Pressed and Ready

Cooking a waffle is a straightforward thing–any monkey can put an Eggo in a microwave. Don’t tell that to the folks at Waffles, though. With owner Alex Hernandez and executive chef Jason Hilgers at the helm, Waffles–a new South Loop brunch joint–makes a big impression with its creative takes on this breakfast staple.

Like the towering glass condominiums and clean brick storefronts that surround it, Waffles looks modern. The restaurant is sleek, clean, and well lit, with wide windows and neatly placed minimalist tables and chairs. As in a Rothko painting, long strips of solid colors line the gray walls, matching the large, painted “W” that hangs from the ceiling. And, in case you’ve forgotten why you came, the  restaurant’s graphic waffle logo is imprinted on the wall to remind you.

As you walk up to the counter in the front, Frank Sinatra tunes jingling in the background, the entire cooking process is laid bare before your eyes. Cooks prepare cupcakes and milkshakes, mix batter, and press down on rows of French waffle irons. The baked waffles, which come out of the irons in a variety of shapes and colors, are then handed through a wide window to the restaurant’s rear kitchen, where they are decorated with a boggling variety of sweet and savory toppings that include spicy Mexican chocolate, cheddar cheese, and braised short rib. Maple syrup is, of course, always an option.

Following the advice of Mitch, the counterman, we ordered the waffles Benedict served with pork and the classic chicken and bacon waffle. “If you like meat,” he said, “you get a lot of meat.”

Careful attention was paid to the presentation of both dishes. For the waffles Benedict, a waffle about the size and thickness of a 400-page paperback book was cut diagonally, placed on a long, thin china plate alongside sprigs of greens, and topped with two large poached eggs, a generous helping of yellow Hollandaise sauce, and neatly arranged slices of pork shoulder. The combination of tastes was so rich that taking more than a few bites quickly became a daunting task, and blurred the lines between breakfast and lunch.

The chicken and bacon waffle was less complex, though still gourmet in its presentation. A drizzle of maple syrup lined the edges of the plate and a very lightly fried, barely breaded chicken leg and thigh were set on top of the waffle. Bacon bits were infused into the batter and more were sprinkled on top. The bacon flavor–though strong and bordering on over-the-top–blended well with the maple syrup and waffle. With its strong, bacon flavor and classy presentation, the dish aimed for elegance over the workman simplicity of the soul food standard, but it may have taken a formula that already works too far.

The highlights of the menu are their sweet waffles, in part because the chefs keep them simple. The green tea waffle was a heavenly combination of macha-infused batter and a generous portion of sweet cream garnished with pistachios. These ingredients blended perfectly with the soft and warm texture of the waffle–an irresistible combination where nothing else matters but the next bite.

The only drawback to the green tea waffle is the price: $9.95 for a dish that is essentially a dessert. While not cheap, prices at Waffles are comparable to those of other restaurants in the neighborhood, and there is a posted 15-percent discount for college students Monday through Thursday that the waitstaff happily offered on a Friday as well.

The menu does offer soups, salads, sandwiches, and a handful of interesting omelet choices, if the main attraction does not hold its appeal.

Like the pristine neighborhood of towering and unfamiliar condominiums in which the restaurant is situated, Waffles brings its humble breakfast food to rarified airs. You may still soon find yourself reaching into your freezer for the comfortable familiarity of a frozen Eggo, but the restaurant’s extravagant creations are, at the very least, memorable in their decadence.

1400 S. Michigan Ave. Monday-Friday, 7am-3pm; Saturday, 8am-3pm. (312)854-8577. waffleschicago.com