Willow Creek Farm and V. Picasso — owned by the same family — are Champaign’s only literal farm-to-table collaboration. The farm provides three-quarters of V. Picasso’s food. This collaboration allows for freshness on the table at V. Picasso and for some experimental dinners on the farm. Last weekend food writer Bobbie Bonebrake and I had the privilege of attending one of these dinners: an Asian-inspired five-course meal with wine pairings.
Saturday night was terribly rainy and miserable, so when we arrived at the farm and drove down the very long, beautifully lit driveway to the event space, we were relieved, to say the least, and pleased by the warm, welcoming staff and ambiance. The servers were attentive and friendly, and it seemed like all of the guests enjoyed themselves.
Tickets for the dinner were $100, and included a gin cocktail, five glasses of wine, and five dishes. V. Picasso chef Leaf DeFehr created the first four courses; his sister, Kaya Tate of Hopscotch Bakery + Market, created the dessert.
Willow Creek Farm hosts dinners regularly, and though the price tag is high, the experience is special. In good weather, there’s a farm tour to start, and I can imagine it’s something wonderful on a summer or fall evening. This type of dinner would make for an excellent anniversary celebration, or gift to people you care about (and maybe don’t treat themselves all that often). All in all we had a lovely time. Information about future dinners on the farm is available here.
— Jessica Hammie, Food & Drink Editor
First Course | Sunomono Salad (wakame, wasabi micro greens, tobiko)
Translation: cucumber salad with seaweed, little greens that tasted like wasabi, and fish roe (eggs). This dish was really beautifully plated, with the cucumbers in long strips, and the wakame, greens, and tobiko piled on top. All ingredients were integral parts of this dish: the cucumber salad was very acidic, and the wakame, greens, and tobiko lent an earthy sharpness that cut through the acid to balance out the meal. The tobiko was not too fishy — the texture was a welcome addition to the soft crunch of the cucumber. It was a bright and light way to whet the appetite for the rest of the meal. (JH)
Second Course | Hamachi Crudo (kumquats, fried chiles, peanuts)
The hamachi (yellowtail) crudo (Italian for “raw”) was excellently balanced in its flavors. This was by far my favorite course of the evening. Sliced thin like sashimi the fish was fresh, clean, and melted in your mouth. Drizzled on top was a fried chile infused oil that lent just a hint of slightly sweet spice. The peanuts were strange but intriguing, adding an unexpectedly enjoyable crunch to the dish. Once you took a bite it all made sense. Coated in the fried chile oil these salty little roasted nuggets were just the right amount of punch. Rounding out the dish with some citrus flavor were slices of sweet but tangy kumquats. (BB)
Third Course | Pork and Cabbage Dumpling (charred scallions, grapefruit ponzu)
Who doesn’t love a good dumpling? This pork dumpling was served on a bed of charred scallions, with green curry cauliflower on the side. The scallions were lovely — they had a nice char flavor, and their subtle onion flavor worked well with the curry of the cauliflower and the meatiness of the pork. The cauliflower was perfectly crisp-tender. The dumpling, overall, had a nice flavor — the pork was well seasoned. The dumpling dough was thick and tasty, but a little underdone, so quite toothsome. Likely this was the result of plating forty-plus dishes at once. If this were on the menu at V. Picasso with two or three dumplings on the plate, I’d definitely order it. (JH)
Fourth Course | Pan Fried Chicken Thigh (puffed rice, snap peas, gochujang spiced honey)
Described as pan-fried chicken I expected it to be a little crispier but the flavor and tenderness more than made up for that expectation. At a dinner such as this were it feels like eating with your hands would be considered faux pas, it helped that the meat was fall off the bone tender. The small chicken leg quarter was drizzled with a gochujang sauce, topped with microgreens and sat atop a bed of puffed rice and snap peas. Gochujang (red chile paste) was combined with honey to form a thin, sweet/spicy sauce — terrific flavor. Sugar snap peas, slightly sweet with a satisfying crunch, are always a great addition to Asian dishes. Here they were sautéed though disappointingly cold. I’m not sure I’ve ever had puffed rice before but I didn’t really care for it being used here. I think it’s a texture thing for me, as it just seemed like dry, undercooked rice. The flavors here were really great but the textures, whether it be the “fried” chicken or puffed rice, missed the mark for me. (BB)
Fifth Course | Sticky Toffee Pudding (matcha, smoked dates)
The final course was, unsurprisingly, my favorite (I’m addicted to sugar). Sticky toffee pudding isn’t actually pudding — it’s a sponge cake — and this one was absolutely delicious. The cake was paired with a butterscotch caramel sauce, which is something that Tate does incredibly well (she used to sell it by the jar, for good reason). The addition of matcha was a nice, earthy touch and paired well with the sweetness of the cake and sauce, and brought out the flavors of the salt and sesame seed garnishes. The sesame seeds were the ingredients that took this dessert from really good to amazing; they were unexpected and totally delightful. I could eat an entire tray of this cake. This dish was all about the details, and Tate delivered an intricate and meticulous piece of art that was the perfect way to end a robust and flavor-forward meal. (JH)
Wine Pairings | Aichenberg Gruner Veltliner; Dopff & Irion Pinot Blanc; Shaky Bridge Riesling; Jorche Primitivo Riserva; Leyenda Pedro Ximenez
Upon arrival, guests were offered the signature cocktail of the evening made with Greenhouse gin. Fantastic branding by the way — the bottle is beautiful as is their website. Clean and refreshing, it was kind of similar to a Gin Rickey as it was simply gin, mineral water, and lime. It even appealed to someone in our group who is not normally a fan of gin. And for $20 a bottle, I think I’ll be seeking out this bottle on my next Binny’s run.
Placed around the tables were the lists of wines we would encounter throughout the evening as well as a pricing guide with the option to bring home a bottle of any of your favorites. Before each course was served we were given a brief introduction to the wine chosen for pairing. Three whites moved from dry to subtly sweet onto a robust red paired with the fourth course and then ended on a syrupy sweet sherry to go along with dessert. On their own, I liked the first two white wines the best out of the five, but I could definitely appreciate the knowledge and reasoning behind each of the pairings. The sherry (think liquid Raisinets) was a bit much for some people. (BB)
Willow Creek Farm
1766 County Rd 1850
122 N Neil St
T-F 4 to 11 p.m.
Sa-Sun 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 11 p.m.
Photos by Anna Longworth