In my traditional fashion I overplanned and as usual the agenda contained far more stops than we would logically have time (or stomach capacity) for, yet when it was all said and done my most recent trip to the Windy City proved to be a ~66 hour jaunt with no less than 15 stops. With selections ranging from coffee and canele to a Chris Nugent’s last day at Les Nomades and from a scraggly pizza legend to not one or two but all four of Grant Achatz’s current properties it was a whirlwind trip filled with great art, better food, friends new and old, and the sort of stories I’ll remember for years to come.
Beginning with the small meals and ancillary bites of our trip, the first stop after my sister and her friend’s arrival to Chicago would not be in Chicago at all, but rather in the northern suburb of Morton Grove, home of Burt Katz and his twenty-plus year old eponymous pizza shack – a location that had long been on my to do list but a location I’d largely avoided in the past due to the odd hours, odder policies, and long waits generated by Mr. Bourdain.
For those unfamiliar with Katz, the 75 year old bearded man behind both Pequods and Gullivers oh so many years ago suffice it to say that he is every bit the pizza legend of Dom DeMarco in Brooklyn or Chris Bianco in Phoenix and like both of them his dedication to the craft comes with an ample side of eclecticism; in this case a small shop fashioned out of a former blacksmith shop and a “phone ahead for best service” policy – a policy we entirely ignored prior to our planned lunch largely because traffic in Chicago is questionable at best.
Arriving perhaps thirty minutes after the start of lunch and finding ample parking on Ferris Avenue our entry to Burt’s Place was admittedly a bit unexpected – we were the only guests and save for a lone woman sitting at that back booth with a stack of papers the restaurant looked every bit its age. Greeted by the woman, later identified as Burt’s wife – Sharon, we were greeted with a “did you call ahead” and stating that we had not her response was “Well, I guess I can seat you anyway” to which my sister mouthed to me “is she joking?”
Seated for a mere moment before the short but sweet menu was presented the three of us looked around the space while listening to classical music play overhead. With puppets, old HAM radios, and scenes from the Sistine chapel making up only a part of the odd decorations and the leather seating lumpy, cracked, and uncomfortable Sharon would next ask us where we’d heard of the place – implying “Tony” before motioning to the plaque denoting the seat where the celebrity had sat – before making her first of nine suggestions that we should order something to drink besides water; a suggestion we declined nine times instead opting for water and a large pizza.
With orders placed and another party arriving (and frequently talking out loud about Pequod’s just down the street much to Sharon’s dismay) our wait for the pizza would be perhaps forty minutes during which Sharon interrupted us no less than five times to offer us a “big salad,” suggest drinks, and discuss everything from the headline on the day’s paper (murder) to (once again) how we’d heard about Burt’s. Awkward to say the least I can honestly say I’ve never seen such…odd…service and while she was nice enough I can only say that I’m very glad I’d resisted previous thoughts of going solo.
When the pizza finally arrived and Burt peaked out momentarily from the kitchen the pizza was not placed on our table, but instead on a center table and doled out slice by slice by Sharon (each time with an offer of rootbeer, seven up, etc.) Having ordered a large pan pizza with mushroom and half with house made sausage when the slices finally arrived it was with great zeal that we all dug in and – well – the results would prove to be well worth the effort as every aspect of the medium-thick pizza just seemed to click. Beginning first with the mildly sweet sauce and progressing to the crunchy caramelized crust the backbone of Burt’s pies are exactly what I love about pizza while the fresh (and more importantly not to thick) cheese proved a lovely balance to the spicy chunks of sausage balanced and fresh fibrous mushrooms. With the pie itself oddly cut into seven slices we each enjoyed two and then split the third in half while my sister settled for a big glob of crunchy cheese and sauce at the center of the pan that may have been the best bite of the whole afternoon.
With the bill paid (cash only) we chatted with Sharon a bit more prior to our exit and on the way out we were offered grape fruit snacks left over from Halloween for dessert – a nice gesture I guess. An awkward meal for many reasons and perhaps not worth the drive all the way from downtown I realize purists will claim that what Burt is serving is not truly “deep dish,” but whatever your definition it is certainly deeper than average and the quality of the ingredients and craftsmanship definitely shows.
With the gelatinous fruitsnacks hardly a proper end to a meal we would once again find good fortune in swiftly moving traffic and making our way back from Morton Grove I posed a single question to my companions; cake or pie with the overwhelming answer pie and a few minutes extra driving leading us to the storefront shop of local pie maven Hoosier Mama Pie Company.
A long time staple of the local dining scene and perhaps known best for their carry-out pies or for providing their wares to any number of local eateries Hoosier Mama’s storefront is in reality just barely a store – as a matter of fact it is so small that it inhabits a 1/2 address and seating for six is a squeeze (particularly when some hipster and his MacAir are taking up the 4-top) but what the store may lack in size it more than makes up in charm…and pie; a rotating selection of at least fifty with an in store supply of more than a dozen during our visit.
Having already noted the store’s postage stamp size and the seating logistics our arrival to Hoosier Mama would see us greeted promptly by a pair of young ladies while at least four others worked in the back folding crusts, filling pies, manning the ovens, and boxing up orders to go. With decisions numerous it was with a bit of delay that we placed our orders, but in the end the selections would include three $4 slices of pie and one $7 “Pie Flight” of three small wedges served only on Fridays and grabbing an extra chair the three of us made do with a two top more appropriately fitted for one.
Beginning first with the flight, ordered by my sister’s friend, I have to say I loved the idea but with only a limited number of pies available I simply could not commit and skip over options that sounded best from the larger selection of pies by the slice. With his three selections including Key Lime, Chocolate Cream Banana, and Pear Apple Cranberry I tasted only the Key Lime and although I’m generally not a fan of citrus pies I found the flavor to be surprisingly mild and very naturally sweet as opposed to sour – almost a lychee foam, if you will.
With no Boston Cream available on that particular day my sister opined for her second favorite pie in the form of a hefty slice of Coconut Cream and although not a connoisseur by any stretch I will simply say it was without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted with a light coconut tinge to the custard and cream admixture and a flaky buttery crust almost like that of a croissant.
Indecisive and gluttonous as ever my pie choice(s) would include my favorite pie – Pecan – in the form of Maple Pecan as well as Hoosier Mama’s signature “Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.” Beginning first with the Maple Pecan, this was an excellent example of the classic with the added twist of rich maple syrup not only intertwined with the base, but also used to glaze the roasted nuts atop. Again with a flaky butter crust the only thing that could have made this better was a little bit of time on the skillet and some ice cream a la New Orleans.
Moving next to the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie both of my companions’ first thoughts on this small wedge were “weird” and “too sweet” but to me the flavor was something I’d experienced once before in the form of Momofuku Milk Bar’s famous “crack pie.” Again featuring a crisp golden crust but this time replacing pecans with nothing but creamy brown sugar filling loaded with notes of egg and a touch of vanilla I will admit that this is not a pie for those without a sweet tooth, but with a texture somewhere between an egg custard and pumpkin pie all I can say is that my sweet tooth was quite happy even if my coronaries probably were not.
Continuing with the familiar, though this time something I’ve not had many years, another ancillary stop during my time in Chicago would be at the newly opened location of Los Angeles import Beard Papa – a filled to order cream puff station that I enjoyed with my mother at The Grove during an early 2007 visit. Still going strong and expanding both their geographic footprint and their selection I have to admit that Beard Papa was most certainly not on my original agenda and as a matter of fact I was not even aware of their Windy City presence until I happened upon the store while shopping on State Street, but the moment I saw their new options a visit became requisite and moments after entering the small shop I was seated at a small table outside with my bounty.
Having been doused with powdered sugar during my previous visit to Beard Papa and taking care to avoid such an incident this time my tasting of their all natural cream puffs would begin first with a crispy choux shell pumped full with strawberry cream; Sweet and light with an almost yogurt tang I particularly loved the crispness of the shell and how the buttery notes melded with the berries to form a nearly strawberry shortcake flavor.
Moving next to one of Beard Papa’s newer options, a fifty-cent price hike from the standard option, my second selection of the afternoon was the Éclair Cream puff stuffed full of thick vanilla cream with an almost custard consistency. A classical pairing and not soggy in the least due to the made-to-order nature of Beard Papa’s goods I don’t hesitate to call this one of the best éclairs I’ve had in the Midwest even if it is not exactly traditional and with a total bill of sale less than $6 the quality/cost ratio of Beard Papa remains quite impressive.
Never one to skimp on my caffeine and having finally used up my free Starbucks card from Bank of America a frequent stop during this visit to Chicago would be at the Intelligentsia near Millennium Park. A large shop consistently filled with mostly locals, hipsters, and scenesters (both behind the counter and waiting in line) but also the occasional tourist who stands perplexed at the front wondering why the coffee costs $5 this trip would be my first (and second and third) visit to this particular location though my experience with their beans and roasts were quite extensive walking in the door.
With Central American coffees the focus of the week my visits would include two orders of Mexico Perla de Oaxaca via V60 Pour-Over and finally a Colombia Timbio via 16oz Chemex; all three deep, fragrant, and complex but the Perla more my style with substantial notes of cocoa and minimal acid punctuating the velvety body while the Timbio presented a slightly more acidic profile with berry tones that I personally think would have lent better to a less concentrated brewing method.
With coffee the main draw two other selections made during our visit would prove far less inspiring than the brew; the first an organic 72% Dark Chocolate Bar that was fine, though not particularly memorable given its $7 price tag and the second a $3 Canelle that ranks amongst the worst I’ve ever had – the exterior soft like the crust of Wonderbread and the interior similar to cake batter as opposed to the open sponge of a well crafted Canelle; a tremendous disappointment and since this particular location does not choose to list their pastry provider a disappointment I’ll have to attribute directly to Intelligentsia.
For the final snack stop on this particular visit to Chicago my sister and her friend wanted to grab some pastries for their brunch and studio tour with Martin Kastner of Crucial Design and being in the Edgewater area the decision was made to stop by Chicago stalwart A Taste of Heaven; a small comfort food cafe and bakery recommended to us nearly a year earlier by their neighbors at Great Lake.
Arriving at the restaurant and locating free parking with ease we made our way through the doors of A Taste of Heaven to find the space quite full but approaching the pastry counter we were greeted by a friendly young woman ready, willing, and able to help despite the hustle and bustle all around. With cakes, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, and scones abound I waited patiently while my sister made her selection – a Baker’s Dozen of scones offered at a discount and hot from the oven – before making a few selections of my own and with the modest tab settled we made our way back to the car.
With the scones permeating the air with notes of butter vanilla my sister noted that only eleven people would be attending the brunch and as such suggested I should take one, an offer I gladly accepted in picking out a hefty blackberry scone from a mixed batch including chocolate chip, apple cinnamon, and raisin walnut options. Warm, dense, soft, and studded with pockets of butter juxtaposing the sweet berries I have to say that all things being equal the texture of the pastry was more muffin or buttermilk biscuit than scone, but considering the quality of the flavor it is hard to nitpick because no matter what you call it the ‘scone’ was delicious.
Moving next to my selections, a requisite trio of cupcakes weighing in at $3 each, my first “Taste of Heaven” (sorry, couldn’t resist) would be the standard Red Velvet, a decent representation of the classic with a moist base and cream cheese frosting in a good ratio but the frosting a bit less tart than I generally prefer and easily overwhelmed by the cocoa notes of the cake.
Moving next to two of the more interesting options, the first titled Malted Milk Ball and the second “Elvis,” both of these options would prove to be quite good, though the first – a black and white base topped loosely with a cap of milk chocolate and small malt balls – was a bit dry while the second was by far the best of the group with a banana bread quality cake topped in peanut butter cream and a hemisected peanut butter cup – a great presentation that could have only been improved by a little bit of bacon…y’know, because I didn’t nearly have enough to eat on this trip as it is.