Friday, January 27, 2012

Doughnut Vault or Dough and Nuts!

The Slow and Savory Review

A few years ago, it was cupcakes.  Beautiful gourmet confections, no longer the stuff of lunch boxes or 2nd grade birthday parties, these little bites of joy were made over, made under, and made to grow the heck up.  And now, the doughnut seems to be headed for that same glitzy bulls eye.

The harbinger of this newest pastry trend in Chicago seems to be The Doughnut Vault, a tiny store front operation right off the brown line in the River North neighborhood.  Open for just over a year, this tiny corridor has already found an obsessive following, or as Brandy referred to them, "The people who put the 'nuts' in the dough.'" 

Relying heavily on internet tools like Twitter and Tumblr to interact with their consumers has resulted in an almost cult like devotion of people prepared for the long haul wait.  This spot has no closing time; they only stay open for as long as the doughnuts are in supply.  Those in the know will line up an hour or so before the doors even open, and those who couldn't make it that early rely on the constant tweets to tell them how many people were more ambitious than they.  On this particular Saturday (Doughnut Vault is closed on Sundays) Brandy joined the line 10 minutes after the doors opened to find 60 people in front of her, and this was on a snowy, freezing cold Chicago morning.  These people knew what they were doing too; most had a thermos of warm coffee clutched in one hand and their phones clutched in the other so that they could be updated on the doughnut's status.  There was one mother/daughter team who would split their time outside with one standing in line for 5 minutes before switching off with the other to sit in a warm car parked just down the street.  Inexplicably, there was also a man who had brought his 3 week old baby with him to stand in line for what must have been an hour in the snow.  Every time someone emerged from the store, clutching their unassuming brown boxes, stares of hatred and dread would follow them from those still in line.  "These must be pretty fabulous doughnuts!" Brandy thought to herself as she shivered and jumped from one foot to the other to keep them off the frigid ground.

Once inside the building, Brandy realized the reason for the line outside, which was that these was almost no room to this little place.  It was quite literally a windowless stone corridor with maybe enough room for 6 people, not even enough room for a table and chairs, just a counter at one end and a coffee bar to the side.  A lovely chandelier hung from the low ceiling over a turn of the century cash register and a sign that declared "Cash Only."  A cheerful girl was quickly filling orders for people as they stepped one by one up to the counter, shouting the flavors as she went so that everyone within ear shot should have no excuse for not knowing what was on offer once they'd reached the front.  On this particular day, Doughnut Vault's regular menu of 5 different kinds of doughnuts (and coffee for $1) was supplemented by 2 special flavors, so after 45 minutes of waiting for these miraculous rings of fried dough, Brandy simply said to the girl "One of each," and apparently was lucky to get all of them, for the people behind her were over heard telling the crowd outside that they had gotten the last of one of the daily specials.

Once she got them home (at about 11:30, which is exactly when the tweet came in that they had completely sold out for the day, two hours after opening), Brandy was able to defrost herself and enjoy them properly.  There was definitely something for everyone in the mix, from gigantic fluffy yeast doughnuts to old fashioned buttermilk to moist cake.  $19 bought 9 doughnuts all together, which does seem a little pricey on the surface, but when taken into consideration the doughnuts size and quality, could be forgiven slightly.

Brandy started in with the enormous yeast doughnuts, which came in vanilla, chocolate, chestnut, and one of the specials of the day, pistachio.  The texture of the doughnuts was nice, with more chew than Brandy was expecting.  The vanilla and chocolate were pleasant enough, but not particularly special.  The chestnut had a nice buttery note to it, and Brandy liked that such an unusual flavor was one of their regular choices.  The pistachio was probably the most flavorful, with the toasted coconut topping making for a nice touch.

Next was the Old Fashioned, a crunchy, cakey doughnut made with buttermilk and topped with vanilla glaze.  This was probably Brandy's favorite of the bunch because of the crisp outside and doughy inside.  The glaze wasn't too sweet, with the vanilla flavor came through as a very subtle flowery aftertaste.  Brandy decided to pop this one in the microwave for 30 seconds or so, which made all the difference.

The second special of the day was the Birthday Cake, a yellow cake doughnut with vanilla frosting and sprinkles both on the outside and inside.  Brandy couldn't help smiling at the little bursts of color inside the cake, and liked that the doughnut wasn't too heavy, as some cake doughnuts can be.

Lastly was the Gingerbread Stack, a trio of smaller cakey gingerbread doughnuts sold at the same price as the singular larger ones.  Brandy found them to have quite a good deal of spice to them, with a little warmth from the cinnamon lingering on the tongue long after the doughnut was gone.  The sugar coating on the outside did help to balance out the spice, and Brandy of course enjoyed sucking it off her fingers, though she nearly choked when a bit of her nail polish came with it.

In the end, Brandy came to the conclusion that if these doughnuts had been served to her in a nice, sit down cafe with a little coffee drink, she might have enjoyed them more, but with the circumstances as they were, she would probably not suffer through the same kind of experience again.  The best she can hope for is that the lovely people who make and serve these nice confections eventually gather enough money for a calmer, bigger, and more adaptable environment.

The Short and Sweet Review

The Doughnut Vault on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 20, 2012

Julius Meinl or Good Morning Vienna

The Slow and Savory Review

A few weeks ago we discussed Brandy's fear of the Dutch, but today we speak of her love for Austria, or specifically one particular Austrian.  Once in her youth, Brandy fell head over heals for a strikingly handsome mathematician one summer when she was traveling through Austria.  She even went so far as to take a job as a beer wench in a local pub, just so she could watch him sip his afternoon beer while trying to solve Fermat's Second To Last Theorem.  Day after day he would puff away on his pipe, resting the the leather elbow patches of his tweed coat delicately on the table as he scribbled this integer and that numerator before inevitably crossing everything out in a big black blob of frustration.  Brandy watched this for a good three months straight before finally deciding to talk to him and discovering he didn't speak the tiniest bit of English, and as her Austrian wasn't exactly up to par (there is a rumor that Brandy could have spoken to him in his mother tongue quite fluently, but at the time she was spying for the British government and her fluency might have blown her cover) the romance was doomed to fail.

Regardless of that little hiccup, Brandy has since then acquired a great love of Austrian food, which is what brought her this week to Julius Meinl on Southport.  The simple, classic interior was enough to put her at ease almost at once, and the soft classical music mixed with the tiny tinkle of silverware only helped to intensify the European coffee house feeling.  A variety of tables were to be had, from booths and single chairs to sweet little comforters and couches, all nicely spread out across the room.  A slightly stand-offish waiter dropped off a menu (Brandy supposed to herself that the waiter's demeanor somehow brought even more of a European feel to the place). 

Despite Julius Meinl's famed coffee, Brandy picked a lovely white tea called Silver Cloud for her beverage.  Brought on a tray with all the implements needed, including a small ginger snap cookie, the tea was very light and fruity, with a soft feeling on the tongue and a sort of caramelly finish.  If the morning had been colder, Brandy might have longed for something more full bodied, but on an unusually warm winter's day like that one, the lightness of the tea was more appreciated.

To start, Brandy ordered a raspberry Danish, which she was delighted to see came to the table hot.  Though the pastry was buttery and flaky, she was dismayed to see a severe lack of jam in the confection. 
As her main course, Brandy chose baked eggs over a Rösti potato pancake with caramelized onions, Parmesan cheese, and truffle oil.  The dish had been topped with chopped chives, the scent of which wafted up to Brandy's nose in the most enticing way.  The cheese and truffle oil lent a wonderful earthiness to the richness of the eggs, which were incredibly soft.  Brandy marveled at how the yolks were perfectly cooked, having a texture like the finest velvet.  The shredded potatoes on the bottom of the dish remained crunchy, tasting like a much more sophisticated version of hash browns.  On the side, Brandy chose a slice of brioche toast, which came served with fresh strawberry jam.  Brandy liked the choice of brioche for her toast, as it was more delicate and less crusty than a piece of white or wheat.

Although no good looking mathematicians were in sight, Brandy couldn't help but smile while finishing the last of her tea.  By the end of the meal, even the grumpy waiter seemed to have lightened his mood as he dropped off the check.  Not even $20 for tea, a pastry, and an entree can't be beat in terms of value.  Brandy was very glad to have found this little piece of Vienna so close to home, and even gladder to find that there is more than coffee to Julius Meinl.

The Short and Sweet Review
Julius Meinl Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chant or Ziggy Stardust meets Bloody Mary

The Slow and Savory Review

And now, a quick story to preface Brandy's adventure this week:
It was a balmy summer day in London in 1967 when Brandy ventured into a local record shop to purchase a vinyl copy (as indeed all music was vinyl in those days) of Mozart's Greatest Hits when she quite literally ran into a well dressed young man with shaggy blond hair. 

"Pardon me, Madam," the young gentleman said as he side-stepped Brandy in order to browse through a collection of Anthony Newley soundtracks.  Brandy noticed a few flecks of glitter on the man's otherwise perfectly shined shoes. 

"You've got stardust on your loafers there, fella" Brandy pointed out to him, not sure if this was the new thing for the young and hip to do, or if the gentleman had simply trodden in an arts and crafts project. 

The young man smiled at her with all the charm he could muster and said cryptically, "I've been experimenting with a new look."

Brandy pulled a packet of cigarettes from her coat pocket (no one thought twice about smoking indoors in those days) and the young man eyed it hungrily. "Could I bum one of those?" he asked sheepishly. 

Brandy studied him for a minute, but didn't wish to seem up hip around the young.  "A ciggy for you, stardust," she said, handing him the thinnest one in the pack.  He nodded his head in thanks and went back to exploring the stacks of record albums.

A few years later when Brandy was once again in that same record shop (this time in search of The Best of Puccini), she noticed an album in the window entitled "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust" by some young man with shaggy blond hair named David Bowie.

Now knowing the face of David Bowie rather well, Brandy was surprised to see it show up on a flier for a brunch at Chant in Hyde Park, an event she as well as friends Biscuit and Birdie Brown had been invited to by new head chef Chris Hora.  Previously known mainly for Asian fusion dishes (as indeed the slightly industrial decor still strongly referred to this Asian influence), Chef Hora has decided to take Chant into a more eclectic space, with emphasis on "farm to table" sustainable, organic dining.  So what did The Thin White Duke himself have to do with all of this?  "It's his birthday," Brandy informed the table, "And he's a bit eclectic too, I suppose."

The table started off with a round of drinks.  Biscuit and Birdie settled themselves with a pair of Bloody Mary's (Chef Hora pointed out that he makes his own tomato juice for the cocktails, as well as infusing the vodka with cilantro), with Birdie getting his extra spicy, and Biscuit choosing the very non-vegetarian "Bloody Bull," a traditional Bloody Mary with an infusion of liquid beef gelatin.  Both were very flavorful and fresh, but the Bloody Bull was definitely the more interesting of the two, with the beef flavor permeating the drink and creating a more unctuous mouth feel.  "It's like a steak dinner in a glass," Biscuit said cheerily, while Birdie eyed her glass with envy.  Brandy chose the more traditional mimosa.  While it was lovely, bright, and well balanced, Brandy couldn't help wishing for some more interesting twist on this brunch favorite to go along with the "Bull Ride," as Biscuit called it.

For starters, the table split an order of Five Spice Sweet Potato Pancakes, which came served with a vanilla whipped cream.  The pancakes had the perfect kind of texture, with a nice crispness on the outside and a creamy inside.  The spices insured that the cakes weren't too sweet, but didn't overpower the delicate cream on the side.  Brandy wondered at this being the only sweet option available for brunch, until she found out about the dessert menu.  More on that later.

Upon hearing about the special of the day, which was roasted asparagus topped by an over easy egg and hollandaise sauce, Brandy insisted on trying it.  The hollandaise was lovely and buttery, which went very well with the crisp vegetation.  The table had to fall to scraping the plate with their forks to collect all of the delicious sauce, as there was nothing to sop it up with.

For his entree, Birdie chose a twist on a benedict, with red peppers, spinach, bacon, and topped with more of the same lovely hollandaise, which this time had been mixed with a bit of sriracha.  The dish wasn't quite as spicy as Birdie would have expected, but he said he did enjoy the touch of vinegar the sriracha lent to the sauce.  The peppers blended nicely with the other flavors, not over powering them as peppers can sometimes do, and the bacon stayed perfectly crispy.  Chef Hora explained to Birdie that this was because the bacon had been cut from the cheek of the pig, and had only been salted and air dried.  "I was air dried once in the war.  Hung out in the elements on a clothes line for nigh on three weeks before I managed to wriggle myself free.  I felt pretty crispy too," said Birdie.  Silence descended on the table.

Biscuit chose the Angry Shrimp Omelet ("Are angry shrimp like those angry birds I've heard people talking about?" she asked the cheerful waitress) with a side of house potatoes.  The shrimp's anger seemed to come from a flavorful spice rub, which while packing plenty of punch, didn't kill the taste buds.  The veggies inside the omelet had a nice tangy bite to them, but according to Biscuit, they were nothing compared to the potatoes.  Sliced into rounds, the potatoes were pleasantly soft with an unidentifiable Asian flavor to them that Biscuit really enjoyed.

Brandy opted for the Lettuce Cups, a sort of nontraditional choice for brunch.  "I guess I'm just a Rebel Rebel!  Hu?"  Brandy said, but upon realizing her table mates didn't know David Bowie's back catalogue as well as she did, she quickly dove into her second mimosa.  Though a little messy, the cups, which were filled with ground turkey, bean thread noodles, and assorted veggies, were quite flavorful and refreshing.  Brandy thought to herself that she wouldn't mind snacking on these on a hot summer morning, but with how warm this winter has been it wouldn't have made much of a difference.

Just when they thought they were stuffed, Chef Hora (who Brandy noted was a bit of a "rocker" himself) insisted they try one of his desserts.  After much hemming and hawing over the delectable sounding choices, Birdie declared the winner to be the Chocolate Fondant Cake, which came with a berry anglaise and a sesame twill.  The cake was unbelievably creamy and light, tasting almost like a mousse rather than a cake. The anglaise, made with white raspberries and blueberries among other things, provided a wonderful tartness, and the sesame twill was a delightful bit of crunch in an otherwise soft and supple dessert.

All in all, a wonderful way to spend a birthday, even if it was for someone who was only present in the music being played.  Most plates ranged around $10, which for decent sized portions and genuine quality from a knowledgeable chef, isn't a bad deal at all.  And just in case you were wondering if Brandy ever spoke to Mr. Bowie again, let's just say this: in cockney rhyming slang, "China" means "old friend," which perhaps is why Brandy has always favored the song "China Girl."

The Short and Sweet Review

Chant on Urbanspoon
* The writers of this blog were provided with a free meal from this restaurant in exchange for a review.  The opinions of the writers' were not effected by this transaction.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Postcard from Bunny: Macy's Seven on State Edition

Greetings Dearies and happy 2012!  While Brandy was away at the International Clogging Convention, Bunny thought she would provide you all with a light bit of holiday entertainment.  As she spent Christmas this year in Mongolia, Bunny found herself longing for the traditional trappings and wrappings of a Western Christmas, especially one in Chicago. 

Like all of us Bunny has a long list of traditions that must be completed in order for things to feel appropriately Christmasy, and one of those things is spending a day at Macy's on State Street, wondering at the windows, browsing for winter wear, and such.  A long day of shopping can definitely give one an appetite, and luckily part of Bunny's tradition is a good hearty lunch at the very same store.  A lot of casual shoppers my not realize that there are some pretty tasty and unusual food choices to be found at this particular Macy's, some of which go back to the days of Marshall Fields.

The most famous and popular of these foodie favorites is probably The Walnut Room, a stunning rotunda sit down restaurant that serves American classics, like their century old recipe for Chicken Pot Pie.  For many Chicago families, a Christmas lunch at The Walnut Room is an absolute must, meaning long waits and over crowding, which is why Bunny opts for the often over looked Seven on State, a sort of upscale food court (for those looking for a simple snack, the more traditional food court can be found on the lower level).

Along with plane Jane choices such as soups, sandwiches, and salads, more adventurous eaters will find gourmet picks from some of the finest chefs of today, such as Frontera Fresco (Rick Bayless), Noodles (Takashi Yagiahashi), and Marc Burger (Marcus Samuelsson)

Noodles by Takashi offers an abbreviated version of one of Bunny and Brandy's favorite restaurants with crowd pleasing munchies like spring rolls as well as huge bowls of warm and filling ramen noodles.  Bunny's particular favorite is the Mushroom and Tofu, an earthy bowl of veggies and tender noodles that will give you the energy to keep on shopping without feeling heavy.  She also loves the pot stickers, a pork filled dumpling served beautifully crisp with a small salad of butter lettuce and pickled cabbage.  Getting these little bites is a wonderful idea if you're sharing with other hungry shoppers.

There's also Marc Burger, the perfect choice for someone looking for something both comforting and familiar, yet exotic.  Traditional burgers, fries, shakes, and other such fast food fair is given a nice little gourmet twist, such as the Grilled Chicken Sandwich with spicy avocado mayo, the Garlic Fries with cracked black pepper, or the ever popular Chocolate Shake with real whipped cream.

Just towards the end of her shopping excursion, Bunny always makes sure to stop by the downstairs candy counter; a sweet wonderland filled with everything from the penny candies of Bunny's youth to gourmet truffles.  The newest addition to this palace of sugar is the Fudge Counter; unique flavors of fresh fudge, made daily right at the store.  Huge blocks of the sweet stuff can be found in the case, or pre-cut and packaged little chunks can be purchased quickly for those who can't wait to try one of the exciting flavors.  Upon hearing of this newest bauble on Macy's candy tree, Bunny expressed a desire to sample the Cookies and Cream, Red Velvet, and Chocolate Raspberry flavors.

We hope that Bunny's insights into the food at Macy's on State Street will help many a weary shopper looking for after Christmas sales this year.  From all of us at Bunny and Brandy's Brunchtime Blog, we wish you the happiest of New Year's!  Next week, Brandy will resume her normal duties and take us all with her to the first fabulous brunch of 2012!