Spring has sprung in Champaign-Urbana. I’m awaiting the blossoming of sakura at Japan House and the return of sundress season. Each spring when I put away heavy coats on a sunny day like yesterday, I love putting another Illinois winter behind me and welcoming spring’s warmer weather and blooming flowers.
This April, I want to eat with my eyes first. We have a lot of amazing restaurants, coffeshops, and bars in C-U, but sometimes I want more than just good food: I want good food that is good-looking. Seeking out pretty bites and attractive drinks in town, I found five things that taste as good as they look.
Oatmeal Cookie Latte | Brew Lab
I’d never been to the Brew Lab on Fifth Street until last week, but I knew from Stephanie’s Brew Lab cupping article that the coffeeshop was pretty cool. I ordered an oatmeal cookie latte ($5.85), put on my headphones, and found a seat by the window for some time to myself. When I fetched my latte from the counter, I was delighted to see the latte art in the foam of my drink.
I loved the mellow coffee roast and the oat flavor. The brown sugar sweetness was not too sweet, and the oat milk gave a creamy, thicker mouthfeel which I enjoyed. Because of the oat milk, the latte did actually taste like sipping an oatmeal cookie, and the warm temperature of the drink captured the taste of a cookie fresh from the oven — with a light, addictive coffee flavor, too. The latte can be made hot or iced in a 12 ounce or 16 ounce cup. Brew Lab’s baristas were ready to take my order as soon as I walked into the narrow coffeeshop, but they were patient as I read the letterboard menu until I finally picked this latte. The coffeeshop offers coffee, tea, matcha, flavored lemonade, hot chocolate, milkshakes, pastries, and more. You can order online here or in person at the Campustown coffeeshop.
630 S 5th St
8 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily
Mango Margarita | La Bahía Grill
The 12 ounce margarita from La Bahía Grill was served in a glass goblet, and perhaps the prettiest thing about this drink is the price tag: $3.50. The margarita flavor options were lime, strawberry, mango, peach, raspberry, or piña colada. I chose mango, and it was delish.
La Bahía’s mango margarita tasted like mango juice: thick, fruity, and sweet. The tequila taste was light, mellowed by the fruity mango. The marg was everything I’d want in a mango margarita: a trace of tequila and a big splash of mango nectar for a easy drinkability. The Mexican seafood restaurant has brightly-colored murals, huge windows looking to the street, and friendly staff which make this $3.50 margarita something you really should try. The margarita’s special price of $3.50 is only available on Mondays, but the regular price is $5 which is still a pretty good price for a 12 ounce margarita. Check out the restaurant’s menu online.
La Bahía Grill
132 W Church St
M-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Barcelona Cocktail | Punch! Bar & Lounge
Every season, Punch! Bar releases a new seasonal cocktail menu, and I loved this Barcelona cocktail ($10) from the spring release. Made with rhubarb gin, rhubarb liqueur, Giffard Fraise des Bois (a wild strawberry liqueur), strawberry, orange, juniper, thyme, and elderflower tonic, there is a lot going on, but the drink was so well balanced and lovely to sip. The thyme springs added a floral note on the nose which married with the elderflower, and the fruity flavors sprung the cocktail to life. My server told me not to eat the juniper berries; he said they were edible, but he didn’t recommend them. I ate one anyway, and I liked the spicy and almost botanic taste paired with the other herbaceous flavors, especially when I could chase the strong juniper with a fruity sip of the cocktail.
I like a pretty drink, and this Barcelona was gorgeous. Most of the drinks at Punch! Bar are bedazzled with flower petals or an ununsual ice cube, so you can almost guarantee that any of the interesting cocktails on the menu will have some beauty. Check out Punch! Bar’s menu here.
217 N Neil St
Su-Th 4 to 10 p.m.
F+Sa 4 to midnight
Specialty Sushi Rolls | Sakanaya
I think all sushi visually appealing, and the specialty rolls at Sakanaya feel especially glamorous. I went for lunch this past Friday, and I ordered this colorful plate of sushi rolls: playgirl, kamikaze, and crunch munch. The playgirl roll ($16) had shrimp tempura wrapped in rice, topped with avocado and tuna with crunch flakes, scallions, masago, and a saucy drizzle. It was a ginormous (but beautiful) bite that nailed a crunchy texture in addition to the classic rice-and-fish sushi bite. The creaminess of the avocado against the crunch of tempura-fried shrimp and tiny crunchies on top was heavenly, and the silky raw tuna was the cherry on top.
The kamikaze roll ($14) had spicy tuna, cucumber, salmon, scallions, and two sauces. I think this was the best roll on the plate because the salmon was truly exceptional. The buttery salmon was so smooth, so melt-in-my-mouth that I could not get enough. The other ingredients were tasty, but the raw salmon was truly incredible. The final roll was a crunch munch roll ($14) which had spicy crab, shrimp, and green crunch flakes. The threads of crab meat were tossed in a reddish sauce that had a lingering heat. The duo of spicy mayo and eel sauce added creaminess, and the green crunch flakes were a neat detail. The shrimp on top was cooked, so if you’re looking for a sushi roll without raw fish, crunch munch is a nice option. Seating is limited for dining in at the small Green Street restaurant. You can read Sakanaya’s menu here.
403 E Green St
M-Sa 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. + 5 to 9 p.m.
Su 4 to 9:30 p.m.
Strawberry Shu Cream | Suzu’s Bakery
Out of all the beautiful desserts in the glass case at Suzu’s Japanese Bakery, this one was the most beautiful in my eyes. The strawberry shu cream ($3.50) was a delightful strawberry sweet. The Japanese cream puff pastry was airy with a golden, flaky exterior like a croissant, and the two buns were sturdy to hold both the cream and the strawberry filling. The pale pink shu cream had a light strawberry flavor, a natural sweetness that tasted artisan. I cannot emphasize enough how fluffy this whip was; when I bit into the dessert sandwich the elegantly piped whipped cream overflowed, burst out, and made a tasty mess.
No component of the dessert was too sweet; each had a delectable restrained sweetness. This little treat had many textures: flaky pastry, delicate whip, creamy shu cream, and powdery dusting. It tasted fresh — and from what I saw from my seat in the dining room, the bakers were working on the day’s goods that morning, and some were pulling sheets of pan out of the oven. The bakery had pleasing minimalist decor and smelled amazing. If you’re looking for somewhere to go, Suzu’s make a darling spot to grab a treat. See the menu here. You can order from the case in person or order online for pick up.
114 N Walnut St
W-Sa 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.