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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004 02:20 pm

A colorful café of spice

Café Brio owner Curtis Hudson refers to his eclectic offerings as “Sunfare” cuisine
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

One step inside Café Brio and you'll quickly get an idea of what kind of food is served there. The bold colors of gold, green, and orange-red are used on everything from the walls to the menus. Even the complimentary tortilla chips made daily come in shades of orange and purple.

So it's evident this is not a shy kind of place.

The eclectic, vibrant use of color and flair carries through to the food, which owner Curtis Hudson calls "Sunfare" cuisine. The dishes are characterized by the use of dried chilies, fresh and dried fruits, and blends of herbs and spices. Despite its walls of windows (where diners can sit on elevated benches and be seen by those walking by on the street), high ceilings, and bold colors, the restaurant has a friendly, warm atmosphere. Worn pine tables, plenty of green plants, and simple metal dinnerware help add to the mix. Since opening in 1996, Hudson has been serving up his Latin American, Mediterranean, and Caribbean cuisine in downtown Springfield.

Once you are seated, baskets of crunchy tortilla chips and fresh, flavorful salsa arrive at your table. But don't fill up on those addictive chips, because the best is yet to come.

For lunch, an array of entrées includes chicken or beef tacos; chicken wings; quesadillas with black beans, smoked gouda, and queso blanco; and a grilled pork chop sandwich. My favorite is the shrimp BLT: gulf shrimp rubbed with chilies, smoked bacon, sliced avocado, tomato, lettuce, and homemade mayo on a baked bun. This is an interesting twist on an old standard made better, in my opinion, by the addition of shrimp. This is one of my favorite items on the menu. The spicy sandwich is served with fried yams, a surprising but delicious alternative to potato chips or scoop of slaw.

Salad options include a flavorful plate of spring greens, tossed in citrus-balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with roasted pecans, sun-dried cranberries, and blue cheese. The sweetness of the dried fruit, crunch of the nuts, and sharpness of the cheese make a delightful blending of tastes. Chicken and avocado can be added for an additional $2.

For dinner, the menu gets a little more sophisticated. A variety of Mexican-inspired dishes are still offered, including tacos with chicken, beef, and shrimp, and a spinach chimichanga. Other entrées range from eggplant and pasta to Ahi tuna marinated in pineapple and fresh ginger, served over soba noodles with carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro peanut sauce, and citrus ponzu. Dijon-encrusted salmon; a puff pastry filled with three cheeses and mushrooms; and Habanero breaded chicken breasts with cilantro, peanuts, and raisins, served with black beans and green chili rice, demonstrate the exotic use of spices and range of the dishes offered.

For a recent meal, my dining companion and I chose the rib eye and shrimp tacos. The steak was dusted with morita chile and grilled, then topped with bell peppers, onions, and shiitake mushrooms. It was served over whipped potatoes. The steak was juicy, while the spices gave it a hint of heat, without distracting from the taste of the meat.

The shrimp tacos -- soft tortillas filled with a spicy and rich blend of chipotle-basted shrimp, pepita pesto, greens, and salsa -- will make you reach for your water glass quite often during the meal. I've ordered this entrée many times and it's consistently good.

Appetizers include quesadillas, shrimp egg rolls, tamale cakes, and chicken wings. A short list of desserts include brown sugar tortilla with bananas sautéed in butter with brown sugar and orange spirits, served with vanilla ice cream and molten chocolate cake. The hot chocolate silk pie is spicy. I prefer a soothing finale to a meal, so I chose Brio's homemade cheesecake. The light and creamy mixture was covered in a sweet shell of milk chocolate and toasted coconut.

The restaurant also serves one of the best brunches in town. Don't miss the weekend menu, when you can order tamale cakes, served with eggs, bacon, and fried poblano pepper strips. Sweet options include Belgian waffles and French toast. But if you want to feel like you're on vacation, treat yourself to Eggs Oscar, a decadent blend of crab, fresh asparagus, and poached eggs topped with homemade hollandaise and seared potatoes. What a way to start the week.

Café Brio is located at 524 E. Monroe St., 217-544-0574.


The margaritas at Café Brio may be as popular as the fresh, homemade chips and salsa. But Brio's margarita menu doesn't offer fancy names for its drinks -- they are simply listed as numbers 1 through 7. And they don't come out of a blender or a bottle of mix from under the bar.

These fresh concoctions are a simple blend of fruit juices, tequila, and liquor, served in a glass jar. Different kinds of tequila are used in each drink, such as Patron Silver or Cuervo 1800 Reposado, then shaken with Cointreau, Citronage or other liquor and topped with fresh lime or orange juice.

Try No. 3: El Tesoro Anejo tequila, Cointreau, Grand Marnier and fresh lime juice, poured in to a salt-rimmed glass.

Bring on those chips!

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