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/2010/10/28/bread-pudding-pancakes-a-tasty-mystery/) 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.