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Thursday, March 4, 2004 11:13 pm

A French flair

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Sebastian’s Chef Stephane Perrin: “I can make it happen.”
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

A few years ago, Springfield chef Stephane Perrin considered moving back to his native Normandy, France. Lucky for us, he decided to stay.

After moving to the United States, Perrin worked in restaurants in Champaign and Galena before arriving in Springfield 10 years ago. After stints at the Illinois Country Club, the Sangamo Club and the former Bauer's restaurant, he switched gears and worked for a food distributor. He was thinking of returning home when personal reasons extended his stay in the capital city. Since October, he's been putting his creative mark on the menu at Sebastian's Hideout.

Creative cooking has always been in his blood. As a child, he and his friends would make crêpe batter just for fun -- eating the egg, flour and sugar batter without baking it. And he still has a scar on his hand from a drop of hot caramel from a cooking incident when he was seven. After working as a baker apprentice making $100 a month, he knew food was in his future and pursued a career as a chef. His classical French training as a baker is evident. "I use lots of cream and butter. I don't measure the butter," he says, smiling.

"I like food. I like the whole experience," he says. People enjoying a nice meal while celebrating a special event "becomes a moment in time. I can be part of that. I can make it happen for someone," he says. "In France, we spend a lot more time around the table than they do in America. People [here] don't take the time to sit down and enjoy food."

Perrin's culinary creations at Sebastian's deserve to be enjoyed. Although popular items like stuffed shrimp and grilled New York Strip (blackened and served over Cajun Alfredo pasta) have been staples at the restaurant for more than 10 years, Perrin is slowly putting his stamp on the fusion of Asian, French and California cuisines.

My recent dining experience at Sebastian's was nearly perfect, from start to finish. The service, food and atmosphere were just what you would expect at a fine dining restaurant. My husband and I ordered a Szechwan Salad and Fried Oysters to begin our meal. The salad, made with baby greens, Romaine and cabbage, was tossed with wasabi peas and nuts in a Chinese peanut dressing. The sesame-oil based dressing was light and provided a lot of flavor without overpowering the delicate greens. The oysters were an appetizer special, not usually on the regular menu. The large, meaty oysters were delicately coated with breading and fried, then served on a crêpe with a mound of creamy dipping sauce. I could have stopped there and been happy.

But then our entrées arrived. My husband ordered the Tournedos Bordelaise, two hand-cut tournedos of beef, charbroiled and topped with Bordelaise sauce, served with grilled asparagus and sweet potato chips. The meat was ordered medium rare and was perfectly prepared. I ordered the Yellowfin Tuna (Sushi grade tuna steak seared rare in a cracked pepper sesame crust). Each slice of fish was a delicate contrast of flavor. The crunchy exterior coating was slightly warm and flavorful, which melded nicely with the rare meat of the fish. Each slice melted in my mouth. The tuna was served over a mound of ginger cabbage stir-fry, ponzu and chili aioli. The tingling heat provided from the stir-fry kept my taste buds alive, although the sauce was a bit overwhelming by the time I finished the meal. The only way to improve on this perfect dish would be slightly less sauce, which is spicy and rich. But even that small imperfection couldn't detract from the dish.

Other menu choices included Pork Tenderloin (topped with apples and mushrooms flambéed with Calvados in a rich cream sauce, mashed potatoes and haricots verts), Lobster Tail, Rack of Lamb, Penne Pasta and Atlantic Salmon (served with a tomato tarragon beurre blanc and capers with julienne vegetables and mashed potatoes.)

Dessert options included Chocolate Lava Cake and Crème Brulee, both made on-site. We opted for cheesecake and coffee.

Sebastian's also offers an impressive wine list, focusing on small, handcrafted wines. Our waiter was helpful and knowledgeable in recommending a Pinot Grisio and Merlot. The restaurant was voted "Best Place to Take Your In-Laws" by Illinois Times readers. It's the best place to take anyone you're trying to impress.

For a more intimate dining experience, try the Hideout located on the lower level, filled with leather chairs, sofas and linen-topped tables. Live music is available on Saturday from 9 p.m.-11 p.m. After dinner, you can walk upstairs to Stella Blue, an upscale cocktail and martini bar open until 3 a.m. The bar features a 56-foot turquoise serpentine bar. Check out the bathrooms (voted "best" by Illinois Times readers).

Sebastian's is located at 221 S. Fifth St., Springfield. Phone: 217-789-8988. Web site: www.sebastianshideout.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri., and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sat.

A TASTE OF ILLINOIS

The Illinois Products Expo, billed as "a food and Cooking Extravaganza," will be held March 5-7 at the Orr Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The expo began in 1999 to raise awareness about the diversity and economic importance of Illinois' food industry by showcasing the state's food companies. Visitors to the event can taste products made in Illinois, including pizza, gourmet seasonings and sauces, homemade jams and jellies, specialty dressings and apple cider slush. There will also be a Wine and Cheese Garden and musical entertainment.

More than 80 food companies and agriculture associations are scheduled to participate.

Hours are 4 p.m.-7 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Admission is $4 for adults and free for children 10 and younger.

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