In The Cannon Building on Monument Square is a small, European-style cafe serving light meals to eat in or take out. It is the Illium Cafe, owned by chef Larry Schepici of the nearby Tosca Restaurant, and managed by Beth Duval.
There is nothing like it anywhere around. A 19th-century retail bazaar with a high tin ceiling, rosewood display cases, hand-painted murals of Troy and graceful columns has been easily and believably transformed into a casual, high-end cafe. The padded booths, well-stocked coffee bar and handsome cutlery suggest that mismatching the chairs at the small marble-topped tables was no mistake.
WHERE: 9 Broadway, Troy. Phone 629-0004.
WHEN: Monday to Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $25.05
MORE INFO: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. No children’s menu.
Husband Eric settled himself and his morning newspapers into a comfortable upholstered booth while I picked up menus at the counter. Breakfast sandwiches available all day overlapped with the lunch menu that features soup, salads, and sandwiches. It worked out perfectly, because he wanted breakfast, while I was ready for lunch.
Glass cases on the long counter display salads and handsome fresh baked goods, and narrow coolers near the register offer fizzy drinks and juice. I put in our order and joined Eric, who was enjoying his large coffee ($2.10) and newspaper.
I found the ordering procedure a little confusing and was glad the cafe was not busy so that I could ask questions. It seems you order at the counter, tote your drinks to the table, they bring your prepared food, then you go back to the register at the counter to pay. I imagine it can get confusing when there is a rush. They’re working on a new system, according to Duval, and request that customers pay at the counter after ordering their food.
Try something different to drink, like Tommy’s Naked Soda, perhaps the excellent Bubbling Black Raspberry flavor ($2). There are no artificial ingredients, and no corn syrup, and it’s clear as water. It’s light and sweet with fresh berry flavor. You’ll also find Saratoga water, juices and, in another cooler, locally brewed beer and French wine. Eric enjoyed the organic coffee from Capital City Coffee Roasters and went back for seconds, but said that while it came out of the decanter piping hot, the oversized white china coffee cup radiated its heat quickly. Topping it off helped to keep it warm.
Illium Cafe has a variety of breakfast sandwiches for $7.95, all prepared with organic eggs; and they offer bagels, homemade granola and fresh fruit salad. Eric got The Illium, made with eggs, applewood smoked bacon and Vermont cheddar cheese on a toasted croissant. “Mmm, this is really good,” he said, after the first bite. “It’s a nice blend of ingredients, and the croissant is very light,” said the former restaurant critic. And later, as he popped the last bite into his mouth: “I’m sorry to finish this.”
The selection of sandwiches, soups and salads made it hard to choose, and I was pleased to find that I could get a half-sandwich and cup of soup ($8.85), which wasn’t indicated on the menu. A cup of carrot and ginger bisque and half a turkey Provolone panini sandwich seemed like just the right thing.
The bisque was brightly flavored, and its color left no doubt as to the principal ingredient. It was rich and smooth and slightly tangy, a nice contrast to the creamy texture. It was only warm, though, and on such a cold day I would have preferred it piping hot.
Hearty sandwiches are made with quality ingredients such as Certified Angus Beef. An Illium specialty is the Tuscan chicken ($8.95), with fresh mozzarella, red peppers, basil, organic spinach, Roma tomatoes and smoked tomato vinaigrette. I recommend the turkey sandwich, where the thinly sliced meat is balanced out by spinach, roasted red peppers, melted provolone and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. There’s not too much of any one ingredient, and the bread isn’t bulky or overwhelming.
The sandwich was warm, the bread was toasted and it was all very satisfying. The emphasis here is on quality ingredients and flavor over bulk, a pleasant change from the last panini sandwich I had at another restaurant, which was massive and made with an inch of inferior meat. I would have liked more basil flavor to come through, though.
Eric and I shared a large soft chocolate-chip cookie ($2) with chopped walnuts for dessert. He liked the slightly gooey middle, and I liked the browned edges and sensibly-sized bits of chocolate and walnut.
Schepici took over running the Illium Cafe about two years ago, and prepares some of the cafe’s food at Tosca. Excellent bread comes from The Cookie Factory in Troy.
The Illium Cafe is now offering early dinners, specials each night like meat loaf or roasted chicken for $12 — something to keep in mind if you’re going to a show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. They suggest you can stop by after for pastry and coffee, or a drink and a sandwich.
I was on the honor system when I went up to the counter to pay. I recited our order to the cashier, who rang it up mostly correctly. It came to $25.05, and I left a tip at the table.
Illium Cafe offers good quality food, is casual and reasonably priced. In the fine weather, you can sit at a small table outside and watch folks go by in this reviving city. The cafe is in one of the most interesting spaces in the Capital Region, and it’s worth a visit just for that reason. But add to the enjoyment of the visit with something to eat.