The House that Holl Built

Floriole Café & Bakery is Lincoln Park’s new kid on the block – and already the envy of all its neighbors. Green City Market veteran Sandra Holl opened her doors on April 16th, taking her pastoral French pastry business from open-air to brick-and-mortar. Quite literally, too: Exposed brick walls anchor the space, while mammoth windows and skylights allow sunlight to drench the minimalist interior for maximum feng shui. One hundred-year-old barn joists enjoy a second life as a rustic table on the second floor. Roses loll full-bloomed in vases set throughout the café. Simply put, good karmic vibes hit instantly when you walk in, preparing you for the indulgence ahead.

The pastries, of course, are the real reason to visit and explain the huddle of indecisive patrons around the display case. Sticky buns, maple pecan cookies, and lemon-glazed cake glisten like gems. Be warned that customers tend to hover far longer than socially acceptable. No menus are — or will be – available: Items change often because of the owner’s commitment to sourcing local ingredients.

The wait, though, will prove to be worthwhile. Take the shortbread cookie, for instance. Holl returns this cliché to what it was meant to be: a simple celebration of butter and sugar that lingers on your tongue. Holl cuts hers into bars to prolong the indulgence (and make for pretty bulk packaging). Other building blocks of Floriole’s success include almond cream croissants, which flaunt a powdered sugar cloak and crème center surrounded by flaky goodness. But don’t let the goods with less flair fool you. The cornmeal-lime cookie, for example, betrays its humble appearance with a bold citrus tang on the tongue, a rich buttery bite, and a toothy cornmeal grit.

Savory deserves its share of the limelight too. The quiche—at $6, an affordable lunch—features generous ribbons of garlicky ramp, a good complement to the silky eggs. Its golden pastry shell coddles the mixture well but leaves you with a formidable, crusty knob to wrestle with. This hot dog-to-bun-esque ratio is a minor issue, though, in light of the dish’s socially responsible ingredients, including artisanal Otter Creek Farm spring cheddar. Quiche ingredients rotate often to showcase as many local sources as possible. (Translation: If you fall for a certain variety, take an extra slice to go: You may never see it again.)

Green practices aside, Holl’s French training elevates this bakery above its competition. Chocolate coconut meringue drops, baked in the proper French manner, are aptly named “boulders” with a light price tag: 75 cents each or 3 for $2 for those who get suckered into spending more than they mean to in the name of a good deal. These swoon-worthy confections, though, are a sucker’s redemption, worth every penny. Chewy and airy with semi-sweet chocolate bits gently folded in—these are the sorts of thoughtful details that make the simple luxurious. Meanwhile, the macarons – not to be confused with the dowdy macaroon – is decadence incarnate. Its delicate eggshell-like crunch preludes the cream filling, and the hint of almond – a macaron’s signature ingredient– rounds out its sweetness. Multiple flavors beckon, but resist the temptation to eat more than one. That last bite is a bit more cloying than it is satisfying.

The piece de resistance (and arguably the chief reason Holl fans flock to Floriole) is the cannele, an addictive custard cake born in Bordeaux centuries ago. A staff member surprised me by recommending it as her favorite sweet on display. In truth, it looks plain, like a little chocolate bundt cake. (I was gently instructed that the color owes itself to caramelization and nothing cocoa-related.) These little treasures are labor-intensive: Holl sources individual palm-sized copper molds from France, carefully pours the pre-chilled batter, and bakes the cakes for hours to create the rich, chewy crust. It’s a distinct taste: You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, I was warned. I took two.

It was love at first bite. The dark, slick crust resists for a split second before yielding its soft, moist interior. It was sweet and subdued, complex and understated, sophisticated and straightforward all at the same time.

It’s also quintessential Floriole: rustic yet swanky, earthy yet modern, and “slow” while rising fast in the city’s food scene.

Floriole Café and Bakery, 1220 W. Webster, Chicago, IL 60614; (773) 883.1313

picture courtesy of Floriole.

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