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February 24, 2006

Get a Life—February 24, 2006

Fodder for humor in this column inevitably centers on disparaging myself or making fun of my subject. I am so enamored with Kitchen Chicago, a shared-use kitchen in Ravenswood Manor, that I may be in for a self-pummeling this week.

To get things started: I am impatient to the point of recklessness. As I left the Francisco El stop on the Brown Line (yes, Kitchen Chicago is very far away), I was almost violently molested as I attempted to step over the railroad-crossing gate and it began to rise.

In the split second before I cleared the gate unscathed, I had an image of myself being lifted into the air straddling the thing, then sliding down it onto the flashing red lights. My roommate Nora—who was horribly embarrassed by my railroad crossing hi-jinks—later sent me a link to a kids’ railroad safety website that warned: “Trains are very large and heavy, and take a long time to stop.” Thanks, Nora.

As if my shame were not enough (to be grouped with the infants and monkeys out there who do not know that trains are “large” and “heavy”), the web page also chastised my weekend plans. They make a point to caution that riding a snowmobile on railroad property is never a good idea. Who knew?

After narrowly escaping the wrath of the railroad-crossing gods, I stumbled the few steps from the El stop into the café at Kitchen Chicago—disoriented, wiping my brow, and turning away from the white light. If there were ever a sight for sore eyes, it would be Kitchen Chicago. The café is an adorable and understated tribute to what I imagine was everything good about the 1950s: hardwood floors, pastel yellow walls, wooden chairs with hearts carved into them, aprons hanging on the wall, and an old-fashioned stove that acts as a table for condiments and coffee accoutrements.

There is also a brightly colored couch with newspapers spread in front of it and an inviting array of board games just waiting to be played—everything from the Charlie’s Angels Game and Anti-Monopoly to good old classics like Scrabble and Yahtzee. Nora and I ordered at the front counter and were promptly brought our espresso drinks.

“Jane. I think this is the best mocha I’ve ever had,” Nora beamed, a mustache of white foam gracing her upper lip.

“Really?” This was a big deal. Nora is not one for superlatives.

“Really.”

Nora says “best mocha ever.” This is reason enough to go to Kitchen Chicago, but the goodness does not stop there. They have a consistent menu of sandwiches and soups designed by a local chef. The grilled cheese with Asiago, Havarti, and Jarlsberg cheeses and pesto is particularly good. I also really like the corn chowder, which is surprisingly light.

The rest of the food—displayed at the front counter and throughout the café—consists of baked goods or candies made by the people who rent out their kitchen. Kitchen Chicago works as a fully equipped professional kitchen used mainly by a small catering business and specialty food makers who don’t have their own commercial kitchens. The café markets and sells the products of its clients, although Alexis, one of the owners, told me that she discourages clients from making things just to sell them in the café. “It’s pretty slow here,” she said. “They would never make a profit.”

After I commented on the salted caramel chocolate tart in the display case, Alexis and I had a fairly lengthy conversation on the merits of combining sweetness and saltiness in pastry. I confessed my habit of salting my pancakes, and she was nice enough to not act like she thought I was crazy. She even threw a chocolate walnut meringue into my bag, just because she thought I would like it. How nice is that? Everyone at Kitchen Chicago is just fantastic. I talked for a while with a guy named Jeremy, who works behind the counter, about everything from dark beer to the Smoking Popes to live polka music in Lincoln Square.

Kitchen Chicago has free Wi-Fi and holds frequent events. They recently had a singles cooking class and a chocolate tasting, and every first and third Sunday, a guy comes with a wood-burning pizza oven and bakes made-to-order pizzas with lots of different sauces and ingredients. I have yet to try the pizza. Dan (that’s his name) didn’t come last Sunday because it was below zero outside. I suppose I can’t really blame him for not wanting to sit behind a pizza oven all day in the frigid cold. I am assured, though, that the pizza is quite good. Take a break and go the first Sunday of March. I’ll see you there…if I can make it in one piece.

Kitchen Chicago

Address: 4664 North Manor Avenue

Phone: (773) 463-0863

Via CTA: Brown Line to Francisco

Via car: Lake Shore Drive to I-55 South. Merge onto I-90/I-94 West toward Wisconsin. Take the Diversey Avenue exit. Make a slight left on West Diversey Avenue. Right on North California Avenue. Left on West Montrose Avenue. Right on North Mozart Street. Right on North Manor Avenue.