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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 11:37 pm

Grilled what?

At Bacaro in Champaign, there’s even a twist on watermelon

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I’ve taught several cooking classes about grilling, for which I developed a guide to grilling vegetables and fruits. It’s pretty comprehensive, covering a wide range of produce with specific instructions for each. The fruit section says, “Most fruit is too delicate to stand up to the dry heat of the grill,” then lists the fruits that can: stone fruits, such as peaches and plums; figs; pineapple; and bananas.

I was wrong — or, at least. my list was incomplete.

“You have to try the grilled watermelon. It’s fantastic!” urged our server at Bacaro in Champaign. I generally order the most unusual thing on any menu, so she didn’t have to push hard. Besides, I trusted Thad Morrow, Bacaro’s chef and owner.

I’ve known Morrow, a Jacksonville native, since he worked at the Corkscrew wine shop in Springfield while on break from the Culinary Institute of America (often referred to the “Harvard” of culinary schools). The CIA’s curriculum is organized in six-week blocks. Students must also do internships between the blocks. Morrow would work in Springfield, then he’d be off to Los Angeles or to Chicago, at Charlie Trotter’s. He’d reappear for a while; then I’d hear he was back in New York, first to work in the city, then to finish his CIA classes. After graduating, he was hired to start a Corkscrew in Champaign-Urbana. I wondered whether he’d stay in one place, but Morrow and Champaign-Urbana suited each other well. After two years at the Corkscrew there, he opened Bacaro, a 28-seat restaurant with 14 additional seats at the bar.

Morrow’s concept was risky even for Champaign-Urbana, which has more adventurous tastes and good restaurants than most similarly-sized Midwest cities. Bacaro (which means “wine bar” in the Venetian dialect) would only serve Italian wines, appetizers, and panini. But it worked, and a couple years later, after a kitchen expansion, Bacaro began offering a full menu. Panini are still available next door at Persimmon, a two-year old deli-retail shop that also offers Italian specialties, wines, locally made foodstuffs, and authentic-tasting gelato.

Persimmon’s and Bacaro’s Italian bent isn’t surprising. Morrow’s longest internship was with extraordinarily gifted chef, restaurateur and Food Network superstar Mario Batali. After seven months at Batali’s first restaurant, Pó, Morrow was pressured by “Molto Mario” to abandon his culinary education to become the pasta chef at Batali’s new restaurant, Babbo. “He kept saying how great it would be, that we’d be famous, and of course he was right,” Morrow says with a laugh, “but my mom would have killed me if I didn’t finish school.”

I understand why Batali wanted Morrow to stay. Bacaro is arguably the most sophisticated and creative restaurant in central Illinois, comparing favorably with the best restaurants anywhere. Morrow’s been getting some well-deserved attention lately, most notably a full-page feature in Bon Appétit last April. The food is fabulous, incorporating both seasonal and local products, as well as delicious and unusual ingredients from all over, and the dishes at Bacaro make sense, unlike the offerings of the too many terminally trendy restaurants that throw a combination of the hottest “in” ingredients on a plate without considering whether they actually belong together. Sometimes a glance at Bacaro’s menu might seem otherwise, but the first bite always confirms that he never forgets what’s most important: Food should taste good.

Take, for example, my last entrée at Bacaro. A duck leg quarter was centered atop a bed of shell beans, hominy, raisins . . . and cocoa. Unsweetened chocolate is one of many ingredients in rich, complex black Mexican molé sauces. However, everything in this preparation retained its own identity; how would the cocoa fit in? Beautifully. It didn’t identify itself as chocolate, just as an earthiness that tied the separate elements together.

Then there’s that watermelon. The first bite was incredible, not as sweet as I thought it would be, with an almost meaty texture. By the second bite I was trying to figure out how to make it. By the time I finished, I had it.

“Food should be fun,” says Morrow, and he’s right. Amaze your friends and family by grilling some watermelon. It’s easier than you might think. And if you make the trek over to Bacaro, be sure to tell Morrow I said hi.

Bacaro is located at 113 N. Walnut in Champaign; 217-398-6982.

Grilled Watermelon

Seedless watermelon
Kosher or sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing

Cut the watermelon in half and then into slices, about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut the slices into quarters, thirds, or halves, depending on the size of the wedges, one piece per person. Cut off and discard the rind.

Lightly sprinkle the wedges on both sides with the salt. Stand the wedges on their edges on a rack over a sink or pan and let them drain for half an hour.

Preheat the grill to high.

After the watermelon has drained, rinse each piece under cold running water. Place each piece between two folded paper towels and gently but firmly press to remove excess water. You should stop just when you feel the watermelon begin to crunch.

Brush the watermelon lightly on both sides with the olive oil. Grill over high heat until grill marks have formed and the melon is slightly softened, about 5 minutes.

Serve each wedge on a bed of baby lettuces or arugula, drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing (raspberry is especially good). Sprinkle with a little crumbled feta, blue, or chèvre cheese, if you like.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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