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Friday, August 11, 2006

Fox and Obel

The next time you're in Chicago, you MUST make time to visit this Very Special Place. Words simply cannot describe the goodness that is Fox and Obel, but I shall make a valiant attempt:

A cafe and restaurant.

A gourmet grocery store with cooking classes.

A fabulous place to host a party with mouth-watering catered foods in a beautiful loft-like room overlooking the River.

Award-winning breads and pastries.

An entire wall of olive oils, (which you can taste with a piece of freshly baked bread) and another wall of colorful aged vinegars.

Stinky, beautiful cheese.

House-made charcuterie and dry aged steaks.

And best of parking.

That's right folks, just two blocks from Navy Pier on Illinois Street, you drop your car off at the valet in front of the store, get your ticket validated with the purchase of a coffee or anything else, and enjoy a few hours of relaxed, free parking- an unheard of phenomenon in the downtown area.

In order to help you with your first Fox and Obel experience, I've developed a First-Timer's Guide. Follow the steps to have a sublime two hours at one of my favorite places in the world.

A First-Timer's Guide to Great Things in Fox & Obel
1. Arrive at 9:00 am on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Leave your car with the smiling valet and prance inside, up the ramp, into the produce section.

2. Enjoy the sights, smells, and TASTES of things like pepino melons, baby pineapples, squash blossoms (stupid rabbits), and donut peaches.

3. Sneak over to the prepared foods section, where the head chef (who was formerly the sous chef at Charlie Trotter's) offers selections like Maryland blue crab cakes, sweet corn and pepper salad, macadamia nut encrusted halibut, chipotle bbq shrimp on skewers, and so much more. Bat your eyes and ask nicely for a taste. Repeat, four or five times.

4. Now for my favorite part: The Bakery. Step up to the large section surrounded by tempting displays of freshly made double baked almond crossiants, 20 types of daily made breads (everything from true French baguettes to Olive Ciabatta, Challah, and Walnut Sourdough), apple turnovers...wait, I'll just drop the list in:

Croissant- Almond, Chocolate, Westphalian & Comte, Maple Pecan Danish, Orange Cream Danish, Key Lime & Baker's Cheese Danish, Brioche Tart, Cinnamon SwirlSticky Bun, Apple Turnover, Scone-Ginger, Currant, Muffin-Blueberry, Angel Food, Cranberry Walnut, Pumpkin-Creamed Cheese, Crème Fraiche Coffee Cake, Campground Crumb Cake, Biscotti-Pratesi, Chocolate-Fennel, Cookies-Chocolate Chip & Pecan Cookies, Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Breton Sugar Cookies, Peanut Butter Shortbread Cookies, Apricot Rugelach, Vanilla Poundcake, Almond Poppyseed Poundcake, Gingerbread, Bittersweet Brownies, Creamed Cheese Brownies, Pie-Browned Butter Pecan, Apple, Buttermilk Chess, Flourless Chocolate Cake with Bittersweet Ganache, Layer cake-Devil's Food, Butter, Coconut Cream, Carrot, Red Velvets, Sachertorte, Opera, Buche de Noel, Dark Chocolate Pecan Tart, Key Lime Tart with Italian Meringue, Sour Cream Apple Tart, Milk Chocolate Caramel Tart, Fresh Berry Tart, Baked Fruit Tart with Frangipane, Bread Pudding Chocolate, BrutCrème, and Creme Brûlée.

Yep. That's about all of them I think.
Go ahead, buy yourself one. My personal favorites are the white chocolate chunk cherry cookies and the almond croissants. Save it for later, you'll need it.

5. Next, head over to the meat and fish counters, where four butchers and fishmongers prepare dry-aged prime cuts of beef, make brats and sausages from scratch, marinate Bell and Evans chickens, and prepare wasabi lobster salad and tuna burgers. They are always happy and sometimes, if you're really quiet, you can catch one singing to himself in the back as he de-bones a fish.

Craving a hearty rabbit dish in red wine sauce? You'll find the bunnies here. Quail, buffalo and venison loin too.

6. If meat doesn't do it for you, walk down to the cheese counter, stopping to taste an olive oil (or nine) at the gigantic gleaming wall of oil from all over the world. You'll be able to smell the cheese from six feet away.

I'm not a cheese girl, so you won't find me waxing poetic about it, but rest assured that it's awesome. Chue Flada, Portuguese cheese with thistle rennet, raisin and brandy coated Regal de Bourgogne, real Parmigiano Reggiano and Capriole Goat Cheese are just a few.

Taste as much as you want, the little wedges just keep coming from the friendly Frenchman with the bad teeth behind the counter.

7. By now, you've worked up a thirst, and most probably, a healthy appetite. Head past the cheeses, hang a left and walk into the lively cafe. Gaze up at the tempting menu and decide what you want. Perhaps a foamy caramel latte in their perfect sized mugs, or hearty Black Angus Steak Frites for those looking for a little more. Although, it is only 9:30 on a Saturday morning, so maybe you just want a stack of Stonewall Kitchen buttermilk pancakes with real Vermont syrup, or huevos rancheros with their addictive red chipotle sauce. Not an easy choice.
Oh good, you decided on a medium skim mocha, topped with homemade Valrhona chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and your earlier purchased double baked almond croissant from the bakery counter. Good decision. (Don't forget to have your valet ticket validated!)

The cafe is lively, filled almost to capacity with locals who live in the nearby "Platinum Coast" neighborhood , yuppies with their matching ibooks, silver-headed single gentlemen sipping hot coffee and flipping through the Chicago Trib, and even a news anchorman or woman from the nearby NBC building, grabbing a quick bite between shows.

Just as luck would have it, you grab a table right alongside the windows, where you can watch the tourists walking to Navy Pier as you scoff from above. If you're smart, you've brought a good book and perhaps your journal (unlined, spiral bound only, thank you very much) to write deep thoughts in as you wait.

The nice waitress brings your mocha and you tear into the most deliciously gooey, crisp, sugary crossiant you've ever had. Perfection.

8. After reading, journaling, and people-watching for over an hour, you're out of time. Unfortunately you've missed the Wine shop, the Flower Shop, the special kitchen for their cooking classes, and the cute men in the Charcuterie Department. That's ok, there's always next time.

9. On the way out, you may want to buy a baguette (it's impossible to find genuine French bread out in the 'burbs unless you make it yourself) and perhaps a cream cheese brownie for your patient husband who is waiting at home.

Don't forget to grab this month's list of cooking classes, or you'll run the risk of missing out on the annual Soups and Stews class that INCLUDES your very own Le Creuset iron pot for the extremely reasonable price of $65.

10. It's been the perfect morning. The valet brings your car to the door, helps load your purchases into the trunk, and smiling as always, closes your door for you. Au revoir!

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