Saturday, 17 October 2015

Toni Patisserie & Café, East Washington, Chicago – this is the best 'caff' in the world

I think I've found it. The best café in the world. The place I've been looking for, but haven't found... until now. And I had to travel across the Atlantic to find it. In the Windy City of all places. The last time I found myself wandering around this great city, I thought Corner Bakery outlets were the first, the last, the everything Chicago offered, but boy was I mistaken. Corner Bakery shops are everywhere in the Windy City, but Toni Patisserie & Café? There's only one of them to the best of my knowledge and while the place looks as if it's been around for decades and might even have been in situ during Al Capone's era, it turns out I was mistaken. According to the owner, whose wife is called Toni and it is she who makes all the wonderful cakes and pastries that are displayed behind the glass counters, the café's only been around for the last four years.

I could tell from the outside that this was the best 'caff' in the world...
It has a distinct French feel about it. There are marble-topped tables and wooden floors, a long glass counter behind which can be found blackboards, high up on the back wall, advertising what's on offer. There are specials too, like cream of brocolli soup, cream of mushroom soup, pumpkin roulade (for dessert) and so on. It's also licensed. Now I know that traditionally that would be breaking the rules of this website, but rules are there to be broken. It is licensed and that's what gives this place it's quirkiness. The wine, for instance, doesn't come in a wine glass but a small glass beaker and the portions – if that's a word one can use for wine – are huge. A small beaker of Pinot Noir is a fair bit larger than a 250ml glass, I can tell you.
A decent-sized glass of Pinot Noir...

I knew immediately I saw this place that it was going to be good. I saw it after it had closed on a Sunday evening around 6.30pm. I'd arrived early for a drinks reception at the cultural centre across the street and decided that I'd look around for somewhere to relax with a cup of tea before going back to the venue for the reception. I saw Toni Patisserie & Café and immediately thought: this is the place. This is THE place! The exterior looked right, the interior had something about it and I vowed to return.

And return I did. The first great thing about Toni's is that you place your order at the counter, take a small metal stand with some kind of message that must say to the waitress 'this person has ordered these items' and you find a seat and wait. So, I checked out the specials board and saw mushroom soup. I know that earlier I'd said 'cream of' but it was mushroom soup. Then I ordered a Le Cubain sandwich containing roasted pork, premium ham, cornichon, Dijon mustard and garlic aioli on a French roll. I followed this up with a glass of the Pinot Noir and took my seat.

The food was wonderful. Tremendous even. But this wasn't a meal, of course, it was a snack. A roll with a bowl of soup and, rather quirkily, instead of a mug of tea, a glass of wine. Perfect. This strange, not strange, but quirky place was a café in the true sense of the word and it was filled with normal people enjoying their lunch break. Ordinary people in other words. Office workers.

Mushroom soup, a Le Cubain and a Pinot Noir...
The soup was thick and tasty and the roll was simply amazing. Flavoursome. That's how I'd describe this place, it was flavoursome in the extreme. I loved it. I loved it so much that I decided to order some more. I chose a cup of English Breakfast tea and a chcolate chip walnut cookie. The tea arrived in a huge mug – absolutely perfect for me and a great counter weight to that Pinot Noir. The cookie too was to die for and for the tea and the cookie I paid $6 in cash, having already paid a perfectly reasonable $26.
Chocolate chip walnut cookie and tea

In fact, I loved Toni's so much that on my last day in Chicago, having checked out of my hotel and taken an architectural river cruise along the Chicago River, I went back there. Once again it was bustling. Toni's is never going to be empty. In fact they have a mix of tables here, some are tall and round and seat two, in fact I think most of the tables tend to seat two, but then there's also a big table that people can share and a few slightly larger and lower round tables that would seat four comfortably. On my second visit I shared the big table and got chatting to two women who, like me, and I guess everybody else, including to Chicago cops who turned up on mountain bikes, love this place.

Now you might have thought that on my second visit I'd choose something different, but I loved that Le Cubain so much I ordered it again, but this time I had two Pinot Noirs and for a starter I had cream of brocolli soup, or perhaps it was just brocolli soup. Both the soup and the Le Cubain were, as I suspected, wonderful. The wine was good too and, for good measure, I ordered English Breakfast tea and a chocolate pastry that was also out of this world.

I might have started reading my book, I can't remember. I certainly flicked through a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which I left there. I even managed a brief chat with the owner, Toni's husband, but I'm not sure I saw Toni herself.
Some of the excellent cakes and pastries on offer at Toni's
This really was a friendly place offering great food and great value. Everybody seemed happy and why not? This place was, in my opinion, the best 'caff' in town, if not in the world. It ticked all the boxes so, for now, it's the Teashop and Caff Best Caff in the World... until somebody comes up with something better. Now that, my friends, will be a tough call.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, Chicago, USA

This chameleon-like operation changes throughout the day. One minute it's a coffee shop and the next it's a bar. Located in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, a big 'corporate' affair, it a pretty good place.
Tasty, tasty, very, very tasty, it's very tasty

I'd arrived early and needed some breakfast so I checked out the menu and got stuck in. In fact I'd go as far as to say that I enjoyed a really decent mug of tea – which makes a change – and then I had a choice: a Breakfast Piglet (smoked honey ham, fried egg, Wisconsin cheddar, bacon, onion, jam and roasted garlic) OR a Sun-dried tomato and basil panini with a side order of strawberries and blueberries. The Breakfast Piglet was also a panini, although, really they were both toasted sandwiches, which I suppose is what a panini is, but in my book they were both toasted, crusty bread sandwiches.

I opted for the healthier of the two options, the sun-dried tomato and basil sandwich, and, to be honest, I wasn't too impressed by the name Breakfast Piglet as I had visions of the staff going out back and slaughtering a baby pig and then bringing it to me on a plate with an apple in it's mouth. My order arrived in one of those takeaway containers (odd when you consider that they'd offered me the choice of a paper cup or a proper mug for my tea – and I chose the latter – but gave me a takeaway container for my food order. It didn't matter.

The sandwich was tremendous. Very tasty. I could have eaten another one. The tea was the best I'd experienced on this trip to Chicago, so top marks to the The Bar at the Fairmont Hotel, although where I got that name from I don't know, probably the receipt. The bill, incidentally, was $11.60 and the sandwich set me back $8.00. The tea was $2.60.

Peet's Coffee & Tea, 20 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, USA

With half an hour to kill before an evening appointment I looked around for somewhere to sit and enjoy a cup of tea. I wandered into a Starbucks where I met an English woman who seemed glad to hear an English accent. She directed to me to another Starbucks as the one I was standing in had no tables or chairs, it was just a takeaway operation.

Peet's Coffee on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Instead of Starbucks – one tries to avoid them if possible – I found Peet's Tea & Coffee. It was approaching 1830hrs and rather than wander the streets of the Windy City I thought I'd park up, so to speak, and enjoy a cup of tea and a cookie. Well, the cookie was an afterthought and I wish I'd left it well alone, but there you have it.

There were seven other customers: four guys sitting by the window at the front of the store, one had an Apple Mac, and a couple sitting on a table adjacent to mine in the middle of the shop. A girl walked, ordered a takeaway and left.

I sat alone with a medium-sized paper mug of tea (two tea bags) and an oatmeal and raisin cookie. The tea had set me back $2.80 and the cookie $2.25. All was good here. The guy on the counter told me that Peet's wasn't independent but a chain operation originating in California.

It's mid-October so Halloween is being promoted all over the city and at Peet's they're offering a pumpkin chai with an extra shot. It's billed as the barista's 'faverite', but the most expensive tea on offer is a Dirty Chai Latte at $5.05 for a large size. I never asked what a Dirty Chai Latte was all about, perhaps I'll go back and find out.

There's a wide range of hot beverages on offer at Peet's Tea & Coffee. Pumpkin Latte and Mayan Mocha, the former was $3.50 for a small, $4.15 for a medium and $4.50 for a large. The latter was $4.00, $4.65 and $5.00 respectively. Cappuccino is $3.00, $3.65 and $4.00 respectively for small, medium and large.

Also on offer are warm breakfast items, biscuits and soft drinks plus a range of mugs – I love mugs. Jazzy music was playing in the background, there were wooden floors (could have been laminated), wooden topped tables and a range of packaged tea and coffee for sale. Definitely the sort of place to chill with a decent book.