Steadfast in their commitment to local farms and local ingredients, bacaro shifted with the seasons and introduced their new “Winter 2015” menu in late January. While winter, indeed, may not be the season most closely associated with abundance, Head Chef and owner Thad Morrow has crafted some 15 plates—available as prix fixe options or, in part, as a tasting—reflecting the very best nature has to offer. While my dining partner and I both opted for the $85, seven-course tasting menu as the best way to sample the wide variety of new compositions, we chose to supplement the set menu with one, additional dish we absolutely had to try: wagyu beef stew.
If there is a dish better-suited for cold weather, I have not found it: smoked potatoes and roasted carrots stewed in and infused with an intensely flavorful, aromatic beef broth that is bejeweled with chunks of unspeakably-tender braised beef. Then, in case there is any question as to how exactly you get every drop of that superlative stew into your mouth, two pieces of bone marrow crostini are provided, forming just about the best scarpetta imaginable to mop the bowl clean. An enchanting way to begin the meal, and something everyone should go in and sample while it is still being offered.
Our tasting menu proper began with beets. Not syrupy, gelatinous monstrosities, but glistening, buttered beets with a rich sweetness and earthy flavor that truly marks the fresh variety as altogether dissimilar from whatever lurks inside those cans. Orange and pistachio played to and enunciated the dish’s sweeter side while a bed of barely and some bright, curried olive puree rounded out the heartiness. Few would choose the beet as the frontispiece of their menu, but Morrow succeeds in an opening dish that celebrates the full depth of the root’s flavor while warming cold stomachs.
Moving from the humble beet, the next two dishes shifted towards one of the restaurant’s perennial strengths: seafood. First, steamed Prince Edward Island mussels: bivalves so fundamentally good and tasty, you just need to help them peek out of their shells. Ours were plump and tender, served with a broth composed of cured egg yolk, bacon, parsley and harissa (for spice). Not only did the “egg and bacon” make for a playful accompaniment, but the use of the yolk also helped build richness without sacrificing the overall brightness of the fresh shellfish. On the opposite end of the spectrum, octopus: notoriously difficult to cook and get that balance of chew to tenderness. Here, Morrow braises his, serving the tendrils alongside farfalle, scallions, fireball salumi and red sauce. The cephalopod had just the right amount of aforementioned chew and formed an interesting partner to the bowtie pasta’s own mouthfeel. Though it was hard to exactly distinguish the “fireball” flavor of the salumi, the preparation was overall impressive.
If winter dining is about satisfying, flavorful wish fulfillment, bacaro’s tasting menu reaches just the right apex with its final two savory courses. Transitioning from all that seafood came a beautiful piece of fish: seared wild striped bass. Robust and juicy, the bass stood up to its garlic vinaigrette and melded nicely with stewed Brussels sprouts and a wonderful, intensely flavorful mushroom ragu. For the carnivorously inclined, a prime strip steak with rainbow chard, potato chips, celery root cream and garlic rosemary oils. A touch bitter, crunchy, creamy and umami all in equal parts, the steak plays perfectly with the other flavor notes on the plate. You might think you want a heap of mashed potatoes with your steak, but bacaro’s thoughtful plating offers a more adventurous—and more distinctly seasonal—combination.
As someone who eats Parmigiano-Reggiano by the pound–no bread, no crackers, sometimes bitten straight off the rind–the penultimate course proved a special treat. A gleaming shard of the cow’s milk cheese sat aside two warm rounds of bread and an accompaniment of oozing, sticky Bacaro honey from the bees on the restaurant’s own roof. If the presentation was unassuming, it is only because the kitchen knows what a good, simple pleasure they are serving. Fluffy, crumbly, piquant and richly sweet in perfect harmony, Bacaro’s continued, affectionate embrace of the “cheese course” remains a welcome sight.
Dessert was just as much of a classic: flourless chocolate cake. Though the simplicity and restraint of the dish begs diners to underestimate it, the reality—like the cheese course before it—underlines why exactly the classics are so good. Tall and proud with a wonderful raised crust, the sliver of cake is enrobed in the traditional blanket of powdered sugar and served passion fruit coulis. For its size, the dessert is deceptively (and wonderfully) decadent. The rich cocoa flavor melts onto the tongue before being cut naturally by the sweetness of the sugar and the vibrant, tart twang of the passion fruit. It is just the sort of homey high note worthy of closing off such an excellent meal.
bacaro’s winter menu is an unabashed, bold-flavored reminder that good food knows no season. It captures just the type of rustic fare one wants when trekking in out of the snow while showcasing the kitchen’s fine dining gravitas. It’s the sort of food that doesn’t just make you ask for another helping but for six more weeks of winter.
bacaro’s “Winter 2015” menu continues to run Tuesday through Sunday. The restaurant is located at 113 N. Walnut St. in downtown Champaign. Reservations can be made by calling 398-6982 or at http://bacarowinelounge.com.