By Robert St. John
Some men dream of playing the back nine at Pebble Beach. Others dream of bagging that big buck or landing a record snapper. I dream of restaurants.
Restaurants are my livelihood. Though restaurants are also my hobby. It’s been that way since I entered this business 40 years ago. Seemingly from the first shift on the first day at the first restaurant. I was hooked. I spent all my spare time studying restaurants in trade magazines at the library and spent all my spare money— to the extent that there was any—dining out and trying to absorb everything I could about this industry. Nothing much has changed in the past 40 years.
My time when traveling out of town is spent on research and development visiting other restaurants and concepts. I’ve been in a serious bakery mindset for the past few years. Last week in Chicago, travelling with New South Restaurant Group COO, Jarred Patterson, and James Beard Award winning pastry chef and cookbook author, Martha Foose, my mind turned to bakeries. I wanted to visit all the best bakeries Chicago had to offer. We plotted a course of 13 bakeries and hired a car for a four-hour stint from 8:30am-12:30pm. Three restaurant junkies, one driver, four hours, and 13 bakeries. It would be a test of will, endurance, gluten tolerance, and expanding waistlines.
Our first stop was a bakery that I won’t name (because I am about to be critical, and I have a 22-year record of never going negative in this column). But I will say that the bakery was just a block from our hotel, and I am a longtime fan of one of their other concepts. The place looked great. I ordered a croissant. I figured that would be the universal pastry that we would use to judge all these bakeries.
It should be noted that I like a croissant popped in an oven for about a minute to lightly heat it. They do it at my favorite bakery in New Orleans, La Boulangerie, and almost every other bakery outside of Chicago I have ever visited. The counter staff, who suffered from a heavy case of hipster indifference seemed bothered by the extra step. The croissant came out burned and so I paid for another, which wasn’t burned but Foose suspected had been cooked the previous day.
They also didn’t have any juice. I’m not a coffee drinker. I know. It’s unfortunate. I love the smell of coffee, I love the thought of coffee, and I love the atmosphere and mood that surrounds coffee. I just don’t like the taste of coffee. Not a great trait when you’re on a bakery hunt in a city that loves coffee. No sweat, I can drink water, but I can’t stand hipster indifference in a service staff. This place ranked a 9.7 on the hipster indifference scale.
The next stop was, Aya, a small, cute little bakery on Grand Avenue. Like the physical plant, the selection was small. We ordered a plain croissant, a sausage-maple croissant, a ham and cheese croissant, and a cherry cream bun. The staff was friendly, and the croissants were good.
Stop number three was the West Town bakery. They had very friendly service. The main room looks like a converted diner from a few years ago. We ordered a plain croissant, a ham and cheese croissant, quiche Lorraine, and an oatmeal raisin cookie. We were told this was the home of the best chocolate chip cookie in Chicago, but they were 86’d, so we ordered the oatmeal raisin.
We were zero for three on fruit juice at that point. I think it’s very apparent that Chicagoans are fond of coffee with their bakery items, as they should be. Though it makes it a little rough on a non-coffee drinker. I downed a Red Bull as I was already starting to get full, with nine bakeries to go.
There were a couple of bakeries on our to-do list that were closed on Tuesdays. So ,the list of 13 was reduced. Even that early in, I was grateful for the abridged amount of breadstuff.
Vanille bakery was the best of the early bunch. We ordered a plain croissant, a ham and cheddar croissant, a spinach and ricotta croissant, and what was called the “house specialty”— an apple and almond croissant. Still no fruit juice. It was a quaint, French-inspired bakery, and we had a nice visit. They were very very friendly, and we were already very very full, with more than a half dozen to go.
The lady behind the Vanille counter— unsolicited— asked if we would like some of the pastries heated. The answer was obviously “yes.” She put the ham and cheese, the spinach and the plain croissant in the oven, and even pulled the plain croissant out early so it wouldn’t get over toasted. Solid move, there. It made me forget how full I already was, if only for a minute.
Next up was La Fournette just down the street from Second City. The service was stellar. I ordered a plain croissant, a chocolate croissant, a cheese Danish, a blueberry Danish, a hazelnut pistachio pastry, and a hazelnut beignet.
La Fournette was— by far— the best bakery of the early bunch. Five bakeries in and we had found a winner. Our driver Salam even got out of the car and had a couple of croissants.
Next on the list was Hendrix, a Belgian bakery. We only ordered a plain croissant and an apple turnover. The apple turnover was excellent. They make everything by hand and don’t use of sheeter when making croissants. That must be tough. It was a very nice, small, out-of-the-way bakery just off Michigan Avenue, with very friendly people
I was completely full at that point. It was obvious that I was out of marathon-eating shape. Foose asked for apricot jam with her croissant. It was perfect.
On the way to the next stop, we passed a sidewalk bakery vending machine. We watched a few people insert credit cards and pullout cookies and brownies. We didn’t eat anything because there were no croissants. But we decided to claim it as a visit.
The Goddess and the Baker wasn’t on the original list, but we popped in to check it out. It was a fun space. They were busy. We gathered a lot of ideas but didn’t order any pastries. I made a note to return in the future.
We passed and Eataly on the way and popped in for just a second just to check out both of their bakery sections. Impressive, as always.
It was 11:30 a.m. and we were all ready for a nap. “We’re gluttons for gluten,” said Foose.
“I’m not full. I just feel bad,” said Patterson.
Next up was Ann Sather, a place with a reputation for cinnamon rolls. The original plan had broken down by this point and we opted out of croissants and ordered a cinnamon roll and pecan sticky bun. Foose called it “Croissant PTSD.” Patterson passed. Foose ate a bite each, and I threw cinnamon roll decorum aside and went straight for the center bite. They were both good, but I knew the sugar content was going to make me crash even harder in the next few minutes
It was around that time that I announced to the team, “I am having trouble walking upright.”
The next bakery was Sweet Bean where we ate an egg-custard-raisin bun, a pork floss bun, a cheese topped hotdog bun, and a custard cream puff. I could have taken a nap on the floor.
We ended the journey in Chinatown at Tours les Jours. It was excellent, though I can’t remember what we ordered, and my notes say nothing as I was in a croissant coma at that point. What I do know is that we should have started the journey where we ended and worked backwards.
I’ve eaten croissants all over France and Italy (where they call them “cornetto” or in Northern and Central Italy, “brioche”), and I have yet to find any better that La Boulangerie in New Orleans or the shuttered French bakery, C’est la Vie, in my hometown.
We skipped lunch but ate dinner at five different restaurants that evening. I’m not kidding. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to chew it.
Mushroom Stuffed Pastry
If you’re able to find other exotic mushrooms, feel free to substitute your favorites. These freeze well, but make sure to wrap them tightly.
2 Tbl butter
1 /2 pound fresh mushrooms- button, portobello and shitake recommended
1 /2 cup onion, minced
1 /4 cup shallot, minced
1 tsp Garlic, minced
1 tsp poultry seasoning, page xxx
1 /2 tsp salt
1 /8 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 /2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 /4 cup port wine
1 /4 cup goat cheese
1 Tbl fresh parsley, chopped
1 recipe cream cheese pastry
In a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Sauté mushrooms, onion, shallot, garlic, poultry seasoning and salt for six to seven minutes. Add black pepper, thyme, rosemary and port wine cooking until all liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and blend in goat cheese and parsley. Cool mixture completely.
Roll out the prepared pastry to 1/8-inch thickness.
Using a round cookie cutter, cut dough into 2 1 /2-inch circles. Place 1-1 1/ 2 teaspoon of filling onto center of the dough circle. Using fingers, pinch the edges in an upward direction, forming a small, half-moon shaped tartlet. Place on baking sheet and freeze (These must be cooked from a frozen state).
If preparing well in advance, the pastries can be placed in a Zip-loc bag after frozen and held for 1-2 months in the freezer.
To bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until pastry is golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield 30-35 pastries
Easy to work with, yet delicate. Possibly the most versatile pastry going. Holds for four or five days in the refrigerator, freezes well, fries well. Works great in sweet and savory applications. Overall, a damn good pastry.
1 cup softened butter
1-8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 /2 tsp salt
2 cups flour
By hand, or using a paddle attachment on an electric mixer, combine all ingredients to form a soft dough. Do not overmix.
Wrap the dough well and refrigerate 10-12 hours before using.
When ready to use, remove dough from refrigerator and allow it to sit at room temperature 10-15 minutes before using.
Yield: 35-40 small pastries, or 2 pie crusts (top and bottom)
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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