I ducked out this evening and went to Wicker Park in search of a meal at yet another hot happenin' new place where I had not been before. Del Toro, Bin Wine Cafe, Twig, Lumbar, Asphyxia-- before I even got that far I spotted Hot Chocolate, the precise location of which I had never known before, and right after that spotted an open parking spot on Damen. The gods were telling me where I was going to eat, even if I had fears that a place built around dessert would turn out to be another excursion into oversweetened silliness like the late, eternally-memorialized-by-Mumon Sugar.
Especially given the one factoid that I remembered from 6-month-old posts (that it drew a strongly female crowd). Would it be too girly for me?
In a word, no. The room is done, surprise for a place named Hot Chocolate, in shades of brown which are quite strikingly handsome yet stop just short of making you wonder if your server will be an Oompa-Loompa. Ironically, given my recent excursions down Belgian memory lane,
they were showcasing a good number of robust Belgian ales, all the way up to dark ales and Trippels, which it was hard to imagine the Cosmo set drinking. Along with some complimentary salty-sweet popcorn (which brought back a bad experience;
I passed on it after the first bite) I started with a dark ale accented with rock candy (a trick for raising alcohol levels without turning it darker) and spices called Smisje:
(Incidentally, more proof that the gods intended me to write this post, I was seated right under a ceiling light, practically the only table where one could take decent photos without flash.)
First course, it turns out, is the same one Sweet Willie had months ago (so much for seasonal cuisine), the mussels in a coconut milk-lemongrass broth. Bright, light and refreshing, the mussels cooked perfectly and tenderly, I liked this a lot. I would have liked it even better in a half portion, or with someone to share it with. But the dessert place passed the seafood fusion test, and ascended to the next level.
Second course was less than original (being another dish inspired by Blackbird's slow-roated pork belly) but quite tasty and, it must be said, executed in a way that did not suggest the dating single female was its target audience. It was called, rather preciously, Roast Pork3
, and consisted of a brined pork chop, a couple of lush hunks of belly, some cabbage and little potato cubes cooked in bacon grease. They passed the pork with pork fat test, and were back on home turf for dessert.
Dessert, well, jeez, too many choices and not enough people at my table to share them with. Mindful of Jim in Logan Square's
shame, I passed on the brioche donuts, and likewise couldn't see my way to ordering a dessert AND a hot chocolate or milkshake (though I found it pretty hilarious that the teeny tiny milkshake served in a tall thin cocktail glass comes with a tiny cream pitcher containing the extra milkshake, thus imitating in miniature, for a mere $10, the way a $2.50 milkshake comes in a great big glass plus another pint or two in the metal mixing cup).
Anyway, I ordered the 66% chocolate mini souffle, with molten center, caramel around it, salty caramel ice cream on top, and a free form Brancusiesque pretzel on top of that. It was... hey, good chocolate, served warm with ice cream on top, how wrong can you go? The most interesting part was the salty caramel ice cream, which did pull off the salty-sweet thing the popcorn had failed at earlier.
So. Hot Chocolate. Pretty good minimalist atmosphere, very good service that was friendly, proactive and without 'tude (I also saw two different chefs, one of them Mindy Segal, visiting the floor and checking up at different points); none of the food exactly blew me away but it was all quite creditable, not at all too girly, and considering the fact that I upsold myself to fairly expensive beers, the meal was quite reasonable for what it was (around $65 before tip; as noted, almost $20 of that was two fawncy schmawncy beers).