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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003 02:20 pm

A year of food

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Cynthia Hinton of Bluestem Bake Shop

Since I began writing this column a year ago, I've had the pleasure of meeting and talking with many restaurant owners, cooks, and food professionals. What I have noticed more than anything is that these people have one thing in common -- unrelenting passion. To be a success in the food industry, like many other career paths, you must love what you do.

Take John Crain, for example. The former budget director transformed his love of baking into a new career at the age of 62. The artisan bread maker at Andiamo! has been interested in baking his entire life, but is still amazed by the simple magic of turning a bowl of milk, flour, yeast, and eggs into warm, delicious loaves of bread.

"I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," he says. "This is as good as it gets."

Luke "Cody" Brooks, a chef at Soiree, talks about his latest creations with the enthusiasm of a new parent. Brooks, who worked his way up from a dishwasher to a chef at the age of 21, now prepares pan roasted pork chops, artichoke heart ravioli and eggplant caviar at Soiree.

"My favorite thing about cooking is that it's the only job where you use every one of your senses," he says. "Some nights it's tough, and I think, 'I could be selling women's shoes and have no pressure.' But I don't think I could do anything else."

Here are a few of the past year's highlights:

• The pie at the Lost Bridge Café on Route 29 in Rochester. Owner Udosha Baumle and employee Sherry Lohrenz bake coconut cream pie, cherry, pumpkin, blueberry, apple, butterscotch and German chocolate. The small café also serves hearty portions of homemade country-style dishes like horseshoes, fried walleye, and chicken fried steak. Located at 201 S. Walnut, Rochester, 62653. 217-498-8419.

• The Bluestem Bake Shop, just off Route 66 in Elkhart. Owner Cynthia Hinton sells homemade baked goods like coconut cake with lemon curd filling from the back of the Under the Prairie Frontier Archaeological Museum. She also serves up homemade soup and sandwiches. An experimental batch of homemade granola soon became a new customer favorite and now her 40-cup recipe sells out each week. Located at109 Governor Ogelsby St., Elkhart. 217-947-2222.

• Morning Star Mercantile and Café, located along Main Street in Salisbury. Owner Pat Adamski dishes up plates of cashew chicken sandwiches and apple pie in a rustic structure made from salvaged 100-year-old barn wood. It looks like a blend of a general store, log cabin, and bed and breakfast. The menu includes soup, sandwiches, and broccoli salad, a customer favorite. Located at 6141 Main St., Salisbury. 217-626-2022.

• Bob Vose's corn dogs. The hot dogs dipped in sweet cornmeal batter, fried, and served on a stick are a staple at the Illinois State Fair. The 74-year-old Springfieldian dips his dogs, fried in vegetable oil, and places them upright in a basket for 2 1/2 minutes, which makes the outside coating crispy. He sells an estimated 20,000 corn dogs a year.

• Jungle Jim's Café and Cozy Dog Drive-In. These two local eateries are the most interesting Route 66 food stops --where else but on the Mother Road can you get your food served by a racecar driver who likes to show off his flying Barbie doll?

Racecar driver and Jim Davison, owner of Jungle Jim's Café, will tell you all about his racing career (he has broken 34 bones and lost a kidney) and his famous friends. But if you're lucky, in between bites of bacon and eggs, he'll show you the flying Barbie which zips across the ceiling on a suspended wire. Located at 1923 Peoria Rd. 217-789-6173.

The Cozy Dog Drive-In is the birthplace of the corn dog, founded in 1949 by Ed Waldmire. It's as interesting for its Route 66 museum and colorful memorabilia as for its famous wiener. Located at 2935 S. Sixth St., 217-525-1992.

• Wienerdog. Owners Mark Anderson and Rob Deaton may be the most enthusiastic new restaurant owners in town. They live, breathe, and eat hot dogs. One of the more interesting items they sell is the Seersdog, named for the hot dogs served with Cheez-Whiz that many Springfieldians recall being served at the Sears department store. Located at 113 N. Sixth St. 217-744-DOGG.

Room for improvement

Here's a short list of what Springfield needs:

A full-service sushi bar. If Peoria and Bloomington can have good sushi restaurants, why can't the capital city?

Krispy Kreme. Nothing against the hometown favorite Mel-O-Cream, but nothing beats a warm Krispy Kreme that melts in your mouth.

A good German restaurant. More than a handful of new Mexican restaurants have opened during the past year, so how about a place for those who crave Wiener schnitzel?

A downtown bagel shop.

Outdoor dining options. There are just a few places to dine alfresco. Outdoor seating at restaurants on the Old State Capitol Plaza like Robbie's and the Feed Store would be nice, in addition to lunch carts like those in Peoria.

A good Chinese restaurant. I'd trade all the buffets and take-out places for one really good restaurant.

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