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Thursday, March 3, 2005 07:56 pm

appetite 3-3-05

Fans of Field & Stream would love the atmosphere at Westwoods Lodge

I prefer to see animals running through the woods rather than stuffed and mounted on a wall. That’s a big reason I never bothered to visit the Westwoods Lodge Pub and Grill. It sports a hunting-lodge theme and décor with — you guessed it — many, many trophy animals on display. Perhaps an avid reader of Field & Stream would love the atmosphere here, I thought, but not me. But after hearing many good things about the food at Westwoods, I decided to give it a try.

In the early evening the restaurant is a family-friendly place where children can play video games while adults sample the several beers on tap or watch a ball game on one of the seven TV screens. After 10 p.m. the place becomes more of a neighborhood hangout, say owners Mick and Karey Wanless. Mick, an avid hunter, can often be found bartending and chatting with customers about his latest hunting expedition, even tipping tourists off as to the best places in which to hunt in central Illinois.

The interior of the restaurant is warm and inviting, with plenty of wood and, of course, animal trophies — moose heads, deer antlers, ducks, fish, and more — covering the walls and filling every space. Westwoods looks exactly as a hunting lodge should look, and if that bothers you, just keep your eyes on the food, because it’s worth it.

Everything on the menu hews to the hunting theme. The appetizers are under the “Before the Hunt” category, and fish and steak options are listed on the menu under “Field and Stream.” There are Lodge Baskets, which are sandwiches served with chips and a pickle, and Snowshoes, which are horseshoes with White-Tail Cheese Sauce.

When my friend Stefany and I dined at Westwoods recently, we tried two appetizers: portobello mushrooms and breaded pickle twigs. The rich mushrooms, hand-battered and deep-fried, reminded me of morels. The breading, which tasted flour-based, was excellent and not overdone. The tangy dill-pickle spears were ever-so-lightly coated with a spicy batter and fried. The light, crunchy coating barely clung just barely to the pickles, which were perfectly seasoned.

I’ve only had fried pickles prepared properly in the South, and I was happy to find a place in central Illinois where they are prepared correctly.

Other appetizers include fried potato chips with Cajun seasoning, three kinds of chicken wings, fried onion and jalapeño strips, mozzarella cheese sticks, potato skins, battered crawfish, clam strips, and toasted ravioli.

The main menu offers chili, salads, and sandwiches, among them the Husky Burger, topped with blue cheese; a prime-rib sandwich; a Reuben; and a pork tenderloin. Daily specials include unlimited ham and beans with cornbread, as well as meatloaf and walleye sandwiches. You can also have a pizza made to order, topping the thin crust with the usual items, such as ham and sausage, or the not-so-usual items, such as like fresh garlic, green olives, jalapeños, tuna, and pineapple. I’ve tried Karey’s Special — topped with fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, red onion, garlic and a blend of mozzarella and blue cheeses — on two occasions, and it’s delicious. For those who like their crust thin, the crust is perfect: crunchy, not soft or soggy, even when weighed down with toppings. The blue-cheese version is a wonderful, if rich, alternative to plain mozzarella and a nice change of pace.

We also tried the Westwoods Special, a teriyaki chicken breast topped with grilled peppers and onions, smothered with Provolone cheese, and served on toasted marble-rye bread. Our waitress recommended it, calling it a customer favorite, and I can see why.

On that visit, our waitress was exceptionally friendly and helpful without being annoying. On our second visit, my husband and I ordered a pizza and salad to go. On being told that our order would be ready in 20 minutes, we timed our arrival accordingly but had to wait an extra 20 minutes after we arrived. The waitress appeased my husband with a free beer, however, and the staff apologized more than once for the delay. Our wait turned out to be worthwhile: The pizza was once again delicious, and the Italian chef salad, featuring crisp salad greens topped with pepperoni, mozzarella, black olives, tomatoes, and pepperoncini, was fresh and tasty.

Westwoods Lodge Pub and Grill is located at 2406 W. Jefferson St.; 217-698-9256. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat (pizza and appetizers are served until 11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.), noon-9 p.m. Sun. Carryout available.

Taste of Illinois

Visitors can sample Illinois food and wine at the Illinois Products Expo, scheduled for this weekend at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. The seventh annual state-sponsored food and cooking event will be held in the Orr Building 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 5, and 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday, March 6. In addition to food and wine, other Illinois products such as soy candles, herbs, soaps, and lotions will be on sale. For more information, visit the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Web site, www.agr.state.il.us, and click on “Illinois Products Expo.”

A sweet time

To celebrate an abundance of maple syrup from its tree-tapping demonstrations, the Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center is holding pancake-and-sausage breakfasts 8 a.m.-noon March 12, 13, 19, and 20.

Breakfast costs $7 for adults and $4 for children under the age of 12. The garden is located at 2301 East Lake Shore Dr. For more information, call 217-529-1111.

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