Big-city restaurant reviewers don’t routinely come down to Bloomington on business, but Chicago Tribune writer Phil Vettel had heard good things about a place just off our Square. “Restaurant Tallent, in the heart of Bloomington’s cute downtown, isn’t just a good college-town restaurant,” he wrote, after making the trip. “Airlift this contemporary American jewel into one of Chicago’s hot restaurant neighborhoods, and it would easily acquit itself.”

Vettel’s review is right on the money. Our downtown is cute, darn it! And as Restaurant Tallent gets ready to begin its sixth year, it is easily competitive with the big time.

Six years is a lifetime in the restaurant business, where upstarts can blaze in and flame out in a matter of months. But Tallent has grown with the years, not just geographically, from the charming west side location where it opened to its current chic and elegant home on Walnut, just north of the Square, but in the skill and assurance of the kitchen and the professionalism of the dining room. In every way, Restaurant Tallent has come of age.

More than anything, this reflects the growth and maturity of the chef; Dave Tallent is at home in his kitchen as never before. The menu still reflects his tastes and creativity, his passion for finding the best local and seasonal ingredients. But now he gives free reign to his idiosyncrasies (like an uncommon affection for all things pork) and his sense of fun. Together with his wife and pastry chef partner, Krissy, who manages the place and designs the dessert menu, he has created a sophisticated dining spot unlike any other in town.

The new space (Tallent moved late in 2006) is filled with chocolaty hues and shades of pistachio and aqua. Local art graces the walls, but the eye is drawn to the open kitchen, where the nightly drama unfolds, four or five chefs working in near-silent sync, creating plate after plate of carefully prepared food.

Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Tallent is grounded in classic techniques. He cooks from a flavor palate that unites the sun-kissed cuisines of the Mediterranean with the homespun essence of the American south—rich and bold and not for the faint of stomach. Dinner might begin, after the customary amuse bouche sent out by the chef to tickle the taste buds, with a BLT risotto of house-made pepper bacon, fried green tomatoes, and watercress. This to be followed by a braised local pork belly served with grits, mustard greens, and a truffled honey jus, and for dessert, gingerbread French toast and caramelized apples. Or, how about a starter of Tallent’s signature steamed mussels with a spicy harrisa and orange fennel pollen dusted on the accompanying fries, followed by walleye with merguez sausage dumplings and summer vegetables in a saffron broth, and Rhubarb Tarte Tatin with goat cheese sorbet.

Not so hungry? The bar menu might offer a bowl of chicken and dumplings; or the RT burger, laden with pepper bacon, the gingery house tomato jam, and Capriole goat cheese; or crispy fried Gulf shrimp and chips; or a plate of tagliatelle pasta with bolognaise sauce.

So, whether you are hankering for an exceptional meal or just a plate of comfort food at the bar, you can save yourself the time and trouble of visiting one of Chicago’s “hot restaurant neighborhoods.” There is plenty of culinary Tallent right here at home.