Chambana: Radio Maria, a Restaurant I Could Truly Love / by Alice Zhao

Radio Maria, Champaign Urbana

One of the actual reasons for our visit to Chambana was to visit our good friend Brian Wong, who is now the head chef at Radio Maria. Brian, Jared and I have a long and not so sordid past. Many years ago, the three of us ran a tiny little catering company that we called Kuu (which is Japanese slang for "to eat"). Brian was the talented head chef, Jared the sous-chef/head butler/self-proclaimed image consultant and I the beauty and business brains behind it all (hahaha!). Though we have long parted ways from Kuu, Jared and I always knew big things were going to be in store for Brian.

So when we heard that Brian had become the head chef at Radio Maria, we couldn't wait to head back to Champaign and sample Brian's interpretation of Radio Maria. When we got to the restaurant we took a quick peek at the Tapas side of the restaurant which is set up as a bar. We found out that the entire restaurant decor is the resulting artwork/construction of the owners, which I found so fascinating. They used so many recycled materials such as the hanging pendant lights over the bar (old mail chute containers from the university), the actual bar is made of recycled material (the slate step at the bottom of the bar is from a VA hospital in Danville, and there is red velvet lining on the step that is from a local grade school stage, the edge is made from an old escalator handrail from Bergner's), and many of the table tops are old doors from the university as well. The back of the bar's stained glass windows are from Collegiate Cap and Gown. There are so many hidden gems that I'm sure we missed. But seriously, who doesn't respect a restaurant with a material recycling philosophy like that?

Radio Maria, Champaign Urbana
As we were seated in the sit-down part of the restaurant, Jared jokingly asked me if the picture underneath the glass on our table was a portrait of Maria. I quickly answered back "Yes, and here we have also of a photograph of Radio". Sorry, lame... couldn't resist.
Radio Maria, Champaign Urbana
Maria, and apparently... Radio ;)
Radio Maria, Champaign Urbana
We originally planned to order off the menu, but our waitress informed us that the head chef had planned a 6 course tasting menu, just for the two of us. (what!) We were beyond excited and thrilled to see what Brian would come up with. We were also told that some of the elements in this meal were possibly going to be carried on to a menu rewrite that Brian has been working on.

Grilled Watermelon Salad
The watermelon salad offered a nice balance of flavor and texture. What surprised us the most was the mint leaf hidden in the greens. The burst of mint flavor matched perfectly with the sweetness of the watermelon. And the tartness of the balsamic and lemon oil dressing meshed well together.

Seared Shrimp with Sweet Corn
We really liked this dish. I mean what can go wrong with perfectly seasoned and cooked shrimp over a bed of sweet corn and bacon. The smoky bacon and sweet corn cooked in a cream sauce is a classic combination, but what surprised us were the popcorn shoots. We've never had this shoot from a baby corn. It tasted like mild corn with a bitter note at the end. We wanted to tell the Brian to send out more shrimp, but we knew we had more surprises ahead of us.

Ginger marinated filet with wasabi oil and sauteed spring onions and shitake mushroom
By looking at the picture, you can tell the filet was cooked perfectly. The wasabi sauce was Brian's play on the classic steak served with horseradish. But the real surprise of this dish was the sauteed spring onion and shitake mushrooms. The spring onions were so young, tender and sweet. The steak by itself was really good, but eaten together with the spring onion and mushroom made this dish outstanding.

Seared red snapper with heirloom tomato, basil and orange supremes
I was so delighted when I saw this dish come out because it was so colorful and there was something so clever about how it was plated. Even better was the taste. The red snapper was perfectly seared skin side down. Again his balance of flavor with sweet/sour/salt was spot on. To me, this dish was a classic Brian dish. Especially with the layers of flavors and textures- the crispy skin over the soft flesh of the fish, atop crispy fried basil leaves, all over a juicy tomato slice and orange supremes laced with a balsamic reduction. It was both so pleasant to look at as well as devour!

Braised short ribs with grilled asaparagus, frites and smoked paprika orange sauce
The short ribs were really tender and grilled prior to serving to give it the bbq taste. The smoked paprika orange sauce was a little on the sweet side, but matched well with the short ribs
Finally we were presented with two dessert dishes.
Corn meal pound cake with whipped cream and fresh berries
I was so suprised to find out he made the pound cake himself!
Flourless chocolate cake with raspberry coulis
A perfect ending for any chocolate lover

I finished the meal feeling much like what I imagine a mother feels when she sees that her son has grown into a fine young man. (haha!) A little amazed at how far he's coming along, yet absolutely cogniscent that this was always in him, and more. I'd tell you that this brought a tear to my eye. But to tell you the truth the next day, as we were saying our goodbyes, I heard him bark orders during the brunch rush. I instead had a knowing and proud smirk on my face as I walked away.

Radio Maria
119 N. Walnut St.
Champaign, IL