Smile Politely

ISR dorm food goes international

For some, it started with Sunday school. For me, it started with Sunday brunch. When I was a teenager, I went to my first Sunday brunch at a hotel restaurant. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet, and I was instantly hooked. In fact, that may have been the moment when I became a “foodie” (even though that term had not been invented yet).

From that point on, my eyes lit up whenever I heard the word “buffet.” I mean, it’s a food party, right? The variety, the colors, the textures, the ice sculptures, the free champagne, the jazz trio playing live: what’s not to like?

The exterioir of the University of Illinois ISR Dining Hall on the U of I campus. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Fast forward to last month when the University of Illinois officially opened the new Illinois Street Dining Center with full services (the soft opening was a year ago in the middle of the pandemic). I got excited when I heard about this new food hall. Yes, “food courts” are now called “food halls” — and it’s the hottest new restaurant trend in the U.S.

The word “buffet” was not uttered, but that’s what my mind heard: a brand new cathedral where food is worshipped, and you can eat all that you want. My imagination went wild as I fondly recalled the buffet at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (arguably the best buffet in the U.S.). I couldn’t wait to go.

When I arrived at the new ISR dining hall, I wasn’t sure I was at the right place. There was no signage, and the main entrance wasn’t clearly marked. It wasn’t until I made my way upstairs that the official welcome sign became visible. As I approached the cashier, an impressive hall with high ceilings beckoned me to enter.

On a slatted wall, there is a sign that reads

Photo by Paul Young.

The room felt spacious, open, modern, and well-designed to serve up a lot of food to a lot of people. With seating for over 1300 people, it’s supposed to be the largest non-military college cafeteria in the U.S.

After paying the $16.34 per person guest fee for dinner ($12.57 for lunch and even cheaper if you are a student on a meal plan), I was greeted by a sign with a very handy color-coded map showing off the vast layout of the hall with eight different branded “restaurants” (the demo kitchen called Table 1867 was not open).

There is a color coded map of the ISR Dining Hall with the names of restaurants to the left and the building map to the right. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

As is my habit at buffets, I survey the options before deciding what to eat. Then I design and sequence the meal: what dishes would go well with each other? What might be a good starter? Should I save room for dessert?

Fortunately, I did my research ahead of time. Since the menu changes daily at each “restaurant,” I chose to come on the days when my favorite dishes would be available. On the first visit, I was tempted by the halal marinated leg of lamb and mousaka. The second visit was prompted by the appearance of paella on a Sunday dinner menu. These are hard-to-find dishes at local restaurants, so what better excuse do we need to head to ISR for a meal? I fantasized about discovering secret gourmet delights in a student dorm dining hall.

Photo by Paul Young.

But fantasy and reality are two very different things. I imagined approaching the carving station with a student server in a chef’s hat carving slices off a bone-in leg of lamb asking if I wanted more. Instead I found myself in front of several steam tables at the Latitudes station where pre-sliced well-done lamb had been “marinating” in its juices for some time. Okay, this doesn’t look too terrible, I thought. So I loaded up my plate with my favorite meat and then added some roasted potatoes and baked veggies as sides.

On a circle white plate with a blue rim, there are a few pieces of sliced lamb beside herb roasted potatoes and a side of mushy zucchini. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

The first sign of trouble was when I tried to cut into the lamb. With no steak knives available, the slightly serrated butter knife struggled to do its job. Even though the meat was tough and dry, the flavor of the lamb wasn’t that bad especially if doused with “au jus” from the serving pan. There was a hint of garlic, but I could not detect any rosemary which would have added a nice touch. The roasted potatoes turned out pretty well with plenty of dill added for seasoning, but the baked zucchini and tomatoes were over-cooked and mushy. Maybe baking tomatoes is just not a good idea.

On a circular white plate with a blue rim, there is a Greek lasagna and a build-you-own spinach salad. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

My companion went for the Greek-style eggplant mousaka also at Latitudes, then loaded up her plate with a fresh spinach salad from the Grains and Greens salad bar. This meatless version of Greek lasagna had a nice flavorful tomato sauce, but unfortunately the eggplant was undercooked. However, the salad bar was quite impressive. In fact, this could be the one of the best salad bars in town: everything was super fresh, and the variety of toppings were almost overwhelming.

In the ISR Dining Hall, there is a wood paneled counter with self serve food and a line of U of I students masked and waiting to eat. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

We also shared a spinach lasagna from Grillworks which was not on the official menu for the night — and this turned out to be the best dish of them all.

On a white circular plate with a blue rim, there is a lasagna with a side salad. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Loaded with a ton of spinach, a chunky tomato sauce and plenty of cheese, this spinach lasagna was a tasty melt-in-your-mouth treat. The slightly crispy crust was a nice touch. Even the side Caesar salad from Saporito was perfect. Well, except maybe for the dressing which tasted like it came from a bottle. This is dorm food after all, so I guess a little slack in the harsh comments department might be appropriate.

Perhaps the cooks had an off night, so I decided to return for a second visit on paella night. The first thing I noticed on this night was that all the reusable plastic plates were replaced with blue paper plates, and all the regular silverware had been replaced with plastic. Apparently their dishwasher had broken down that night, but that shouldn’t deter us from having a good meal.

On a blue paper plate, there was a scoop of paella with lots of open mussels. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Boy, was I wrong. I haven’t had paella for a while, so I headed straight to Latitudes to check it out. Paella is a rice dish usually served at parties and festivals because it can sit for a long time and not get soggy. It’s almost ideal steam table fare, so I don’t see how anything could go wrong. Unfortunately, ISR’s paella tasted bland. There was no sausage or any pork in this version, so the rice had no chance of absorbing any meat juices. They used chicken legs instead of thighs which might have worked, but the chicken was obviously cooked separately and then added after the fact — another missed opportunity to flavor the broth.

I saw a few shrimps in there somewhere, but they were small. I was happy that there were plenty of mussels, but someone had obviously over stirred the dish as each mussel shell was packed with rice. But the worst sin was the rice itself which was mushy on the outside and undercooked on the inside: a sure sign that the dish was not cooked long enough.

On a paper plate, there is a scoop of canella beans, a Greek salad, and a pile of veggies. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

This version of paella had no veggies in it, so I got a separate plate and filled it with some cannellini beans, “Greek” salad, and the featured veggie of the day at Latitudes: braised fennel with smoked tomatoes. The beans were beans, pretty much straight out of the can so no complaints here. The “Greek” salad had most of the required ingredients: tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, but no red onion. The vinaigrette dressing was nicely balanced, and the veggies were diced so small that I thought I was eating an Isreali salad instead of a “Greek” salad (therefore the quotes). The braised fennel salad turned out well though.

Inside the ISR Dining Hall, there is a restaurant called FUSION 48, and there is a sign with the name above a self serve counter. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Not satisfied, I went to look for more food. And I found it at Fusion 48 where they were serving steamed pork char siu buns along with veggie egg rolls.

On a blue plate, there are two fried egg rolls and two steamed buns. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

Add some Thai chili sauce, and you’ve got my version of the perfect dessert, finally putting a smile on my face.

Sure, the two meals we had there were not perfect, but they were also not disasters. After all, I’m not their target audience — and I’m pretty sure they don’t get many complaints from the many happy students I saw eating fresh, international, and nutritious meals.

The bottom line is that the new ISR Dining Center is a stunning environment (kudos to the architect firm Booth Hansen). The reported $73 million upgrade is clearly visible in every nook and cranny of the interior design including a courtyard for outdoor dining. Even details like the custom branding created for each “restaurant” adds to the whole international dining experience. And the crowd was very international indeed.

The undergrad student body seemed to have changed quite a bit since I attended this school in the 1980s. The diversity was impressive; I saw a lot of students that looked Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern mixing with each other and the rest of the crowd. The traditional white kids from the Chicago suburbs? Definitely a minority. Then I thought about it. I guess it was too good to be true. The fraternities and sororities all have their own dining rooms, don’t they? Maybe that’s where they’re serving my bone-in leg of lamb that’s carved to order. The fantasy of a new generation of integrated young people ready to change the world suddenly vaporized. Yes, this is still the BLM era, and the world is still segregated.

Outside, there are several picnic tables with students enjoying lunch outside of the ISR Dining Hall. Photo by Paul Young.

Photo by Paul Young.

When it comes to student dining, the University of Illinois aims high, and the new ISR Dining Hall is the school’s crowning achievement. Since this is an all-you-can-eat buffet, there are rules: no doggie bags are allowed (except for an ice cream or cookie). I also recommend researching the menu before going as the options change daily. The general public is welcome anytime, but they only accept credit cards (no cash or checks). For more information, you can call 217-333-1407, and a human being will answer the phone and talk to you.

ISR Dining Hall
1010 W Illinois St
M-F 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Sa+Su 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 4:30 to 9 p.m.

Top image by Paul Young.

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