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Brunch Fri Aug 15 2014
A free Monday morning doesn't often come along, so I leapt at Cafe Creme's invitation to breakfast at their recently opened Bucktown location. I suspected this French cafe would have good juju the moment my friend and I took a seat in the bright, naturally lit front room.
The decor was spare but the contrasting color scheme made it eye-catching: white paneling around the counter, white tables, and white bookshelves displaying bottles of beer, wine and cider; bench cushions that were bright chartreuse; and slate-gray walls and matching board with a list 20 deep of different macaron flavors.
Our server announced she made a mean latte, so my friend and I each ordered one along with a plate of macarons. I've had limited experience with macarons; the ones I've eaten have been more like colorful, bland cookies than what a macaron-enthusiast friend calls the "little crispy pillows of joy and sugar that crumble so delicately when you bite into them."
Cafe Creme's macarons were definitely "pillows," a cake-brownie hybrid that sandwiched a center more like a light cream than jam or frosting. All four flavors I tried (pistachio, berry, chocolate and salted caramel) weren't overly dense or rich so I didn't feel as if I'd had dessert before breakfast. My favorites were the berry, with its delightful pop of sweet and tart, and the pistachio, which was basically pistachio gelato in a new and wonderful form. They provided the right amount of airy sweetness to complement the savory dishes my friend and I had ordered.
On the server's recommendation, we ordered the cafe's best-sellers: house-smoked salmon hash for me and polenta for her. The menu, created by Chef de Cuisine Matt DuBois, also had a tantalizing selection of sweet and savory crepes along with an intriguing cinnamon roll bread pudding among a handful of other breakfast options and sandwiches, salads and gazpacho for lunch. (Dinner is available Thursday-Sunday).
Perhaps because Cafe Creme has billed itself as a French cafe and bakery, perhaps because I faced the display case of croissants, or perhaps because of the picked-over plate of macarons on the table, I was full-on indulging in nostalgia, thinking of my first trip to Paris when I was 17. I still remember the baguettes I ate in a cheap traveler's hotel, how they made the perfect soft-yet-crunchy vehicle for the butter-and-jam I stuffed in my face. I'd felt so sophisticated and cool meandering around Montmartre with my friends and going into real French restaurants and cafes where it didn't matter how long we lingered.
From our perch in Cafe Creme, my friend and I chit-chatted while watching passers-by move from shade to sun with their strollers or dogs. There was nothing remarkable about sitting quietly and sipping on coffee, watching people idle by, but knowing there was nowhere I had to dash off to and that I could enjoy being still for a while made all the difference in the world. It felt remarkable; it felt French as I remembered it, ten-plus years ago.
My friend and I took our time with our savory plates. The pale, creamy polenta looked like porridge with a perfectly poached egg on top and an arc of vegetable ragu (pepper, zucchini, onion, and greens) around it. Looking at my plate, I could hardly tell what was potato and what was salmon, which I loved since I would have mixed them together anyway. The whole dish was drizzled in a festive, house-made hot sauce, and speckled with a few sneaky capers. The sauce was spicy but with a sweet edge. I punctured the poached egg and let the yolk slather over the hash.
The tart edge to the vegetable ragu kept the rich bowl of polenta-and-egg from becoming overwhelming; likewise, the flavor and texture contrasts between the soft smoked salmon, crunchy fried potatoes, rich eggs, and spicy sauce, made me want to keep eating long after I was full.
In keeping with my French mood, I ordered the house cider (one of 14 ciders on the menu), which was from Eric Bordelet Vineyards in Normandy, France. It was tart and refreshing and would be ideal on a hot, sticky day.
Macarons eaten and brunch leftovers boxed up to go, my friend and I eventually hoisted ourselves up to shift into the real world. What really keeps me returning to a restaurant or cafe is not just great food -- though trying every macaron flavor is worth a repeat visit to Cafe Creme -- it also needs to be a place I want to be. It needs to have the good juju -- is it the natural light, the quiet atmosphere, the seemingly magical ability to tap into your wistful core? -- that makes you want to stay a little while longer. Cafe Creme had it and more, reminding me of my best times in France in the heart of Chicago.
1721 N. Damen Ave.