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Thursday, April 29, 2004 01:00 pm

Let's do lunch

art1015
Bentoh’s: At the top of the list
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

Does your typical noontime meal consist of a burger grabbed from a drive-thru window or a boring sandwich eaten at your desk? If so, it's time to try one of the many great places around town. Here are three of my favorites:

Bentoh's is at the top of my list for lunch, for several reasons: I can satisfy my craving for sushi; the salads are wonderful; and the food is fresh. The menu offers Thai, Japanese, and seafood dishes, as well as bento (a Japanese lunch featuring steamed rice, vegetables, and meat).

It's hard to pick a favorite here. The sautéed crab cakes are plump and tasty, and the spring rolls -- a great vegetarian choice -- are healthy. I've tried all of the sushi rolls: California, shrimp tempura, salmon-leek tempura, vegetable maki, and tuna. All are excellent, but I especially like the California rolls because the crabmeat is fresh and not that orange imitation stuff. This roll comprises crunchy bits of avocado, cucumber, and carrots, wrapped in nori and sushi rice and topped with roasted sesame seeds.

As noted earlier, the salads are fantastic. I usually order the house salad with salmon. A huge plateful of spring-mix greens, English cucumber, Roma tomatoes, red peppers, blue-cheese crumbles, and candied ramen noodles is dressed with the house Asian vinaigrette and sweet, crispy wonton skins, then topped with two large slices of grilled salmon. This salad is large enough to be shared by two and costs just $6.75. You can also order it with steak or chicken.

I always feel as if I'm eating in a much larger metropolis when I lunch at Bentoh's. The restaurant is tiny but inviting, with yellow walls, five black tables and chairs, a counter at which to place your order, and a wall of windows overlooking Fifth Street. It's the kind of place people are amazed to find in downtown Springfield.

A tip: Some items, such as sushi rolls, often sell out, so call ahead to reserve favorites if you're planning on a late lunch.

Bentoh's is located at 213 S. Fifth St., 544-6972. Lunch hours are 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Delivery is available.

The Morning Star Mercantile and Café is a great place for a quiet midday retreat. Located on Main Street in sleepy Salisbury, 12 miles north of Springfield, it's a study in contrasts. The menu is similar to what you would find at a tearoom, featuring chicken crêpes, olive-nut-spread sandwiches, soups, and lots of delicious desserts. But the setting is a large, rustic building constructed from salvaged barn timbers that might look at home in the Ozarks. It definitely blends in with nearby New Salem; even the massive stone fireplace was patterned after those found in the log-cabin homes at the historical site.

My favorite place to dine is outside on the large, welcoming porch, which is decorated with antiques and hanging plants. It's a relaxing, shady spot. The restaurant features an equally inviting back porch that overlooks a small garden.

The menu stays the same year-round. Popular choices include cashew-chicken salad on a croissant, olive-nut spread, and smoked turkey. The special broccoli salad is delicious. For dessert, you can choose from homemade apple-nut dessert, carrot cake, apple-walnut pie with caramel sauce, fruit pies, and a hot-fudge brownie sundae.

Another plus: The Morning Star is next door to Colin Folk Art and the Garden Path garden center. What could be better than combining lunch on a country porch with shopping?

The Morning Star Mercantile and Cafe is located at 6141 Main St., Salisbury, 626-2022. Hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Sat. Lunch is served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Drinks, baked goods, and ice cream are served throughout the day.

Soirée Bistro is an elegant dining experience. The food is consistently good, and the ambiance is a refreshing change of pace from the many chain restaurants dotting the Springfield's west side. I love the atmosphere: rich gold walls, large expanse of windows, weathered-pine floor, black furniture and wainscoting. Panels of red velvet are draped across the soaring teal ceiling.

Try a bowl of lump-crab-and-corn chowder, a divine blend of rich, creamy corn and fresh crabmeat. Salads include one with grilled chicken breast, mixed greens, sweet mustard-bacon vinaigrette, fresh fruit, candied cayenne pecans, and blue cheese. My favorite sandwich is the shrimp BLT, a delicious combination of blackened shrimp, roasted poblano remoulade, applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes on a toasted baguette. The spicy shrimp gives the sandwich an unexpected kick. The sandwich can also be ordered with smoked salmon, which is saltier but just as delicious. Both variations are served with chunky sweet-potato salad.

Soirée Bistro is located in the Gables at 2824 Plaza Dr., 546-4660. Lunch is served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sun .

Pie to die for

Morel pie is now on the menu at Maldaner's. This springtime dish is a popular item at the downtown restaurant and loyal customers have been anxiously awaiting the seasonal delicacy. Chef Michael Higgins prepares the dish with locally grown morels, complying with new Illinois Department of Public Health rules for handling wild mushrooms. Here's his recipe:

Morel pie

Ingredients

1 pre-baked pie shell brushed with Dijon mustard and sprinkled with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 lb. butter
1 Vidalia or another type of sweet spring onion, julienne
1/2 lb. cleaned morels (or more if you want)
1/2 tsp. thyme
1 cup grated Parmigiano
2 cup cream
2 whole eggs lightly beaten
salt and pepper
1 cup cracker crumbs

Directions: Line the pie shell with foil, weight with dry beans, and pre-bake shell at 350°F until edges are light brown. Remove foil and beans and brush crust with mustard, sprinkle with cheese and put back in oven until cheese just melts.

Melt butter in large sauté pan, add onions, and cook until onions are soft on low to medium heat. Add morels and cook until soft and half the juice is reduced. Add thyme, cream, and cheese. Bring to a simmer, then slowly add egg mixture. Salt and pepper to taste.

Pour mixture into pie shell top with cracker crumbs and bake at 350°F until top is brown and custard is set. Let cool, cut into 6 pieces and serve with a salad or fresh asparagus.

Maldaner's, 222 S. Sixth St., 217-522-4313

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