AFTER SIX MONTHS OF UNEXPECTED DELAYS, KARAMELA CafÃ©Â has finally opened her doors to the residents of the SouthÂ Loop. While the backup, due to an owner who abandoned theÂ eatery, may have had some people questioning the quality ofÂ this dainty little creperie and pastry shop, the throngs of peopleÂ who braved a Chicago storm for a free sample of bananaÂ chocolate chip loaf prove otherwise.
With my clothes sopping wet from the rain, I found theÂ interior of this little shop to be enough to brighten my spirits.Â The layout is circular: the pastry, crepe, and sandwich counterÂ is situated in the center of the room, offering patrons at anyÂ table a view of their mini pumpkin cheesecakes or rainbow coloredÂ macaroons. The tables are a mix of 1980s American dinerÂ and Parisian brassiere: red and black leather backed bar stoolsÂ and chrome bordered high tables holding fresh flowers.
Even though it is a serve-yourself type of venue, theÂ cashier kindly let me start a tab as I awaited my friend, hazelnutÂ latte in hand. Perched up on the bar stool, I assumed thatÂ the venue’s emptiness was due to the raging winds I could seeÂ braking umbrella after umbrella in front of my eyes. But by theÂ time my friend came in twenty minutes later, we had to waitÂ in line before ordering our meal. The wait may have been aÂ good thing, however, as we could barely decide what to get.Â Taking inspiration for the brasserie style of restaurant so commonÂ in France, the menu offered about six salads and six sandwichesÂ utilizing classic ingredients such as smoked salmon andÂ roasted red peppers. Rounding out the menu is an assortmentÂ of sweet and savory crepes.
A sucker for specials, I chose to try their crepe of the day:Â succulent chicken with mushrooms and tarragon, all cooked inÂ a white wine and cream reduction and wrapped in a buckwheatÂ crepe. While buckwheat and other grain free flours generallyÂ make dry and often awkward tasting nutritious replacements,Â this time it added a pleasant nuttiness to the dish that offeredÂ a break from the richness of the cream. Alongside the crepeÂ was a small salad complete with cherry tomatoes and balsamicÂ dressing. And although it certainly wasn’t the star of theÂ show, it did balance the plate nicely.
Having spent too much time in real Parisian creperies, myÂ friend chose what we thought would be the safer route, a sandwich.Â Instead, the sandwich was just as different, if not moreÂ authentic, than the crepe. Made on a housemade FrenchÂ baguette, slathered in hearty brown mustard, and topped withÂ “sausage” and French pickles, this Parisian Club was quiteÂ impressive. Unsure about the sausage at first, once deliveredÂ we discovered its true identity–a flavorful cured meat similarÂ to salumi. All the ingredients created a masterful display ofÂ simple flavors: spicy mustard flecked with crunchy mustardÂ seeds combated the sweet acidity of the pickle and togetherÂ they drew out the saltiness of the meat.
Still not completely satisfied, we made our way back upÂ to the counter to try out their sweet side. Pastry standardsÂ such as tiramisu and black forest cake are placed throughoutÂ the display case, as well as holiday specials, like the pumpkinÂ cheesecake. Brimming with the richness from my savory crepe,Â however, I decided to pass on the desserts for the evening.Â Determined to try at least one more choice, my friend steppedÂ up (and out of her Parisian pride) to order the Lemon Delight–Â a plain crepe with powdered sugar, fresh lemon juice, andÂ lemon zest. But here it was what they didn’t tell us that madeÂ the dish. Served to the table–perhaps because we had beenÂ there so long–the crepe was folded in the Parisian style,Â sprinkled with powdered sugar and lemon zest, and finishedÂ with a drizzle of raspberry sauce. After spending a few minutesÂ scrapping the exorbitant pile of lemon zest off of the dessert,Â we both dug in for our first taste. The crepe itself was light andÂ airy and had a delicate balance of powdered sugar and lemonÂ juice to give it flavor. But the sauce, oh the sauce was good.Â Leaving the cafÃ©, it was clear that while perhaps Karamela’sÂ was trying too hard to be a true Parisian, her French-AmericanÂ character was perfect for the South Loop.
Karamela Cafe, 1250 S. Michigan Ave. Monday-Friday, 7am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-9pm. (312) 322-0400.