If there was any doubt that Carmon’s Bistro — which was recently purchased by Thad Morrow and is headed-up by former bacaro sous chef Joshua Boyd — would be fantastic, let’s put that notion to rest immediately.
Still in its soft opening, and without a liquor license, the small diner space on North Neil with a name that won’t quit, sparkled in all things hospitality at our visit there Tuesday evening. The restaurant will open fully next Tuesday, assuming all the paperwork goes through as planned.
The menu is small. The portions range from massive to just enough. The price point is more to the tune of your average citizen living and working in C-U, and the service was almost flawless.
Upon arrival, the attention to detail in the decor immediately grabs your attention. Shades of gold and copper make the restaurant seem more dense than it really is — just 40 seats to spare, and a bar with another 12 — the space is large enough to host a party, but small enough to remind you that getting a table on a weekend night might take some forethought. Especially during its honeymoon, this place will be packed until closed.
We were seated at a wooden high top table for six, and greeted with bowls of deep fried chickpeas, salted and seasoned with paprika, cayenne, and lemon zest. The savory snack was the perfect thing to munch on while perusing an affordable appetizer menu with an array of options to meet all palates.
From a greens salad to a rich pumpkin soup served with crostini and carmelized onions, you won’t spend more than $6–$9 on any one appetizer, save for the oysters at $15. And that’s refreshing to see, given how large the portions are. We started with the aforementioned pumpkin soup ($7), so thick that you could use a butter knife to treat it like a spread if you wanted. It was silky and delicious, and not overly salted, as is often the case with heavy soups.
We also shared the charcuterie plate, which featured a pork terrine, chicken liver mousse, a mostardo, and pickled beets. At $9, the quality and portion should delight anyone.
Oysters on the half shell were accompanied by an orange and tabasco caviar, and while delicious, might scare away those with lighter pockets; for $15 a half dozen, only the folks who don’t look at prices will likely be able to order without fear of regret.
The Hunter sausage was sublime; served medium rare on a bed of potatoes and fennel, each bite had a tremendous snap, its casing giving way to the tooth after just a small fight.
Ultimately, the entrée menu was the real winner, and it is what will bring people back, time and time again. Eight items, all designed with care, were difficult to choose from. We decided on six of them:
the Steak Frites ($22), which was cooked to the right temp, and served with thinly cut truffle fries
the Half Chicken ($18), served with greens and squash — basically a monster portion of tenderly cooked bird
the Blanquette de Veau ($19), perhaps biggest winner of them all, the “blanquette” or gravy that adorns the meat and pearl onions was so rich and delicious that my friend was almost overwhelmed by it.
the Lamb Cassoulet ($18), in what appeared to be a very small cast iron baking dish, but what turned out to be a very large portion thanks to the density of the meal.
the Whole Roasted Trout ($18), which seemed done just medium, enough to get through it, but not enough to strip it of its natural juices
and the Baked Macaroni and Cheese ($15) with gruyere and smoked cheddar cheese. Seriously folks, whatever great mac n’ cheese you thought was out there in this town, this one firmly puts the debate to sleep.
Each were delightful in their own way. If I was pressed to complain about anything, it would be that the portion on the steak seemed a little light, especially by comparison to the Strip down the street at bacaro, which is easily a 14oz portion. Granted, that costs $32, but this is hangar steak, a cheaper, leaner cut of beef that might lend itself well to a bigger portion to offset its cost as the most expensive item on the menu.
But, that’s reaching for an error, when there were really none to be discussed. For us, the big winners were the Mac and Cheese and the oven baked chicken.
Chef Joshua Boyd told us that they “cook the bird at 550, from start to finish. It goes in raw, and that’s what you get,” pointing to the crispy, flavorful skin. “It comes out with a great finish.”
For dessert (all $6), we decided on the Vanilla Bavarian Cream with Peanut Brittle,
Creme Brulee with blueberry compote,
Pear Tartine with Almond Sorbet,
and a Creme Fraiche ice cream served with a profiterole, covered in a house made chocolate sauce.
In Champaign-Urbana, few restaurateurs are paying this much attention to detail. Carmon’s Bistro should succeed in attracting a clientele willing to commit to a relationship with its food and atmosphere. Chef Boyd expressed that his menu will be seasonal; what you see right now is intended to reflect the cold months that lie ahead, and for that, we should be grateful.
Photos by Justine Bursoni
Author’s note: some prices might be off by a buck or two, couldn’t totally remember what was what.