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Thursday, April 1, 2004 04:16 am

Afternoon delights

Incredibly Delicious owner-chef Patrick Groth: “Chocolate is my favorite food.”

Having lunch at Incredibly Delicious is a test of willpower. You try to focus on the menu posted on the wall near the counter, telling you about the soup, salad and sandwich specials of the day. It shouldn't be that difficult to order -- there are just a few choices. How hard could it be?

If you're one of the many fans of this charming bakery and café, you know what I'm talking about. If you're like me, you start out with the best of intentions. You're just going to order a spinach salad, or maybe a slice of homemade quiche and a cup of tea. But let's face it: Though the lunch offerings are quite good, it's that large glass case -- or, more accurately, what's inside it -- that gets all the attention. It's what makes people almost swoon (maybe drool) and lose all willpower.

Inside that case are slices of thick, dark flourless chocolate cake, tiny lemon tarts and plate-size apricot tarts. There are slivers of moist, shiny mixed-fruit tarts, chewy cheesecake brownies, mounds of hazelnut cream puffs, chocolate éclairs and rows of almond cakes dipped in white chocolate and shaped like Easter eggs.

"Chocolate is my favorite food," says owner/chef Patrick Groth, so it's no wonder the sinfully delicious flourless chocolate cake is one of the bakery's most popular items. "I never tire of dessert," he says. "You don't get tired of something if it's your passion."

Groth knows what he's talking about. He begins his workday around 3 a.m., starting the time-consuming tasks of making the homemade breads, baguettes, croissants and desserts that are his trademark. On any given day, the bakery offers four kinds of bread -- wheat-raisin walnut or pepper Parmesan, for instance -- and as many as 16 different pastries and desserts.

The eatery has a French influence, from the word boulangerie, a French word for "bakery," painted on the window to the French chocolate used in desserts and French posters on the walls. Groth, a Springfield native, moved to New York City after earning a business degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield. He graduated from the French Culinary Institute and later worked in France before returning to Springfield, where he catered private parties. Eight years ago, he opened Incredibly Delicious, mainly selling pastries and bread. Today, in addition to serving lunch and baked and specialty foods from his café, he makes his breads available at the Old Capitol Farmers Market and offers an organic line at Food Fantasies. He also provides dessert catering, special orders and gift baskets.

The bakery/café is ensconced in the lower level of the Weber House, a 19th-century Italianate mansion located at 925 S. Seventh St. Groth; his wife, Bitzy; and their two sons, Samuel and Isaac, live above the bakery in the restored home. You feel transported to another time as you walk through the antique iron gates surrounding the home and up the brick path to the entrance. The café features several dining rooms with ornate fireplaces, worn wooden floors and exposed-brick walls. A small outdoor patio surrounded by lattice panels is ideal for warm-weather dining -- it's like taking a minivacation in the middle of the day. You almost feel as if you've found a secret hideaway in which to savor a cup of latté and a fresh chocolate croissant as you watch the world go by.

On a recent visit, my mother and I enjoyed lunch at a small table overlooking the landscaped courtyard. Lunch, which is served six days a week, consists of salads, soups, sandwiches and quiches. I ordered the delicious artichoke, tomato and Parmesan quiche, a thick wedge of flaky crust filled with a fluffy egg mixture, fresh tomatoes and chunks of artichoke. I also chose the cream-of-mushroom soup, which was rich and ripe with the taste of earthy mushrooms. A scoop of couscous in the center of the bowl added a nice texture to the soup. The soup was served with two slices of homemade bread, one of them a multigrain variety with flaxseeds, which added even more texture and crunch to the meal.

My mother ordered a vegetable wrap sandwich (a flour tortilla filled with lettuce, carrots and assorted crunchy raw vegetables) and a side salad. Both items were fresh, light and flavorful.

Daily lunch specials usually include a choice of two quiches, sandwiches and soup. Quiches feature such fillings as pears and blue cheese; goat cheese and mushrooms; spinach, bacon and Swiss cheese; and garden vegetables. Salads such as the fresh spinach with pineapples, toasted walnuts and poppyseed dressing and the Asian chicken salad with French green beans are customer favorites.

Of course we gave in to temptation and sampled a few of those delicacies from the glass case that kept calling our names. The flourless chocolate cake was the perfect consistency, softer than fudge but thicker than pudding or cake. It was sinfully rich and tasted just as good as it looked. A slice of blueberry, apple and cherry tart was equally good.

Incredibly Delicious is located at 925 S. Seventh St. in Springfield. Phone: 217-528-8548. Lunch is served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat.


Apple Barn expands menu

The Apple Barn in Chatham, which opens for the season April 1, is known for its seasonal farm stand produce, from berries and apples to pumpkins and squash. The business also sells trees, flowers, outdoor decorating supplies, and food items like honey and Raven Hot sauces. But an expanded menu will offer more homemade pastries and breakfast items.

Manager Pearl Rank, who is the mother of Apple Barn owner Gayle Johnson, does most of the baking for the business, preparing items such as fresh fruit Danish rolls, peanut butter and chocolate and apple bar cookies, and double chocolate butter cake. In addition, the business will now offer a grilled breakfast sandwich, made with Rank's special bread, sausage or ham, two kinds of cheeses, mustard dill sauce and eggs (salsa will be added later in the season). Other items include pumpkin muffins with cream cheese filling, as well as banana nut, fruit and zucchini muffins, and individual-sized spinach quiches. All items are homemade. Pound cake and Bundt cake have also been added to the menu.

Rank also prepares the homemade dry cake mixes and apple crisp topping mixes available for sale. She will be selling her homemade salsa later in the growing season.

The items available for carry out are available beginning at 7:30 a.m. weekdays.

The Apple Barn is located at 2290 E. Walnut St., Chatham. Phone: 217-483-6236. Bakery hours: 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

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