Small plates pack big taste at Rockford's Abreo

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By Joan Neeno, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill.—Two blocks along State Street in downtown Rockford have some downright excellent restaurants.

Last year, we tried Social Urban Bar & Restaurant and enjoyed an impeccable experience: fantastic food, service, cocktails and value. When we discovered that Social's owner/chef Paul Sletten had a second restaurant, Abreo, we were excited to try it.

Abreo opened in 2005, about five years before Social. The core principles are the same: small plates, locally sourced food, sophisticated but accessible dining. While Abreo didn't quite measure up to Social on the knock-your-socks-off meter, it came awfully close.

We had a group of seven snugly tucked into a back booth on a Friday night. We dined a little later. The place was packed when we arrived and nearly empty when we left. As someone with a mild hearing impairment, I appreciated the tall, upholstered booth as it cut down on the noise from the bar.

The rest of the restaurant has the typical upscale look—exposed brick, hardwood floors and spare furniture. Abreo also has a patio in the back, which would be a lovely place to dine this summer, along with a private dining room and a private wine cellar.

The menu consists of “snacks” and small plates. For a full dinner experience, Abreo recommends choosing three small plates per person. We started with the fries ($4), which were hand-cut, seasoned with celery salt and served with a citrus/chipotle mayo. They were thick and moist, yet crunchy on the outside. The duck nachos ($12) were a decadent snack with diced avocado, goat cheese, fried won tons, sweetened soy sauce and pickled peppers. Not exactly Taco Bell, but I would run for this border any day of the week.

The biggest hit, however, was the grilled cheese ($10), which also wasn't your run-of-the-mill experience. Rich challah bread was filled with mild Butterkase, cheddar cheeses and bacon-onion jam and then grilled. We cut the sandwich into enough pieces for the group, and it vanished with a polite licking of fingers afterward.

We tried about 15 small plates among us, so I'll stick to the highlights. Shawn's apple salad ($7) was a nice portion that included a tasty mixture of arugula, goat cheese, pine nuts, Parmesan and fried Brussels sprouts tossed in light vinaigrette. She enjoyed the mix of textures, sweet and salty, with the bitterness of the arugula.

Mitch and Dan thoroughly enjoyed the seared yellow fin tuna ($13), served over crunchy cucumber and jicama (a Mexican yam), and dressed with sesame, lemon and chili. They both raved over the bold flavors, combination of crunchy vegetables with the tender tuna and the quality of the fish.

Robyn and I had the slow-poached egg ($10), served over a poblano crush potato, pickled onions and fried croutons. It sounded weird, but it tasted divine—a rich, eggy mush of deliciousness.

Lisa and Dan ordered the blackened scallops ($15), served with red strips of fried, crisp prosciutto, wilted kale and a carrot-mango sauce. The scallops were perfectly tender and while spicy, not overpowering. It was one of the best plates of the night.

Richard had good luck with his choices. The mushroom bread pudding ($13) sat in a neat mound over a nest of arugula in the middle of the bowl. It was topped with a fried egg and swimming in roasted mushroom broth. That was a nice precursor to his next course, the duck ($14), served with roasted apple, braised cabbage and polenta with a bacon-brandy sauce lightly ladled over it. He also tried the lemon chicken and mushroom crepe ($9), which was beautifully light and nuanced in its flavor.

Robyn ordered the Asian noodles ($8), which might have been my favorite plate of the night. It was a generous bowl of julienned carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, peanuts and angel hair pasta tossed in a perfectly balanced garlic-ginger sauce. Simple but spectacular.

Our server recommended the kimchi pancake ($15), which consisted of shredded pork shoulder, cabbage and cashews in a sauce with soy, cilantro and sesame. Mitch found it a bit salty, although Richard enjoyed his taste of it.

Robyn and Lisa enjoyed the coffee-roasted ribeye ($16), which was beautifully cooked and sliced thin over celeriac, sweet potato and asparagus, with a dab of corn butter on top.

I must admit I was disappointed with two of my three plates.

I ordered the evening special, a fettuccini Alfredo ($15) with ham that was remarkably average and uninspired. Shawn and I both had the shrimp Asiago ($12), which tasted like fondue with bits of shrimp. Shawn seemed to like it more than I did. I was glad for the grilled bread as it cut down on the richness. I had a hard time finding—let alone tasting—the shrimp.

It's hard to believe we could eat anything more, but we passed around a tiramisu ice cream sandwich, Chambord crepes, warm chocolate cake, bread pudding and pistachio crème brulee. All desserts were $7, and all of them were delicious.

We had a wonderful evening with outstanding service and food. It wasn't the perfection we experienced at Social, but that's an awfully high bar. Abreo is among the top 10 restaurants within 40 miles of Janesville. It's worth sticking the I-PASS on your dashboard and making the drive.

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