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Oct 29, 2009 11:06AM

The Red Oak: Old-timey comfort foods from a Swedish kitchen

By Brandy Welvaert
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The Red Oak in Bishop Hill, Ill., is a Swedish restaurant offering homemade comfort foods.

Looking for a way to connect with a slower-paced, old-fashioned holiday? Willing to travel for food? Like Swedish meatballs? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then it's time to pull out your mittens and head to Bishop Hill, Ill., for some yuletide spirit disguised as food. Yummy food at The Red Oak.

The menu staples at The Red Oak -- now The Red Oak Comfort Food and Pie Company -- haven't changed in nearly four decades, says Trisha Rux, who bought the business after moving back to Illinois from Colorado in 1996. "We have served Swedish meatballs for 39 years, and those are our headliner," Rux says. "We have never taken anything off the menu in 39 years, but we do add to it as new things pop into our heads."

You also can get the same meatballs with lingonberry cream-sauce over mashed potatoes, or Kaldomar, a beef-cabbage roll covered in tomato sauce. The menu also offers Scandinavian sandwiches with fun-to-pronounce names like the Frikadeller -- meat loaf with dill sauce, mayo, mustard, pickled beets and cucumber -- and Kycklingsalad, which is an almond-and-celery chicken salad. These sandwiches and more, plus a variety of iceberg and spinach salads, soups and different combinations of these. Nothing on the menu is over $8.

"The majority of the staff at The Red Oak has been retired people," says Rux, "and those ladies, well, their recipe boxes are huge. It has been an evolution of a lot of those recipes brought by those ladies over the years. Our comfort food is the kind of thing that your grandma would make for you."

Rux says that the foods she serves aren't "organic or anything like that, but we do get farm-fresh ingredients." She also says she uses a large food supplier for some items, but that The Red Oak "has a lot of little family-owned businesses, and those are our main suppliers."

A few years ago, Rux added the "Comfort Food and Pie Company" to her business -- an addition that brings casseroles and pies to the menu and allows Rux to hand-deliver those "grandma-style" foods to folks in Central Illinois. (Customers just leave a cooler outside, and Rux drops off casseroles and pies while they're at work.) She also ships nationwide.

If you're hungry for a turkey casserole reminiscent of Thanksgiving, or a quadruple-berry pie, you just might find them at your favorite farmers' market, too. Rux sells comfort foods at several of them, including the Freight House Farmers' Market, 421 W. River Drive, Davenport, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturdays.

The Red Oak's foods -- whether they're eaten in the restaurant or shipped by mail -- are prepared by hand in the carriage house behind The Red Oak restaurant in Bishop Hill.

And the restaurant is worth a visit for its cheery vibe alone.

Walking into The Red Oak is like walking onto a colorful set from the movie "Elf." The beaming servers wear red aprons and, sometimes, matching red shoes. The tables and chairs are red, the walls are yellow, and a Mason jar stuffed with live evergreens grace each small table this time of year.

If you visit The Red Oak when it's cold outside, it's a good idea to try the hot lingonberry tea. You also might like the Swedish cream dessert, especially if a you need a little sugar to jump-start your shopping energies. It's like a cupful of light cheesecake filling topped with red raspberries in a sweet sauce.

On holiday shopping weekends, The Red Oak can get pretty busy. Stop by before you're super hungry and give your name to the hostess, who can provide you with an estimated wait time. Then peruse nearby gift shops -- all of them chock full of local, homemade items -- while you wait.

A good time to visit Bishop Hill is during Julmarknad, the annual Christmas market. You can catch musical performances and see artisans working all over town. There's also a chocolate walk. This year, Julmarknad will be held Nov. 27-29 and Dec. 5-6. For details, visit bishophill.com or call (309) 927-3345.

The Red Oak is located at 106 Bishop Hill St., the main artery running through town. It's painted red, so you really can't miss it. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. For more information, call (309) 927-3539 or visit theredoak.com. A complete menu and ordering information is available.

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