Smile Politely

Fine dining for a fair price at The Spice Box

The Spice Box is a student-run restaurant associated with the University of Illinois Hospitality Management Program. Each student enrolled in FSHN443: Fine Dining Management, the senior-level capstone course for the program, plans and executes a one-night, themed, fine dining meal. These dinners are by reservation only, and take place Wednesday and Friday evenings. Last Friday, I went to dinner at The Spice Box.

The menus aren’t posted more than a week or so in advance, and as I was perusing the list of dinner themes, there was one immediately caught my attention. There were some delicious-sounding, though predictable, dinner themes — Pacific Northwest, Asian, German, BBQ, French, and American Bistro — but Carly and the Chocolate Factory was one of the more ambiguous in theme, and I imagined, one of the more conceptually ambitious. It’s quite the challenge to incorporate chocolate and other sweet candy-like elements into a four-course meal, and I was curious to see how it would all play out. Last Friday night, I had a 7 p.m. reservation with Carly and the Chocolate Factory.

When my friend and I arrived, the place was packed. The energy was high. Patrons were laughing and having a good time. The servers were buzzing around the floor. Within moments of being seated, my friend and I had water and our server was introducing himself. The great service lasted all night, and Carly Novoselsky, the student behind the night’s dinner, came to our table twice: first to introduce herself, and later to see how our meals were.

Here’s the menu from the evening:

4 course Dinner Chewing Gum 22
Augustus Gloop Creamy Tomato Soup
Sprinkled with gooey gruyere nutella filled grilled cheese croutons

Edible Forest Spinach Salad
A bed of spinach with candied walnuts, blue cheese, egg, tomato, dried cranberries, and chocolate covered bacon bits drizzled with a blueberry vinaigrette

Wonka Wellington
Mozzarella stuffed meatloaf wrapped in pastry puff drizzled in delectable chocolate barbeque sauce with a side of sweet potatoes au gratin, and stuffed mushrooms

Everlasting Dessert Platter
Chocolate river lava cake, Violet blueberry swirled white chocolate cheesecake bite, and a Veruca salted caramel donut

Charlie’s Choice 16
Augustus Gloop Creamy Tomato Soup
Sprinkled with gooey gruyere nutella filled grilled cheese croutons

Edible Forest Spinach Salad
A bed of spinach with candied walnuts, blue cheese, egg, tomato, dried cranberries, and chocolate covered bacon bits drizzled with a blueberry vinaigrette

Oompa Loompa Lasagna
Butternut squash layered with a spinach cream sauce and a blend of mozzarella and parmesan cheese

Dessert A La Carte
Everlasting Dessert Platter 3. 5
Chocolate river lava cake, Violet blueberry swirled white chocolate cheesecake bite, and a Veruca salted caramel donut

Fizzy Lifting Drink 4
a raspberry vodka and peach puree swirled bellini topped with sparkling wine and champagne

Chocolate Martini 5.5
Godiva Chocolate flavored vodka, mixed with Crème de Cacao and garnished with a fresh strawberry and chocolate syrup

We ordered the four-course prix fixe menu, the three-course menu, a glass of wine, and the fizzy lifting drink. Overall, the meal was very good, and became progressively better with each course. The soup was the least successful; the grilled cheese croutons just didn’t work with the slightly spicy, thick tomato soup, and I found the inclusion of orzo created an unpleasant texture. Flavor-wise, though, the soup was well balanced and a really nice a spicy tomato bisque.

The salad was better than the soup. The ingredients all meshed well, including the chocolate covered bacon bits. The egg, tomato, and blue cheese were on the side, which worked out well for me because I do not like blue cheese. These components were put together to resemble a toadstool, which was cute, fun, and nodded to the whimsy of the theme. The blueberry dressing was pleasant, but wasn’t assertive enough to bring all of the ingredients together. It had a lot of potential, but needed a lot more acid (lemon or vinegar, perhaps) to cut through the heaviness of the other components.

The meatloaf wellington was awesome. I would eat that again on any day. The chocolate barbeque sauce was perfect, with the right balance of sweet, tart, chocolate, and spicy.  The lasagna, too, was awesome. The butternut squash was incorporated perfectly, and the lasagna wasn’t watery at all. The spinach was presented as a creamy sauce outside of the lasagna, and when I dragged a forkful of lasagna through the spinach cream sauce, the sweetness of the butternut squash and the garlicky spinach sang.

I was feeling well satisfied and very content when dessert came out. The trio of bite-sized desserts was beautiful. I started with the doughnut: the exterior was covered with cinnamon and sugar, and it was drizzled with a salted caramel. The cake was moist and sweet, and when I bit into it, I discovered some chocolate filling. It was incredible. Delicious. The violet cheesecake bite (blueberry atop white chocolate cheesecake on a graham cracker crust) was amazing. The blueberry was the right consistency, and wasn’t too sweet. I could taste blueberry. The cheesecake was simultaneously light and creamy, and cheesy. The crust was buttery and delicious. The graham cracker bottom was seriously compacted, providing a study base on which to serve the cheesecake and blueberry topping. It didn’t crumble and fall to pieces, which meant that I didn’t leave any little crumbs on the plate. The mini lava cake was rich and chocolatey. The gooey inside was moist, while the outside of the cake had just the right amount of crunch. That little guy was perfectly baked.

The fizzy lifting drink? It was light and refreshing, without being too sweet or heavy.

The meal started off slowly, but each course was better than the last, and by the time I had dessert, I had completely forgotten about the unsuccessful aspects of the soup course. Dinners are Wednesdays and Fridays, and the rest of the semester’s dinners promise to be conceptually interesting and delicious. If you’re looking to treat yourself to a nice dinner, at a nice price, you’re not going to find a better deal than The Spice Box.

Check out my interview with Jill Craft, instructor for FSHN 443, and Carly Novoselsky, the Carly in the Chocolate Factory.

Smile Politely: What’s your food story? How’d you end up at the U of I?

Jill Craft: I have always enjoyed food. I love the fast paced and hands-on nature of this industry. I did both my undergraduate and later my graduate work at the University of Illinois. I really enjoyed working in the lab with the students and am privileged to get to work with great students in a hands-on educational environment preparing them to be professionals in an industry that I enjoy. I have been teaching this class now for 11 years.

Smile Politely: Tell us a little about FSHN 443. What are the prerequisites? What are the requirements for successful completion? 

Jill Craft: FSHN 443 is a capstone course for students in the Hospitality Management program.  Each senior is required to plan and execute a financially viable themed-fine dining meal in the Spice Box. The number of meals offered in the Spice Box is dependent on the number of seniors enrolled in the course each spring. The project allows the student to apply all of the experience and course work from their 4 years at the University of Illinois. They work with a guest chef to help fine tune and develop their menus. These guest chefs will also at times come down and help the day of the meal as well. The students in the course also staff and work a variety of management and support position throughout the operation. In addition, students in the Introduction to Hospitality Management course –  FSHN 145 work and staff the meal and rotate though both FOH [front of house] and BOH [back of house] positions. The operation is solely operated by the students in the course. For each meal, the student in charge has a 4-week checklist of things that need to be completed. This includes testing/standardizing recipes, budget creation, scheduling, purchasing and executing the meal. In addition, after completing the meal the student will prepare financial paperwork and evaluations. Students have to be seniors and completed FSHN 340 and be concurrently enrolled in FSHN 442.

Smile Politely: What do you hope students take away from this course?

Jill Craft: I want my students to have a better understanding of the principles and application of what it takes to work in the hospitality industry. I also want them to gain confidence in their skills and knowledge by allowing them to apply it in a real world setting. 

Smile Politely: What do you hope diners take away from a dinner at The Spice Box? 

Jill Craft: I ultimately would like the guests to have an enjoyable experience. 


Smile Politely: Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your major?

Carly Novoselsky: My name is Carly Novoselsky and I’m currently a senior majoring in hospitality management with a business minor. 

Smile Politely: What’s your food story? How’d you decide to pursue this as a career?

Carly Novoselsky: I have always been drawn to the kitchen growing up, and obsessed with the food network channel, so it was a no brainer when I signed up for culinary classes in high school. I expanded my knowledge about food and really discovered a passion for working with others and working with food. When it came time to apply to colleges, the only thing that I found myself being interested in was

Smile Politely: What sort of flavors influence you? To which flavors or cuisines are you most drawn?

Carly Novoselsky: Growing up I used to be a very picky eater, but as I’ve gotten older, and have been exposed to more types of unique flavors and cultures, I have been known to try just about anything. I love exploring new foods from all over that others would be hesitant to eat. 

Smile Politely: You’ve put forward a dinner that’s playful, whimsical, and certainly challenging. How’d you arrive at your dinner concept? Why chocolate?

Carly Novoselsky: I wanted to do a meal theme that was original and that had never been done before. I love a challenge, and I wanted to do something that would stand out and be a dining experience that would never be forgotten. I absolutely love movies, so I knew fusing together my love for food and movies could be done somehow if I thought outside of the box. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to mind as not only are there so many food elements to the movie, but also a lot of different characters that could be represented in the meal as well.

Smile Politely: Tell us a little about working with Erika Trilikis. How did you get connected? What’s it like working with a professional chef?

Carly Novoselsky: Erika is actually a close friend of mine who graduated from the hospitality management program two years ago, and I knew there would be no one better to mentor me than her! Although she is not a professional chef, she has had the experience of running her own spice box meal to be able to provide me with great advice and support.

Smile Politely: What have been the biggest challenges in putting together your meal?

Carly Novoselsky: The biggest challenge by far is time management and staying organized. Starting a month out from your meal date, each week there are checkpoints that you must hit to stay on track. Communicating with Jill, the learning assistant, and fellow students in my class I found to also be very important so that everyone understands what is going on and is on the same page.

Smile Politely: What has been most rewarding?

Carly Novoselsky: When working on my meal, I often call it a labor of love because although it is a lot of hard work and dedication, everything that I have put forward thus far I could not be more proud of. The support of my friends and family as I approach my senior capstone is so much more than I could have ever imagined and that in itself is very rewarding. 

Smile Politely: How has this class impacted your ideas about the restaurant industry?

Carly Novoselsky: This class has shown me that working in the restaurant industry can be a lot of hard work, but in the end it is so rewarding. Being in this major my freshman year I knew immediately that this was the right field for me to be in, as I absolutely loved every second of it. 

Smile Politely: Finally — no pressure here, as I’m sure people ask you all the time — what do you hope to do after graduation?

Carly Novoselsky: I recently accepted a food and beverage management program position at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas. I will be starting there on June 9th, and I could not be more excited! It is a management rotational program for a year, and upon completion of the program a full-time assistant management job is guaranteed.


For upcoming dinner themes and menus, visit The Spice Box’s website. Reservations are available in half-hour time slots at 5, 5:30, 6, 6:30, 7, and 7:30, and can be made by calling 217-333-6520. The Spice Box is located at 905 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana. 

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