Archive for the ‘Dining Out’ Category

The local Mexican flavor

I like El Toro.

There.  I’ve said it.  It’s not a popular opinion, or so I have learned.  Charmed and I started to frequent the local location on Gilbert St. after it first opened.  We enjoyed the C-U locations and were thrilled to have them in Danville.  Why do we like ET?  Let me count the ways…

  • Food is delivered hot AND with flavor / spice
  • Margaritas actually have tequila in them that you can TASTE!
  • Service is fast, friendly and attentive.
  • Prices are reasonable and portions are generous

I thought I was somehow missing out on something…  I encountered friends the other day who were leaving ET and they told me that the only reason they were there was because they were meeting family.  Otherwise, they MUCH prefered La Potosina.  Okay.  I didn’t recall La Pot being all that, but perhaps they had changed.  I had an occasion last week to have a dinner meeting at La Pot.  Sadly, nothing has changed.

  • Our server changed mid-meal
  • My meal was cold and flavorless
  • My margarita was very weak

The only other Mexican option is Buen Apetito in the former Sweetwaters location on North Vermilion.  It’s okay.  It was better when it was just the tiny hole-in-the-wall on Woodbury Street.  It had atmosphere and was cozy.  I thought the food tasted better.  When they moved / closed the Woodbury St. location the menu changed (my favorite enchilada dish was gone!) and it seemed more “Americanized.”

Maybe I don’t have taste.  I don’t know.  All I do know is that virtually every Sunday night you will find Charmed and I at El Toro with the $5.50 margarita special, perusing the menu for something we haven’t tried.  YUM!

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I am a U of I grad and I had never been to Dom’s Patio Villa.

Apparently I’m strange, or, at the very least, in the minority.

A friend and I took Swing lessons at the U for six weeks (as I wrote about previously.)  One of the things that she and I (or she and I and our spouses, if available) liked to do was get something to eat prior to class.  We ventured to Chili’s, Escobar’s, Boltini, The Great Impasta….and last Wednesday, the final night of our class, we went to Dom’s. 

I always mix up Dom’s and Manzella’s and I did it again on Wednesday.  I turned off University onto First, then sidled up to Manzella’s when she said, “Um, you’ll probably need to pull up a bit more.”  Foiled again!  (Two Italian restaurants shouldn’t be this close together….I’m sorry…at least I don’t mix Minneci’s into this!)

We went inside the windowless restaurant (after I found the right one!) and were asked whether we wanted a booth or a table.  We didn’t care, so we got a hybrid of the two in the second room.  I sat on the booth side, she on the table.  My booth rocked.  It was hilarious!  I should have just asked her to scoot forward and pull the table toward me but noooooo…..  I have to sit on the edge of my seat.  Not recommended!

Our waitress was prompt and courteous.  I got my friend’s recommendation and ordered a half and half of spaghetti and ravioli.  I asked for the Marinara sauce.  My friend ordered a half order of spaghetti with meatball.  Well, good thing I have no allergy to meat, because my ravioli were meat filled and my sauce had nice chunks of meat as well.  I might have said something if we hadn’t been in a time crunch, but due to that, I ate what I was served.  It was very flavorful, even though it wasn’t quite what I planned on!  The garlic bread was also very good.  The prices were reasonable – her half order was $6.75 and my half and half (at least the marinara!) was priced at $9.00.  We got a LOT of food and the bread was included with our meals.  Again, our waitress was attentive, ensuring that my diet with no ice was full to my liking.  That’s usually a big plus if you can even remember that I asked for no ice, so to ask if I want a refill and remember again…..  Bonus points!

If you’re looking for quaint, flavorful “Momma’s home cookin’ ” Italian food, then I believe Dom’s might be the place.  Don’t go for romantic decor – don’t get me wrong the place has ATMOSPHERE – it’s just like a building that time forgot.  Some things I couldn’t even explain, but that had no bearing on my meal other than to entertain me as to why concentric blue circles were painted on the ceiling and there was a couple painted on a mural that didn’t particularly look happy.

Dom’s Patio Villa      301 S Locust St.     Champaign     352-8444

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I’m a terrible dancer.  I’m just not a graceful individual.  This is not a newsflash.  As a child I was asked to repeat beginner gymnastics at the YMCA instead of graduating to the advanced class.  A big, red flag hangs over my head that screams “KLUTZ” but I ignore that and pretend it’s an awning.  I like to envision myself as the graceful swan but alas, I’m the duck with orthopedic webbing.  I’m an obliviously happy dancer – even without the benefit of mind-altering substances.  Which is why, after attending a friend’s wedding, I decided that I wanted to see what dance lessons were offered locally. 

I came across the C-U Swing Society offering lessons in Beginner Swing.  I was THERE!  For a mere $25 for 6 weeks of endurance, they would attempt to teach you the basics.  What hilarity!  Charmed took ballroom basics with me in Chicago and won’t dance to this day, so asking him was perfunctory but I knew already that I was going alone.  

I just went to my second class yesterday at the Illini Union.  Bless these students and their patience.  I was a cow with a crutch but they still kept trying to teach me.  Fortunately for me, there are others that are also struggling.  Perhaps not as badly as I am, but I am not the only one not tuck-turning my way into stardom.  They’re not laughing at my face, at least!  Well, not yet….

Prior to my class, Charmed and I went to The Bread Company on Goodwin.  I love campus.  I am so obnoxiously wistful when I go back there.  I miss being a part of something awesome.  I firmly believe that the University of Illinois is one of those magical places.  But it, like the rest of your youth, you cannot appreciate until it’s gone.  A little over ten years ago I was cramming for exams, attempting to graduate and escape so I wouldn’t be a 19-year undergrad (I think there’s a 7 year limit, but I’m an overachiever.)  I didn’t have take the time to smell the roses that were the coffee shops, the other students, the eclectic restaurants.  But I always made time for “Pie” at midnight at O’Malley’s…..rest its sticky-floored soul.   Ahh….priorities!

But, back to The Bread Company.  They always seem to be a vestige of civility in an otherwise collegiately-geared world.  They have wines by the glass, specials consisting of “off the beaten path” items as well as pizzas, sandwiches and salads… Just not your usual fare that’s on every menu in town.   I noticed that they even had fondue now and was very tempted, but alas – I was off to dance with boys who didn’t know me….best not smell of cheese and oil.

I chose the Ricotta pizza with kalamata olives and artichoke hearts.  This was served on a light crust that was perfectly crispy.  The flavors blended and I had 3 slices before declaring myself dance-ready and boxed the remainder for the road.

Charmed had the seared Yellowfin Tuna with haricots verts and roasted potatoes.  He seemed to be very pleased with his meal.  I tasted the tuna and was enamored with the smoky char and the richness of the flesh. 

We finished our meals and then popped in next door for an after-dinner coffee at Espresso Royale on the corner.  I was satisfied, I was revving on caffeine…. it was time to DANCE…. or clumsily attempt not to fall down.  Another week of attempting to swing!  On to Week 3!!

Hooray for an enjoyable meal, an entertaining evening of attempting to better myself…. and revisiting the campus that I love.  Gotta love Champaign-Urbana!

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We had to make a quickie journey to Chicago this weekend so that Charmed could get more pages for his passport and then send it off to the consulate for his visa.  What better opportunity to sample some fantastic food in the city!

We chose Osteria Via Stato, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant.  In a word, YUM!!

They offer an interesting approach to dining – the “Italian Dinner Party.”  Basically this is a Prix Fixe menu, however, instead of bringing you one item for each course they bring you ALL OF THEM with the exception of the main entree which you select.

We saw the cocktail list and had to begin with a seasonal elixir.  I chose the Strawberry-Rhubarb Mojito and Charmed had the Caipirinha that was made with red wine.  Both were very interesting twists on the originals.

For the Antipasti we had House-Cured Olives with Lemon and Rosemary, Italian Vegetable Salad, Parmesan-Crusted Onion, Mozzarella Boccacino and Braised Veal Meatballs.  These servings reminded us of Spanish Tapas in their presentation and quantity.  Below are the onions and meatballs.

On the onions, anyone who knows me will tell you, “Lucky doesn’t like onions.”  This is very true.  I love garlic, but I will never deliberately put an onion in something I eat.  Now, I won’t go so far as to pick out onions in a dish – if they’re cooked in, I can taste them and it’s not a problem, (but I’m probably thinking that the dish would be better without them.)  These onions though?  Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.  Super-sweet, and with the cheese?  Heaven.  I had seconds of these.  I even took some back to the hotel!  (Really, Mom….I haven’t been abducted by aliens!)

Next they brought us two different kinds of pasta – Gemelli with Brown Butter and Sage and Pappardelle with Chicken Ragu.  At this point we also decided to take advantage of their “Just Bring Me Wine” program to accompany the meal.  They have three levels of quality / price for their wine flights.  We chose Level 1, the least expensive, and for $15 each we received three different wines and generous pours of each to accompany the meal.  Our first offering was a dry white – Pipoli Aglianico “Chiaro Bianco” Basilicata 2005.  This was light, crisp and citrusy with mineral tones on the finish. 

We then received our entrees.  For the main course, we were given fourteen different choices.  I chose the Pan Roasted Sea Scallops and Charmed chose the Pork Shank. 


The scallops were fresh and cooked to perfection.  They had just an edge of browned crispness which stood nicely against the bite of leeks, the softness of mushrooms and richness of the truffle brown butter.

The pork shank was tender and falling off the bone as the waiter served it.  The broth was fragrant with root vegetables, garlic and onions.  Together the flavors were harmonious, creating a wonderful stew reminiscent of comfort food from a cold winter’s meal.

We were also presented with two side dishes – Calabrian Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus.  Both were very tasty, but at this point I concentrated more on the main course knowing that I was getting VERY full! 

We were brought two wines to accompany this portion of the meal since we were slow in ordering the wine service.  The first was a 2004 Stella Montepulciano Abruzzo.  Very round tannins, big red fruit.  The second was a 2003 Romio Fiorli Sangiovese Emilia-Romagna.  This wine had more bite than the first with harsher tannins.  The fruit here was bright cherry.  We enjoyed both immensely for their respective qualities.

We finished our meal with Basil Panna Cotta.  This was not included on the Italian Dinner Party menu – we just had to have it.

The cold creaminess of the dessert paired well with the spicy, minty flavor of the basil.  This was served with candied orange peel but it wasn’t crispy.  It had obviously been slow cooked until soft but was it fantastic!  I’ve already charged Charmed with making this in the future.

This meal (not counting cocktails ($6 @), the dessert ($5) and the wine service ($15 @)) was only $35.95 per person!  If you wanted more of the Antipasti or the Pasta courses, you had but to ask and they appeared!  I highly recommend this as a change from Maggiano’s (another LEY restaurant) where they serve huge portions of one Italian dish. 

Osteria Via Stato        620 N. State St.  Chicago        312-642-8450

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Anthony’s = Dismal

A little backstory for you… Anthony’s is a “Supper Club” and started out as being exclusive…  The owners originally stated that they were going to charge for a membership and everyone would have a keycard, etc., etc.  In Danville.  Illinois.  Yeah.  Can we say “lead balloon?”  In April the owners got wise to the fact that business was a smidge slow.  They decided to – GASP! – allow just ANYONE in!!  And….even worse….in casual clothing!   Charmed and I were discussing the change of heart with a friend (G.E.) on Friday night.  No one wanted to cook so we decided, as the common rabble, to give them a try. 

It said in the CN article that reservations were recommended so we called ahead for 8PM.  When we arrived, there were two other tables dining in what I believe to be a 15 table restaurant and two women seated at the bar.  It was exceptionally dark.  So dark that I couldn’t take photos without alarming everyone in the room.  Didn’t bode well.  Our servers, one of whom who was training, were certainly gracious but couldn’t make up for the lack of fresh specials (everything on special was frozen) and the wines missing from the already short wine list.  When our (3rd choice) wine was served, it was brought to our table already open, wrapped entirely in a linen napkin so that the label was not visible, and then poured directly into our glasses without allowing anyone to sample or even smell the wine.  After it was poured, the server proceeded to stuff the cork back into the bottle upside down.  I cringed and as soon as her back was turned, removed it from the bottle.

Charmed and G.E. chose to order the sirloin, medium rare with vegetables and baked potato.  I thought I’d try the catfish.  G.E. also ordered us an appetizer plate with shrimp, bruschetta and mushrooms.  The appetizer was the best part of the meal and even then, the combination of peppers and mushrooms didn’t seem to go right together.  The shrimp and bruschetta were okay – nothing fancy, but tasty. 

The steaks.  Well, they weren’t sirloins.  The server assured us that they were, but both Charmed and G.E. know their cuts of meat and these were very, very tough and difficult to cut.  (Even to my untrained eye, these looked like no sirloins I’ve ever ordered!)  The server went to the chef and he prepared one “filet” for them to sample since they weren’t happy with their “sirloins.”  While this wasn’t a “filet” as in “filet mignon” (I’m not sure if they were just using the term “filet” as a verb) it was certainly better and the steak knife easily moved through the meat.  Charmed and G.E. nibbled a couple bites of the pseudo-filet with their potatoes and we all essentially gave up on the food and decided to finish our wine.  I can say that the server DID take off half of the cost of the “sirloin” meals.  Totally more than I expected to have happen.

I am very, very disappointed.  I would think that an establishment attempting to cater to an upscale clientele will have a relationship with a butcher / meat purveyor from whom they can purchase fresh cuts of meat and not rely on the same supplier that brings in everything else.  This is Central Illinois!  Land of corn-fed cows!  How hard can it be?  Ahh…but is it cheap enough? 

Sadly, I don’t think Anthony’s is long for this world.  I hoped for it in the beginning – even with the original pretentious plan – to be another option for upscale dining.  This meal was ANYTHING but upscale.

Oh, and the April CN article also stated that there was an Elvis Impersonator scheduled to perform on the 18th.  If he did, he was gone by 8PM.

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I got a call from “Mr. Mustard” (Dick Christenson) of Mustard’s Last Stand regarding their Italian Saturday Night Special.  They were serving up AT LEAST six courses of Italian food (he didn’t have the menu quite finalized yet) and it was only $26.75 a couple.  Was I interested?  Are you kidding?  This man doesn’t know me well…

Charmed and I arrived at the appointed 6:30pm with our bottle of Sangiovese in hand.  Bless them, they don’t serve alcohol, but they happily ENCOURAGE BYOB.  They had hot thin crust pizzas at the table for our appetizing pleasure, so we sat down to a couple small slices, opened our wine and enjoyed the music of Tim McKeagh on guitar. 

We were soon given a small plate of Antipasti with fresh veg, cheese and Italian meats drizzled with balsamic vinegar and oil.  Pretty flavorful.

Not long after that, we received a small bowl of Tortellini Alfredo.  I could have put my head in this bowl and licked it.  This was so good.  It wasn’t a huge portion but it was wonderful!  I could have stopped here and have been a happy person.

Following this was a bowl of Zuppe Minestrone.  This had nice spicy chunks of sausage.  Again, a tasty morsel….but I’m starting to get full….

Next course – salad!  Just a simple salad of greens with a sweeter raspberry vinaigrette that cut the spicy remnant of the sausage from my palate.  Nice touch.

We were then served our entree and at this point I’m ready to slide under the table to sleep!  This was a lovely Garlic Tilapia with Aglio Olio and a side of Broccoli in Garlic Butter.  The fish was obviously frozen and reheated, but the flavor and texture were still pretty good.

We then (visions of Monty Python and “wafer thin” start coming to mind….) received a plate of Spaghetti Pie with Meatballs and Sausage.  The Spaghetti Pie was wonderful.  Even in my totally porky state, I loved it!  Charmed and I shared this plate because there was no way we were going to finish two! 

Of course, there was a Dolce…..  Fudge Brownie with your choice of Ice Cream. 

Was this Valentino at the Venetian in Vegas?  No.  Was it good, Italian “home-cooking” that I assume someone’s lovely Mama Leone would make?  I think so!! (My Mama was German… I have no clue!)  This was simple, unpretentious, yet wonderfully flavorful Italian comfort food.  Danville lacked a good Italian restaurant, and this may fit the bill.  All of the pasta dishes are available for purchase at Mustard’s on a daily basis – except for perhaps the fish.  The shame is the location….

We received exceptional service from the Christensons and their staff and even got to know the guitarist.  All in all, this was an excellent evening out even though it was a bit too much food!  The price – what can you say but WOW!  I tried to make out my check for $53.50 thinking that it was $26.75 / person, which I believe it was worth. 

I have visited Mustard’s for a Chicago dog in the past but have been bad to not return only because it’s not on my beaten path.  If this doesn’t make me remember them, nothing will! 

If you have the opportunity, they’re hosting another Italian Night on Saturday, May 12.  They just ask for reservations so they know how many they’re feeding.  This is a lovely opportunity to support a local restaurant and sample a variety of the dishes they have to offer.

Mustard’s Last Stand     924 Oakwood Avenue     Danville     477-1100

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Charmed and I have been attempting to visit Montgomery’s on the Square in Monticello since weather foiled our Valentine’s Day.  A hair appointment brought me into Champaign on Tuesday and that translates to dinner out for the two of us.  Charmed remembered that it was “Flight Night” at Montgomery’s on Tuesday, so reservations were made and away we went!

Upon arrival we were greeted by a lovely atmosphere of old town charm on the outside and understated elegance on the inside.  The bartender was very friendly and accomodating upon our arrival, chatting us up, asking us if we’d dined there before, etc.  He explained that it was “Flight Night” and wished us a Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day before ushering us to our secluded booth.

Our waitress, Penny, brought us lovely breads to start our evening – Mediterranean with olives, three cheese, sweet, kosher salt, and garlic and herb were all presented for our choosing.  We both started the evening with a cocktail – a key lime martini for me, a Manhattan for Charmed.  She also brought this fantastic little salt service.  I usually believe that all food should come seasoned from the kitchen, but this was an interesting method of delivery.

Salt Service

The wine steward, Eric, was soon at our table to discuss the flight of the evening and the food pairings.  I was less than impressed with the nibbles on the flight menu, but Charmed is all for planned combinations, so he ordered the Tuesday Flight and I ordered the Spring Greens as an Entree.

Soon Charmed’s first course arrived – a Puree of Spring Pea Soup served with a 2005 Sileni Pinot Noir from New Zealand. 

Spring Pea Soup

Eric was back again to tell us about the wine, but unfortunately, he told us that it was from the southern island and that New Zealand has two, but told us very little about the flavors that could be expected from the wine against the soup. 

The pea soup was less pea and more celery.  It was floated with a quenelle of goat cheese which offered a creamy aspect against the wine.  The soup was fibrous, leading us to believe that the celery flavor came perhaps from celery root, but upon further questioning, we found it just to be celery.  The wine was young.  There was no eau de barnyard, as found in many pinots.  It was fruity and went straight down the tongue.  Not a bad pairing, but not extraordinary.

The second course was Field Greens with Balsamic Vinaigrette.  

 Greens with Balsamic

This simple salad with homemade croutons was served with a 2005 Ciao Bella Pinot Grigio.  This Italian white was surprisingly “Welch’s” without food.  Ended dry but almost seemed to be sweet on first sip.  You would have thought the wine was a bit off if you didn’t take a bite of the salad to accompany.  With the greens the wine softened the bite of the balsamic and gave everything a cleaner finish.  Ambitious pairing – again, would have liked to have learned more about why the chef or steward decided to pair these two.

The third course was Petit Spicy Duck Tacos.  They were definitely cute, I’ll give them that.  They were served with an Argentinian Malbec – 2004 Bodega Norton Reserva. 

Duck Tacos

The duck was great with the corn tortilla thanks to the fattiness of the bird and the corn oil.  They were served on a bed of pickled cabbage that was spiced with black pepper.  The wine was bright and fruit-forward with strong notes of cherry and currant.  This was the best pairing of the meal and the wine even stood nicely against the cabbage alone.

The final course was Caveny Farm Heritage Turkey Roulade.  This is probably the biggest reason why I didn’t go with the tasting menu.  While I like turkey, I just wasn’t in the mood for a turkey roll for a night out.  Just me…

Turkey Roulade

The turkey was paired with fresh flavors of tomato and olive which overcame the inherent blandness of the meat.  Bright herbaceous notes in the wine coupled with the tannins worked well with the dish. 

My meal…..well, that’s another story.  As stated, I ordered the salad as an entree.  It came with medium-rare steak (or lamb) and fingerling potatoes.  I was served my entree with Charmed’s final course.  Upon receipt of my salad, I was surprised that the steak was in a couple large pieces instead of thinly sliced.

Entree Salad Attempt #1

Upon closer examination (and attempts to cut!) I realized that this was closer to medium well than medium rare.  The staff was quick and attentive to check on the status of our meal and upon stating the fact that the steak was not prepared as ordered, it was whisked away to be quickly replaced by something more to my liking.

Salad Entree Attempt #2

You will see the difference even with the bad photography of my phone in the darkened room.  I not only have recognizable steak I also seem to mysteriously now have my potatoes as well….  The steak was perfectly cooked if not well-seasoned.  (They did give me all this wonderful salt, after all… I just am not used to using it in restaurants like these!) The potatoes were wonderful with the goat cheese, the candied walnuts and the grapes.  The bad part though, was the spinach.  It was so bitter, coupled with the grapefruit vinaigrette that came with the salad that it overcame all the soft, round flavors that could have accompanied it nicely.  If you took a bite of just the walnuts, potatoes and chevre alone it was heavenly.  I just wish it had been served sooner in the process of Charmed’s flight.  Penny explained to me that my salad would be served with the fourth course, however I didn’t realize how little he would have left to eat when I was served and I should have asked to have mine delivered with at least his third if not second course.

So, what to say?  The staff was impeccable.  They made up for the fact that the food was not all that it could have been.  They were quick to check on us and I commend Penny, our waitress and our bartender for their prompt, friendly service.  (The bartender went out of his way to make sure that my second cocktail of the evening was sublime – a blueberry-pomegranate martini but not too sweet.  Excellent!)  The wine steward was nice but could have focused more on the wine and the food and less on the geography.  Jason, the chef, is to be commended for quickly rectifying the situation with my salad and visiting the table personally. 

I think that the restaurant is ambitious for the area and I hope that it works out the kinks because it has fantastic potential.  I know that Tuesday nights aren’t exactly the hopping evening for fine dining, and I’m hopeful that if I give them a try some Saturday night that their food is as fantastic as the service. 

You can visit their website here.

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