uhockey reviews Day 2 Chicago Nov 2010 - Southport Bakery and Cafe, Cocco Pazzo, Great Lake, Schwa
Another great trip to a great city. Thanks to all the CHers out there for recommendations. Reviews will follow slowly due to my work schedule, but thanks again to all.
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640
Schwa - Review as below, full pictures in blog.
If you’re reading this site you are likely aware of Schwa, Chef Michael Carlson, the obscure reservations system, and even the GQ Article that vaulted the restaurant above other temples of molecular gastronomy as “The Most Revolutionary Restaurant in America.” Hailed by some as a genius, some as an artist, and some as a mad scientist or simply a madman there is no doubt in Carlson’s pedigree – classic Italian training both in Italy and alongside Bartolotta at Spiaggia paired with training in molecular cuisine with Achatz (while at Trio) and Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. What may be in doubt, however, is the seemingly nonchalant, renegade, or downright annoying process of getting to eat Michael’s cuisine.
Calling on the last day of September in hopes of getting a seat for the weekend of my visit in November I was shocked when Carlson actually answered the phone at 12:30pm Ohio time. Sounding a bit perplexed by my question of “Did reservations for November open up today?” he responded “Um, yeah” and proceeded to take my number (no name) and date/time of reservation. After a quick read of the BYOB policy he said “peace, see ya on the 4th” and the line went silent. Wanting to make sure my reservation was legit I tried to call back a couple times in October but always reached their full voicemail box….then on November 2nd I got a call from Mathew to confirm – 6pm – again, no name was requested.
Flash forward to November 4th - 4:00pm the phone rings as I’m browsing in Crate&Barrel – it is Matt again. “Bro, man, we’ve got a problem.” A problem with the building…we’re cancelling service tonight…we also just had two people quit…we’re really sorry…we’ll make it up to you…any date you like…etc. Explaining that I was in from out of town he stated he would “call the chef and get back to me in ten minutes.” That call never came. Frustrated I called back and met that same familiar voice recording over and over…eventually after approximately 20 calls (and 35 minutes) Matt again answered – I explained I was the guy from Ohio and got a “Oh, s&%$ man, I forgot.” To this point I’m still uncertain as to whether he forgot to call or forgot I even existed – the whole conversation was very disjointed and full of “um,” “bro,” and “dude” but regardless he told me that they were going to open up “early” the next day to get us in – when I asked for a time he told me 7:00pm and again read the scripted BYOB policy. A quick scramble to swap my Bonsoiree reservation and things seemed, at least for the time being, set.
Having just whetted my appetite with my sister and her friend at Great Lake we made the quick trip to North Ashland and found the restaurant looking just as I’d seen in pictures – certainly not the portrait of haute cuisine. Receiving a text message from my friend Dave that he’d be there around 7:05 I bid my companions farewell and entered the restaurant – the darkest dining room I’ve ever seen, completely empty, and Redman and Methodman blaring – I laughed and thought back to my experience at Ko…the music, the setting/neighborhood, the reservation system…everything felt a bit familiar. Standing in the middle of the room for a few moments I watched the motion of the kitchen – Carlson hand cutting pasta through the illuminated window suddenly looked up and motioned to one of his colleagues, Matt, who came out to the dining room and said “hey bro, can I help you?” Introducing myself I was met with a “cool, cool – the dude from Ohio, right – I thought we said 7:30?” Knowing for fact he’d said 7:00 but largely unconcerned he led me to the two-top closest to the kitchen where I would sit for approximately 10 minutes before Dave arrived – water was filled and I was left to listen to Wu-Tang, Ozzy, Mastadon, KRS One, Tupac, and a progression of loud music while watching the small team of three (Matt, Matt, and Michael) work the kitchen.
Arriving with wine, Dave was greeted quickly and the bottle was taken back to the kitchen. Not recalling what wine Dave brought I’ll note that glasses were kept full throughout the evening and Matthew even opened up some of the wine in the kitchen to pair a Pinot Noir with the lighter courses. Still the only full table in the restaurant both Matt and Michael visited the table to welcome us and service began quickly. Without going into too much detail I will note that throughout the evening service was excellent despite the fact that the chefs were also the servers and although there was a lot of slang and mumbling the plates were delivered with extensive description of ingredients, technique, and inspiration – the team also went out of their way to learn about diners (asking what dishes/ingredients worked or didn’t, inquiring about our jobs and interest, etc.)
Without further ado – while I’m sure some of my descriptions are lacking an ingredient or five (the menu I was given at the end of the night listed 3-4 ingredients per plate) the meal started off with the night’s amuse - Clarified Bloody Mary with spicy tomato, pepper, and pork. Similar to Alinea’s Thai Distillation this simple shot was exactly what you’d expect from the title – hot and savory, smooth and refreshing. Interestingly when Matthew saw me snap a picture he offered the advice “don’t worry if you wanna use flash dude, it’s pretty dark in here.”
With the soundtrack blasting Busta Rhymes our first course arrived – “Octopus - Pineapple, Macadamia Nut, Char.” Featuring supple slow boiled octopus that lacked any semblance of chewy/rubberiness cascaded across the plate atop smears of burnt pineapple and macadamia nut puree the flavor of the cephalopod was nicely complimented by the sweet and nutty admixtures. Adding complexity and texture would be thinly sliced pan seared arctic char, shaved nori, baked yucca chips, and micro greens while dots of aged Sherry vinegar lent a savory finish.
When course two arrived we were still enjoying our three:two server/chef:diner ratio and Carlson delivered the plate himself. Titled “Elote – Corn, Lime, Cojita” the plate featured Warm corn soup made with “mayonnaise and cilantro pudding” and a side salad consisting of charred corn, lime puree, chili spiced popcorn, and cojita cheese. Interestingly using the lime to adhere the cup to the plate we were instructed to eat this “however you like” and after a taste of the soup – a fantastic flavor/texture best described as cornbread veloute – I proceded to add bits of corn, cheese, and lime to the admixture which produced more nuanced flavors. All in all my least favorite course of the meal, but a successful take on the popular Hispanic street food which the course was named after.
It was with course three that the soundtrack switched from Rap to Metal, loud and heavy either way, and more patrons began arriving…as a matter of fact, the restaurant went from empty to full almost immediately at 7:45pm and we chuckled as a few patrons were turned away despite bringing boozy gifts for the kitchen. With service slowing only slightly the next plate was one of Carlson’s more famous options - “Tagliatelle - veal heart, huckleberries, honey.” Featuring a spiral of hand cut pasta snaking up the edge of the bowl and topped with chopped veal heart, whole huckleberries, Tellagio cheese, honeyed veal demiglaze, shaved black truffles, and arugula this course once again showed off Carlson’s fondness for sweetened proteins. Tender and al dente the pasta itself was beautiful but the star of the show was undoubtedly the manner in which the sweet gravy enhanced the savory offal. This course and its follow-up were the only courses where I truly wished there was bread service at Schwa as I would have loved to sop up every drop of the sauce.
Our next course would be offered as a “bonus” and true to rumor when a later table requested the dish they were told it could not be accommodated as the kitchen had “run out.” As much a signature as anything at Schwa, Carlson’s famous Quail Egg Yolk Ravioli with Buffalo ricotta, brown butter, white truffle, and Chive was every bit as good as the rumors. Likely influenced by his time at Trio with Achatz (who was then perfecting Black Truffle Explosion) the Ravioli was served solo and we were instructed to let it cool a moment and then eat it in a single bite. Bursting in the mouth and potentially the only dish of the evening lacking substantial sweetness I’m going to go out on a limb and say I enjoyed this even more than Achatz’s fabled dish – the texture of the molten egg yolk was simply one of the best mouth-feels I can imagine and the brown butter/white truffle combination was divine on the palate.
Returning to the menu, course four was an interesting dish of opposing flavors that worked much better than one would expect. Titled “Roe – Watermelon, Violet” the course was served in a rounded bowl and featured Steelhead Roe floating in a semi-solid watermelon gelee and topped with viola flowers. On the edge of the bowl rested a curl of watermelon rind and on the plate balancing the rounded bowl was a bit of tempura steelhead roe. Taking my first bite of the dish I was instantly struck by the hefty flavors of watermelon – a flavor so strong it almost tasted artificial like Bubbalicious – but on mastication a pleasant salinity broke through as the caviar burst on the tongue and the overall effect was something like tapioca pudding in texture and with the aroma of violet the course seemed to serve as a palate cleanser to both the tongue and the nostrils. Not to be forgotten, the rind was cured and somewhat vinegar-sweet while the tempura roe was intensely briny and crisp.
For our fish course, “Halibut – Anchovy, Black Garlic, Zucchini” would arrive as the largest portion size of the meal. With easily 3 ounces of broiled and seared Halibut centering the plate the day boat fish was perfectly flaky and tender. Seated amidst crispy garlic chips, grilled zucchini, sprigs of lavender, and drizzles of sesame oil the fish was additionally paired with three distinct smears – sweet black garlic, tangy Greek yogurt, and subtly briny white anchovy puree. Tasting the fish with each component provided a different experience and although diverse in scope each item served to highlight the protein without distracting from the others.
Course six would be another familiar face on the Schwa menu – “Biscuits and Gravy – Sweetbreads, Red Eye Gravy, Mustard.” Described as a tribute to Michael’s southern grandmother the dish featured three plump and crispy sweetbreads with characteristic creamy centers juxtaposed with three tiny buttermilk biscuits from his grandmother’s recipe. A lovely start, the plate was next supplemented with bitter braised mustard greens, fibrous Chinese black beans, ground pink peppercorns, micro-arugula, miniature pearl onions, and coffee spiked redeye gravy. With each flavor playing a part in the entirely southern feeling dish I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the spiciness of the gravy – it was appropriate for the dish, but required nearly a whole glass of water on my admittedly un-southern tongue.
Our main course, arriving during a particularly loud and profanity laden track by Nas, would be one of Carlson’s more recent creations – a dish detailed as “S’mores – beef mole, graham, marshmallow, campfire.” Having to walk through the kitchen to get to the restroom I’d seen this course being prepped earlier in the meal – or at seen Carlson taking the Wagyu from the sous vide bag and shredding it. Featuring Wagyu short ribs in a cocoa nib mole that literally melted on the tongue, the dish was topped with crumbled graham crackers, a creamy graham cracker puree, and black cardamom marshmallow all placed in a cone. With the cone resting in a smoking vessel we were instructed to lift the cone and eat with a spoon while the campfire smoke poured forth. Again pairing intense sweetness with a traditionally savory dish I can say that of all the creations I experienced at Schwa this is probably the most memorable – it was a truly beautiful and on par with the Tagliatelle for best of the night. As an added bonus the dish included an ounce of Gran Marnier consommé as a “sidecar” – intensely boozy with hints of orange and cinnamon, another intriguing palate cleanser.
The night’s cheese course would prove to be small, intense, and unlike any other cheese course in my experience…no surprise, all things considering. Titled “Pretzels and Beer” the course featured a small pretzel gougere stuffed with Chimay Cheese and topped with Chimay Beer Foam sitting on a puddle of Mustard Paint. A single bite, a flash on the palate – first mustard, then beer, then a creamy lingering finish. While I’m a fan of neither mustard nor beer neither of them were overly potent when compared to the cheese and I still wonder how Carlson managed to form a pretzel that dissolved on the tongue.
For our dessert course we received the dish I’d expected, “Celery Root – Banana, Chocolate, Caramel.” Featuring a pool of sweetened celery soup with slowly melting white chocolate mousse at its base and a disk of celery root cake at the center the cake itself was next topped with a shard of white chocolate while a rum roasted bruleed banana doused with salted caramel sat alongside. Topping the dish with Banana leather and clover I have to say that the cake itself was almost too celery for me – someone who eats celery frequently and loves the flavor – and my friend did not enjoy it at all. The key to this dish, however, seemed to lie in combining everything at once and taking a bite – the bitterness of the celery, the sweetness of the banana, the smoothness of the chocolate, and the salty caramel forming a unique flavor that tasted something like heavily sweetened matcha.
With the place jam packed and the decibel level rising as people enjoyed their beverages of choice (yes, even the guy who brought the case of PBR) Michael and Matt both visited our table once again to thank me for adjusting my schedule to accommodate the issues of the night before – “we really wanted to cook for you guys, but sometimes s#@% just happens – it’s awesome that you could make it.” Thanking them we were told we could hang out as long as we liked as they had no more reservations for the evening – they even offered to pour us some beer which we politely declined. Arriving with the check and a copy of the menu Matt said “seriously guys, we don’t f#$& up – whenever you’re ready” and opening the check we found that we’d been given half off the tab. Leaving a $75 tip for the awesome evening we thanked the crew once again and made our way to the street.
A bizarre restaurant and experience in all ways it is really hard to sum up what Schwa “is” in the grand scheme of restaurants when looking back on it. The best comparison I can offer up is the one I assumed going in – Momofuku Ko. Obscure reservation system, off beat location, “come as you are” dress code, blaring music, and obscure ingredient pairings that somehow work. With that said, the bar stools, snooty attitude, excessive price tag, and NO pictures policy at Ko speaks to a restaurant that doesn’t care what you think – they believe it is a privilege to experience their vision. On the contrary, quoting Michael Carlson himself, “We cook food we want to eat in an environment we want to eat it in” and “Our game plan is the same game plan as every night. We're making 30 people happy." On November 5th 2010 Schwa made me very happy and it was absolutely worth the effort.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647
1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
Red Eye Cafe
4164 N Lincoln Ave Ste 1N, Chicago, IL 60618
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640
Slightly below Alinea, L2o, Trotter's in terms of "Overall" but on par with Alinea and L2o in food and better than Trotter's. If I had to rank the "best" of in terms of bang for the buck (Setting, food, adjusting for price, ambiance, overall enjoyability for the dining dollar, etc)
Places > $100pp w/o wine and + tax/tip
Alinea > L2o > Schwa > Trotter's > Everest > TRU > Bonsoiree > Vie > Moto > Spiaggia
I certainly hope your meal at Schwa was equal to mine because I was blown away by the whole experience. I have nothing but respect for those guys.
Also visited Great Lake on Thursday. And if there is better pizza in the country I've not tasted it. I may be no expert but having been from Di Fara's to Pizzeria Bianco I think I got a pretty good idea. But I'm no fool and any pizza topic on the Internet is open to more debate then
say....politics or religion.
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640
It was everything I expected, but possibly more "wtf?" They pull off the creative-genius-who-doesn't-give-a-damn attitude with far more skill than the more highly regarded Momofuku Ko, plus the prices are lower, the staff more friendly (and potentially more buzzed/stoned,) and the seating more comfortable.
It goes in my Chicago Top 5, somewhere below Alinea and L2o (with Gras) and on par with Trotter's and Everest in terms of "overall" (albeit completely different) while the food matches both Alinea and L2o aside from desserts.......
The review will be up soon, possibly today depending on workload.
Great Lake was every bit worth the hype and the combo of Schwa/Great Lake was on par with Trotter's Grand Tasting followed by TRU (Gand in the kitchen) dessert tasting nearly 2 years ago.
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614
Great Lake - Review as below, full pictures in blog.
Dinner on Friday was to’ve been Bonsoiree but that all changed when Schwa called me and changed things up on Thursday. Frustrating as it was at first, what resulted was not only a swapping of dates between Schwa and Bonsoiree, but a later seating at Schwa that opened up an opportunity I could not pass up – the opportunity for an early pre-dinner featuring what many (including Alan Richman who took the place global on his GQ list) consider to be the best Pizza in America – Great Lake. Traveling with my sister and her friend we called ahead to find out Great Lake would open at 5:00pm and we arrived in Andersonville around 4:30, grabbed a cup of coffee at Kopi, and proceeded to wait in the line already sporting two other couples.
Standing in front of the large window with curtain drawn we could see the vague outlines of Nick Lessins and crew working inside and I explained to my colleagues the controversial Pizza-Nazi-esque reputation that has been spread across the net. Undeterred by the stories and rather intrigued by the ethics of a husband/wife team that have stayed true to their roots – cooking each pie individually, sourcing everything they can locally or from well trusted providers, and honing their craft in the image of the restaurant that inspired them (Pizzeria Bianco) – instead of selling out and compromising an operation they clearly love, I rather figured the trip would be worth the effort. As we stood and a few snowflakes fell a car pulled up and out hopped Lydia Esparza with a large bag of groceries – making her way past the now 14 person line she opened the door and ushered us in.
Making our way in the door we simply followed the line up to the counter where Lessins could be seen preparing crusts and a young man was quickly chopping the ingredients Lydia had brought. Browsing the menu on the wall there were three pizzas, three addable ingredients, and two salads available for the evening – we quickly came to a consensus and placed our order. Handed a cork with two aces it was suggested we sit at an end at the communal table.
Seated for a few moments a young man brought us water and three cups – we were left to pour our own, as were all persons providing their own wine. As we sat and chatted we watched Nick slowly prepare each pizza step by step – throwing the dough, adding olive oil, placing each ingredient by hand, and manning the oven all on his own. We also chuckled as Lydia shot down a special request (from a particularly annoying mother with two young girls who unfortunately sat right next to us) to order Pizza #2 without black pepper.
With the gas oven capable of making only two pizzas at a time we sat for approximately 20 minutes before the first two came out of the oven and watched with baited breath as our neighbors indulged. With a short line slowly forming outside we additionally started to realize the non-stop calls coming in for carryout orders – by the time we left the pickup time was nearly 2 hours. Thankfully our wait was much less considerable and the pizza was delivered to our table a mere 35 minutes after sitting down.
Delivered piping hot with cheese still bubbling our #1 with Tomato, Homemade Fresh Mozzarella, Mona Aged Cheese, Basil, Oregano, Rosemary, and 1/2 with thick cut Gunthorp Farms Bacon was every bit as good as the rumors. Ten slices in total and featuring what I can only describe as the “perfect” crust I actually burned the roof of my mouth in taking my first bite – the supple charred crust proving astoundingly chewy beneath the creamy house mozzarella and cow/sheep blend. With the spice blend nicely complimenting the exquisitely sweet and mildly acidic tomatoes and the smoky bacon adding its characteristic savoriness the totality of the pizza was exactly what you expect when you think of “pizza” and given the quality of ingredients and preparation it was that “pizza” in its ideal form.
Settling the admittedly hefty $30 (w/tax+tip) tab after three slices each we thanked Lydia and Nick (I think Nick may have even looked up from the pizza station and smiled) and made our way to the street. Having eaten a number of other top notch pizzas from ovens of wood, coal, and gas I can say without a doubt that while I often prefer esoteric ingredients there is no doubt in my mind that the crust and ingredients at Great Lake are amongst the best I’ve ever tasted. Is it the best in the USA – I don’t know, I really liked Osteria, Tacconelli’s, and Supinos as well. While some people may not like the “attitude,” I’m okay with a man (or woman) truly dedicated to his/her craft and if they want to be perfect six hours a day and four days a week I’m okay with that – perfection is worth waiting for.
2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647
1477 W Balmoral Ave, Chicago, IL 60640
Coco Pazzo - Review as below, full pictures in blog.
Despite a large breakfast, after five hours of wandering SOFA, sitting in lectures, and chatting with persons far more creative than myself I was getting hungry – thankfully my lunch reservations had been made far in advance…nearly 2 miles away at Coco Pazzo. Walking in the 36 degree “Windy” city weather from the Navy Pier to the merchandise mart I made good pace and covered the distance in just over 20 minutes. Arriving minutes early for my 1:00pm reservation I was greeted by Jack Weiss himself at the reservationists podium and welcomed warmly – I’m not sure if Mr. Weiss remembered, but I’d written in advance to ask if one of the dinner menu items could be offered at lunch and he’d noted it in my reservation.
Seated promptly by a courteous and observant server (he noted my SOFA bag and inquired about the show) I was glad I’d worn a leather blazer – even at lunch Coco Pazzo is packed and has a lot of style with well-heeled clientele talking about the stock market over cocktails and plates of charcuterie, vegetables, and pasta. Offered tap vs. bottled water I selected tap and Joel named off approximately 8 daily specials all of which sounded quite good before presenting me with the menu displaying another twenty or so choices. With a focus on local/seasonal produce, pastas and breads handmade in house daily and “every stock, sauce, pastry, and dessert prepared by our passionate and creative staff” it is hard to find any fault in Coco Pazzo’s business model.
With multiple awards including a Mobile Travel Guide 4-Star rating lining the back walls, a wood burning stove featured prominently in the kitchen, and heavy curtains, white table cloths, exposed brick walls, and Vetri-esque centerpieces adorning the dining room the feel of Cocco Pazzo was rustic yet refined. With water poured and never reaching half-empty my request from the dinner menu was confirmed and I selected two “appetizer-portion” menu items to compliment that choice. I will note here that I rather wish I’d have been told that half-portions were not half price (closer to 3/4 price, actually) but I must admit I love the ability to order smaller portions to taste more options.
With my orders en route for the kitchen I was next met by the bread server – a delightful young woman who, despite poor grasp of English, managed to keep my bread plate full throughout the meal. Served with an intensely grassy olive oil the daily selections included cheesy bread sticks, rustic white sourdough, and rosemary sea salt laden foccaccia. I could lie and say I took it easy on the bread, but let’s just say I have trouble turning down fantastic bread and the Foccaccia was just that.
Beginning my meal proper was the appetizer I’d requested from the dinner menu – I’d heard on good word that it was stunning. Titled Terrina di Fegato with Duck Liver Terrine, Fig Mostarda, Heirloom Apple, endive, and grilled foccaccia I was first surprised by the portion size – for a mere $10 this was a lot of liver. Airy and whipped – not dissimilar to The French Laundry in texture – the liver was one of the more potent flavored terrine’s I’ve had – not “gamey” but not as refined as most Foie Gras preps. What made the dish truly shine was actually the manner in which it was paired – the heavy handedness of the terrine nicely balanced with bitter endive, mild apples, a drizzle of olive oil, and sugary sweet figs. Both on its own and spread on the grilled bread I liked the dish but was not “wowed” in the same manner as by the version at Henri the day before (or Everest the day after.)
Waiting perhaps 10 minutes between courses and wishing I’d have brought my sister and her friend (alas, as art students they wanted to attend all the day’s lectures) to try more dishes and pizzas I have to say the pastas I did experience were exemplary. Beginning first with the Ravioli di Zucca with butternut squash filled pasta, brown butter, sage, and amaretti I couldn’t help but make comparison to Batali’s famous Pumpkin Lune’s at Babbo. With parmesan grated tableside the four small packets were light and textural, but unfortunately somewhat more al dente than I prefer for filled pastas. Pasta “done-ness” preferences aside, the textural contrast lent by the grated cookie and intense sweetness smoothed by the nutty brown butter the flavor of the dish was spot on.
Pasta number two fared much better than the Ravioli in terms of texture and was perhaps one of the best pasta’s I’ve had this year (which is saying something considering the Vetri/Amis/Osteria troika in August.) Titled Tagliatelle Castagne with Chestnut noodles, mushrooms, leeks, pumpkin, and speck the flat ribbons of pasta were flawlessly al dente and tasted like smoky chestnuts through and through. Paired with melting leaks and mushrooms which added further earthiness, baked pumpkin for sweetness, and shreds of house cured speck the entirely of the plate was smoky, sweet, and savory – from what the waiter said it is one of their most popular seasonal recipes and returns for a few months each year.
For dessert I was hoping to see a budino, bread pudding, or tiramisu – alas none were to be found. Featuring seasonal apple tarts and chocolate based desserts I finally settled on Tavoletta with Gianduja mousse, flourless chocolate cake, chocolate hazelnut crunch, and raspberry coulis. Served as a four-layer dessert approximately the size of a pager and topped with two plump raspberries the flavors melded well, but the raspberry gelee atop was nonadherent and fell off with each attempt to cut with a fork. A good dessert, but not a great dessert.
When the meal was over I was again satiated and quite happy with the manner in which I was taken care of. While minor issues with the food were noted they certainly weren’t glaring errors and the service was exemplary. Overall I’d say Coco Pazzo compares favorably to Café Spiaggia in terms of cuisine and service, but I personally found the experience, setting, and flavors at Café Spiaggia superior – either way, in many US cities Coco Pazzo would be the best Italian in town.
Southport Bakery and Cafe - Review as below, full pictures in blog.
After a wonderful first day in Chicago that unfortunately ended up with us missing out on the Frightened Rabbit show at the House of Blues because it was sold out I woke up early for the gym and let the youngsters sleep in till 7:00am – our goal was early breakfast and making it to The Navy Pier for SOFA by 9:00am. A long run completed and all cleaned up piled into the car and made our way south largely unencumbered by Chicago traffic and arrived at Southport Grocery and Café by 8am. Half restaurant, half boutique grocery store, and also the home of what many consider the best Cupcake in Chicago – the whole concept sounded like the best parts of Fox and Obel with a smaller and better culled collection. Arriving at the small shop and finding ample free parking we made our way in to find only one table occupied and we were sat immediately by our friendly and pleasant waitress.
With menus presented my seating did not last long – seeing the bakery case and shelves upon shelves of amazing looking goods I was up browsing within minutes. Identifying at least 10 things that sounded excellent in the bakery case and on the shelves I made my way back to the seat and found another ten items on the menu that also sounded good. Offering to buy each of my companions a bakery selection on the provision that I get to try a bite they gladly accepted and made their way to the case to browse.
With the three of us finally seated, waters filled, and tea ordered for my sister with Intelligentsia El Diablo for myself our waitress returned to take orders – a total of seven items for three people she warned us that it would be a lot of food but I assured her we’d be alright. Chatting and again browsing the store while we waited I was appropriately impressed – Foie Gras in the refrigerated section, Columbus’ own Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in the freezer case, and even Scott Conant’s famous Tomato Sauce on the shelf.
Returning to our seats our bakery appetizer courses arrived quickly – and all were much bigger than they looked in the case. Beginning with Nate’s selection, a Vegan Blueberry Cornbread Muffin, we all took a bite and everyone agreed – sweetened only by the copious number of berries and perhaps a touch of sugar the muffin was dense without being heavy, toothsome without being chewy, and moist yet crumbly – it was very very good.
Moving next to my sister’s choice – the grilled sour cream coffee cake topped with Zingerman’s cream cheese. An enormous portion – easily enough for a party of 2-3 to share the coffee cake itself was lovely and baked to perfection. Incredibly moist, tangy, and loaded with cinnamon, walnuts, and sugar the cake was buttered on each side, griddled, and then loaded with cream cheese prior to plating adding a whole extra level of luxury to an already rich dish. A must order for anyone who loves coffee cake – the last time I had one so good was actually, ironically, at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor.
For my appetizer it had to be the cupcake – and an excellent cupcake it is. Small and pricey at $3 the “simple” chocolate cupcake features local European style butter, dutch processed cocoa, and the smoothest frosting you can imagine loaded with Nielsen Massey vanilla extract. Dense and moist, springy and luxurious it was definitely in my top 5 cupcakes all time…I only wish they had more flavors.
Moving on to our main courses it was clear that Nate did not share my sister’s and my taste for a morning sugar bolus – he selected the bruschetta crostini layered with scrambled eggs, smoked chicken sausage, tomato-red onion-balsamic mix, & topped with queso fresco. Quite large in portion I will note that the dish looked and smelled excellent (and Nate ate every bite) but I did not try a bite.
Moving on to more sinful selections my sister opted for the cupcake pancakes – that’s right, pancakes made from the same luxurious batter (sans cocoa) as the signature cupcake. Somewhat more crispy on the exterior than the average pancakes but with a moist and intoxicating interior almost like a custard the stack of three cakes was topped with sweetened vanilla bean butter and a “ration” of pure maple syrup. Tasting quite akin to the cupcake the only way this dish could’ve been better is if it were slathered with the same frosting as the cupcakes themselves.
Knowing going in the door that the Bread Pudding Pancakes were at the top of my “must order” list I was thrilled to find out they offered single cakes – this would allow me to sample more than one “main course.” Fascinated by the marriage of two of my favorite foods – bread pudding and pancakes – expectations for the dish were high and fortunately were not only met, but trumped. Described at length here (http://www.southportgrocery.com/2010/...) from their inception to the recipe all I can say is that the pancakes are a little slice of heaven in the form of a pancake, or bread pudding, or whatever.
For my actual main course the selection of the day came down to a decision between two types of French Toast – and eventually the victor was Stuffed french toast with seasonal local apples, cream cheese, streusel, soy-maple reduction & pralines, plus a “ration” of local apple butter. Buttery and crisp on the exterior with an admixture of apple, cream cheese, and streusel inside the custardy bread the French Toast itself was exemplary, but what truly made the dish was the sweet yet savory reduction which tasted like a 50/50 blend of soy sauce and pure maple syrup. Topped with toasty candied almonds and a cinnamon spiked apple puree the whole amalgam was nicely balanced, beautiful, and entirely satisfying.
Reading the above review some people may call me gushing and I have to say I cannot disagree. From the store to the setting to the free parking to the service to the food Southport is doing everything right. As someone who has visited many of the “best” breakfast and brunch places in the United States I can definitively say that Southport Grocery and Café, their cupcake, their coffee cake, and their pancake all rank in my all time top 5 – there is no doubt I’ll be back on subsequent visits to Chicago and that Bread Pudding Pancake recipe will be replicated at home soon.
Southport Grocery & Cafe
3552 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657