Karamela Cafe

AFTER SIX MONTHS OF UNEXPECTED DELAYS, KARAMELA Café has finally opened her doors to the residents of the South Loop. While the backup, due to an owner who abandoned the eatery, may have had some people questioning the quality of this dainty little creperie and pastry shop, the throngs of people who braved a Chicago storm for a free sample of banana chocolate chip loaf prove otherwise.

With my clothes sopping wet from the rain, I found the interior of this little shop to be enough to brighten my spirits. The layout is circular: the pastry, crepe, and sandwich counter is situated in the center of the room, offering patrons at any table a view of their mini pumpkin cheesecakes or rainbow colored macaroons. The tables are a mix of 1980s American diner and Parisian brassiere: red and black leather backed bar stools and chrome bordered high tables holding fresh flowers.

Even though it is a serve-yourself type of venue, the cashier kindly let me start a tab as I awaited my friend, hazelnut latte in hand. Perched up on the bar stool, I assumed that the venue’s emptiness was due to the raging winds I could see braking umbrella after umbrella in front of my eyes. But by the time my friend came in twenty minutes later, we had to wait in line before ordering our meal. The wait may have been a good thing, however, as we could barely decide what to get. Taking inspiration for the brasserie style of restaurant so common in France, the menu offered about six salads and six sandwiches utilizing classic ingredients such as smoked salmon and roasted red peppers. Rounding out the menu is an assortment of sweet and savory crepes.

A sucker for specials, I chose to try their crepe of the day: succulent chicken with mushrooms and tarragon, all cooked in a white wine and cream reduction and wrapped in a buckwheat crepe. While buckwheat and other grain free flours generally make dry and often awkward tasting nutritious replacements, this time it added a pleasant nuttiness to the dish that offered a break from the richness of the cream. Alongside the crepe was a small salad complete with cherry tomatoes and balsamic dressing. And although it certainly wasn’t the star of the show, it did balance the plate nicely.

Having spent too much time in real Parisian creperies, my friend chose what we thought would be the safer route, a sandwich. Instead, the sandwich was just as different, if not more authentic, than the crepe. Made on a housemade French baguette, slathered in hearty brown mustard, and topped with “sausage” and French pickles, this Parisian Club was quite impressive. Unsure about the sausage at first, once delivered we discovered its true identity–a flavorful cured meat similar to salumi. All the ingredients created a masterful display of simple flavors: spicy mustard flecked with crunchy mustard seeds combated the sweet acidity of the pickle and together they drew out the saltiness of the meat.

Still not completely satisfied, we made our way back up to the counter to try out their sweet side. Pastry standards such as tiramisu and black forest cake are placed throughout the display case, as well as holiday specials, like the pumpkin cheesecake. Brimming with the richness from my savory crepe, however, I decided to pass on the desserts for the evening. Determined to try at least one more choice, my friend stepped up (and out of her Parisian pride) to order the Lemon Delight– a plain crepe with powdered sugar, fresh lemon juice, and lemon zest. But here it was what they didn’t tell us that made the dish. Served to the table–perhaps because we had been there so long–the crepe was folded in the Parisian style, sprinkled with powdered sugar and lemon zest, and finished with a drizzle of raspberry sauce. After spending a few minutes scrapping the exorbitant pile of lemon zest off of the dessert, we both dug in for our first taste. The crepe itself was light and airy and had a delicate balance of powdered sugar and lemon juice to give it flavor. But the sauce, oh the sauce was good. Leaving the café, it was clear that while perhaps Karamela’s was trying too hard to be a true Parisian, her French-American character was perfect for the South Loop.

Karamela Cafe, 1250 S. Michigan Ave. Monday-Friday, 7am-10pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-9pm. (312) 322-0400.