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Thursday, April 28, 2005 08:28 am

appetite 4-28-05

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Coco-Bon’s Bonnie Post and her chocolate Lincoln hats
PHOTO BY PENNY ZIMMERMAN-WILLS

Shanita Auxila and her two small children, Zaria and Darius, are sharing a plate of smoked ribs, which she describes as amazing. “You can tell they’re smoked — they’re perfect,” she says. They’ve already shared a fried-oyster poorboy sandwich, courtesy of Sebastian’s Hideout, and chocolate-dipped strawberries from Coco-Bon. They’re pondering their next snack — perhaps some tandoori chicken from the Gateway to India booth? And it isn’t even noon.

The Auxila family is among the droves of area residents and out-of-town visitors who have flocked to the capital city for the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Among the events held during the weekend preceding the dedication ceremony was a Culinary Courtyard, in which 20 local restaurants and businesses served up samples of some of the city’s finest food.

“I thought it was going to be like fair food,” says Auxila, who says that she and her children selected unique foods to try. The Auxilas, who moved to Springfield to Chicago three yeas ago, are surprised at the array of offerings. Not only have they enjoyed the variety, but they’ve also discovered several new restaurants and businesses, such as Utter’s Catering and BBQ — the source of those “perfect” ribs.

Harvey Utterbach, owner of Utter’s, is also serving grilled chicken breast sandwiches, along with baked beans and potato salad. Long lines formed around lunch and dinnertime for a sample of his slow-cooked ribs, smoked for 2 1/2 hours, then placed on the grill.

Utterbach is just one of the chefs who has spent both days of the event filling the stomachs of those who took turns touring the new museum, enjoying live entertainment and demonstrations, and eating. A common question heard around the food tents, “Where do you get that?”, is second only to “Have you seen the museum yet?”

Utterbach can be found dishing up lunch through the week in the 2900 block of South MacArthur Boulevard, where he grills beef brisket, beef and pork ribs, and boneless-pork sandwiches. He sold his grilled specialties on the Old State Capitol Plaza for 10 years and says he plans to begin cooking again on the plaza this summer.

Barry Friedman, owner of Norb Andy’s and the Alamo, serves up a little city history with his chicken pasta, cheese fries, and hamburger pony shoes. He says he’s introduced several out-of-town visitors to the city’s favorite sandwich, the horseshoe: “They tried it and seemed to like it. Most people asked if it was like a cheeseburger. They didn’t know what it was.”

Norb Andy’s, which has been offering the dish since opening in 1937, uses the original cheese-sauce recipe from the Leland Hotel, where the popular sandwich is said to have originated. The horseshoe ends up the biggest seller of the weekend at the restaurant’s booth.

Down the block, Pete Pirrera, co-owner of the Food Mart, is serving grilled Italian sausages, the biggest seller at his stand during the event and a specialty at his shop. The eight-ounce grilled sausage is topped with grilled onions and peppers.

A few vendors make culinary tributes to Abe, among them chocolate Lincoln hats made by Coco-Bon’s Bonnie Post, whose gourmet chocolate truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries are displayed elegantly on silver cake stands. Del’s Popcorn Shop offers a more whimsical stovetop hat, made from purple popcorn (chosen as a more appealing tint than black). Chef Stephane Perrin from Sebastian’s Hideout spends most of his time at the festivities tossing plump, juicy oysters into a deep fryer. Even though he didn’t choose the food because of a Lincoln connection — he says he picked oysters because they were quick and easy and a big crowd-pleaser at last year’s Taste of Springfield — the food was indeed a popular item in Lincoln’s era and appeared on many menus during his time in the White House.

My favorites are the Coco-Bon’s chocolate-covered strawberries, Utter’s ribs, the Abe Lincoln gingerbread cookies from Lincoln Land College’s culinary-arts department, the fresh lemon shake-up at Del’s Popcorn Shop, Sebastian’s fried oysters, and fruit salad with chicken from Garden of Eat’n.

Not everything I’ve sampled is perfect. The biggest disappointment is a lackluster chicken gyro from Augie’s Front Burner — it is supposed to be warm but is served cold. It is more than a notch below what I expect from one of the best restaurants in town. The watery raspberry lemonade served by Z Bistro is tasteless, and the crêpes prepared by Robbie’s are filled with what tastes like pie filling rather than fresh seasonal fruit. But even so, I have enjoyed several good meals at all three restaurants, and an occasional miss won’t change my opinion. This event, sponsored by Downtown Springfield Inc., is yet another example of how important it is to let the city’s culinary talents shine.

Farmer’s market opens in May

It’s almost time to begin loading up on fresh-picked produce at the fifth annual Old Capitol Farmers Market, which opens for the season May 18. An official ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held May 25. For those who can’t wait that long, a limited number of vendors will be offering early season crops, flowers, and other items at Preview Days, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. May 4, 7, 11, and 14 on the south side of the Old State Capitol Plaza. The full market will operate 8 a.m.-1 p.m. on Adams, between Third and Fifth streets. Live music, chef demonstrations, and St. John’s Hospital’s health information booth will all return this year.

Kitchens in bloom

The 15th annual Kitchen and Home Tour, sponsored by the Junior League of Springfield, will be held noon-4 p.m. Sunday, May 1. The five homes on the tour are located at 1600 Seton Dr., 1605 Hubbard Ln., 2225 Greenside Dr., 1901 W. Lawrence Ave., and 708 Lismore Ln. Tickets are available at Details, Corkscrew, Giganti and Giganti, the Wardrobe, BJ Grand Salon, United Community Bank, JB Interiors, Periwinkles, Homescapes, and Grab-A-Java. Tickets are $10 in advance; $12 at the door.

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