With Strawberry Fields remodeling their cafe, despairing foodies have one less quality place to lunch. Fortunately, Sunsinger Wine Bar Cafe is doing quite well, and they are welcoming those in need of exceptional sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks and desserts. Lunch in a wine store? Why not? There’s something snobby and decadent about being surrounded by racks and racks of expensive wines while sampling a duck liver pate or a jerk chicken wrap.


When our friend Terry Masar invited us over for a look, we were skeptical at first. Heading into southwest Champaign seemed like entering Republican territory. But Masar’s credentials convinced us otherwise. As the former owner of Sweet Betsy’s and Nature’s Table, Masar wouldn’t associate himself with establishments of mediocre repute. As Sunsinger’s deli manager, Masar collaborates with executive chef Sherry Casillas (formerly of Timpone’s) on making sure the food is excellent and consistent. On a recent visit, Terry showed us around the very small kitchen where all the deli items are made from scratch. We were impressed with the range and variety that they were able to cook up in such a cramped space. We watched Sherry put together one of her inventions – the Autumn Roll. Inspired by Vietnamese spring rolls, this miniature rice paper-wrapped roll is stuffed with fresh jicama, raw chayote, shredded carrots, green onions and pineapple. Served with a peanut dipping sauce on the side, the combination had a crispy-crunchy start with a nicely balanced ginger and garlic finish.

On another visit, our party of six ordered a range of sandwiches, soups and wraps, and all of us were pleasantly satisfied. Among the best of what we ordered was the pastrami sandwich – simply tender and zesty, the meat almost melts in your mouth. The Reuben was equally good, with melted emmenthaler swiss cheese on lean corned beef smothered with Casillas’ special mayonnaise-based sweet and sour sauce instead of the typical bottled thousand island dressing. The sandwiches were served with gourmet vegetable chips in place of the usual greasy potato chips. More surprisingly, the wraps were served with tender steamed asparagus spears on the side. No expense spared here. Although the soups weren’t made on the premise, they tasted rich and home-made taste.

 

A quick glance at their full menu revealed that Sunsinger also offers a wide range of salads, small plates and desserts (made by The Cake Artist’s Studio). We’re tempted to return some time soon to sample the salmon skewers, cheese fondue, crab cakes and other delights that await us. A survey of their deli counter revealed more than 100 cheeses that can be ordered by the pound or on cheese sampler platters which are served with bread and grapes—a perfect accompaniment to a wine tasting. Speaking of wine, it’s hard to resist ordering a glass or two as Sunsinger’s bar offers a rotating selection of 25 varieties available by the glass. You can stretch your budget by sampling a wider range with two-ounce tasting glasses. The kitchen is open late on Friday and Saturday nights so wine lovers will never lack something tasty to nibble on. Table service is efficient, and the kitchen is quite responsive. The environment is cozy, with two seating areas totaling no more than 40 seats. Lunch is often quite crowded; this place is not one of our town’s best-kept secrets.

 

Sunsinger is owned by Mark Yarbrough and Karen McNamer. For them, the deli exists to support their first passion – wine. If you’re looking for a wine recommendation, all you have to do is ask because Yarbrough and McNamer have tasted all 1900 of the wines they stock – and they only carry the wines that they like. Their mission is to demystify wine, which is why they also offer tastings and classes. For future, there is talk of expanding the deli into the space next door and opening a full-service restaurant. We’ll drink to that.

Sunsinger Wine & Spirits
1115 West Windsor Road, Champaign
www.sunsingerwines.com

Photos by Seth Fein and Paul Young