Winter wears on me. I dislike being cold. I feel confined by bulky clothing. Changing road conditions make me nervous. Adding a half hour to my morning routine just to scrape ice off my car windows is frustrating and bone-chilling. Need I go on? During December, the Christmas lights and festivities help me feel chipper, but after the holidays, when 5 p.m. looks like 9 p.m., it’s easy to go into full hibernation mode. Keeping my nourishment up helps elevate my mood and gives me energy during the long haul until spring. To help beat the winter doldrums, chefs around town whip up soups in-house, so it is always fresh.
Dublin O’Neil’s: Cream of Tomato
Driving downtown during lunchtime, I spotted the special board outside of Dublin O’Neil’s announcing a Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup ($8) lunch special. I hit the brakes, parked the car, and ran in. It was 15 degrees outside and I needed comfort food. The server wasa professional, friendly face to see; something I especially appreciate when I am eating alone. I felt right at home here and had an enjoyable lunch.
The grilled cheese was made with smoked gouda, Irish cheddar, tomato slices, and lettuce. The cheeses’ smoky cream and the fresh chunks of tomato complimented the spicy, sweetness of the soup. Another patron at the bar also ordered the special and found the soup to be too spicy. Our responsive server, promptly brought out some sour cream for my fellow diner. I, on the other hand, thought the spice was quite lovely and found the slight heat of crushed red pepper at the back of my throat to be enjoyable. The chef was not available that day, but the server informed me that the chef focuses on layering flavors.
Caffe Paradiso: Potato Curry
One friend with long standing ties to the community referred me to Paradiso saying, “The soup recipes haven’t changed since the restaurant opened in the mid 1990s, but why should they?” Sounded reasonable to me. I was instantly sold and ready to go. In business, they say, “Go deep, not wide.” Many places offer multiple soups daily, but Paradiso prefers to focus on one and do it well.
While Paradiso called this soup Potato Curry, I would call it Curry Potato. Curry lovers rejoice! Made with potatoes, celery, red onion, garlic, and chunks of orange pepper, this is a pureed soup that has nice texture. (It is made with chicken broth, so it is neither vegetarian nor vegan.) Soups come at $4.55/cup or $5.75/bowl. I choose to add a soup to my sandwich for an additional $2.50 (which was also great).
I am not stuck in the 90s, nor is Paradiso. But there is a simple rule, “If it isn't broke, don’t fix it.” Given that I could barely find a place to sit, I think the community agrees.
Big Grove Tavern: Chicken Noodle
When a restaurant’s philosophy and mission is Farm to Table, I have high expectations for their soup. When the restaurant promotes itself as trendy, I expect a twist on classic favorites. Big Grove’s Chicken Noodle delivered both ($3/cup; $6/bowl). Sticking with Farm to Table, the chicken stock is made in house and the twist comes in that the noodles are pearl couscous. I love both.
The fresh stock is of a darker hue, perhaps due to the spices. I did not ask about their stock recipe, but looking back, I wish I had. The soup itself is enhanced with ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt and pepper. Shredded white and dark meat co-mingle with chunks of carrots and pearl couscous. A generous garnish of parsley gave a taste of freshness that not only balanced the other flavors, but also reminded me that warmer days will indeed be coming. The soup had a pleasantly sweet quality to it. I left feeling nourished in body and brighter in spirit.
Red Herring: Chili
Who says chili needs meat? Red Herring proves the essence of chili is spices. This is the best chili in town — and I am speaking as a card-carrying carnivore. Red Herring serves up a hearty bowl of beans and vegetables, flavored with the expected chili powder, paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper, but the surprise is the dash of curry. It adds the perfect kick. While the proteins vary from batch to batch you can expect a combination of chickpeas, black beans, navy beans, or lentils. The organic beans, soaked overnight, hold their consistency and are not a bit mushy. The large chunks of fresh green peppers, onions, and tomatoes enticed me to have another bite even well after I was full. ($3.95 for the cup and $5.95 for the bowl)
The chili can be served with a delicious gluten free cornbread muffin for an extra fifty cents. Talk about locally sourced ingredients...the organic cornmeal used to make the muffin comes from Severson Farms in Dwight, Illinois. Many of the vegetables used in the chili come from Sola Gratia Farm in Urbana. This socially conscious organization supports our local community by regularly donating to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. Red Herring is proud to work with both establishments.
I left the restaurant and returned to the chilly 20-degree weather with a full tummy and a spring in my step. If you want this feeling, make sure to plan ahead for your trip to the Red Herring. I originally come for soup. However, this is a popular lunch spot and when I arrived at 1 p.m. the soup (which was Borscht) was sold out! The Red Herring sells out of menu items more often than other establishments because a part of their mission is to avoid waste by only producing as much food as they expect to need. The later you come in the day, the greater the chance of your favorite item will be sold out. I missed out on a tantalizing Borscht recipe that included garlic, basil, sage, dill, and fresh lemon. The restaurant also publishes a zine with soup recipes. If you want the full recipe with directions, stop on in and pick up a copy. ($5).
Farmhouse Restaurant at Harvest Market: Chicken Pot Pie Soup
Soups at the Farmhouse Restaurant (inside the Harvest Market) are known as Simmering Pots. They are served in a deep bowl with their house made biscuits, butter churned in-house, and strawberry jam. You can see the soups lined up in brightly colored enameled cast iron pots. Prices range from $4 to $6. While soup choices rotate, there will always be some sort of chicken soup, a broth based soup, and classic standards such as vegetable and tomato. Six are available daily and tastes are free, so sample each until you find the Simmering Pot for you. The staff is happy to let you taste as much as you like!
I had the Chicken Pot Pie, made with heavy cream and a touch of nutmeg. It was super thick, sweet, and very filling. The chef told me that the Chicken Pot Pie and the Mexican Chicken Chowder are the top sellers. The soups are refreshed daily at 5 p.m. During the cold winter months, the heavier soups are a great, quick option for dinner. Swing by and grab one with a beer or glass of wine before heading home. That’s right, high quality alcohol choices are available. Happy hour and dinner all in one!
If there’s a given in the world of restaurants, it’s that ‘soup sells’. Indeed. I will often visit a restaurant specifically because of their soup. Though it may seem like a hassle to leave your workplace for lunch in the winter months, it is well worth the dash out in the cold for the benefits to mind and body offered by a carefully crafted, nutritious and delicious bowl of soup. Thank you to all the chefs around town who take the time to make their soups fresh and without shortcuts. Your fare will help keep us warm until spring arrives.
I am always on the lookout for wonderful soups made with care. Please comment below, or on social media about any soups you feel I must try, and I will be happy to check them out! After all, the thaw won’t be here until April and I can use all the soup I can get. Happy slurping!
All photos by Rebecca Johnson.