It’s been written up in The Wall Street Journal and Travel & Leisure, but when I told our waiter at June we had driven from Chicago just to eat there, he expressed genuine surprise and appreciation. Chef-owner Josh Adams’s approach has been described as a convergence of molecular gastronomy and localvorism, but it’s not Grant Achatz wreaking havoc on Bruce Sherman’s pantry. The “modern cooking techniques” the server alerted us to at the start of the meal ended up amounting to making good use of a sous-vide machine and a teeny bit of freeze-drying.
June is in a suburb of Peoria, but I wasn’t especially curious how it would play there. My question was how it would play for a Chicagoan. The answer: It’s one of the most memorable meals I’ve had this year. Of course, once you’ve traveled 150 miles for supper, it’s easy to justify getting the tasting menu. On my visit, the seven courses began with a rhubarb-crab soup that was cool and not too sweet and will be, for me, what spring 2010 tastes like. But June is worth the trip if only to eat one dish, which came out next but is also available à la carte: an egg whose texture—smooth, creamy yolk; whites light and airy like soufflé—is the world’s greatest argument for the practice of sous vide.
I have (gentle) criticisms: The tarragon gnocchi lacked salt, the venison’s cherry sauce was a bit too sweet, the final dish—a freeze-dried chocolate dome—was unnecessarily difficult to eat. But there was a generosity that made it easy to find something to appreciate in each dish, from the spicy ramp salsa verde paired with the crisp-skinned sea bass to the interplay of rhubarb and fennel in the penultimate dessert. There are surely a few restaurants in Chicago as good as June, but you’ll find an experience this gracious only in Peoria. —Julia Kramer
4450 N Prospect Rd, Peoria Heights, 877-682-5863. Average main course: $30. Tasting menu: $85.
Three things you should know about Soe Café: (1) Despite the fact that it is only 80 miles away, it is an hour later there. (2) Chocolate pavé. But more on that in a sec. (3) Its backyard is the beautiful beaches of Sawyer, Michigan. And while the new chef, Justin White, has turned this charming old house into the Bristol lite, he’s cognizant of his casual surroundings. Lightly battered whitefish gets slathered with plenty of aioli on just the right type of bun—there is little more I could ask for in life than this sandwich and a day at the beach. But Soe offers a lot more: lardons, slices of hard-boiled egg and chunks of potato take Cobb salad to the next level; White raises the bar on deviled eggs by topping them with fried capers. For dessert, peanut butter and chocolate ice-cream squares nostalgically recall ice-cream bars. If anything, White relies a bit heavily on salt for flavor in his savory food, but the flakes of sea salt sprinkled with crunchy pretzels atop that chocolate pavé (the best $4 I’ve spent recently) are meant to be. —Julia Kramer
12868 Red Arrow Highway, Sawyer, Michigan, 269-426-4878. Average main course: $12.
bacaro restaurant and wine lounge
Chicago chefs love to tout their use of locally sourced ingredients, but somehow it feels more authentic to indulge in a creamy burrata with green garlic and chive blossoms when your drive into town likely routed you past the very farms and creameries where the ingredients resided that morning.
That’s the case with bacaro, which began as a wine bar but has become more known for the rotating menu filled with farm-fresh, local and sustainable ingredients. The menu changes daily, so let your server be your guide—mine didn’t whiff on a single menu recommendation. Case in point: After savoring the garlicky burrata, we pounced on her idea of sharing the daily risotto special. Fluffy and portioned just right to keep us from canceling our entrées, it included smoky bacon, crunchy pine nuts and the sharp bite of shaved Parmesan. When our entrées did arrive, the pan-roasted salmon was solid if not a standout, but the seared scallops were a different story. Salty, tender and nestled in wild rice, they only improved with every bite of tangy white asparagus in strawberry water.
Sure, maybe I wish she’d vetoed my order for the gelatinous, overly eggy bread pudding and just brought two of the fudgy terrines to the table instead. But it was hard to begrudge the trip to Chambana as we tipped back the last of our wine and relished the adorable blondie morsels that arrived with our check. —Angela Barnaby
113 N Walnut St, Champaign, 217-398-6982. Average main course: $27.