During a recent visit to Fresco at the Gardens in Rockford, Illinois, members of The Gazette’s restaurant review team, The Four Dishes, improvised an appetizer by ordering these surf and turf sliders. They found the beef, which was topped with cheese, shrimp and garlic aioli, to be some of the best they have ever tasted.


Fresco at the Gardens, a farm-to-table restaurant within Anderson Japanese Gardens, is a great choice for a fabulous meal followed by a scenic walk through the garden’s lush landscapes.

We visited on a busy Saturday and were thankful to have made a reservation. Although it was hot, it was too beautiful to stay inside. We opted to eat on the deck, where we looked out on a massive willow and wandering stream.

We started with drinks. There were so many unique options from fresh juice blends to artisan cocktails.

I had been craving a good Bloody Mary, and Fresco did not disappoint. Handcrafted, the Epic Bloody Mary ($12) was a work of art with a black salt rim and skewers of pickle, bacon, cheese and shrimp. Yum.

Jennifer thought The Hulk ($6.50) sounded intriguing. A blend of kale, mint, honeydew and apples, its green hue screamed healthy and delicious. The honeydew was the most prominent flavor, and she enjoyed every drop.

Helene ordered a Strawberry Sunrise ($8) from the cocktail menu. This was a “juiced up” Rise ‘N’ Shine (cantaloupe, pineapple, Valencia oranges and fresh basil) with the addition of vodka and strawberry juice. It was intoxicatingly refreshing.

Although there isn’t a specific section on the menu for appetizers, we improvised and ordered the surf and turf sliders ($14) as a first course. The beef, some of the finest we’ve tasted, was melt-in-your-mouth good, topped with cheese, shrimp and a savory garlic aioli. The accompanying truffle fries were crisp with a subtle earthiness.

I ordered the prosciutto flatbread ($11) when I saw it came with mint pesto. There was a fine blend of tomato, asparagus and cheese along with the shredded prosciutto, and I had plenty to share and a couple of slices to take home. The mint really stood out more the next day, and it was a wonderful addition.

Helene enjoyed her meal of the portobello mushroom sandwich ($12), which came with a side salad. Portobello mushrooms are juicy and flavorful, and the accompanying sautéed vegetables of zucchini, eggplant, red and yellow bell peppers and Roma tomatoes made for a great medley of flavors that were just beautiful. Nothing went to waste on her plate, except for the dill pickle. Who likes those anyway?

Nikki ordered the lobster roll ($20), which was served with chips and a pickle (which she enjoyed). The huge, crusty roll of bread had been slightly hollowed to accommodate a generous scoop of lobster salad.

This was a bit of a misnomer, as there was also shrimp in the mix, but the combination was delicious. The seafood was tossed with green onions and celery in a light and creamy dressing with a burst of bright citrus. The roll was huge, and about halfway through, Nikki gave up trying to bite the whole thing and just spooned out the salad.

Jennifer chose the healthy start waffles ($12). Four waffles arrived topped with quartered strawberries, blueberries, banana, blackberries and Craisins. Dollops of slightly sweet vanilla Greek yogurt and granola topped her dish.

The cool, fresh berries on a hot, humid morning were refreshing, and the buttery brioche dough made the thick waffles delicately crispy on the outside and moist and chewy inside. She especially liked the vanilla yogurt and housemade granola combination.

At the last minute, we decided to add an order of the sweet potato kale hash ($4) from the list of lunch sides to share. It was a simple dish of cubed sweet potato and torn kale leaves, but the vibrant colors against the white plate were beautiful.

Way full but still intrigued by the menu, we finished with a Nutella crepe ($10). The filling was light and creamy with the Nutella sauce drizzled over the top along with a handful of nuts. I washed it down with a cortado ($4), a rich espresso topped with steamed milk. Nikki got an iced macchiato ($5), while Helene opted for a mocha latte ($5.50) to complement the crepe. Helene’s drink could have stood alone as her dessert, especially with the wonderful whipped cream.

To wrap up our visit, we took a leisurely stroll through the gardens to admire the greenery, koi ponds and waterfalls.

I love finding these little “holes in the wall,” and I consider flavor more important than looks. But when you go somewhere such as Fresco, you just feel indulged by the setting, the architecture and the artistry of presentation. Add this one to your list.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.