you rake in each year. Certainly, like most folks living in Champaign-Urbana, I am just not in the position to be able to dine there all that often.
But, for the same reasons that we buy a nice suit or a nice dress, or treat ourselves to a fantastic vacation when we've worked hard, or simply indulge in something that suits our habitual fancy, well — we should be willing to treat dining out the same way. bacaro is affordable if you want it to be. Sure, you can drop a couple bills in there without trying hard, but I'd also suggest that you and a date could get in and out having spent under $60 for two if you wanted as well. And trust me — you will be full. It's not me just trying to convince you to support a local business. You will be full. And you will be impressed. I guarantee it.
That bacaro wasn't on that list isn't so much a crime as it is a function of a perceived ignorance in the populace; it is easily the best restaurant in 100 miles, and I'd venture to guess that there are more than a few critics out there — far more knowledgeable than myself — that would classify it as one of the best in the Midwest.
That you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy it — well, that's just what makes living in Champaign-Urbana fabulous, isn't it?
Photos by Justine Fein-Bursoni