It was the beginning of the year. I was at my desk, thumbing through the latest issue of Bon Appétit. The magazine had ranked the nation's most eco-friendly restaurants, and scoring the No. 2 position was Firefly Grill in Effingham, Illinois.
"I've zipped past it on I-70," a colleague said. "It's where they have that giant cross."
Giant is an understatement. The cross measures 198 feet in height. When you head east on I-70, it appears suddenly just around a bend in the highway. If you've never seen it before, you might need divine intervention to keep from driving off the road.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I decided to visit Firefly Grill. I even penciled it into my review schedule. But one thing or another happened, and the trip was pushed back from soon to someday. If not for a happy coincidence, it might still be there.
Husband and wife Niall and Kristie Campbell opened Firefly Grill on Fat Tuesday, 2006. Niall is in charge of the kitchen; Kristie runs the business operations. Though Kristie was born in Effingham, the couple's ties to the small town were tenuous: Both were raised in New England, they met in Puerto Rico and prior to founding Firefly Grill, they lived in California.
There Niall Campbell worked with such noted chefs as Bradley Ogden; he'd already established a successful track record as a chef, opening the Bread Box Café in Waterville, Maine, and the Blue Macaw on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
Kristie Campbell was a successful equities trader for Fidelity Investments. She took a leave of absence from her job after 9/11 and traveled to Puerto Rico. In a coincidence that now seems scripted by Hollywood, she met Niall, and a partnership both domestic and business was born.
Puerto Rico...California...Effingham? The Campbells were in town for a wedding when they realized, as Niall told me, "There wasn't anywhere to eat."
He meant this metaphorically, of course. Exit I-70 for Effingham, and you'll see more than a few of the expected national chain restaurants. But good, honest, local cuisine? Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Within weeks, plans for what would become Firefly Grill were fomenting.
In a noisy bar, a little drunk, I was talking food with a friend of my wife. This friend is a foodie, and she was excited about a restaurant in Effingham, of all places.
"The Firefly Grill!"
It was the middle of the summer — months since I'd last thought about Firefly Grill. A few weeks later, my wife's friend invited us to her birthday dinner. Were we willing to drive almost four hours, round-trip, to Effingham?
The drive takes an hour and 45 minutes, more or less, with the cruise control set just a few ticks above the speed limit. Though Firefly Grill isn't that far off the highway, once you pull into its parking lot, you can imagine that you've traveled to a truly remote location.
The building itself is striking, vaguely barn-shaped, with a garden on one side and oak logs stacked in front. You enter into the airy, well-lit dining room. Framed photographs are the main décor. At one end is the open kitchen; at the other end is the bar. There are tables in an alcove behind the bar, as well as two patios (one covered, the other not) overlooking a pond. The vibe is casual, the service friendly.
For this birthday dinner, we were ushered into the private dining room and stuffed with a selection of appetizers. There was so much, all of it so good, that my memory is hazy. I remember luscious foie gras paired, I think, with peaches and the verdant snap of fried green tomatoes. I remember meaty portobello mushrooms stuffed with surprisingly tender escargot, all of it swimming in a garlicky-buttery sauce so outrageously rich that we kept passing the dish around the table taking turns sopping it up with bread.
There were lovely little lamb chops dressed with tzatziki sauce and meant to be eaten as lollipops. There was even crab rangoon, stuffed with actual crab, fried to an ethereal light crispness and served with a sweet chile sauce.
Have you eaten elk? You can at Firefly Grill, and I recommend you do. An elk rib-eye steak, seared barely beyond blue in a cast-iron pan, is wonderful: distinctively flavored without seeming gamy, lean but not overly so, and the perfect foil for a simple side dish of sweet corn.
Duck breast served with a seasonally appropriate (at that time) Bing cherry sauce had exactly the right note of lingering gaminess. Though it was summer, bangers and mash — wild-boar sausage made in house over decadently buttered mashed potatoes in red-onion gravy — made me wish for the comforts of autumn.
For dessert, because it was a birthday, there was cake.
"We have to come back," my wife said as we pulled out of the parking lot.
"What are your plans for tomorrow?"
The food is so good and the space so lovely that it's easy to lose sight of what drew the attention of Bon Appétit: the restaurant's green cred. A blown-up copy of the magazine's notice does hang on the wall just inside the front door, but for the most part, Firefly Grill doesn't flaunt its credentials.
Most obvious is the food itself: The kitchen relies on its own garden and local producers as much as possible and changes the menu daily. In general you can count on oak-fired beef and pork, wood-fired pizzas and a few (obviously not local) seafood selections.
The chairs are recycled, and the tables are made from scrap wood of a quality known as "garage board." It might be a cliché to say so, but they have character. The Campbells told me that they didn't intend to create a "green" restaurant. It just evolved naturally.
"We're part of Generation X," Niall Campbell says. "That kind of stuff just makes sense. [The materials are] less expensive, but it also fits our style."
How green is the restaurant? After all, I did see standard light bulbs where CFLs could have been used. Then again, CFLs contain mercury. I'll leave that question to an eco-expert. As far as I'm concerned, Firefly Grill won me over as soon as I saw the garden.
For our second meal, my wife and I began with what are commonplace dishes: jalapeño poppers and artichoke dip. Like the crab rangoon, which contained actual crab meat, the poppers succeeded because they were simply fresh jalapeños stuffed with cheese, battered, fried and served with an excellent, mildly spicy adobo sauce. The artichoke dip, with housemade flatbread, was fantastic: pieces of tangy artichoke hearts, whole garlic cloves and chèvre broiled a lovely golden brown on top.
My wife ordered an eight-ounce filet. This was exceptionally tender, of course, but also much more flavorful than the average filet. My wife opted to have a garlic "fudge" atop the steak, and this rich paste added even more depth of flavor to the meat. I went for a seafood special: seared sea bass with a relish of bell peppers and citrus fruit on a bed of mung beans. The fish was cooked perfectly, brown on the surface and barely opaque at the center. The relish was pleasant enough, but I might have amped up the bell pepper with a Thai pepper or something to offer a greater contrast with the fish and the beans.
For dessert we went bananas: moist banana cake with cream-cheese frosting alongside homemade banana ice cream and a small pot of caramel for dipping. Utterly delicious.
What struck me most about Firefly Grill is how straightforward the menu is. Though its dedication to locally sourced produce prepared to highlight its pure, natural flavors will attract foodies from afar, it is really a restaurant for the locals, an argument that a small Midwestern town deserves better than Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's.
The Campbells say their goal is to form lasting relationships with the community, and already they are seeing regular customers who return as often as four or five times a week.
"They learn to trust our direction," says Kristie Campbell.
That direction is roughly 100 miles slightly northeast of downtown St. Louis. If it's not too late when you read this, you can be there in time for dinner.