Progress at the Illium Cafe in Troy has been measured and steady. Owners Marla and Brian Ortega started out in 2010 with a successful breakfast and lunch service; now Illium has added dinner three nights a week. What husband Eric and I found there were remarkable and unusual offerings in an eclectic setting with friendly service. It is easily the most interesting menu that I’ve seen in a long time.
The original corner location at Broadway and Second, which spent the 20th century as a jewelry store, has spent the 21st as the Illium Cafe. The Ortegas — the cafe’s third owners — expanded south into the adjacent business, opening two new dining rooms and a wine bar in what was once Krall’s, an upscale clothing store.
While the original cafe, with its wall murals, marble-topped counters and view of Monument Square, is charming enough, the poor ventilation in the front room means the best seats in the house are now in the back rooms.
WHERE: 9 Broadway, Troy. 273-7700, www.illiumcafe.com
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $61.83, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Accommodations made for children’s meals. Reservations accepted. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking on street or in municipal lot on First Street.
Red-lighted lamps illuminate the new wood bar, and abundant local art, crystal-fringed curtains, and dark paint give these rooms a slightly bohemian feel. A faux fireplace also is charming, but we could have done without the TV, even though the sound was off and it was tuned to the Food Network. We were also perplexed by the Alfred Hitchcock film projected onto another wall.
They’re doing a lot, and a lot of it is very good. The food itself is more than interesting enough to keep us entertained.
Eric and I had a terrific, well-priced meal on a weekend night. We skipped the more exotic menu items, like rabbit pot pie and espresso powder-dusted wild boar (with fried quail egg, ancho-chocolate raspberry pancakes, lemon creme fraiche, and cherry balsamic reduction, $13) for more familiar, but equally creative choices.
Illium’s buttered, garlic-scented soft, fresh bread is delicious, and excellent on its own. It doesn’t need the homemade cranberry orange butter with it, although that was good, too.
Eric’s crab, tuna, and avocado Napoleon ($11), was layered like its namesake, with the ingredients stacked on a circle of rice and topped with microgreens. The seasonings were drizzled onto the plate: chipotle aioli (“gives it a nice kick,” he said), limoncello and basil oils, and thick, sweet balsamic vinegar reduction. It was astonishingly well-plated, with the Napoleon at one end of a rectangular dish, balanced out by the colorful sauces. Delicious and beautiful; ambitious and well-executed.
My pear salad ($8) was artistically plated as well, with a small pile of greens over thinly sliced pears at one end; a lazy line of balsamic reduction punctuated by brown candied macadamia nuts reached the other end of the dish. Big points here given for the nuts: although candied, they were only a tiny bit sweet, and toasted to crunchy perfection. A lot of greens were packed into a small space, their balsamic-parmesan vinaigrette dotted with more thick, dark vinegar. Understated, restrained, and very impressive.
You can tell the staff knows they’re onto something good. Three different employees asked us how we liked our food, their faces registering not-unexpected satisfaction at our enthusiastic responses.
My roasted vegetable macaroni and cheese ($13) is comfort food. Tricolor fresh tortellini, slender asparagus, red pepper and onion, and mushrooms are arranged in a creamy pile, topped with strips of crunchy sweet potato. There’s no baking dish here, the five-cheese Mornay sauce keeps it all together in a tidy, delicious, and colorful mound. Although a reasonably-sized portion, it was sufficiently filling that I ended up taking some home.
You can get crabcakes and seared Ahi tuna in full or half plates, which Eric says allows you to enjoy more courses without stuffing yourself. He chose the half portion, or one crab cake ($12) for his second course. He also enjoyed the small fennel and mango salad, even though he doesn’t usually eat fennel. There was a small square of green onion cornbread, which quickly disappeared. He always appreciates a bit of heat, and the bite of the basil-jalapeno drizzle was enough to be interesting, not enough to take over.
Illium Cafe has a variety of desserts that change, but whatever they are, they will be beautifully presented. We shared a slice of chocolate ripple cheesecake, ($3.99) with a pile of whipped cream on each side and lots of chocolate sauce on the plate. I liked the chocolate crust, and the texture of the cream cheese cake was right on. Eric ate the chocolate curl.
We weren’t stuffed, but we were full and we were fascinated. Over the course of the evening we’d sampled an estimated 32 ingredients, not including the bread, butter and dessert.
The restaurant is still getting its legs, and the few minor inconveniences like missing flatware didn’t mar the evening. The friendliness and enthusiasm of the neatly uniformed staff more than made up for it. They were delighted that we had enjoyed our meal.
The tab for this cornucopia of ingredients came to $61.83, with tip. What Illium Cafe is offering is remarkable and ambitious; however, they carry it off confidently and superbly. Good job.