Dancing the night away fueled by appetizing small bites, two Smile Politely writers — one dance writer and one food writer — attended the inaugural event of Monarch Event Center’s Musical Food Tour. This past Thursday’s Tango and Tapas event featured tango music with a performance, dance lesson, a buffet of appetizers, and a bar.
The two attended the event to see what this Monticello event series had to offer. Here are their impressions of both the tango and tapas:
Tango and Tapas opened with live music by the Champaign-Urbana tango orchestra Bandoneon Massacre. A subset of the orchestra played: Christen Mercier (piano), Amanda Ramey and Jessie Stark (violins), and Joe Grohens (bandoneon). Their repertoire of Golden Age tango (1930s-1940s) mixed with a few more modern pieces by Anibal Troilo and Osvaldo Pugliese amplified the venue’s ambiance. Evening light streamed in through the venue’s stained-glass windows as the tango orchestra played and the crowd milled around the buffet and bar. It was quite lovely.
After the live music, Joe Grohens and Carlota Bullard, who have been teaching tango for over 20 years, gave a three-part performance. The couple introduced three styles of tango music and dancing, which they then performed. Each of the three performances came complete with wardrobe changes for Grohens and Bullard. The interludes between their performances gave the host Ingrid Kammin an opportunity to announce the raffle prize winners, and I even won a $50 gift card to the dance wear store en Pointe Monticello! Kammin’s playful, bubbly announcement style paired nicely with Grohens and Bullard’s performances, which showcased their light and playful showmanship as much as their skill at dancing. Grohens and Bullard said, “We like doing events like this because we feel compelled to spread tango dancing and music to other people. It’s just such a wonderful art form — it is playful, and the music is amazing. We enjoy seeing people learn and become good at it.”
Grohens and Bullard regularly teach tango classes across East Central Illinois, including on Thursday night. The couple taught a standalone introductory tango lesson where we learned the basics of the embrace, walking, and a turn. The students, who ranged in age from three years old to 70+, filled the dance floor. People were laughing and making light of the inevitable collisions and stepped-on toes. It was great to see so many people enjoying learning something new. All in all, it was a fun evening in a beautiful venue with good music, dancing, and company. (LH)
Tickets included a buffet-style light dinner by Pan & Cake to complement a tango demonstration and lesson from Joe Grohens and Carlota Bullard. Drink choices for the evening included sangria (with or without alcohol) for $8 a cup.
Event food has different rules than restaurant food. At restaurants, the food is the feature: you make your decision based on what the establishment serves and what you want to eat at that time. Event food must complement a gathering without overwhelming; it must cater to a potentially disparate collection of dietary needs, satisfy without feeling heavy, and be easy to plate — all while looking appealing. Pan & Cake did a great job at checking all those boxes.
Those familiar with traditional Spanish tapas may note some ingredient and presentation variations in the menu items. I’ll admit, I think slightly different names would have framed some of the dishes better. However, in the big picture of the evening, I found the opportunity to learn from naming inaccuracies did not diminish the amount of fun we had.
I started with the Spanish flatbread. The crust was a perfect thickness, not too doughy but with a nice chew. There were two options: vegetarian version (pictured, served by request) topped with corn, roasted red peppers, and cotija cheese and then vegetarian plus chorizo (pictured on buffet table). Any flatbread that includes corn as a topping is typically a winner with me, and this was no exception. While a cheese like manchego would have lended some authenticity, I enjoyed the clean finish and salty balance of the cotija.
From the antipasto offerings, I chose a lovely petite carrot, some cucumber slices, sugar snap peas, sun-dried tomato hummus and multi-grain chips, marinated cherry pepper, and an exceptional pimento-stuffed Queen olive. The crudite provided a lovely and fresh balance to the other menu elements.
The chili-lime shrimp bites, or chili-lime shrimp-less bites for me, consisted of a sweet and tangy tropical slaw nested in a crisp wonton wrapper nest with a dollop of avocado crema perched atop. The slaw was a bit sweeter than I anticipated, but I like the idea behind this dish. They were also well executed from a visual standpoint; the colors and proportions of the ingredients worked beautifully together.
Next were the savory chicken and cheese Spanish empanadas or cheese empanadas from the vegetarian menu. The filling of the cheese empanada was quite similar to the topping of the flatbread, but I felt it worked well. The ulta-flakey crust was technically more reminiscent of a pie crust rather than a traditional empanada dough, but I only mention the difference to highlight what a fantastic pie crust this was. There are few places that succeed in making a delicate pie dough like these had: light texture, perfect thickness, filling completely contained, and no soggy bottoms.
I’m not exactly sure what makes these churros (pictured top right) Spanish-style as the cinnamon sugar coating and dulce de leche is quite traditional for Mexico, whereas in Spain, typically churros are coated in plain sugar and served with a thick dark-chocolate dipping sauce. However, putting aside the split (linguistic) hairs, these were absolutely my favorite food of the evening. This simple dessert was expertly executed: not oily, slightly crisp on the outside with a perfectly pillowy center, dunked in sweet, thick, dulce de leche.
You’ll notice they only appear in the background of one picture. This is because after one bite, my thoughts shifted entirely to the churros and getting that next delicious bite. For a few moments, the room faded from my attention and it was just me, the churros, and a cup a dulce de leche. It wasn’t until after exiting this cinnamon sugar reverie that I realized I should have taken more pictures beforehand and the few remaining crumbs do little to convey finer points of this dessert.
There are three more stops on the Monarch Event Center’s Musical Food Tour this summer, Jazz & Jambalaya on June 15th, Picnic in Paris on July 13th, and Little Italy on August 24th, all featuring catering by Pan & Cake and with tickets for each priced at $35.
I’ve been lucky enough to sample a few items from the sweets side of Pan & Cake, their cookies, pies and cakes are delicious works of art for the senses. There’s a lot more to the savory side of the Pan & Cake menu I’d love to try too — hello, vegan lobster-less rolls and mushroom Wellington. (CA)
This article was written by Caitlin Aylmer and LeiAnna Hamel.