Lincoln Park is so chic that even its alleys are stocked with cupcakes. Interurban is about as clandestine as bakeries come, tucked down an alley off Armitage. And unlike some alleys, the only threat of danger is getting mugged by flavor. Since I’m not Aladdin, I typically don’t venture down alleys for food, but I’ll make an exception when that alleyway is occupied by an acclaimed pastry chef turning out cupcakes, cookies, pop tarts, and other sweets.
The premise seems like something out of an urban fairy tale: follow the aroma of pastries down a quiet alley, meet a wicked witch, throw her in a furnace, etc. But instead of throwing anyone into a furnace, we’re rewarded with wholesome sweets. The pastry chef, Christine McCabe, used to work at Charlie Trotter’s around the corner. Though adjacent, Interurban couldn’t be further from fine dining. She brought Trotter’s kitchen mixer with her and now instead of plated desserts and tasting menus, she specializes in Americana.
Interurban consists of a walk-up window and a menu. Baked goods range from focaccia and cake bites to tartlets and cookies, and you can practically smell the nostalgia wafting through the window. The cupcakes look like they were plucked right from a bake sale. Moist and tender cakes give way to smooth, buttery frosting. The size and appearance indeed look like they are lovingly homemade, rather than manufactured for people capable of unhinging their jaws or willing to queue up at a cupcake ATM. I love the chocolate cupcake with caramel frosting, laced with enough salt to defrost a sidewalk. The pop tarts are another favorite. Longer and puffier than the store bought chemistry experiments, they’re rich and flaky, almost like a flattened croissant. Enrobed in glaze, the tarts burst with tangy fruit filling. I find apple pie to be the most unexciting thing (sorry America), but I would scarf McCabe’s apple pop tarts any day.
Make sure you order the urban mocha, a blend of coffee and hot chocolate. It reminds me of the Dunkaccino from Dunkin Donuts (which I am all too familiar with), minus the shame of actually ordering a Dunkaccino.
I have never been so pleased with food I found in an alley!
February 27, 2013
When Ina Pinkney calls you and asks you to attend a sweet potato-themed lunch, you say yes. For me, an ardent lover of sweet potatoes, this was like Beyonce inviting me to perform with her at the Super Bowl. Pinkney, aka the Breakfast Queen and honorary Sweet Potato Queen, put on a fantastic, nourishing, and enlightening lunch with more orange than a spray-tanned Hollywood red carpet.
The lunch was held in conjunction with the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission in honor of February being Sweet Potato Month. Apparently, North Carolina is responsible for 50% of the country’s sweet potato crop. That fact alone makes me want to move there, knowing I could probably build a house out of sweet potatoes and weave sweet potato clothes and carve a sweet potato child, a la Pinocchio, and then wish upon a sweet potato star to bring him to life. Antics ensue.
Pinkney presented a spread of sweet potato dishes with more luster than an army of Oompa Loompas. Her goal was to show the versatility of the sweet potato, beyond just sweet pies and candied casseroles. Sweet potato soup with apples tasted like a hug, while sweet potato-Italian sausage hand pies showed how handily the root vegetable could accent spiced meat.
The vegetable hash, replete with sweets, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, corn, and a perfectly poached egg, has been a menu mainstay for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s easy to see why. This is the rare hearty dish that doesn’t make you feel bloated and defeated. Rather, it warms you up and enriches. Ditto the Moroccan sweet potato stew, a vegan sucker punch packed with chickpeas, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, raisins, and a deluge of toasty spices.
I tend to take poultry burgers with a grain of salt (sometimes literally, and in ample doses), but Pinkney’s spicy chicken burger with raw sweet potato slaw was revelatory. The patty was moist, well seasoned, and a faultless foil to the crunchy sweet potato haystack nestled on top. My favorite dish of the day, and ironically the one I expected to like the least, was the kale and sweet potato salad. I like kale, but I’m not apart of the kale cult that seems to have arisen over the past couple years. Pinkney impressed by massaging the kale with olive oil beforehand to make it nice and tender. Served with soft and caramel-y morsels of sweet potato, crumbled blue cheese, and salty walnuts, this is the salad all salads aspire to be. Related: Pinkney would make a great masseur.
Dessert was sweet potato crème brûlée. Think sweet potato pie, but more velvety and with a crackly sugar crust.
While most associate sweet potatoes with Thanksgiving and, unfortunately, marshmallows, this lunch, which I am dubbing the Sweet Potato Summit, proves just how dexterous this ingredient can be. From savory stews and hand pies to composed salads and non-pie desserts, the sweet potato does it all. You might say it’s the Beyonce of root vegetables. Or better yet, the Ina Pinkney of root vegetables.
February 8, 2013
I have The Great Mouse Detective to thank for my fondness for crumpets. Watching that matronly mouse woman make crumpets and serve them to the lost little mouse child always struck me as such a warm, inviting gesture. If a mouse offered me crumpets, I sure as hell wouldn’t decline. Just saying the word crumpets brings a smile to my face, and makes me want to sip tea and play croquet. And there’s just something so innately matronly about crumpets, like they are exclusively made by grandmas of various species. I mean, I can’t really imagine a butch trucker making crumpets.
Since I unfortunately did not grow up in London, crumpets were never something I ate very much, though I have always loved their cousin, the English muffin. Anything doughy and toasty and speckled with butter-filled nooks and crannies gets a pass right to the front of the line. Recently dining at Little Goat, the not-so-little amusement park-like diner from Stephanie Izard, I espied with my hungry eye a plate of crumpets with chorizo maple syrup. Game, set, match.
Izard is no mouse woman, but she makes a mean plate of crumpets. Served three to a plate, the crumpets are doughy, tender, and rich, sort of like the crumpet equivalent of a yeast doughnut from Doughnut Vault. That good. Lightly griddled on the sides, they’re flecked with goose berries and saturated with chorizo-infused maple syrup and crumbly chunks of the spicy sausage. After shoving the first forkful into my mouth, my mind started racing. “Where have these crumpets been all my life?” “How is it possible these are so good?” “Can we forget about doughnuts and cupcakes, because nothing else matters.”
Upon meal’s end, I left enlightened and gratified, with a discernible Madonna-like British accent. And rest assured, next time I need to solve a mouse crime, I’m calling Izard.
January 23, 2013
It’s been four wonderful, challenging, exciting, wild years, but the time has come for me to leave Restaurant Intelligence Agency, the company I have called home and poured my heart and soul into in its burgeoning years.
While I am exhilarated for the future, there are many things I’ll miss about working at RIA. Chiefly, my boss Ellen Malloy, who has served as my mentor and guiding light through thick and thin. Working with her can be described as no less than an Indiana Jones-style adventure, but with less caves and more SEO.
The thing I am proudest of is having made so many meaningful connections with restaurant professionals. At the end of the day, if I am not making a positive difference in someone’s life and in someone’s job, then I am not satisfied. As stressed as I got at work, it was always of the utmost importance that I remain my cheery self, and make others happy, be it via emoticons, well-articulated stories, a package of sweets, or a simple hug. Those are the things that matter to me.
There are too many people to name and memories to recap, so here are some of my standout moments from my time working at RIA:
- Meeting my “Bumblebee” and forever changing the way I think about lattes.
- Venturing to Southern Illinois with chefs to visit a wooly pig farm and feel like Paris Hilton on “The Simple Life.”
- Being the first customers to dine at avec 2.0.
- Being some of the last customers to dine at mado.
- Getting the “Preditor” to love me.
- Meatloaf cupcakes.
- Scootering to Great Lake to eat pizza on the sidewalk.
- Moments like these:
January 16, 2013
Earlier in the season, I predicted that icebox cake/pie would be big this summer. I was right. In fact, after I tweeted about it, a couple weeks later this came out. Frankly, I’m surprised icebox hasn’t been hotter (pun!) sooner. What’s not to love about wafers enrobed and stacked with whipped cream, or custard-y pie that is frozen and un-frozen in your mouth? Not a damn thing.
The first thing that really made me fall for icebox was the Titanic version at Magnolia Bakery. Since everything here is old-fashioned and as precious as chastity, the icebox cake is designed to echo the mid-century originals, wherein housewives would stack cookies with whipped cream, chill it overnight and then eat it in a corner while crying. At Magnolia, the cakes are huge. One slice packs enough cookies to rival a dozen Girl Scouts, and enough whipped cream to send you spiraling into a lactose coma. It is deceptively light and refreshing, due to the airy cream and the fact that it is cold. Which makes it too easy to scarf an entire slice and understand what it feels like to be pregnant.
Then there is icebox pie, a slightly rarer delicacy than icebox cake. I noticed that Bang Bang Pie Shop, my friendly neighborhood pie shop poured over here, had added a key lime icebox pie to its roster. Sold. A lover of key lime, I was frantic to explore this magic. True to form, the pie was frozen before being thawed slightly and sold to my gaping mouth. This was the silkiest, creamiest and coldest key lime pie I have ever had. All good things, with a perfectly buttery and salty graham cracker crust. The surface also had a nice sheen to it, which made me want to ice skate on top of it.
(icebox righteousness at Telegraph)
Then things got gourmet. Telegraph introduced a minty chocolate icebox cake with green cardamom syrup. Initially skeptical about how icebox-y this would be, I thought it was rather extraordinary. The mint was wonderful, and the cardamom was a pleasant cameo. It did a great job of actually presenting a traditionally prepared icebox cake in an elegant fashion. It’s the stuff of bake sale dreams, but with a steeper price point.
Finally, all my rambling about icebox got my boyfriend inspired (look at me, taking credit!). And so he set out to create his own riff on an icebox something or other at Nightwood. His version was an untraditional one; a strawberry chiffon cake layered with cheesecake mousse, wherein the cake subs in for cookies and the mousse for whipped cream, topped off with a couple petite corn cookies. Great success.
As summer winds down, I’ll say goodbye to icebox cake/pie until next year. I like to minimize my chilled food consumption during the colder months. But rest assured my cravings will be back, because icebox is one nostalgic dessert that definitely merits a place on the modern dessert menu.
August 17, 2012