Once in a great while, a meal comes along that makes you want to hug the chef in gratitude—a meal against which you will compare all others. Bloomington, Illinois’s Station 220 is serving up such cuisine.
Station 220 is the result of a vision laid out by Chef Ken Myszka, who packed up his chef’s coat after working in Vegas’s top restaurants, moved home to rural Illinois, and started a farm on his parents’ land. At the time, he had a three-year plan: take a year to research farm to fork systems, a year to build a sustainable farm, and in the third year, open a restaurant supplied largely by that farm.
I had the good fortune of meeting Myszka on his farm, Epiphany Farms, exactly one year ago, when the restaurant still seemed a distant hope (read last year’s story here). Today, his dream is alive in Station 220. Myszka took over Bloomington, Illinois’s once famed Central Station restaurant, a site built in an old fire house that originally opened in 1901. For decades, it was considered one of the finest dining experiences in town.
Yet, the establishment had declined in recent years. I ate at the former Central Station once many years ago, and it was a huge disappointment. So when my mom suggested we go there for drinks this past week, I couldn’t help but remember that lackluster food and associate it with the space—a hurdle Myszka will surely have to overcome for many diners who have not yet had the good fortune to taste his outstanding cuisine—or worse, don’t even know that the chef has changed.
So let me make it known: the only thing remaining of the old Central Station is the décor. Erase from your memory everything you knew about that old, dusty restaurant. The cuisine at Station 220 is utterly transformed by Chef Myszka and partner Chef Stu Hummel.
I stopped in to taste what’s possible when a chef turns into a farmer and then steps back into a restaurant kitchen a year later.
What I found was magical.
Farmer-Chef Myszka and partner farmer-chef Hummel treat every morsel of food like a gift. They offer it to guests with gracious enthusiasm. I felt like I was celebrating with every bite. In fact, days later, I’m still daydreaming about the flavors I was gifted during that meal.
My table ordered the 5-course tasting “menu” ($42/each) which isn’t on the menu at all—though it should be! The printed menu itself offers up a range of standard fare like soups, salads, and entrées. But the tasting menu best reflects Chefs Myszka and Hummel’s ability to create magical moments with food.
Forget what you know about food. Chefs Myszka and Hummel will educate you on what cuisine could—and ought—to be. Station 220 is what happens when two chefs are not only passionate about food, but are also keenly aware of the hard work that it takes to grow it from the ground, and of the consequences that occur on the plate when chefs care more about quality than convenience.
“The first thing I did when I took over the restaurant,” Chef Myszka tells me, “was go through the whole inventory of every product ordered to decide where things came from, what was in the ingredients.”
The old restaurant had used bottled salad dressings and packaged products, he says.
“I believe in making food from scratch instead of buying things that have been modified,” explains Myszka. And thus, the kitchen’s renovation began.
“As a chef,” Myszka continues, “I can only put food on the table that I believe in and would eat myself. We have a saying here. I always ask my staff, ‘Would you give that to your mother?’”
“It’s more expensive to make food from scratch, so our risk is higher,” Chef Myszka explains. But he stands by his decision, and it shows in the quality that comes out of his kitchen.
Thusly, that night I and my dining companions put our faith in the chefs’ hands, or as Chef Myszka likes to say, we gave up “choice for trust.” And he certainly did not let us down.
Our first taste arrived in the tanned, farmer’s hands of Chef de Cuisine, Hummel. Tiny Chinese soup spoons each held a single bite-sized, handmade wonton resting in a delicately clear broth rich in flavor. A warm heat from subtle spice brushed the tongue, followed by the smooth noodles bathed in broth, crisp bite of daikon and marinated veggies—a perfect bite in both taste and texture, and a resounding start to our meal.
The momentum continued upward from here. Next, we were given a farm-fresh salad of field greens with radishes and parmesan crisps drizzled delicately with mustard vinaigrette dressed at the table by Chef Myszka.
The traditional “soup” course single handedly reflects the elevated level of skill and creativity from these chefs. A warm and creamy egg custard rested beneath a symphony of perfect springtime bites: caramelized onions, tender calamari, the freshest farm herbs including dill, cilantro, and fennel, bright snap peas bursting with color for the eye and the tongue, rich mushrooms, and topped with a full-mouth curry foam.
This dish swept and swayed with every surprising spoonful, offering comfort and spice in an offering fit for the culinary goddesses. I not only ate every last morsel of this dish, but I also wiped my bowl clean with my bread, afraid to waste even the smallest amount of flavor found at the bottom of my bowl.
The Chefs’ attention to detail powered through the entire meal. Our fish course included a softly seared piece of Mahi topped with Asian coleslaw and nestled atop a bright cucumber mint sauce. The main course included Southern-inspired barbequed pulled pork with a crisp pig skin for the meat-eaters, and a piece of barbequed salmon for the pescetarian topped with crisp bread cubes. Both came with a side of subtly sweet corn bread topped with creamed, fresh corn.
Dessert combined the flavors of farm and the East: a steamed dumpling stuffed with rum raisins paired with vanilla ice cream and fresh farm strawberries and mint.
I told Chef Myszka that this was California-quality food. He proudly replied, “This is Illinois food!”
Indeed, this is Illinois food at its finest. This is what happens when passion for food, quality, and sustainability leap from the heart of a well-trained chef onto the plate. It feels like a little bite of magic.