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October 2, 2004

Two great Chicago finds: Sweet rolls and gumbo

Heaven on Seven

I'd use any excuse as a child to eat at Heaven on Seven. Driving downtown with my mother to shop at Marshall Field's or visit the tailor, I'd casually introduce lunch into the conversation, even if it was only 10:30 in the morning. Anything for a cup of steaming gumbo with a broth so thick and spicy it made my nose run. And if I was very good, I might even be allowed a slice of chocolate-pecan pie for dessert. We went so often that the waiters knew me by name and my mother's order by heart: gumbo and a bowl of vinegar-y collard greens.

For all those gumbo fans out there, Heaven on Seven is the place to go in Chicago. Not the tourist-y one on Ohio, but the real Heaven on Seven in the Loop. The waiters wear T-shirts that read, "People who come back from Heaven all say the same thing: Try the gumbo." My roommate Joyce, who apparently doesn't get what Heaven on Seven is all about, insists on ordering the soup of the day and claims it's delicious. So there are alternatives, for those of you who are gumbo-shy. The restaurant's only open one night a month for dinner, but it does a brisk lunch and breakfast business. These days, I usually sit at the counter if I'm eating alone, watching Loop businessman with ties flung over their shoulders wolf down chicken po' boy sandwiches.

The beauty of this particular Heaven on Seven is that it has a regular diner menu in addition to all its Cajun specialties. So if you're like my brother, you go for a bowl of perfectly-fried onion rings and a cream soda, or maybe a plate of fluffy French toast dusted with powdered sugar. On each table is a collection of hot sauces with names like "Ass in the Tub." If you're looking for something really hot, order one of their linguine and seafood dishes and douse it with some of the sauces on the table. I guarantee it will clear out your sinuses.

Ann Sather

I had just started the food critic Calvin Trillin's new book, Feeding a Yen, and my mouth watered as I read the description of a New York pumpernickel bagel. Then I began to wonder: Had I ever eaten a real bagel? In Chicago, you have two choices when it comes to bagels. Either you eat the kind found in supermarkets that taste like glorified sawdust, or you opt for the supposedly superior bagel served by Einstein Bros., a mountain of fluffy white bread. Clearly Trillin did not have these Midwestern specimens in mind as he rhapsodized about the joys of eating bagels. I consulted several people from the East Coast, and they all agreed it was quite possible I had never tasted the genuine article.

Well, Chicago may not be the bagel capital of the world, but it does boast some of the country's finest cinnamon rolls. Ann Sather, located in the formerly Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville on the city's north side, serves the yeasty rolls coated with thick frosting to Chicagoans of all shapes and sizes. Even R.W. Apple commented on these delicacies in a recent article about Chicago specialties for The New York Times, but he didn't give them near as much praise as they deserve. (Bear in mind, this is coming from a person who grew so attached to the sweet rolls as a child that her parents once built a faux cake of cinnamon rolls for her birthday.) But Ann Sather's cinnamon rolls do have the uncanny ability to silence even the most irritable of diners. Baskets of rolls still hot from the oven accompany everything from omelets to cereal, for those of us who are trying to work in our sticky buns and an order of the Swedish pancakes with lingonberries in the same meal. Breakfasts at Ann Sather almost always necessitate a stroll around the block afterwards to walk it all off; this is the perfect opportunity to visit the nearby Swedish American Museum. All in all, it's possible to spend a very pleasant day in Andersonville, all planned around a trip to Ann Sather.

The other day, watching my friend Joyce make her way placidly through a huge avocado omelet in between bites of the ubiquitous sweet roll, I composed a letter to Calvin Trillin in my head. Dear Calvin: I'll trade you the pumpernickel bagel for the Ann Sather sweet roll. Deal?