September always leaves me spinning. Fall school routines take over, and events fill the calendar. When everything feels chaotic, picking what to eat and drink is sometimes the only thing I can control. And so this month, I want to be comforted by reliably delicious food and drinks. This September in Champaign-Urbana, try these five things that hit every time.
Let’s eat satisfying lunches like a platter of al pastor in Urbana or a sushi bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Champaign. Sip a cocktail in a bookstore, shop for wine at a croissant shop, and pop over to a diner for my favorite French toast.
Wine ︱ Art Mart
When the schedule is go-go-go, home is nice — and wine is nice when relaxing at home. Go for a haul of wine from Art Mart. These three are solid sips: a delicious dry white, bubbly with a good luck cat, and an easy-drinking red. My go-to wine at Art Mart is the one on the right: Tilia ($9.99). With a screw cap (no need for a bottle opener), the light-bodied malbec has a juicy cherry flavor that pairs well with anything. In the middle, my favorite bubbles: the Cuvée Manekineko brut ($24.99), which is super bubbly with a delicious dry, yeast-y flavor and a cute label.
On the left, Antxiola Getariako txakolina ($19.99) was something I bought because of the shop’s Saturday afternoon wine tastings — which are free. Naturally effervescent, the txakoli was super crisp and tart, and I love to pair it with spicy takeout. Find all three in the back left corner of the Prospect Avenue croissant-café-boutique. The people who work the wine department are like the guy in Harry Potter who does the wand thing. Racks of bottles go up to the ceiling, and either Todd or Roisin snatches wine from here and there; the wine choosing the wizard within budget and to taste. And they’re never offended if I say, “I don’t like that.” If you’re usually there for lattes and croissants, wander back to the wine this September.
1705 S Prospect Ave
M-Sa 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Alpastoricito ︱ Huaraches Moroleon
One of the first restaurants I ever went to in Urbana was Huaraches Moroleon, so the colorful Mexican restaurant has a special place in my heart when it comes to C-U comfort food. Huaraches’s alpastoricito dinner ($11.99) isn’t super saucy; the cuts of juicy, marinated pork with grilled pineapple and soft onions had a delicious balance of salty, fatty, and sweet. Some bites of pork were lean and some had rendered fat, and all of it was yummy. Along with tortillas, the pastor came with rice and smooth refried beans topped with a bit of cheese.
The restaurant serves lunch early (at 10 a.m. most mornings), so if you’re a hungry litttle caterpillar in the morning like me, it’s great. When my schedule is nuts, Huaraches Moroleon is a good escape: a table for one with a book, this platter of pastor, and maybe a margarita, too.
805 Philo Rd
T-F 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Sa 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Su 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Kaisen-Don ︱ ISHI
Now that ISHI has reopened, Chef Ken Ishibashi’s Japanese lunch specials are there to comfort our bellies five days a week. This salmon and tuna kaisen-don ($18) was absolutely delicious. On top of white rice, there were two cuts of bluefin tuna from Spain and three cuts of Norwegian salmon with pickled cucumbers and strips of nori. The very red akami tasted so tender, and the pinker, fattier chu-toro was decadent with an amazing buttery taste. All three cuts of salmon tasted incredible. The silky belly loin had a mild flavor and wonderful texture; the smaller salmon belly sashimi with the white melted in my mouth and tasted so good. The searing on the top loin pieces enhanced the salmon’s flavor, and I loved the contrast of those bites with the raw fish. This kaisen-don highlighted ISHI’s spectrum of sashimi and was a lunch that satisfied without overindulgence.
ISHI doesn’t have that much seating, but they offer takeout, too. The restaurant is just eight seats at the bar and two tables, but if you can get a seat, it’s such a lovely experience. The chef is a master at work, preparing the fish as he chats with diners about cuts of tuna and salmon. If raw fish isn’t for you, try the omu curry lunch, which was just as phenomenal but, alas, not nearly as photogenic: tender beef in a thick, rich gravy over a folded egg and rice.
ISHI + Kaori’s Oven
305 Cedar St
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pretty Beverages ︱ The Literary Bar
On a night out, a friend and I went for drinks at The Literary, the bookstore bar in Downtown Champaign, and it was lovely. My friend had the ginger pop ($5.50), a non-alcoholic beverage of tangerine-ginger iced tea and ginger beer topped with cold foam. I ordered the Atticus Finch ($9), made with bourbon, honey, thyme, orange bitters, and ginger beer. The drink was everthing I want in a cocktail: whiskey mixed with something good plus a garnish and a cool name. The literary reference to To Kill A Mockingbird was spot on for a book bar, and the floating spring of thyme added a fresh aroma as I sipped. Kind of a take on an old-fashioned, this cocktail’s bourbon and orange tasted great with notes of honey and zippy ginger.
The Literary has stylish couches, comfy chairs, tables all throughout the bookstore plus seating at the bar and on the patio overlooking Neil Street, so it’s a pretty spot to catch up with a friend. Starting this weekend, these beverages can pair with food by The Literary Kitchen; take a look at my SPlog from yesterday with a teaser of the brand-new menu.
The Literary Bar + Café + Kitchen
122 N Neil St
W-Sa 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Gus’ French Toast ︱ Sam’s Cafe
Back in April, I wrote a love letter to the French toast at Sam’s Cafe, and I’m happy to say that me and that French toast are still going strong. A full order of Gus’ French toast ($8.40) is my kind of comfort food. It’s seriously good every time. Those crispy crunchies on the edges added texture to the soft, cinnamon-y slices. With the dusting of powdered sugar, it’s like a funnel cake meets French toast, and with a splash of syrup, it’s just so delicious. Though I am not a breakfast person, this is a constant craving of mine. I will never not be down for a plate of this carby goodness.
Whether or not you’ve had this before, September is a good month to eat this. Go for breakfast at the Downtown Champaign diner or call in an order to-go (217-352-7102); bring dollar bills as the restaurant is cash-only with no ATM.
115 N Walnut Ave
M-F 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sa 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Su 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.