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Thursday, Dec. 30, 2004 11:40 pm

A year in (food) review


At the health club recently, I heard a woman complaining about the lack of good restaurants and chefs in Springfield. But as we talked, I started suggesting some of my favorites and some of the city's finer restaurants: Bentoh's, Maldaner's, Sebastian's, Soirée, Café Brio. The woman hadn't dined at any of them. I encouraged her, as I do everyone, to try a new restaurant every once in a while and at least try one of the established local favorites. I'm surprised at the number of people I encounter who have never tried some of the city's best restaurants and cafés. They are missing out.

As I said last year during my year-end review -- it's still true -- the chefs, restaurant owners and foodies I encounter in doing this job are some of the most dedicated, ambitious people I've met. They are passionate about what they do, and it shows. They strive to bring interesting, quality cuisine to the Land of Lincoln, and they deserve a pat on the back.

There are so many exceptional places and people on the Springfield restaurant scene that it's hard to put together a comprehensive list. That said, here are some of the highlights of the past year.

• Bianco's Little Supper Club, one of Springfield's great little secrets, was set to close on New Year's Eve, but owner Shirley Bianco plans to keep the restaurant open after all. The friendly atmosphere (many of the waitresses have worked at the place for 15 to 20 years) and hearty food are just two reasons this out-of-the-way pasta joint is a favorite among loyal customers. (It also has the best jukebox in town, with old standards by Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, and the like). Luckily for us, there will be more linguini and sautéed mushrooms on the menu -- for years to come, with any luck.

Bianco's is located at 1926 E. Clear Lake Ave.; 217-544-4491. Hours: 2-10 p.m. Tues.-Sat.

• Chocolate is always a good thing. And when it's displayed in mouthwatering rows behind glass, in a personal, homey atmosphere, so much the better. Costa's Fine Chocolate, located on the downtown square in Petersburg, is what an old-fashioned candy shop should be. Owners Ken and Ginny Costa offer 90 kinds of homemade chocolate, including caramels, fudge, sugar-free candy, toffee, chocolate-covered stemmed cherries, and truffles.

Costa's Fine Chocolate is located at 118 E. Jackson (the former National Bank of Petersburg drive-up facility); 217-632-0017. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.

• El Presidente Burritos marks its one-year anniversary in January and continues to serve up interesting, tasty food in a former Jimmy's Sub Shop location. This spot offers a better brand of late-night, after-the-bars-close cuisine to downtown Springfield. But the burritos are just as good for lunch, with fresh ingredients such as avocado, black beans, egg, pork, and spices served with homemade smoky chipotle sauce. Painted-tin ceilings, oak shelving from the space's former life as a cigar store, and woodwork salvaged from the Old State Capitol give the place as much punch as the spicy sauce does the food.

El Presidente Burritos is located at 235 S. Sixth St. (corner of Sixth and Monroe streets); 217-544-9535. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Thu.-Sat.

• Is Springfield becoming as Starbucks-ridden as the Windy City, with one on every corner? That's hardly the case, but two new Starbucks locations opened this year and another is on the way, in addition to the one already established in the Hilton. And Grab-A-Java, which offers coffee, tea, bakery items, and more, opened a drive-through business (on the west side, near Lowe's), in addition to its original Sixth Street location.

The new Starbucks are located at 3412 Freedom Dr. (Parkway Pointe), 217-787-0764, and 3200 Clear Lake Ave., 217-525-7759.

• Thai Kitchen 2 and Banana Leaf Asian Cuisine and Noodles joined the list of ethnic restaurants in Springfield. Thai Kitchen 2 owner Sangthong Thapanya, who formerly operated Thai Kitchen on North Ninth Street and was one of the original owners of Magic Kitchen, offers such appetizers as egg rolls with peanut sauce, spring rolls, and soups, in addition to noodle, rice, and vegetable dishes.

Banana Leaf, located in the Town and Country Shopping Center, features a wide variety of Asian food, and the menu even explains the origin of each dish -- which may hail from Thailand, Japan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, or Singapore -- and how it's prepared. The restaurant offers an interesting, varied array of entrées, plus "big noodle bowls," soups featuring such ingredients as seafood with lemongrass and lime leaves and barbecued pork and bean-paste broth. The soups, which are large enough to be shared by two, may be ordered with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or squid.

Thai Kitchen 2 is located at 2355 W. Monroe St.; 217-726-5900. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

Banana Leaf is located at 2433 S. MacArthur Blvd.; 217-698-8760. Hours: 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Sun. Carryout available.

Last year, I noted that there was room for improvement on the local restaurant scene and came up with a short list of items that I'd welcome. Unfortunately, most of those ideas have yet to come to fruition.

We still need a full-service sushi bar (if Peoria and Bloomington can have good sushi restaurants, why can't the capital city?). And there's still no neon Krispy Kreme sign in sight. Now that the low-carb craze seems to be on its way out, maybe there's hope.

We also need a good German restaurant and a downtown bagel shop.

As for outdoor dining, the increased number of restaurants offering patrons that option was a welcome sight -- even if, in some cases, it consisted of a few plastic chairs outside a storefront.

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