Here’s a snapshot of the StarChefs tasting diet: For 24 hours in Chicago, we consumed nothing but pastries and cocktails (and a whole lot of water). That’s 12 desserts, eight cocktails, and God knows know many grams of sugar. On our second trip alone, we ate 36 sweets with six pastry chefs—on top of savory and mixology tastings. And we licked our plates clean. The Chicago pastry scene is the most exciting in the country. It’s that good.
From the ashes of the recession, a group of talented, young pastry chefs is dominating the Windy City’s sweet side. This is the wild Midwest, after all, and these young guns of pastry are running the town with torches, offset spatulas, and foam guns.
With great expectations comes great responsibility. And the litmus test of dessert quality in this town is chocolate. Chocolate desserts may have popular appeal, but we’ve eaten too many sweet, über-rich bombs to not be wary of menu items with chocolate in their titles. But sticky-sweet landmines were few and far between in Chi-Town. Instead, we ate balanced chocolate desserts with splashes of acidity and refreshing herbal notes.
Chocolate wasn’t the only star of our tastings. A recurring trend we’re noticing in the colder moths is the use of bread in desserts. We ate crunchy gingerbread and fruitcake croutons, an apple cake reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing, and gingerbread pan de mie. More on the savory side, Pastry Chef Greg Mosko of North Pond plated quenelles of ice cream and sorbet atop pumpernickel crumbs and a salt and pepper streusel. More than mere fillers, the bread enhanced the flavor and overall composition of the dish
Salt, it seemed, was on every pastry chefs’ list of essential ingredients, highlighting other savory elements such goat cheese, fennel, thyme, chicory, Thai chili, and Vadouvan curry. In one dessert alone, Pastry Chef Bryce Caron of Custom House Tavern served us polenta, corn, and cilantro in his Warm Polenta Cake, Mission Figs, Local Blueberries, and Sweet Corn Custard. These unexpected, decidedly unsweetened flavors kept our palates piqued and sugar-fatigue-free.
As much as we crave the unusual, a number of desserts took us back to very familiar places and times. Chocolate Buttermilk Cake, Mint White Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Sauce, Milk Ice, and Peppermint Patty from Pastry Chef Rochelle DuBridge of Vie in Western Springs, was a sophisticated take on the Yodels of our childhood. We ate a nostalgic, modern take on carrot cake—Pan-fried Carrot Cake, Pineapple, Walnut and Cream Cheese Ice Cream—from Pastry Chef Hillary Blanchard of one sixtyblue and a Caramel Pot de Crème, Cafe Dolce Sauce, and Meyer Lemon Confit served in a flip-top mason jar from Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman of The Bristol. Chicago snowfall didn’t stop us from slurping ice cream treats like Pastry Chef Toni Robert’s Eggnog Toffee Shake at C-House and Pastry Chef Kate Neumann’s Cider Sorbet, Pumpkin Ice Cream, Caramel and Gingerbread Crumble—a winter ice cream sundae—at Lula Café. Our favorite desserts never tasted so good.
In a scene this vibrant, it takes more than delicious pastry to stand out. Pastry Chef Meg Galus (wo)mans the pastry kitchen at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel. She oversees desserts for restaurant service, room service, banquets, and weddings—all while keeping her eye on the bottom line. Pastry Chef Stephanie Prida of Ria has the same role at the Elysian Hotel. And after five years of selling pastries from a stand at Chicago’s greenmarket, Pastry Chef Sandra Holl opened her own bakery, Floriole, in Lincoln Park.
Superwomen and sugar highs notwithstanding, Chicago’s savory and drink scenes are no less exciting. We enjoyed dishes of hot and sour soup, foie gras, duck wings, and goat steak in equal measure and washed down our meals with intoxicatingly delicious cocktails and spot-on wine pairings. It’s pastry, though, that wooed and wowed us. Whether you want your desserts high-concept, comforting, locally inspired, exotic, chocolaty, or savory, you’re bound to satisfy your sweet tooth in Chicago with any number of perfectly executed, beautiful, and—best of all—mmm-inducing pastry. In the midst of an industry that’s slowly returning to good health, Chicago is on fire, and after three trips we’re burning with pleasure.
We’ll report more on the Chicago dining scene in upcoming issues of the Dishrag. As always, we would love to hear from you! Find StarChefs.com on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, and keep up with me on Foursquare to stay posted on where I’m going and what I’m eating.