Inside a well-decorated conference room-esque space in Bevier Hall, Spice Box, the student-run restaurant on the University of Illinois campus, is open for the Spring 2023 semester. It’s probably not the place you’d expect to find a restaurant with a prix fixe menu, but Spice Box serves one-of-a-kind dinners designed by the undergraduate students in the Hospitality Management Program. Each week, the menu is different, and so is the decor, too, to match each restaurant concept.
Before the Ben Folds concert on Wednesday (which was amazing), my husband and I visited Spice Box for a dinner by U of I student Alex Bornstein called Low and Slow.
With string lights and fancy place settings, the decor and ambiance was quite lovely. The servers were attentive, and the student who created the menu was an excellent host, walking around the dining to check on diners and talk about his menu.
The theme of that evening’s dinner was Low and Slow, and each course highlighted a different technique. From the Spice Box website:
Low & Slow is a concept that emphasizes foods that take time and patience, utilizing practices that humans have been using to preserve food long before modern refrigeration. These techniques, born out of necessity, are now still used today due to the unique and delicious flavors that they yield. We hope to demonstrate that simple ingredients can be transformed into something incredible.
The five course menu had two options: a prix fixe ($39) with bread service, appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert or a special ($29) that just included bread, salad, and entrée. My husband and I both ordered the prix fixe dinner.
Featuring the technique of preservation with an apricot and jalapeño preserve, the bread service was good. The basket had four slices of French baguette, and the jelly was thick with roasted pepper chunks. It was peppery but not spicy with a fruity sweetness.
Following the bread service, we ordered the specialty cocktail. The rye whiskey sour ($8) had a preserved lemon, aligning with the menu’s theme. It was pretty tart, but I liked it.
Next, we had the appetizer which highlighted fermentation with the inclusion of miso. The soup had a beautiful presentation and such a great flavor. The roasted butternut squash was delicious with the umami flavor of the miso, and drops of chili crisps punctuated the richness of the coconut cream. This was a big bowl of soup, but it was so tasty that we used the last of the bread to sop up every last drop.
Showing off the smoking technique, the third course had smoked salmon atop sliced fennel, shaved red onion, cucumber discs, capers, and dill with lemon and Greek yogurt. Certainly not what I expected for a salmon salad, it was sort of a play on a lox bagel. The dish had a parade of flavors: smoky, salty, tangy, fresh. I liked the variety of textures and dipping the salad in the yogurt on the side. It was a fun salad to eat.
The entrée was about the braising approach. This dish had braised beef short ribs on a bed of polenta with a red wine bordelaise, roasted carrots, mushrooms, and pickled red onions. The bone-in beef was utterly tender and fell apart with the touch of a fork. Though it was a small portion of meat, it was so delicious and an outstanding main. There was quite a bit of polenta which soaked up the silky bordelaise. The mushrooms had a wonderful beefy flavor with a nice firmer texture, and the tender carrot halves went well with everything on the plate.
Then, we had dessert: two puff pastry triangles with a little whipped cream on top of aged chocolate ganache, with this course emphasizing the aging technique of the chocolate. The pastries were so airy and crispy that it rained down golden brown flakes with each bite, and the barrel-aged chocolate was the best part of the dessert. The rich cocoa flavor of the chocolatey ganache tasted so amazing that when it was gone, the dessert wasn’t worth eating without it.
Spice Box also offers house wine, bottled beer, or cocktails like a cosmo, Negroni, and old fashioned. We tried the old fashioned ($6) and the Negroni ($7), and both were affordable and tasty, straight-forward versions of the classic drinks.
If you’re looking for a different restaurant experience in Champaign-Urbana, Spice Box is it. Never to be repeated, the cuisine is fresh and inventive by talented hospitality undergraduate students right here at the U of I. You won’t be able to try the dishes in this review because each menu exists only for that particular week before another concept has its time to shine — and I think that’s the coolest part of Spice Box.
Reservations are available from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays until the end of the semester. Take a look at the upcoming events and book a table online here.
905 S Goodwin
W 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
F 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.