We’re back. After a two-and-a-half year hiatus due to boredom with the restaurant choices in central IL, we finally have something new to write about.

The Brick House Bar and Grill opened this week in the space formerly occupied by Two Flowers at the refurbished Unique Suites Hotel on Rt. 16 in Charleston. The new restaurant and hotel are owned by the same folks who own Dirty’s Bar and Grill further east on Rt. 16. Hopefully this bodes well for the longevity of the restaurant, because this one’s a keeper. We stopped in tonight to give it a try and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.

The menu is typical American with steaks, chicken, pasta, and seafood. The dishes are taken beyond the routine by different spices and sauces. Tonight Sarah had the Chicken Parmesan and I had a dish called Chateau Bistro, which was a center cut sirloin sliced and served with a bourbon creme sauce. Sarah’s dish came with ziti and fire roasted corn. Mine came with mashed red potatoes. We both started with a Caesar salad. The salads were ok, although the lettuce seemed a bit wilted from washing. The entrees, however, were simply outstanding. Sarah’s Chicken Parmesan was a huge piece of perfectly cooked breaded chicken over ziti with a vodka-based tomato sauce. The chicken was covered in melted cheese. My steak was also cooked to perfection and the bourbon creme sauce was an excellent addition that nicely complement the steak without overpowering it. Both side dishes were very tasty. Our bill, which included two glasses of wine, came to $50 with the tip. Not bad for an excellent meal for two. I look forward to our next visit there. There are lots of interesting things on the menu I wish to try.

Note to the chef: My compliments, sir. Well done.

Note to the owner: Kudos on opening what is sure to become the best restaurant in Coles County. I wish you success. You’ll see me often.

Our original destination was closed tonight, so we circled back to Johnny’s Family Dining on Dewitt Ave (corner of 1st Division St). This is the former D&W restaurant. We went in hoping the food and service were at least similar to D&W, which was always a decent place to grab a meal. We were not disappointed. We were there fairly early, so there was no crowd. It did start to fill in by the time we left, but it was far from full.

Among tonight’s specials were Roast Turkey and Dressing, which Sarah ordered, and Baby Back Ribs, which I ordered. We started with salads, which were standard lettuce and tomato style. Not too big and very fresh. They came with some surprisingly tasty breadsticks. Sarah’s meal, which she ordered with a baked potato, was quite generous. She brought home enough for another meal. She got several slices of well-prepared turkey breast meat over a large helping of tasty dressing. On the side were her potato and green beans. My ribs were supposedly a half-rack, but they seemed much larger. They were cooked to perfection and the meat literally fell off the bone. I just had to lift the bones out to remove them. My only nit-pick, and it’s a tiny one, was the BBQ sauce. It was tangy/spicy and quite good, but there was a bit too much of it. Maybe next time I’ll see if they’ll bring it on the side. I opted for fries and was very pleased with them. They were crispy and had some sort of tasty batter covering.

Our meal tonight came to a whopping $17. You can’t beat that for two very tasty and generous sit-down dinners. We noticed on the specials menu that they have stuffed peppers on Saturday night. We’ll be heading back to try them.

We’ve been in NYC since Monday and have had some outstanding meals. I’ll list them all here.

Monday – Bello (863 Ninth Ave, corner of 56th Street) – Usually when we stay at the Mid-town Holiday Inn on 57th St, we walk to a local place for dinner the first night. We’d passed Bello several times and have always talked about stopping in someday. Well we finally did. We had no problems getting a table and the service was excellent. The menu is typical high-end Italian. Three items on the specials list that night caught our attention. We split an Avocado Salad, which was very tasty. Sarah ordered the Chilean Sea Bass, which was prepared with a leek and tomato sauce. I had the Rigatoni with bacon and peas in a tomato cream sauce. Both were superb. Sarah’s fish was a sizable portion and was light and sweet. My pasta was perfectly prepared and not overwhelmed with sauce. Not to sound like Hannibal Lecter, but I enjoyed mine with a fine Chianti. We finished up with a piece of Tiramisu and a cappuccino. It was a great way to start our stay in NYC. Five Spoons – High End

Tuesday -Mitali East - 334 E. 6th St – Mitali East has long been one of our favorite places to eat in NYC. I’ve rated it very highly in the past. We invited one of Sarah’s friends with us this time, so I guess we set ourselves up to be disappointed. Always happens that way when you rave about a place and then bring friends, no? There was nothing particularly wrong with our meal this time. It was just missing that special something that makes for a memorable meal. Sarah had the Shaag Paneer, I ordered a favorite, Chicken Balti, and Sarah’s friend had the Chicken Tikka Masala. Sarah’s saag was a bit overwhelmed with a sourish cream sauce. My balti was ok, but virtually devoid of spices. The chicken tikka masala was the same, decent, but lacking zip. The service was, as always, excellent. Maybe it was just an off-night for the chef. Three Spoons – Family

Wednesday – Thai Basil – (860 Ninth Ave) – Thai Basil is another of our favorites. It is also an easy walk from our usual hotel. Thai Basil is a typical NYC hole-in-the-wall eatery. Not much atmosphere, but really good food. Luckily, that hasn’t changed for Thai Basil. We started with Vegetable Dumplings, which were, as you would guess, minced veggies wrapped in lettuce. Very tasty. Sarah ordered Eggplant Basil Sautee (which included tofu) and I went with Siam Beef (which came on fried rice). Sarah really liked her eggplant and my beef was perfectly done. I loved the fried rice that came with it. It was truly rice and veggies fried up in a wok, not some mixture of rice and sauce or the yellow rice we get in the midwest. As always, an excellent meal. Four Spoons – Family

Thursday – Bistango Ristorante - (415 Third Ave at 29th St) – We chose Bistango because we were joining a friend of Sarah’s who happens to have a gluten allergy. Bistango has many gluten-free offerings. They even have gluten-free beer. The atmosphere is dinner casual and very comfy. The service was excellent and the waitstaff was very knowledgeable about every detail of the food preparation, which can be a godsend to those with allergies. Sarah’s friend was very pleased and surprised at the wide choice of gluten-free food as well as the staff’s knowledge. She ordered the gluten-free ravioli, which she said was the first time she’d ever seen it in a restaurant. It looked pretty tasty, which she confirmed. She had started out with the calamari appetizer, which she said was also very good. I’ll take her word for it as I don’t like calamari. Sarah and I split a Caesar salad, which was served wedge style. Not my favorite way to enjoy a salad. The Caesar was ok, but a bit pricey considering it was basically a wedge of romaine with some grated cheese and dressing on it. For entrees Sarah had rigatoni and meat sauce. I had the boneless pork chop. Sarah’s rigatoni was good, although the meat sauce had shredded meat instead of the typical crumbled hamburger. My porkchop was pounded flat and breaded, like a schnitzel. It came with a small portion of mashed potatoes, a large helping of spinach, and was served over sauteed onions and hot cherry peppers. The porkchop was quite good, as were the potatoes. I’m not a big fan of spinach and the onions and peppers were very spicy, so I only had a couple bites of those. We all had the excellent Gelato and Sorbet for dessert. Sarah and I split coffee gelato and mango sorbet. The gelato was creamy and rich. The mango sorbet was eye-opening strong. If you really like mango, you’ll love the mango sorbet. Sarah’s friend had vanilla gelato and blackberry sorbet. She raved about both. Despite my little nitpicks, the meal was quite good, the service was, as I said, excellent, and the atmosphere was enjoyable. Four Spoons – Family

Friday – Molyvos – (871 Seventh Ave) – We originally tried to get into a smaller Greek place close to our hotel, but it turned out to be basically a tiny cheese and wine bar and was, of course, packed on a Friday evening. So we walked on over to Molyvos on 7th Ave, which the bus to the Javits Center passed every day. We were able to walk in and get a table right away. It’s a surprisingly large place. The atmosphere is very upscale, yet comfortable. We were expecting the usual Greek fare with gyros and moussaka and such. No gyros to be found here, although they do have moussaka. The waiter quickly supplied us with warm pita triangles and bread with a spicy feta spread. We also ordered the Tzatziki. We went through the first basket of bread and were promptly supplied with another. Both the feta spread and the tzatziki were excellent. For entrees Sarah ordered the stuffed pepper and I had the beef short rib (Vodino Stifado). Sarah’s pepper was stuffed with eggplant and rice and such. It was very, very good. My beef short rib was melt in your mouth tender and delicious. We split an order of potato kefte, which was quite good, although we really could have done without it as the entrees were more than ample. I had a couple glasses of a really good mavroudi wine, which went perfectly with the beef. We will definitely return to Molyvos. It seemed only right that we should bookend our trip with two fantastic meals. Five Spoons – High End

We were heading out to the Celtic Crossroads show at EIU tonight and were planning on eating at the Thai place here in Charleston. As we were passing by Two Flowers by the first set of lights in Charleston, Sarah said, “Why don’t we stop in here?” So we did. It turned out to be a good decision.

Two Flowers always has a seasonal menu, and tonight was apparently one of the last nights for the winter menu. We both ended up ordering off it. Sarah started out with African Peanut Soup and I had the Red Pepper Bisque. Both were excellent. For entrees Sarah got the Orange Roughy and I had the Beef Tenderloin and Scallops in Champagne Vanilla Sauce. Sarah’s roughy was very tasty. Not fishy at all and accompanied by a light, but noticeable citrus glaze. My beef was outstanding. It was accompanied by two scallops and a sauce that was like having dessert with dinner. I had a nice glass of cab sauvignon with mine. Once again, great gourmet food right here in Charleston.

Once again this year we trekked out to New England for Christmas. We only ate out a few times thanks to superb cooking by Sarah’s mom (delicious beef brisket and latkes) and my sister (awesome beef tenderloin). On the way out we stopped at Blue Colony Diner in Newtown, CT. It was our first time there and we weren’t quite sure what it would be like. We had just seen a billboard on the highway and thought we’d give it a try. Turns out Blue Colony Diner is a well known landmark. It’s very large for a diner and the menu is huge. So are the portions. Sarah had some seriously meaty lasagna which became three meals. I had a really good pastrami Reuben.  A gentleman sitting near us had the baked haddock. It was the largest helping of food for one person I’ve ever seen. Great place to stop if you’re passing through the area on I-84. Three and a Half Spoons

Whenever we get out to Massachusetts we try to grab a meal at The Chatta Box in Bridgewater, MA. The Chatta Box is simply the best Asian fusion restaurant we’ve ever encountered. The food is sublime. I ordered our longtime favorite, Mango Stir Fry with Chicken. It’s the near dish in the picture below. It’s served in a mango shell (the purple you see in the picture). It’s sweet and spicy and fresh and delicious. Sarah ordered Tropical Explosion, which was tofu with pineapple and peppers and mango and onions. Similar to mine but just different enough. Both were excellent. Five Spoons

Chatta Box

Lastly, Sarah’s parents took us out to Butterfly Restaurant in West Hartford, CT. (Thanks, Judy and Steve.) We usually make it to Butterfly on our trips. We each order a dish and then mix and match. This time we had pork fried rice (which was a welcome treat as good fried rice is hard to find out here in IL), crispy orange beef, sesame chicken, and broccoli and garlic. All were very tasty. We really miss having a good Chinese restaurant nearby. We thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Four Spoons

Today we were up in the mall area shopping, so we decided to swing down Neil St and try the newish Holy Land restaurant at 705 N. Neil St in Champaign. It’s the same place where Jack’s Grill used to be. It’s still Mediterranean food. We never got around to eating at Jack’s, but Holy Land has the kabobs and rice dishes you’d expect from such a place. The atmosphere is similar to what you’d find on Green St, with a few booths and tables and a take-out counter. They have a large LCD TV playing Arab MTV, which was interesting, to say the least.

The folks at Holy Land are quite friendly and the service is excellent. As we sat down, they brought us a small but tasty eggplant appetizer with toasted pita chips. The menu has several fruity drinks available and they have coffee or Pepsi products. We both opted to stay with the water. For entrees Sarah ordered Chicken Shish Tawook, which was a chicken kabab with semi-spicy chicken and a large helping of rice. I got the Mixed Grill, which was one each of the chicken, beef, and lamb kebabs with rice. It also came with a large plate of hummus and baba ganoush with a basket of warm pitas. I’m usually not big on hummus or baba ganoush, but this dish had both with olive oil, paprika, and a mint chutney. It was excellent. The kebabs were all perfectly prepared and a tad on the spicy side, although not mouth burning. The rice had almonds and spices and was also top notch. We brought home enough for another meal. Very generous servings.

For dessert we split a large bowl of the best rice pudding I have ever had. It was a perfect way to finish off the meal. Can’t wait to go back. I hope they stay around longer than Jack’s did. Holy Land is shaping up to be the best Mediterranean restaurant in the Champaign-Urbana area. 

Saigon to Bangkok is the former Saigon Restaurant in Savoy Plaza in Savoy, IL. Saigon Restaurant suffered from poor service and hit-or-miss quality. No surprise it didn’t last long. The new Saigon to Bangkok is unchanged in appearance, but judging from the service and food, it’s off to a much better start.

We gave it a shot for dinner tonight, lured in by their new Thai offerings. We had no problem getting a table, but it began to fill up while we were there. We were going to start with Crab Rangoon, but the hostess suggested the Vietnamese Pancake (Banh Xeo). It looked like an omelet over bean sprouts, but the taste was more doughy than egg. It also had the odd combination of shrimp and pork. It came wth a tasty dipping sauce and was quite good.

For entrees Sarah ordered Papaya with Chicken and I had the Orange Stir Fry, also with chicken. Sarah thought hers was quite good but not as spicy as she thought it would be. My orange stir fry was more like ORANGE!!! stir fry. It must have had at least a half orange worth of juice in it and there were six or eight large chunks of orange. There were not as many onions and peppers as I would have liked. It was ok, but the overriding impression was one of eating chicken in a bowl of orange juice. Maybe that was the intention, and if so, the dish succeeded. But it’s not something I’d order again.

As of now they do not have a license for beer or wine, but they have supposedly applied for one and hope to offer beer in the future. It was even on the menu.

We’ll return to Saigon to Bangkok soon to try some of their other dishes. It will be nice to have a good Thai/Vietnamese place on the south side of town.

This evening we opted for Chinese and stopped in to Empire Chinese Restaurant on Green St. in the Campustown area of Champaign, IL. Empire is like many places on Green where you order from a counter and eat with plastic utensils. The menu is virtually identical to most other Chinese places in the C-U area. The prices are very low, though. We were amazed at how much food $20 would buy. As you can see below, we went big knowing we’d have  plenty left over to take home. We started the steamed dumpling appetizers. Sarah ordered Kung Pao Chicken and I had Mongolian Beef and Beef Fried Rice.

The dumplings were excellent. They’d make a great lunch by themselves. Sarah thought her Kung Pao was very good. I tried some and thought it had a nice spicy bite to it. My Mongolian Beef was good, but heavy on the brown sauce and onions. It could have done with more scallions and a bit less sauce and onions. Still, better than most beef type dishes at similar restaurants. The fried rice was typical of this area and a bit bland, although the generous amount of beef in it was lean and tender. We’ll definitely return to Empire for different meals. They had some other meals that looked tasty.

Empire

Today was a gorgeous day weatherwise and Sarah had heard about a place in Indy called Shapiro’s that had “real” bagels, so we decided to take a road trip to Indy. We ended up having lunch there. Shapiro’s is at 808 S Meridian St, very near the new Lucas Oil stadium where the *ahem* Colts play.

Shapiro's

Shapiro’s is basically a deli and cafeteria all in one. You can get take-out or just grab some bagels or cold cuts or breads. Or you can order a whole meal and sit down and eat.

Shapiro's

We did both, but started with a meal. Sarah saw Stuffed Cabbage on the menu and ordered that, along with some spinach and a potato cake (really a knish). Her meal also came with two large slices of rye and a large pickle. I ordered a Reuben, which also came with a large pickle. No alcohol at Shapiro’s, unfortunately, so I didn’t get to have a beer with my Reuben. We settled for Diet Coke.

Shapiro's

Sarah’s Stuffed Cabbage was excellent. I’d never had stuffed cabbage and didn’t think I’d like it, but I was wrong. Her cabbage was very good, as was the potato cake. My Reuben was superb. It was lean and thinly sliced. What you see above is a big stack of corned beef slices, then some sauerkraut, then more corned beef, then cheese, then the 1000 Island dressing. Despite the size, it was easy to eat. The corned beef was so lean and thin that it was easy to bite through the whole sandwich. And while I rarely comment on small side items, the pickles at Shapiro’s are outstanding.

Before we left we grabbed a half-dozen onion bagels and a loaf of their excellent rye bread. I only wish we had brought icepacks for the cooler so I could have brought home a pound or so of their awesome corned beef or tasty-looking turkey.We’ll make Shapiro’s a regular stop on our future Indy road trips.

For ten days roaming around Germany and Austria we ate very well. Too well, in fact. Oof. No one has ever suggested that traditional German food is light fare. Quite the opposite. Bratwurst, beef dishes, Wiener Schnitzel, Leberkäse (sort of a meatloaf with a hotdog-ish taste), Kartoffelknödel (potato dumplings the size of baseballs), potato salad, and various types of kraut are all serious dishes. I enjoyed them all. Some more than once. It’s hard to find a bad meal in Germany. We also had Indian twice, once in Nürnberg at Tadsch Mahal, which was excellent, and once in Salzburg at a small (very small) place near our hotel called Indiya. The food there was good, but not up to the standards of the Tadsch Mahal.

In Nürnberg we had several noteworthy meals. One was at the famous Helig Geist Spital (Holy Ghost (or Spirit) Hospital). Very nice inside and out with an interesting mix of traditional and more modern cuisine. Some pics below.

Heilig Geist Spital

Heilig Geist Spital

The others were at the Kon Tiki, which is right on the river and has remained relatively unchanged for 30 years, and our first dinner in Nürnberg at the Bratwurst-Röslein, which was right around the corner from our hotel. The latter had Gemütlichkeit in spades.

We found breakfast at the B&B type places to be excellent. Usually breads and croissants with cold cuts and cheese and various spreads. Coffee, juice, and cereals were also included. A couple of places that catered to Americans also had eggs and bacon and sausages. The first hotel we stayed at, the Holiday Inn in Schwabing (part of Munich) had only two options for breakfast. You either ordered room service (pricey) or you paid a king’s ransom (EUR 23.50 per person or ~$36) for the buffet. I could never see spending $70+ on breakfast. I just can’t eat that much so early in the morning. So while we were at that hotel, we walked a block down the street to a very nice little Bäckerei for fresh croissants and lattes. I love the schoko croissants.

One thing that disappointed me about the trip was the rampant expansion of American fast food places. McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are everywhere. And even worse, they’re advertised on billboards everywhere. The picture below is the small park in the center of Detwang, a tiny hamlet below Rothenburg ob der Tauber that dates back to the 10th century. Everything about this little place screams history and tradition except this ridiculous billboard.

Detwang

Overall I’d give our dining experience in Germany and Austria 4 Spoons and rate the costs in the Family category. Certainly you can find pricier food and there is no shortage of 5 Spoon places, but we were quite happy with the choices we made.

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