Though C-U is full of delicious dining options, pickings get rather thin past 11 p.m. Sure, there’s a smattering of the usual suspects, guilty pleasures like greasy burgers and pizza, but what if you want an actual meal? I’m talking complex flavors and unique dishes made with quality, local ingredients. Luckily, Urbana’s Black Dog Smoke & Ale House is raising the bar, offering a new late night menu from 11pm–2am, Thursday through Saturday. I stopped in last Thursday to witness the menu’s debut, sample the dishes, and talk with the man behind the food, Chef Josh Boyd.
Though the concept wasn’t his brainchild, Boyd brings the same culinary expertise and whimsical flare to Black Dog’s late night as he did to his wildly popular pop-up dinners at the sorely missed Carmon’s Bistro. The chef’s menu will consist of “simple fare, just done really well,” including fried pickles, chicken wings, smoked scotch eggs (hardboiled, wrapped in sausage, breaded and fried), charcuterie, and pickled seasonal vegetables — all housemade, of course.
The detail behind the housemade pickles is impressive. Rather than a hodgepodge of veggies thrown together in a traditional brine, each variety of pickle is sourced from local Blue Moon Farm and individually marinated in a unique set of ingredients. Opening week featured fennel, turnips, beets, and jalapenos. The brine’s tanginess came through prominently while still complimenting rather than overwhelming the flavors of the fennel and turnips. The pickles were crisp and fresh, rather than soggy, especially the spicy jalapenos. My favorite, however, were the beets. Their sweetness and depth of flavor (owed to the Left Hand Milk Stout in the pickling liquid) juxtaposed nicely with sharpness of the others.
My companion and I also sampled the fried dill pickles. Though the pickles themselves were tangy and juicy, the breading was surprisingly light and flaky while still retaining its crunch. The side of Black Dog’s housemade ranch dressing made them impossible to stop eating. Not to downplay the pickles, but I’m pretty sure I would eat cardboard if I could dip it that sauce.
In addition to these standbys, each week’s menu will feature a handful of specials. Unfortunately for you, they’ll be gone by the time this article debuts. I don’t want to rub it in, but the smoked pork and black bean chili was the best I’d ever eaten. Ever. I’m not even that fond of chili. Of course, maybe that’s because no one else makes a batch that tastes like it’s been cooked all day, is topped with damn spicy pickled jalapenos, and only needs the sour cream and cheese to cut the heat. I’m also now convinced that every hotdog should be housemade and covered in mac n’ cheese, bacon, and pickled fennel, just like the other special of the week.
Though the cuisine stole the show, the handcrafted cocktails exclusive to the late-night menu deserve notice. Bartender Michael Miller is known for his bar specials at the establishment, so I was not surprised every drink I tasted was fantastic. All of the libations shared the common theme of being innovative twists on old classics. I started with the “Moscow Mule” (Tito’s vodka, fresh lime juice, North Shore Spicy Ginger Ale). It was light and refreshing, and the herbal effervescence of the ginger ale added a note of complexity. It was my favorite drink of the night — so good that I drank all of it before remembering to take a picture. Sorry, you’ll just have to go get one yourself.
As my companion and I entered round two, we chose the Negroni, a traditional cocktail featuring gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, and the Boulevardier, a twist on the Negroni which replaces gin with bourbon. As the menu states, “the Negroni isn’t for everyone” since it’s a very strong, bitter drink. If you love black coffee, however, this is the beverage for you. Miller’s rendition features FEW Gin which offers complexity and pronounced juniper flavors rather than the one-dimensional piney-ness this liquor usually displays. I wouldn’t order it with dinner since the bold flavors would clash with the hearty cuisine, but it’s the perfect way to close out such a rich meal. Simply swap out the FEW Gin for Old Weller 107 Bourbon, and you’d think you had a completely different drink. The Boulevardier offers sweetness and soft spices with a smooth finish, a perfect accompaniment to the spicy specials featured on the menu.
I’m not sure what this upcoming weekend’s cocktail list will include, but I plan to find out. As for food, a black-eyed pea hummus with chow chow, paprika oil, and tortilla chips has been added to the menu staples. The weekly specials sound just as appetizing as last week’s and even more ambitious: Ludwig Farmstead blue cheese, smoked and served with almonds, crackers, and pear/vanilla aigre doux; fried smoked bologna sandwich with grilled onions, pimento cheese, and beer mustard; smoked beef short rib with cheesy grits, braised collard greens, and potlikker. (Specials are announced on the Black Dog Late Night Facebook group weekly.)
Whether you need a real meal after a long night of work or simply want to eat something other than a burger and fries at 1 a.m. on a Friday, go check out the Black Dog Late Night menu. You deserve it.