“It’s kind of cool getting to know your farmer … petting the cows at Kilgus [Farmstead],” said Jessica Gorin, Executive Chef of Big Grove Tavern, which will open May 31 on the ground floor of One East Main in downtown Champaign. Gorin, a chef for 14 years and proponent of using local food, makes the farm-to-table concept a reality for the new restaurant by visiting many local farms to meet the farmers and source the ingredients.
Photo by Justine Bursoni
Although taking the place of Jim Gould Restaurant, Big Grove Tavern’s renovated space and concept both depart completely from that of the former. With double the bar space and about half the seating in the restaurant, the place feels warmer and cozier than its cavernous predecessor. The menu features classic-style comfort food, but with a modern, elevated twist. The beer list reflects as many local, yet diverse, craft beers as possible, with all being Midwestern brews.
Gorin, a timely transplant from California, arrived in town with a tenure-track professor husband and a desire to find an executive chef job as fulfilling and as focused on local foods as the one she had in San Francisco. Even though she had an early interest in food and recalls trips her parents took her on by, “the place where we had the pidgeon … or the rabbit stew,” she said she didn’t start out hoping to become a chef, but a scientist.
However, Gorin lost her interest in conservation biology when she realized that no matter how well she showed the effects of humans in the environment, she still could never improve the habitats she studied. When she found herself thinking more about cooking than about research, she made her move.
At first, she worked her way through the stations in the kitchen of a small fine dining restaurant in Davis, California. Then she began staging [stahjz-ing] in restaurants in San Francisico and Napa Valley one to two times a month. (A stagiaire works in a restaurant for free for a night, as a trainee, just to learn how their kitchens work.)
For several years, Gorin worked at restaurants in Napa Valley, including Domaine Chandon, where she refined many of her cooking and butchery skills because they ran each individual station like a kitchen. She moved on to become a chef at J Vineyards & Winery, and then finally made her way to the larger city of San Francisco where she was most recently Executive Chef for three years at Thirsty Bear, a Spanish Tapas restaurant focused on local ingredients.
Don’t let her California background and farm food preferences mislead you. This chef with a French background and an affinity for butter won’t push health food across the table at you. Gorin’s menu for Big Grove Tavern focuses on comfort food remade with a twist. The thing you order may not look like what you ate as a Midwestern child, or a southern child in my case, but the flavors hearken back to hearty comfort foods and use local ingredients whenever possible.
A few items of note: the Beer Brined Pork Loin Horseshoe. Yes, the sandwich that originated in Springfield, Illinois, but an elevated twist on the classic, with a mornay sauce instead of, well, this. Another item of note is the Tavern burger. At a base price of $11, it’s not exactly cheap, but maybe it’s reasonable when you consider that it comes from a mix of Kilgus Farmstead beef, Moore Farms pork, and Bloomin’ Prairie Bison.
I tasted some of the food during the soft opening, and although I usually refrain from making judgments on food or service until a restaurant has been running for a month or two, the soft opening went well, with a couple minor glitches that management immediately addressed when we mentioned them. So here is the report on our dinner:
Fresh baked soft pretzel
The pretzel arrived hot and soft, as advertised. The spicy whole-grain mustard sauce, a little thick for mustard, exhibits extreme horseradish-like characteristics. Sushi lovers may recognize this as similar to the sinus-clearing wasabi fire, and while it was a little strong even for me to slather on as I might normally with a fresh-baked pretzel, our server did fairly warned us. We’ll see how the typical palate fares with this condiment.
Spring chopped salad
Not your traditional chopped salad, this contained asparagus, frisee, yellow beets, and hazelnuts, among other things. The flavors worked with the sherry vinaigrette, and it was refreshingly light compared to the…
Photo by Justine Bursoni
Seared pork belly
When pork belly cooks just the right way, the thin layer of skin on top sears or browns until crisp, the layer of fat just below renders and breaks down into an almost melt-in-your mouth texture, and the tough bottom layer of pork gets incredibly tender. This pork belly was cooked just the right way, and then placed on top of a bed of buttery, cheesy corn grits. The kitchen also tucked some pickled vegetables between the pork belly and grits as a counterpoint to the richness. No lie, this starter teeters on the edge of too rich, but comes in an appropriately small portion size for the decadent intensity. I still ate every bite, except the one I had to share with my dining partner.
Free-range roasted chicken
I keep mistakenly calling this dish “Chicken and dumplings” even though the roasted chicken and herbed dumplings sit separately on the plate, not together in a giant bowl of broth. Clearly the flavors provoke the memory of one of my favorite childhood dishes, chicken and dumplings, only better. The crispness of the chicken and the herbal explosion within the perfectly fluffy round dumplings made this one of my favorites. Our server may cite the same reasons, but she mentioned that it is her favorite dish on the menu as well.
House made pork sausage
I only tried one bite of this, but it adequately met my expectations for a house-made pork sausage. A diner at the table next to ours commented that their spatzle was a little dry, but in our case, it was pan-roasted after being boiled and drained of water, and just drier than the average wet spatzle you’d get elsewhere.
Sweet potato waffles
Two little waffles made with sweet potato batter, topped with ice cream, sea salt, and a whiskey glaze. Not too sweet, and I enjoyed the ice cream texture less than the waffle or the glaze, but I was also likely too full to judge it fairly.
The best thing I ate all evening? A toss-up between the pork belly and the roasted chicken.
Remember, these dishes at Big Grove Tavern will reflect elevated twists on classic comfort foods, so you’ll find a Horseshoe with mornay sauce instead of regular cheese, and though you might have a regular wedge salad elsewhere, you’ll get a little twist on a wedge here, with Bibb instead of iceberg lettuce.
While I can’t say the farm-to-table concept is new to Champaign-Urbana, since I’ve seen local foods at Bacaro, Buvons, Café Zojo, Carmon’s, and Destihl, just to name a few (sorry for anyone I left out), I’d rather eat food from local farms than from some pesticide-laden producer 1,200 miles away, and I applaud the effort to source as many ingredients locally as possible.
As a side note, the marketing consultants for this place wanted to meet with me before I ran a story on the restaurant to convey the concept. To me, their pitch wasn’t convincing and left me feeling like they didn’t know the market, or at least failed to convey their message. But then I met Gorin. As with any solid restaurant, I got the concept when I ate the food and met the people involved in day-to-day operations. Now, if the marketing guys will get out of the way and let the chefs and managers do what they do, I think this restaurant has a fair chance at succeeding.
Big Grove Tavern is located at One East Main in Champaign. The publicized opening date is on May 31, but the doors are already open. Restaurant hours are Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.–10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.–11 p.m. Bar hours are Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–2 a.m.
Lunch mains range from $9–14. Dinner mains range from $11–22.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this article stated the restaurant would open on May 31.
Photo by Justine Bursoni