I was standing in front of Brushstroke in New York City after a 6-stop Pizza Crawl when my phone buzzed to alert me of an e-mail. Early to the restaurant I opened the mail and started to read – an invitation to the El Bulli menu at Next in Chicago in a little over three weeks…could I make it?…And with that a plan was set into motion, numerous family and friends (old and new) were contacted, and travel were arrangements made. Admittedly somewhat convenient as I was already slated to drive two hours west for my sister’s MFA Thesis show that weekend yet in part quite untimely due to work, travel, planning, and finances what would follow was not exactly my typical systematic planning but instead a more truncated version – and one that would see me visit eighteen stops in under 72 hours.
Having noted my sister’s thesis already, my trip to Chicago would start from Oxford, essentially the middle of nowhere save for a college well known for rich parents, wild parties, and (at least according to the internet) the hottest co-eds in the Midwest and having been unable to sleep well I rose early and after a nearly 8 mile run (3:30am – me jogging, frat boys and drunk girls stumbling home) I showered and hit the road arriving in Chicago just after 7:00am when accounting for my speeding, time change, and a road devoid of traffic as I opted to enter the city at an angle avoiding the morning rush.
Noting now that much of my planning for this trip was accomplished in a seven day window, the first of my many meals would be a donut showdown that fortuitously came together when a reader of my blog noted she would be in town for Spring Break that weekend and another local messaged me on lthforum suggesting that she too would be interested – the original plan was Do-Rite versus Doughnut Vault, but given my early morning arrival a third contender joined the group, the oft raved “Old Fashioned Donuts” in South Chicago – home to what many consider the best Apple Fritter in the city (and maybe anywhere.)
With the sun just starting to rise in the east as I parked my car at the not-yet-engaged meters I walked into OFD to not surprisingly find two things – a line, and the smell of baked good – and as the only representative of my race in the building I admittedly got a few strange looks from the twenty or so folks there, one of whom was a pastor who gave me a big smile and asked me “first time here?” quickly followed by “You gotta get the Fritter” before shouting to the lady at the register “Get this man a hot fritter” when I returned the smile and said yes.
Waiting patient in the line as the each patron collected his or her bag of, box of, or single donut before making my way to the register I decided that given the variety my best bet would be a half dozen and asking the fatigued and slightly surly lady behind the counter what she recommended I was given the aforementioned Apple Fritter and a Strawberry glazed which were both still hot and a Buttermilk, Plain Glazed, Caramel, Vanilla (dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day,) and Dark Chocolate – a total of $8.50 including a tip and 25 cents for a box – before making my way to the seating area for a taste before our meet-up.
Noting now that the majority of these donuts would be tasted during the showdown, there was simply no way I was passing up a chance to check out the warm options and beginning first with the Strawberry, my childhood favorite from Dunkin, I can say without a doubt that Old Fashioned Donuts are best eaten warm as the yeasty dough was a veritable pillow of sweetness and butter in the fresh state but substantially less memorable at room temperature later on. Moving on to the glaze, both in the warm state and cooled down this was definitely old school frosting, the glazed crisp and sugary, the caramel thick and buttery, and the vanilla and strawberry both sugar-laden textbook examples of their respective flavors. With four yeasted donuts and the other two old-fashioned cake-style I additionally found these dense selections to be textbook examples of their respective genre with a dense crumb and plenty of flavor. While not quite as sublime as the G.O.A.T. buttermilk from Doughnut Vault, a close second and leagues better than Do-Rite in the showdown.
Moving next to the infamous Apple Fritter, quite literally the size of an adult human head and cool enough to hold yet still hot enough to scorch the roof of my mouth due to the molten cinnamon apple interior there really is not much to be said about it that has not already been said – it is sweet and crunchy on the outside, soft and dense on the inside, loaded with both cinnamon and apples, and enough to easily serve a group…or in our case to serve as the best part of a tasting including twenty other deep fried treats and still have enough for leftovers (and to share with a vagrant who clearly figured we had more donuts than was healthy for a trio.)
For the second of our competitors, and for our meeting place, Do-Rite Donuts was selected due to the strong word-of-mouth recommendations and central location…not to mention the LEYE backing and former L2o pastry chef responsible for the shop’s interesting repertoire of small batch deep-fried treats. A small shop – literally a counter, a coffee machine, and three linear racks with fifteen donuts my arrival would precede my companions by perhaps twenty minutes and after stepping in to see the daily choices I opted to wait outside as a steady stream of folks entered and exited with everything from a single donut to several dozen (all the while holding my box from Old Fashioned and thus incurring no less than twenty inquiries as to where I had gotten them, if they were selling them nearby, and in two cases whether I’d be willing to sell them the rest of the already partially eaten fritter.)
With the weather mild and the street busy it would not be long before my colleagues arrived and with introductions made we entered the small shop again and after much debate decided on a half dozen…and then two more plus a couple cups of Dark Matter Coffee because I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity not knowing when or if I would be back. With prices on average more than two-fold the costs of Old Fashioned but ingredients and presentation clearly more important to Do-Rite I will note that true to their word the donuts are baked in small batches and given the heavy traffic it would be a nearly fifteen minute wait before a fresh batch of Buttermilk would be readied to go.
At this point carrying five boxes and a bag of donuts between our group of three and making our way to someplace to indulge it would not be long before we sat down and began our tasting, starting first (logically) with the still-warm Buttermilk Old Fashioned from Do-Rite – a donut that I’d heard much about but found to be less inspiring than the rumors as it was too oily, too sweet, and yet not very ‘toothsome.” It would be the worst old fashioned of the day; a disappointment to be sure. Faring better, the second taste of Do-Rite would be another of their raved selections – the Maple and Bacon which featured a light and textural cruller topped with intensely smoky pork and lightly maple tinged frosting. Having heard some say that they would prefer more maple and less smoke I certainly understand this complaint and to them would suggest a visit to 2 Sparrows, but overall I liked this donut as a savory kick in an otherwise saccharine morning. Moving last to the third unfilled option, Valrhona Chocolate Glazed, I’ll simply say that if you want dessert and you are near Do-Rite (or if you really love dark chocolate) this donut is for you – light, airy, and wispy in the crumb with at least 2oz of dense chocolate ganache atop…even for myself, even when paired with coffee, this was pretty damned decadent as a breakfast item.
For the remaining five options from Do-Rite we would find ourselves confronted with filled options and while the previous three donuts ranged from sub-par to truly decadent this quintet would prove universally impressive, beginning first with the Toasted Coconut Custard (of which I was admittedly skeptical) featuring an impressive amount of rich savory filling and then the slightly less stuffed Boston Cream with Toasted Almond, a rectangular masterpiece with rich cream filling that tasted slightly of frangipane, a pillowy layer of dough, and a far more manageable layer of Valrhona chocolate than the prior option.
Rounding out the order, and in my opinion the three best of the Do-Rite octet, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bullseye featured an airy glazed circle with a strawberry jam core overlying lightly peanut tinged cream – far lighter than expected it was without a doubt the best PB&J themed baked good I’ve ever had. Next delving into the Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting – spot on. Period. Rife with carrots, ginger, and cinnamon. A perfect amount of slightly sour frosting, and a touch of crumbled walnuts. If you like carrot cake just imagine it deep fried and try not to make the Homer Simpson drooling-donut sound. Rounding out the group and a definite case of ‘last but not least’…the St. Patrick’s Day Special Dark Chocolate Donut with a Chocolate Pudding Center, Mint Glaze, and Thin Mint Crumble…just when you thought the Valrhona wasn’t rich enough, yet far more complex in terms of flavor and texture, particularly with regard to the rich pudding – a completely different texture from the custard or the cream and yet another piece of evidence of the considerable skill and creativity on display at Do-Rite.
Moving next to the final contestant in our donut throwdown, Doughnut Vault would make its presence felt and all things being equal the reigning champion would emerge unscathed – the buttermilk old fashioned, Gingerbread Stack, and Vanilla as good as I remembered while the updated chocolate was even more intense than prior replacing the light vanilla glaze with a chocolate one and then gilding the proverbial lily with another layer of chocolate and chocolate sprinkles. Light and airy, nearly melting in the mouth but with just enough resistance to know there is more than just sugar, and loaded with cocoa notes without being too rich – everything you could want from a yeast donut…or at least so I thought…
With my love of both the old-fashioned and the glazed at Doughnut Vault well noted (and promoted) from my prior visit, the final two choices of the morning were two ‘new’ options – one new to me and the other yet another St. Patrick’s Day special – the Chestnut Raised & Glazed and the Bailey’s Irish Cream Old Fashioned, respectively. Starting first with the Chestnut, unavailable during my previous visit because Italian Chestnuts were out of season (yes, really) and replaced with a lovely Pistachio version at that time which had ranked as the best doughnut I’d ever tasted to date I will simply say that much as I prefer the flavor of chestnuts to pistachios I also appreciated them more in donut form – a slight smokiness and savory notes saturating the crisp glaze over an incomparably light and yeasty circle.
Moving finally to the last of day one’s donuts, the Bailey’s Old Fashioned would prove a polarizing choice amongst our group – while my two companions admitted that the texture was every bit as lovely as the ‘standard’ old fashioned cake doughnut they did not like the glaze. For myself – not one who imbibes often but a big fan of sweet coffee, particularly ones spiked with Bailey’s in the right setting – this selection was divine, pairing the subtle notes of the liquor with the sugary glaze over that perfect donut…in the end it was a tough choice for me whether I liked this or the chestnut glazed better, but either way the end result of our tasting could best be summarized as “I don’t always eat donuts, but when I do I prefer Doughnut Vault.”
With the doughnut showdown and two more meals in the rearview I woke up as early as usual on St. Patrick’s Day again with baked goods on my mind and with plans to see the river turn green plus another full eating agenda I breezed through a ten mile run and entered the city from the west en route for Baker and Nosh – a pre-breakfast treat that had recently gotten rave reviews – and with ample parking I grabbed a spot and entered the small bakery just moments after opening to already find a small line and a smell even the most devout Francophile would find enticing, plus a plainly visible kitchen hard at work turning out everything from large loaves of bread to tiny rolls and muffins.
Admittedly quite hungry at this point but with breakfast plans to follow I spent a few moments browsing a collection of locally sourced jams, coffees, and other artisan foods (think Publican Quality Meats or Trotter’s to Go) before making my way to the counter where, unfortunately (or perhaps thankfully) only ten or so breakfast selections were offered, and with at least half savory I spent a few minutes weighing my options before selecting three, handing over $10, and making my way to the car.
Largely eschewing the savory options given my predilection to sweets, my tasting of Baker and Nosh’s wares would be the Butter Croissant – a choice made to weight the standard of the bakery since my usual choice of an almond croissant was not available – and unfortunately while the bakery smelled as good as Paris the croissant wouldn’t have stood up to the version served at an upscale US hotel breakfast buffet – the exterior golden but certainly not shattering to bite and the inside doughy with notes of butter but not much else. It was a tremendous disappointment and unfortunately a sign of things to come as I moved on to the pale Pecan Sticky Bun, a squared off version with nice notes of cinnamon and not overly sweet, but so moist that it almost seemed undercooked – a sort of buttery sponge with occasionally textural variance from the nuts.
Faring better than either the croissant or the sticky bun, my final choice (recommended by the clerk) of a Peach Clafoutis was actually not just good but great with golden edges and a just-set pudding soft center rife with natural sweetness from the peaches and just a touch of butter. Crunchy over creamy and sweet without being overtly so this was the sort of pastry I’d hoped for when I decided to visit Baker and Nosh and paired with a bottle of La Colombe Pure Black it nearly reprieved what was an otherwise sub-par experience and having heard since that the breads and savory items are vastly superior to the sweets I’d consider going back if I lived locally but certainly would not go out of my way to find out as a visitor.
With the Pure Black perhaps the biggest highlight of Baker and Nosh (okay, maybe a tie with the Clafoutis) but ringing in at $3+ for the 12oz bottle I would surprisingly see the 16oz slip tops on sale at both Trotter’s to Go and Publican Quality Meats before our server at Nellcote made me aware that there was now a La Colombe in Chicago – literally just a few blocks from Nellcote – and with the slip top bottles of smooth and chocolatey Corsica tallying only $2.50 with tax my visits would be daily…and once, twice in the same day…with a half dozen to take home, along with a few pounds of Lyon as well.
Admittedly a fan for the better part two years, ever since I first walked in the door of their Philadelphia location in 2010, this La Colombe locations featured a unique design, intelligent and diligent employees, a soundtrack of mild indie rock, and zero pretense. Sure I wish that their cafes had free Wi-Fi but all things being equal I understand why they do not and provided they keep up the high standard I’ve grown to love I hope their expansion continues…besides, if you have a good laptop you can steal an internet signal from the Starbucks across the street.
Getting back to bakeries, against my better judgment a post-breakfast stop on day three would take me back to Floriole, a spot whose hype seemed to outstrip its quality on my first visit even if they were the only space in town to serve a Canele and a place I fully anticipated would wow even less given some of the French pastries I’ve had since – an assumption I was willing to set aside only due to the fact that the Kouign Amann was their pastry of the month.
Arriving early but finding the place jammed packed and sold out of much (including their admittedly good-but-not-great Almond Cream Croissant) I was happy to see that they still had a few of the Breton butter cake left and after dealing with a decidedly rude server who snorted at me “I wouldn’t count on it – you have to get here early” when I asked if any more of the Almond Croissants were due up I made my way to the street to wander DePaul and enjoy…or, as it turns out, to instead try to determine how they figured what I was served to be a proper Kouign Amann as it had minimal layering and little butter flavor but instead just an ample amount of sugar used to caramelize the shell something no more interesting than a hamburger bun. Sure the canele is good and the almond croissant may be the best in Chicago, but given the poor selection, worse customer service, and lack of skill with other French pastry I’ll just exercise my better judgment and stick to doughnuts and cupcakes in the Windy City from now on.
Another donut stop on this visit would prove somewhat impromptu…somewhat in that we had planned to enjoy brunch at Nightwood but given the ever changing nature of the menu, long lines, and pleasant weather they had already sold out of nearly half of the choices when we arrived at 1pm and the other half was simply not the sort of items I go out for breakfast for…aside from the oft raved fresh made donuts…and with my brunch buddy running a bit late en route for our new destination, Publican, I decided to see how the fried-to-order carbs stacked up to the other five stops on the trip; a choice that entailed me taking a seat amongst the hipsters at the bar while I waited patiently to be greeted by one of the unvaryingly busy bartenders.
With the steady stream of beer, fresh squeezed juices, and elaborate mixed drinks finally letting up long enough for the bar staff to catch their breath I was greeted perhaps five minutes after sitting down and explaining that I just wanted two doughnuts to go the bartender almost looked relieved that I didn’t want anything to drink and telling me it would be “about ten minutes – it has been crazy busy this morning” he offered me a coffee while I waited – an offer I accepted but was not charged for and a very nice gesture considering the quality of the brew, a smooth locally roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe – a nicety very much unexpected given the attitude of service at sister restaurant Lula Café.
With donuts in hand and bill paid after one cup of coffee and fifteen minutes at the bar I emerged from Nightwood into the sunny Chicago weather and opting to indulge while the donuts were still warm I started with the $4 Bacon Butterscotch option, a choice I’d heard much about and all things being equal a good option with a nice yeasty rise and ample coating with sweet butterscotch plus smoky bacon but in my opinion a bit too oily – a problem not suffered by the delicious cinnamon sugar doughnut holes included with the order.
Moving next to an even more pricey option, the $5 seasonal “Shamrock shake” option, my fourth St. Patrick’s Day Special of the trip and the most pricey doughnut I’ve ever purchased; in a word it was awesome and in two words, really awesome. Appearing first to be a round yeast donut with copious frosting closer inspection actually revealed it to be a filled doughnut, the interior a light Bailey’s and Peppermint cream, while the topping was actually an amalgam of melted dark Ghirardelli chocolate and Andes mints. Served warm and with a trio of doughnut holes I’d be hard pressed to decide if it was better or worse than the holiday special at Doughnut Vault as they were quite different, but in my opinion in trumped the one at Do-Rite though admittedly at twice the cost and certainly makes me curious as to how the rest of the brunch menu stacks up; something that will require investigation on a later date (at an earlier time.)
For my final bites of Chicago, the decision was made to exit the city in the same way I entered; a long morning run followed by a drive to the south side just as the sun was rising to visit a bakery, this time one called Abundance – a tiny storefront that even with my GPS I drove right past before realizing my error and a place that was surprisingly unheard of by every single one of my local epicurean friends despite its 20+ year history turning out baked goods, sandwiches, soups, and beverages six days a week.
Originally pointed to Abundance by a blog while doing my research on Old Fashioned Donuts my arrival to the small shop would again find me in a less than ideal area but unlike my first destination this one was devoid of customers save for myself. Entering the small shop to the familiar smell of baked goods a set of jingle bells on the door seemed to startle the elderly gentleman behind the counter who was arranging fresh baked donuts and with a big smile he introduced himself as Bill and welcomed me to ‘his’ store – something I would have figured out shortly as there we newspaper clippings featuring his face and his goods decorating the small amount of available wall space not consumed by the pastry cases. A pleasant man who seemed quite interested in why I had a camera and more so how I’d heard about his store we spent a few minutes chatting before he asked me “so, what can I get ya?” and deferring to his recommendations plus a few personal favorites I emerged from the small shop with five items weighing well over a pound for less than $10.
With each item save for one still hot from the oven my tasting would start with the two lightest choices in a pair of yeast raised donuts, one simply glazed and the other chocolate, and much like those from Old Fashioned these were exactly what you would expect from an old-school bakery with a good rise, sugary frosting, and yeasty notes punctuated by a bit of butter. It isn’t reinventing the wheel and it isn’t trying to.
Moving next to a dish heavily promoted by a few bloggers as well as by Bill himself, much like Old Fashioned Donuts, Abundance serves a pretty damned big Apple Fritter and while Bill wouldn’t say it when I jokingly asked (“they’re different”) I’ll tell you right now that I actually preferred the version at Abundance, a half-skateboard length oblong disc chock-full of soft apple chunks and teaming with cinnamon. Served hot but with the lacquer of glaze well set over the golden pastry and heavy without being oily I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this was even a lot of sugar and fat for my gluttonous vacationing self, but with a nearly six hour drive home it was gone before I hit the Ohio border – and leading to a lovely sugar-crash induced nap perhaps thirty minutes after I walked through my door.
Having mentioned five items, another warm indulgence that I ate half of while standing outside the bakery (saving the rest for a post-nap dinner) was the Walnut Apple Bread Pudding, a dense concoction that Bill told me is soaked for nearly 12 hours before being baked in the morning and falling somewhere between pound cake, bread pudding, and a sort of pull-apart quick bread I will simply note that while there was nothing ‘designer’ about this item it was quite perfect in a rustic way – the sort of bread pudding you could just as easily make at home but never do…and probably for the best as (if you’re anything like me) you’d end up eating the whole pan within 48 hours.
With the first four selections sufficiently sweet and uniformly good-to-great, my final selection from Abundance very well may have been the most memorable take-out pastry of the trip; an item titled “Upside down Caramel Cupcake” that came in a plastic clamshell container with a spoon – and for good reason as this was most certainly not your average cupcake. Beginning first with the upside down presentation, my best guess for this delivery was to prevent the cake from tipping over and to facilitate easy application of the glaze, a thick homemade melted caramel that was as buttery as it was sweet and just saline enough to keep it from being overwhelming. Moving next to the cake itself, again atypical for a cupcake and all the better for it, imagine a dense pound cake with even more butter…or for those who’ve been to Maestro’s Steakhouse simply imagine their buttercake served chilled with caramel instead of warm with ice cream – it was good enough that if you really wanted to call it a cupcake it would rank in my top five all time and when placed in the context of everything else at Abundance it really makes me wonder why the tiny shop doesn’t get more attention because as a complete package inclusive of customer service, selection, price, and execution Abundance is an absolute diamond in the rough.