In the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway would write from a rented room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana. Late in the morning, after finishing his work, he would make his way outside and stroll along Calle Obipso to El Floridita, an American-style bar in the Cuban capital. During his first visit into the "cradle of the daiquiri," as the owner advertised it, Hemingway reportedly drank the cocktail that the bar was known for and promptly ordered a second, but stronger. This was the genesis of the Hemingway Daiquiri and the birth of cocktail legend.
Punch!, Downtown Champaign's newest cocktail bar, plays homage to Papa Hemingway in ways that might go unnoticed. The logo incorporates the red triangle from the Cuban flag. The menu features a quote from The Sun Also Rises. And the first item on the cocktail list is, of course, the Hemingway Daiquiri. One would be forgiven for detecting a hint of a trade wind when passing through the vestibule. The decor is more upscale than tropical, incorporating dark woods that frame the wine cooler and spirits shelves, and a marble bar that runs the length of the room.
The drink menu at Punch! is extensive. Wine drinkers will certainly find something they like among the two-page list of reds, whites, and dessert wines. Beer drinkers will too: The bar has eight taps, seven of which feature both local and faraway craft beers, while the bottle and can selection has even more variety. But the stars of the show are the seasonal cocktails, which, as one might imagine, change about four times per year.
Fall to Pieces
The two most popular drinks currently are Fall to Pieces ($9) and Fig-getaboutit ($11). Pears lead the way in Fall to Pieces. It is made with pear-infused vodka, pear liqueur, pear compote, and yes, garnished with pear slices. Cardamom rounds out the sweetness and tastes quite like the cinnamon found at the bottom of horchata. The drink is pleasant, reminiscent of a chilled mulled wine — fall in a glass.
Fig-getaboutit takes fewer ingredients from its namesake fruit. It is a gin-based drink, and a bartender on a recent Saturday night described it as a figgy gin and tonic. True, perhaps, but the drink comes across more as a spiked fruit punch. The fig pulp lends the cocktail a deep orange-red, and the skewered fig served atop the glass makes for a beautiful visual experience. It is too sweet for drinkers expecting their usual gin and tonic, but is good in its own right. An unexpected favorite, though, was the Starman ($11), made with a base of sweet potato infused rye whiskey. A strong anise aroma attacks the nose and might ward off those normally averse to the black licorice flavor, but getting past the first impression is worth it. Think of it as an Old Fashioned taken up two notches.
Food comes in the form of shareable plates, generally as bar favorites dressed up. The dishes should indeed be shared — the portions are generous and can serve three or more. The Brussels sprouts ($6.75) are of the style du jour, cooked with ample bacon and dressed with mustard. The dressing adds an extra layer of bitterness to an already bitter vegetable but the smoky meat balances the flavors. Although the menu advertises them as crispy, at least one order did not live up to that billing. For crunch, turn to the French fries ($6.75). Served on a cutting board-shaped platter, the fries, nominally topped with Parmesan, come with two dipping sauces. The basil aioli underwhelms, missing the usual garlic pungency or much contribution from the green herb. But the second, called "boom boom" sauce, does the trick. It is a different mayonnaise-based sauce and the boom comes from the cayenne-like spice that hits the tongue after the first bite.
Dessert options are more limited but worth the venture to the sweet side. They are meant for sharing too, unless your sweet tooth is extra long. The key lime bars ($6), served two to a plate, won out for a group sitting at the bar. The citrus filling delivers an excellent balance of sweetness and tanginess, while the graham cracker crust hints of key lime pie. Rum whipped cream tops the dessert, and while the rum flavor is subtle, the creaminess completes the dish.
Elbow your way to a bar seat or the lounge during your next visit Downtown, but act quickly for a last taste of fall. Then again, winter is coming, and with it new flavors to try. Be sure to toast one to Hemingway while you're there. Or better yet, maybe two.
217 N Neil St
M-Th 3 p.m to 12 a.m.
F + Sa 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Su 3 to 10 p.m.
Photos by Jesus Barajas