Watson’s Shack and Rail adds rustic refinement and live bluegrass music to the already lovely roster of brunch spots in downtown Champaign. It’s one of the more casual eateries, but its dishes lead to a different sort of hedonism than Black Dog or Golden Harbor. Their brunch infuses a sense of humor and an ebullient reverence for Southern cuisine that satisfies your desires for a homey, gravy-laden goodness as well as elevated execution. It’s a restaurant that wants you to have fun, and relish the historic gastronomic connections between the Midwest and Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana. As with any good brunch place, Watson’s Shack and Rail transports you to a peculiar pocket of time, one that is pleasantly out of sync with weekday rhythms, to indulge in a robustly heartening meal and genial sociality.
Brunch is also a lovely excuse to imbibe in fizzies and spirits early in the day, and Watson’s drinks are dangerously easy to consume. The Pulp Fiction is an adult orange juice with vodka and soda water. It is flavored with a sweet blood orange liqueur that reminded me of Tang. This is a light and refreshing drink.
The Belle Meade Fizz is a good option to follow the Pulp Fiction. It’s essentially a whiskey sour shake with homemade jam and egg white. The frothy and whipped egg white balances out the drink’s tartness. It’s not too sweet, and is also very refreshing. Chances are, you’ll taste more of the strawberry jam towards the end of the glass, where it tends to settle.
The Shady Mary is a fantastic Bloody Mary full of vibrancy and kick. It has multiple layers of flavor that shifts in its combinations with every sip. The Old Bay rim is savory, and its celery salt compliments the horseradish, celery, and pickle brine that made the scarcest evocation of oyster juice. Instead of a celery stick, the drink is presented with a house-made pickle. This garnish outdoes its leafy competitor in crunch and freshness. The pickle is incredibly crisp, and refreshing despite the pungent, vinegary kick. As I ate the pickle, I could almost imagine the jar it had just been in as the vinegar, garlic and hot peppers came through clearly. I loved how it played off the tomato juice, and brought out different flavors.
Watson’s brunch entrees are all savory and cover classic brunch items with a Southern twist, whereas the sweets are in their starters and desserts. That being said, my favorite dish is the fried chicken and waffle dish, Chelsea’s Walk of Shame. The waffle is thin, crispy, yet fluffy, and has a nutty cheddar flavor. The fried chicken is juicy, flavorful and has a strong bay note. Its superbly crunchy crust is well seasoned. And the best part of the meal is buried under the chicken: a boozy honey with cooked apples. The honey and apple unifies the dish, and the combination of sweet, savory, and spicy causes ecstasy. This fabulous dish was made sweeter because it brought back childhood memories of eating chicken McNuggets dipped in honey. I’m glad to have revisited that joy, but through Watson’s superb quality of ingredients.
Another dish that was filled me with nostalgia was Watson’s take on eggs benedict. Watson’s Benedict replaces the English muffin with feather-light blue crab hushpuppies. The hollandaise is perfectly silky, light, and has a subtle kick of cayenne. When mixed with the yolk from the poached eggs, each bite is luxurious, but the scrappy crunch from the cornmeal brings a smile. The hash browns take up about three-quarters of the plate, and that generosity makes one rather euphoric. The spicy, shredded potatoes are deeply browned with some crunch and burnt bits of onion and potato. As someone more used to a rosti style hash brown, the Southern version was a new experience. These hash browns are incredibly crispy, light and resembles a loosely tangled nest that is perfect for collecting every last bit of the hollandaise from the plate. And like the chicken and honey combination, these crab hushpuppies reminded me of eating fish fingers as a child. I need to stress, however, that it is the superior quality of this dish that makes my childhood memories pleasant at all. The Chelsea’s Walk of Shame and Watson’s Benedict are tongue-and-cheek takes on classics, bringing a refined sensibility to a familiar form.
This ethos pervades the rest of the menu. The Outer Banks is a dish of Jimmy Red grits, chorizo, shrimp and a tomato sauce. The grits are creamy and nutty with a slight bite. The tomato sauce is tangy and bright, and you can clearly taste the Cajun trinity of onion, bell pepper, and celery. The chorizo adds a heft and depth to the grits, but is not the main feature. The grits are the star, and they have a redolent, fermented flavor from the white wine used to deglaze the pan. That flavor plays with the seafood. When I tried it, there was crab in it, but I can imagine how the sweetness of the shrimp would be divine. Of the shrimp and grits I’ve tried outside of New Orleans, this was by far the most vibrant version I’ve had.
If you’re craving the comfort that only gravy-slathered meat provides, you’re in luck. The Hot Brown is a mountain of thick cuts of smoky, roast turkey, and layers of crispy, Heinkel’s bacon. The combination of smoky and salty is supplemented by the thick, flour-based creamy gravy that carries the flavor jalapeños without their heat. Underneath it all is a buttery and sweet slice of paesano bread. My dining partner says that this is one of his top two favorite dishes on the brunch menu. It is supremely fortifying, and is a superlative Kentucky hot brown delivered with a Midwestern nod to the meat and three. Like the next dish, this is diner food gussied up for company.
The I-24 is Watson’s steak and eggs dish. The name refers to the corridor connecting the Midwest to the Southeast, and the dish conjures up images of truckers filling up at greasy spoons along the interstate. Watson’s steak and eggs is a far cry from that kind of meal. The meat is of good quality, and the large, thin, and moist steak is perfectly seasoned and cooked to order. The gravy is deeply flavorful and smothers the meat and crispy and moist hash browns. The gravy does what a good gravy should — adds moisture, flavor, fat, and heft to the dish, but without bogging you down.
As for the sweets, I can’t walk out of Watson’s without trying a slice of pie. A local favorite, Hopscotch, hand makes these pies in small batches with local and seasonal ingredients. They rotate flavors twice weekly, so try them when you can! The pies all share a thick, crimped edge and thin, buttery crust. The pies are not overly sweet, allowing the flavors of the filling to shine. The Shoo-fly pie had a deep raisin and sweet potato like flavor, and wasn’t overly spiced. The more overt sweetness was in the crumble topping. The Apple Cranberry pie balanced the tart, and bitter profile from the fruit with large, brown sugar and cinnamon crumbles suspended in the filling. The pie had a huge, buttery crumble topping. Hopscotch’s pies are a great way to extend the old-fashioned yet contemporary feel of Watson’s brunch to the very end of your meal.
Watson’s Shack and Rail’s brunch menu is incredibly fun and satisfying. If you’re ever in need of a bit of the South in the Midwest, get thee to Watson’s brunch!
All photos by Jean Lee.