There is no one in Chicago doing pastries as well as Ethan at Cellar Door Provisions, right now. Period. Full stop.
On a recent Sunday, the variety of pastry was thus: an orange-poppyseed financier, scones, croissants, a morning bun, creme buns, and an orange creme tart. I didn’t sample everything. What I did was, get the financier, eat about half of it, lose all self control and go back and get the orange creme tart and a morning bun. The financier had a crackling crust punctuated with bits of caramelized sugar, yielding to a delicate, moist, buttery filling, speckled with candied orange and poppy seeds. Between crust and filling, complex flavors and satisfying textures developed. Warm and rich and sweet,substantial without feeling heavy.
The orange creme tart had the same pastry crust as the financier — a basic pastry dough baked into a crisp shape. Filling that shape, a delicate revelation of creme anglais— light and silky, set just enough to hold its shape. The orange gelee topping was citrusy without being too tart or too sweet. The combination of ingredients producing an intense, satisfying, moanful bite.
The description of any of the food produced at Cellar Door Provisions is wholly inadequate to the task of explaining the experience. Like all great food, it is the experience as much as it is the flavor that gives it its appeal.
Food is ephemeral — we eat, and then the food is gone. It is transformed into energy and waste and memory. It is that memory that becomes some kind of alchemy. We can eat — a hamburger-a stack of pancakes-and we can remember that we like those things. We respond to fat and sugar and salt in the same way — it gives us a sense of pleasure and satiety. McDonalds is genius in having created the baseline of these flavors. When we order a hamburger from McDonalds, we know what that flavor will be. Is it good? Debatable. But it is a consistent and familiar set of flavors — what we have decided is comfortable and some kind of pleasurable. Our memory is tapped in that we know what it will taste like. But when consumed, it is gone. That craving satisfied — a switch flipped “off”.
Great food — food with a depth of flavor and texture, gives us an entirely richer set of memories. It taps into our past — into the stories of our selves. A great plate of food can remind us of a moment in our childhood, or a spring day beneath falling cherry blossoms.
Going from eating something consistent and familiar to eating something that evokes not only familiarity, but a sense of well-being and self, is a profound moment. That balance of pleasurable flavors — sugar and salt and fat and spice. The textures of proteins and sauces, of grains and vegetables — evoking mouth-feel. Evoking smell and depth of flavor. Evoking stories and shared memory.
This changes what eating is and what cooking is for.
Cellar Door Provisions is an act of love for Tony and Ethan, the proprietors. On a recent visit, I was talking with Tony about their coffee — they just brew coffee like any restaurant — but its really good. It’s not the machine — they use an old electric coffee maker — one of those industrial machines where you pour water in the top, and it displaces the hot water already in the machine, starting the brewing process. They get their beans locally, but its not just procuring the beans. Tony will call the roaster if he thinks the beans aren’t up to snuff-and tell them they can do better. They will buy the beans and let them sit for a week before using them. It’s not temperature or apparatus, or sensitive measurement of grounds — it’s attention to ALL the ingredients — and then executing when they know the flavor will be best. A great guitar player can pick up any guitar and make it sound good. A great cup of coffee does not need gadgets to be brewed well. It just needs the right attention at the right time.
Everything they do is like this — I have had conversations with Tony about where they get their flour — different ones for bread and for pastry, etc. It all comes from local farms — except where they need a hard winter wheat — then they reach out to other farms where the soil isn’t so wet. They build these relationships — they talk to their suppliers — they know the raw product and they know how it will react and they work with the right growers to get what they want. That in itself is marvelous and kind of amazing — it’s a maddening process, chasing the dragon of the right ingredient, but they do it.
And then it’s what they do with these ingredients.
Ethan will spend a year or more, perfecting a pastry. A few weeks ago, he made a version of sfogliatelle. A laminated pastry dough with a creme filling. It was beautiful as are all his pastries. He and Tony asked my Italian partner her thoughts and she told them how it compared to the Italian version. It hasn’t been on the shelves again since that first outing — because Ethan is still working to get it right — after a year! That is passion. That is the desire to present the right thing to their customers.
Every time I eat there, I am astounded by their flavors, and their food. A yellow curry dahl with a piece of naan and an egg is so profoundly delicious — or their weekly quiche — the texture always the same — a tender custard, redolent with flavor.
You know you are eating great food when you feel you can eat more. The testament to a great pastry is that it doesn’t feel like a sin, but feels like a prayer. And the meal you consume fills you with well-being. And the consumption of such brings you into a community. The conversation happening at the table, as strangers share in something that is special.
I always notice food industry people at restaurants. It’s a benchmark of a place when you see that bowed head and probing fork. The raised eyebrow and the question of someone who works with food for a living. This last weekend, the conversation at Cellar Door Provision was wrapped around these professionals. A man and his girlfriend ordering dishes and pastries, pulling them apart, analyzing, tasting and sighing at the goodness. A man with his wife and sons, answering his sons questions about flavor and about what they were eating, why it was so good. The pro’s are sniffing this place out because it’s special.
I dread the moment when Cellar Door Provisions is “discovered” in its off-the-beaten-path location. When yards of words are written about the collective brilliance of the place and the pedigree of its chefs and owners, because it means it will be harder to eat there on a whim. But few are as deserving of being discovered as Ethan and Tony. What they are doing is persevering against the status quo — adhering to their own muse because they know what they want to produce. And finally, they are not stuck in the portmanteau of their own genius. Each time I eat there, the food has reached some new plateau. Each bite of breathtaking goodness. When I try to tell Ethan or Tony how good their food is, I am usually met with “It’s coming along!”. That restless spirit — that quest to — not perfect something, but — live up to one’s own ambition is what drives the brilliance of their food, and drives their mission to create beautiful food that is affordable.
Ethan is making the best pastries in Chicago right now. Period. Full stop. And that is only a small part of the story. If you live in Chicago, go. 10 or 20 bucks will get you something great. Sit, if you can find a seat, and share that experience with your neighboring diners. If you let it soak in, even a little, you can become transformed by the experience.
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