Real Rockford Area: Best of Rockford: Upscale casual: Brio and Josef’s among best

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117149990719514.jpg’, ‘File photo by Mike Rudzinski’, ‘Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio owner and chef Paul Sletten stands on the restaurant’s patio this past summer. Sletten has brought a tapas-based menu to the restaurant.‘);

This whole “Best of Rockford” endeavor has been a very interesting experience. Everywhere I go, more sophisticated people are lining up to say good things about places they like in Rockford. The other night at Mayor Larry Morrissey’s fund-raiser, I was approached by John Branyon, head chef at Garrett’s, who wanted to be a part of our effort. I, and the other members of the committee, welcome him.

This week’s article comes from Andrew Kellogg, a lifelong resident of Rockford, barring time spent in the military. He designs medical packaging and is active in several local organizations. He enjoys cooking and writing, but “lives for experiences.” According to Andrew: “Life is art, so be an artist by living well. But remember, it’s your definition of well that defines your character.”

Upscale casual: Where you find 'fine' dining

By Andrew Kellogg

The days of the American “meat and potatoes supper club” are long gone, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Sure, I have nostalgic memories of nights out at the Pink Pony, Ross’s and the like, but the meals themselves were mostly forgettable. They would rely on a few stalwarts, and people would return again and again and not accept any variances in their meal. Creativity was limited to white fish almandine, the daring went for beef stroganoff, but most stuck to prime rib and a baked potato.

Society has evolved, and the stuffy, monotonous “suit and tie” dungeon has given way to a more relaxed setting. Chefs around the world have torn down the boundaries among country, class and culture. Diners have become far more informed and demanding. These ideals inevitably came together, and “upscale casual” is the new show scene for cuisine.

In many cultures, the idea of quality ingredients served in a casual setting was a given. Spain was such a place. When Hemingway’s Pilar describes her beloved Valencia’s seafood, she epitomizes what the passion for food is all about. Luckily, here in Rockford, we now have several places to experience tapas-style cooking as well as a number of new dishes Pilar could never have imagined.

The shrimp asiago at Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio, 515 E. State St., would surely have her attention. It is served in the cast iron skillet in which it was cooked. The brandy sauce steaming, aromatic with the scent of fresh lemon emanating from beneath the asiago cheese crust, will serve notice before you’ve even tasted a bite, which is best done served over the accompanying toast points. The squash bisque was fresh and full, hinted with apples, and is best matched with a lighter wine from their ample list. Eaten next to the roaring fire on a cold winter night, this alone makes the venture out more than worth it. My date absolutely loved this dish. I would also note the delicious elk tenderloin. Nestled on a pastry tart and topped with a rich seasonal mushroom sauce, this is a very satisfying break from the norm.

The most ambitious restaurant to hit the Rockford scene in the last couple of years may be ,Josef’s of Barbados. The well-appointed dining room, linen tablecloths and soft lighting make a relaxed setting for a well-paced dining experience. The room harks back to the upscale supper clubs of old, but the friendly staff is very welcoming with none of the snootiness that sometimes hampers higher-end restaurants. The attractive glass-walled wine cellar is centrally placed, and their list is very well balanced. Now, the reason I say Josef’s is the most ambitious restaurant is not for these reasons, but rather that the entire menu hinges on the freshness of the ingredients. It is not an easy thing to maintain over time. I have gone into the markets with Mike Leifheit from the Irish Rose and know the effort that goes into this. He makes this trip twice a week, and has for a number of years. Josef’s does have a number of sources for outstanding seafood, however. Dena and I sampled a variety of West Coast oysters that were firm, fresh and still aromatic from the sea. Matt at the bar was most helpful in choosing from their appetizers. We loved the escargot, especially mopping up the garlic butter with the crusty fresh-baked bread. In the dining room, we relaxed and shared a sweet bouillabaisse, brimming with shrimp, still-textured fish and in-the-shell mussels. The magret of duck, a test of a kitchen’s competence, was tenderly seared, moist and full flavored. Accompanied by pommes dauphine and a red cabbage confit, this dish I would highly recommend. I’ll be in Barbados come March, and would be most happy to duplicate this meal while there.

There are many more restaurants in this category we hope to cover in the coming weeks. Michael, at one time the owner of perhaps Rockford’s best-known fine dining restaurant, is back with a smaller restaurant, but much more enticing menu. Kuma’s downtown is serving some outstanding fusion dishes with nice presentation, and the east side should whole heartedly embrace Five Forks Market on State for bringing fresh choices to the land of the chains.

Where to go and more info

Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio is at 515 E. State St. Info: (815) 968-9463.

Josef’s of Barbados is at 6860 Spring Creek Rd. Info: (815) 282-3400.

Mike Leifheit’s “Best of Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. The column will appear the third week of every month in the “Real Rockford” section of Vibe Entertainment. Anyone with suggestions for this column should send them to Leifheit at or The Rock River Times at or 964-9767.

From the Feb. 14-20, 2007, issue

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