It was a great trip to New Orleans but it turned out that a direct flight back to Columbus was $400 more than a layover in Chicago – or, if I could work things out in time, a two day visit to Chicago before heading back to work. As it turned out things worked out beautifully in that my Aunt drove in to spend a couple days with me and I called up a friend in Chicago who was up for a dinner – and even more so when I called Alinea on a whim to find out that they had a cancellation for the 6pm Tour on the day I would be arriving in Chicago. Hopping off the plane from NOLA just before 2pm I met my aunt without hassle at O’Hare and we drove to our hotel and got checked in. As my Aunt would not be visiting Alinea with us that evening but instead watching the Olympics at the hotel she and I decided to check out a couple of pasty and gourmet food stops prior to dropping me off at Alinea – having been to Chicago a few times in the past year I had a few places in mind and with a few clicks in the GPS we were on our way – our first stop would be Pasticceria Natalina.
Having read previously about Chef Zarzour’s craft and dedication to traditional Italian pastry I have to say I’d been looking forward to this visit for some time – they were closed during our previous trip to Chicago. Arriving just after 3pm we found easy free parking around the corner and made our way into the small shop to find them just baking some fresh items but also with display cases laden with tempting delights. Without belaboring the point I will note that if you plan to take pictures they request you ask first – I found out the hard way when I was scolded by a man behind the counter. Making our (pricey) selections and having them plated for us we made our way to a small bar along the edge where we sat to enjoy.
Beginning first with the Pesche Dolci - a butter pastry rolled in Alchernes liquor and sugar and filled with Yuzu Mango Jelly I was delighted by the peach appearance and the unexpected taste of a sweet sugar mingling with the buttery alcoholic punch of the cookie. While not a fan of Mango, the lemony yuzu flavor was the dominant taste of the filling and the whole dish tasted like a butter cookie meets lemon gelee.
Following the peach we next sampled the Tartufini all Amarena of moist rum hazelnut cake and sour cherry sauce with ground chocolate and the Cuccidatti shortcrust cookie filled with figs, walnuts, currant, honey, orange peel, cinnamon. While my aunt quite liked the Tartufini I personally don’t fancy chocolate with fruit – though I will note the cake was quite tasty. For my tastes the Cuccidatti was much more fitting – it’s beautiful butter crust (like a hard fig Newton) balancing nicely with the impressively aromatic and complex filling – each one of the listed items reaching the tongue and palate with a nice degree of balance.
Settling the bill ($20) I will note that while the desserts were expensive you are certainly paying for care and quality – not an “every day” sort of bakery, but some great tastes you can’t just get at your local corner bakery either. Speaking of places that aren’t your “every day” bakery, our next stop on this short eating trek would be just a few doors down – The Swedish Bakery.
Entering Swedish bakery I will note it looked and felt a lot more like an “every day” bakery than Natalina did – and it had many items that wouldn’t be out of place at such a place either…then again, given their extensive list of both traditional Swedish, French, English, and “American” pastries I’m pretty sure there aren’t too many items they were lacking – they even had a King Cake and Paczkis. Chatting with the friendly server we made a few selections that we planned to save for breakfast the next day and we made our way to the street.
While we did not consume the baked goods until the following day I will note that for myself the results were less than stellar – the Red Velvet Cupcake was rather boring and the frosting was the gritty sugary sort while the carrot cake bite was vastly better, but much more frosting than carrot. My Aunt’s selection, a cream Napoleon (her favorite) was raved about, however, as the “best she’s had in years.” Creamy and light meringue and pastry cream, supple and cake like layers – it was good, but lacked much nuance or texture variation…like most Napoleons to my palate.
Approaching 5pm my Aunt noted that she wanted to grab some actual food – not just desserts but she wanted someplace that didn’t serve beef since it was Ash Wednesday. Realizing we were near Armitage I decided to look up Charlie Trotter’s as I remembered he had a “To Go” store with sandwiches, soups, meats, and other delights in the neighborhood. A few short turns later and we found ourselves parked in the private lot in front of Trotter’s To Go.
Making our way into the impressively large store the first thing that struck me was the wide open kitchen to right – it smelled like honey barbeque, garlic, and a fish tone that I believe was tuna grilling on a long plank. Looking left there was a large wine selection, gourmet cheeses (Humboldt Fog, Truffle Tremor, Midnight Moon most notable to myself,) Pate, Breads, and even a small seating area. Further browsing revealed Christopher Elbow Chocolate, designer salts, Mani Olive Oil, and more esoteric vinegars than I’ve seen anywhere since Napa.
Browsing the prepped foods my aunt quickly identified her entrée – an enormous crab cake that was likely 75% crab, 15% vegetable, and 10% breadcrumbs. Prepared with a quick double sided searing on the hot grill by the store chef the cake was plated and served with a spicy Creole aioli. Taking a small bite I personally loved the crab cake on its own while my Aunt opted for the spicy topping. Crisp yet flaky, meaty yet fibrous – very nice. Alongside the cake my aunt deferred on the mac n’ cheese and instead opted for a savory crouton salad featuring house made butter croutons, ripe super 100 tomatoes, and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette.
Wanting to see what Trotter’s To Go had for dessert we checked out the cakes and cookies and next looked into the chilled case to find a creamy butterscotch pudding and a pair of bread puddings alongside multiple other items. Opting for the Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Bread Pudding with Salted Chocolate Caramel over the Chocolate Marshmallow version we paid the tab and tried a couple bites then with more to follow later and the following day. Creamy and smooth yet thick enough to keep a spoon upright my aunt loved the pudding and compares it favorably to all but the Butterscotch pie at Boulevard in San Francisco for best ever. For myself – I really didn’t expect tons from a pre-made pudding in plastic…but boy was I wrong. Featuring a Bread pudding using day-old soft pretzels for the bread and a salty caramel custard as a binder the dish was subsequently smothered in a creamy bourbon accented caramel and Valrhona chocolate to produce a dish that would not have been out of place at any fine dining establishment – even with Alinea reservations in less than 30 minutes I had trouble stopping at a mere 2 bites (though I was glad I had the following morning when I warmed it up to find it even more spectacular.
Finishing our browsing we departed Trotter’s and made our way to Halsted where I arrived 5 minutes early for the reservation (and 20 minutes before my friend who was caught in traffic) – my Aunt went back to the hotel where she ate her pudding and enjoyed some Olympic Hockey…she still raves about that pudding and the Napoleon the way I do about Alinea.