Sophisticated farm to table dining in Southern Illinois

Edwardsville (Madison County), Illinois, home to Fond, an elegant farm to table restaurant, is just a short drive across the Mississippi from St. Louis, but it retains the small town charm of its historic origins.  One of the three oldest municipalities in Illinois, it remains the county seat and hosts Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), with its 12,000 students [http://www.siue.edu/].  With a vibrant downtown that anchors an academic center and St. Louis bedroom community, it retains a small-town feel within the greater St. Louis metropolitan region.  Given its historic background and continued role as a university town helping to shape the future of civic life, it is fitting that Edwardsville is also a leader in farm-to-table dining since the establishment of Fond in October 2008.  Chef and owner Amy Zupanci, an Edwardsville native, returned to her hometown after working in the legendary Savoy and Mas Farmhouse restaurants of New York City.  “Mas” in the Old French, still used in Provence, means stone farmhouse, and the elegant and cinematic website for this New York City restaurant provides a vicarious thrill [http://www.masfarmhouse.com/].

The choice of Fond for the name of her restaurant reflects chef Zupanci’s experience preparing worldly-wise food in the big city.  “Fond” is used in French to refer to the tiny pieces of meat, which have been caramelized and are stuck to the bottom of a skillet after a piece of meat has been cooked.  This “fond” is the base of many classic pan sauces, by deglazing the pan with a liquid such as broth, wine or fruit juice and then incorporating the browned pieces of meat at the bottom of the pan.  A dab of butter is often added to the fond of the meat, and then garnished with such aromatic ingredients as garlic, shallots or herbs, also sautéed for a short while [www.blurtit.com/q319377].

Chef Zupanci’s desire to offer the best seasonal and responsibly sourced foods prepared artfully and with great skill has met with early critical acclaim.  Following on the restaurant’s initial success, Zupanci and her colleague, Karen Bailey, opened Township Grocer next door to the restaurant that provides both quick meals and supplies to stock the pantry.  Small-batch domestic cheeses from across the country and meats from a local New Douglas, Illinois farm are available for purchase.

Chef Zupanci’s philosophy of food is simple: find the best ingredients and prepare them with care and skill.  Fond’s pantry is stocked keeping the seasons in mind and also with a desire to find the best locally procured ingredients.  Several local purveyors are featured and are a testament to the strong agricultural roots of southern Illinois.  This emphasis on seasonality and locality are showcased in the constantly changing menus at Fond, which are written out on long sheets of paper and posted daily on the wall in the dining room.  A well-researched wine list offers a nice complement to the food.  However, with several excellent Missouri breweries nearby, we would encourage the addition of some of the local favorites to the offerings at the bar.

Fond is fittingly an anchor of Edwardsville’s Main Street that also features the county courthouse and administrative building.  The storefront space offers parking in the rear for busy days, while the front entrance features a small bar for patrons while they wait.  The restaurant caters almost exclusively to the dinner crowd with Sundays as the only day open for lunchtime traffic.  An open floor plan, high ceilings, and light, springtime colors make for an inviting space that exudes relaxed comfort while white tablecloths and expert place settings highlight the sophistication underlying the restaurant.  The personable and attentive front of house staff was very welcoming.  Although we made a reservation there were only a few other patrons in what seemed like an unusually empty space.  Given that the area was experiencing an unusual summer-like day and SIUE was on spring break this was undoubtedly an anomaly that had our waiter similarly puzzled.  Our waiter ushered us to a corner table and was quite knowledgeable about both the food and the origins of the products.

The menu for Sunday brunch was simple with five classic choices ranging from a fresh brunch salad with fried eggs ($12) to halibut ($18).  Despite this limited offering, each option was so intriguing that it took some thought to make our decisions.  My companion settled on the biscuits with Fond sausage gravy and poached eggs ($15).  The house-made sausage was made with pork sourced from Rensing Pork and Beef, a small producer of fine quality meats in nearby New Douglas.  I opted for the omelette with spinach, caramelized onions, and cheddar cheese served with a potato pancake ($14).  The eggs were farm-fresh arrivals from Peter and Jody VanKleef’s Brabant Farm just up the road in Pocahontas, which also is the source of the restaurant’s lamb [http://www.fondfinedining.com/our_farm_partners.html].

The staff attentively and unobtrusively refilled our drinks while we waited and made us feel at home.  Our meals were artfully presented.  My omelette was picture perfect, and I felt a twinge of guilt about cutting into such a wonderful looking dish.  There are a few basics of cooking that every aspiring chef must master: poaching an egg, roasting a chicken, and making an omelette.  Chef Zupanci has not only mastered the omelette, but could rewrite the rules on how to make one.  After our first bites my companion and I immediately agreed that it was the best omelette either of us had ever tasted.  The caramelized onion base was a perfect sweet and tangy starting point while the interior contained wonderfully sharp cheddar.  The spinach was just barely wilted to retain the fresh flavor and was mixed throughout the egg.  Brabant Farm has hit upon the secret of producing excellent eggs.  The one unfortunate thing about the omelette was that it has permanently spoiled me.  I doubt that I will ever find a lighter, fluffier, or more flavorful concoction.  The crisp potato pancake made in the hash brown style with julienne-cut potatoes provided a nice textural counterpoint.

My companion’s sausage gravy and biscuits were delectable.  The homemade sausage with the local pork provided excellent flavor without the greasiness usually associated with breakfast sausage.  The biscuits were flaky melt in your mouth cushions that released a smooth butter flavor as you chewed.  Two perfectly poached eggs topped the biscuits and reinforced the heartiness of the dish.  While overall an excellent dish, the gravy was a touch too salty for my companion, though I found it to be nicely balanced.  A rich chocolate pot de crème and a black and white bread pudding tempted us for dessert, but unfortunately we were both too full from our entrees to give them a try.

Fond is a destination dining experience.  The excellent quality of the food and relaxed yet refined dining experience provide tremendous value for your money (with coffee, tax, and tip our Sunday brunch came to $40).  Fond is a dining pleasure I hope to repeat often (Ethan Bennett 3/21/11).  [Fond, 106 North Main Street, 618.656.9001, Dinner: Tues, Wed, Sun 5:00PM-8:00PM, Thurs 5:00PM-9:00PM, Fri-Sat 5:00PM-11:00PM, Brunch: Sun 11:00AM-2:00PM www.fondfinedining.com ]
[Editor’s Note- Sadly, Fond Restaurant closed in Late Spring of 2011]

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