The Springfield, IL food scene is swelling, and new arrival Vele (pronounced vay-lay) opened Thursday night with a highly-anticipated entrance.
524 E. Monroe Street houses the coastal Italian restaurant, completely designed for success. While this unsung genre of food is not often heard of in Central Illinois, the prospective excitement surrounds its executive chef, Justin Richardson.
I first heard of The Garden in New Berlin about a year back. Legend told of a chef doling out exquisite food from the back of a gas station. I’m not one to judge: even Michelin has starred a Singapore street vendor, selling chicken for about a $1.50. So, when I heard about Richardson opening Vele in Springfield, I was intrigued.
Coastal Italian is a genre not often touched and it’s usually because of one thing: fresh fish. In the middle of a cornfield, Richardson now has fresh fish delivered biweekly from Hawaii, and for good reason. He’s making the best seafood dishes in the city.
The entire restaurant has been orchestrated to exude the seaside: leafy ferns, knotty pine and sheer linens adorn a pillared hall. The restaurant commands your eyes and the smell is brine.
My husband and I entered to find a gorgeous bar area to our left and were sat in the separate dining area on the right at a corner table.
We reserved for 6:15 and were sat at 6:11, already ordering within two minutes. We opted for many of our server Sarah’s recommendations, trusting in the confidence of the chef.
The menu is simple.
Small plates, a raw bar, pasta dishes, entrees and dessert. We ordered one of each. There was also an attractive drink menu available, filled with Italian classics.
We chose Tuna Crudo, Grilled Octopus, King Crab Spaghetti and the Rack of Lamb. All were shareable portions and we were offered separate plates with no upcharge.
The tuna came first. I was concerned about the complexity of the dish, which screamed Asian: pistachio, wasabi, scallions, garlic, balsamic and tuna. Per my husband, “that was the least fishy fish I’ve ever eaten” which speaks to its freshness. The subtlety of the flavors was artistically done.
Then, the octopus with puttanesca. We were made aware that the puttanesca (made with obviously fresh tomatoes, capers and some wonderful acidity) was a last-minute change to the dish. The octopus was spectacular, braised over eight hours and not a tiny bit tough. My only sadness was that the power of the puttanesca overcame the beautiful detail in the octopus. It was lost together, but both were superstars in their own right.
Lastly, we received the lamb and spaghetti dishes. The lamb was bedded on heirloom carrots and dressed in a cherry wine reduction. It was cooked as the chef would have it: medium rare. The spaghetti was the showstopper: a favorite brought over from Richardson’s The Garden. The chili rang out perfectly among the crab and the squid ink noodles cooked perfectly al dente.
We were offered digestifs and dessert but were a little sad when we heard the pistachio gelato was still being taste tested. However, with stomachs full, we still left happy.
While Richardson’s raw talent may draw eyes, I decided one single factor will make Vele the best restaurant in Springfield. Sarah, our server and the Front of House Manager, came to our table approximately every five minutes we were seated and never interrupted. Her timing, professionalism and passion were impeccable and obvious during our visit. There are many talented chefs, but what truly validated our visit to Vele was the incredible level of care we were shown by an attentive, able staff.
In the center of Vele, there is a beautiful, blue, crushed velvet couch. I expect it will be well used.