Several weeks ago, Elisabeth Ryan ’19 and I found ourselves running downhill, our arms extended and making airplane noises, as we headed downtown for a mother-and-child dinner date at the Illium Cafe. The walk back, of course, was more leg day than leisure. As we approached our destination, we identified it by a old-fashioned sign hanging on the corner of the block. Upon entry, we were greeted by a waft of air that was smoky and oily, which became understandable as we ate the food. Glancing around, we saw two museum-like displays with apparel for purchase, and a sign directly in front of us with special items of the day, such as “escargot au poivre.” This immediately had us reeling, thinking, “we hoi polloi what is this frankais?”
A waitress immediately came out and led us to a table in the back of the restaurant, which was rather empty. There was one couple, and a family that entered later; however, the lack of customers was understandable, as this was the night of the big hockey game against Union College.
The dining environment was quaint, with dim lights, candles, a nice little bar with glasses racked above, artsy paintings (an abstract map of Troy and a scenic portrait), and some Alfred Hitchcock projected onto a high-hanging pull down screen. The lighting, however, was uneven; there were white lights placed along the walls to brighten the space, which somewhat disturbed the feeling of an otherwise charming atmosphere.
We took a look at the dinner menu, which seemed thoroughly delicious. Meanwhile, the waitress apologized that the menu was somewhat limited, and proceeded to list the daily specials. From the “apa-tizers,” we ordered the escargot au poivre, as listed on the board we saw, as well as a pear salad and Ossobuco appetizer. I didn’t touch the escargot au poivre—you see, I want my first time eating snail to be exquisite—but Liss assured me that it was quite normal. She explained that the texture became less pleasant as it cooled, and she really only appreciated the dish for its novelty, as the escargot was served over waffles.
On the other hand, the pear salad was a blast, with “candied macadamia nuts, Roquefort crumbles, and a spring mix with parmesan balsamic vinaigrette” for $9. It was delicious, as anyone who likes dishes with pear would agree; the combination of cheese and macadamia nuts made it delightfully hard to resist as we tried to take pictures.
The third “apa-tizer” we had was the Ossobuco appetizer, which is a “slow braised veal Ossobuco with truffle demi and parand parmesan crostini” for $12. The sauce on its own was very, very salty. With the meat, however, it balanced out. It’s unfortunate that the crostini was placed underneath the veal, because it got soggy; perhaps it would’ve been reasonable if we had ordered it as an exclusive appetizer, but it sat while we tried the other dishes. It’s fine, though, because it was still a very filling and satisfying dish.
The main plates were all extremely tempting, albeit with price tags that made our wallets shed a few tears. We were looking closely at the grilled swordfish, seared hanger steak, and duck leg confit as well, but in the end I narrowed it down to the bronzed salmon filet, which had “avocado mashed, tart cherry, bacon, pears, corn relish, and pineapple gastric.” This dish was certainly the star of the show, which is a good thing, considering that it was $24. Salmon is always good, and the two sauces provided a delightful contrast when mingled together. The avocado was a plus as well, and even the roasted potatoes that I found under the heap of miscellaneous ingredients was a not-unpleasant surprise that added variety.
The waitress readily served us and was sociable, but sometimes her jests came off a little strong: she made a few offhand comments, followed by, “but don’t put that in the review!” In the middle of our meal, she asked, “do you guys like it? There’s still a lot left.” It didn’t bother us too much, but I was honestly expecting more professionalism from a cafe of this style.
As Liss and I ate, we quickly found that this very European style was rich, and we had ordered more than we could take on; we quickly abandoned the likes of the escargot in favor of dishes such as the salmon, which had us wishing we weren’t so full.
The total came to approximately $30 for each of us. We ultimately concluded that Illium Cafe is one of the things in life that you need to experience once every solar eclipse; this is especially true as college students. As we headed back home, stomachs sated, we enjoyed pleasant familial chatter and gazed up at the stars; meanwhile, somewhere down below, the sounds of calves and wallets crying could be heard.