Coming to The Red Herring for the first time to review the first of two Wednesday vegan fusion nights felt like finding something secret and magical. Following the colorful steps down into the basement, the door opened into a dark hall leading to a brightly colored, noisy room full of people and an assortment of tables and booths. Painted pillars and brick gave the restaurant a warm and inviting feeling. I arrived, steno pad in hand, with my life partner in crime and we stood there smiling politely as it were, not sure if we needed to wait or sit down. A friendly staffer came bobbing around to greet us and we were politely directed to the counter to place our orders and wait until our names were called, at which point one of the staff came to our table with our orders. A server came around to take our plates ($9 each; dessert extra) when we were done and we placed our dessert orders to go at the counter. Everyone was very friendly and helpful.

Irish Night 

Shepherd's Pie
In appearance, this dish made my mouth water. This dish traditionally relies on the saltiness of the meat to enhance the blandness of potatoes, but while the texture and appearance were perfect, there was not enough flavor in the lentils to make it anything but food for the body. The lentils have to supply the umami factors of beef and for that I think experimenting with natto or tempered dal would work quite nicely for perfecting this as a vegetarian staple.

Irish Flag Salad
Someone made this salad with love. Mandarin oranges, green apples, almond slivers with a tangy sweet mustard dressing — I could eat this salad all day long. It was perfection.

Green Corn Bread
They were out of corn bread when we got there; this my own fault for not showing up closer to 5 p.m. The replacement biscuit was not up to the task. It did not help that it was green. I may have gotten a concentrated burst of unmixed alum because the middle bites were not as bad as the edge bites. This was the only flop in my two separate experiences. 

Double Chocolate Stout Cupcakes
These were so good, with perfect amount of frosting. If you like chocolate, you would love these cupcakes. The stout worked perfectly to make them less sweet and more malty. Yum!

Cardamom Rose Snickerdoodles
Not as memorable as the cupcakes, but it was a nice cookie. I didn't really get the scent of cardamom and/or rose, but I must take some of the blame, because I had just finished a chocolate cupcake and so should have at least cleansed my palate first.

Persian Night

Vegetable Chickpea Almond Stew
I was not expecting something so sublimely perfect. This was good comfort soup and I will call it a soup because it was more brothy than chunky. The chickpeas were tender, the eggplant was still firm and not overbearing, and there were little crunchy nibs of almond which added a nice mouthfeel. It was delicious and the perfect soup for a dreary grey spring day.

Madras Lentils Simmered in Mushroom Broth over Saffron Rice
I don't like mushrooms. It would be more specific to say that anyone who knows me is spitting with laughter at this vast understatement. "Abhorrent" would be the absolutely nicest word I can think of to describe how I feel about most things fungal. I gritted my teeth and discreetly removed them in order to appreciate the deep earthiness that the broth gave the lentils, which really was lovely. The saffron rice was a little dry, but when mixed with the lentils, it all came together quite well.

Shirazi Chop Salad
There is a fairly wide margin between salad, slaw, and relish. This salad was cut so small that it was falling through the tines of the tiny cafeteria forks. The dressing seemed a little sparse and I longed for the Irish Flag salad from the previous evening.

Spinach Sweet Potato Plum Stew
This soup sounded great on paper, but I'm not sure if spinach will ever work in it. It was just too rich and sweet, but also the way the spinach clung to the sweet potato chunks created a bizarre texture.

Persian Pistachio Fudge Bars
I nibbled a piece of the crust and it was like burnt toffee and not in a bad way. 

Cardamom Rose Cinnamon Rolls
Hands down the best cinnamon rolls I have had in many years. The cardamom was present and I may have smelled a rose; it didn't matter. I would drive across the state line for a box of these.

After my second meal I decided to interview one of the staff briefly and Holly Curia was nice enough to oblige. (Read SP's 2015 interview with Curia here.) She told me that they The Red Herring has been doing the international fusion night every Wednesday for over a decade, and that typically they have a good turnout, but for "popular" international cuisine such as Japanese and Mexican, the line is out the door. Even so, Curia has been surprised at the strong turnout for other nights representing cuisines, such as Czech or Ethiopian, which don't get the same exposure in U.S. kitchens. I have every intention of making this one of our regular haunts and regret not going earlier because this is one of the places that should be cherished as a beautiful (and delicious) part of Urbana's history. 

The Red Herring
1209 W Oregon St
Urbana

Fusion dinners every Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m.

All photos by Dominic Menichetti