A touch-and-go strip of Wilson Avenue in Uptown just got a whole lot cuter (and tastier). Baker & Nosh opened its doors recently to customers eager to try chef/owner Bill Millholland's goodies.
According to the café's website, Millholland studied at The French Culinary Institute in New York. He worked in a few New York pastry kitchens and then took a job baking bread at the Levain Bakery in Manhattan and the Hamptons. After that, he worked as a chef instructor at a cooking school in Tuscany, Italy. Seven years ago, he found his way to our fair city, where he has worked as a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago.
Suffice to say, this guy knows how to bake an extraordinary loaf of bread. And, I can report he's also quite adept at filling it with chocolate, rolling it into crispy flatbreads, stuffing it with meat to make a mean sandwich and baking it into sticky, sweet desserts.
Baker & Nosh is part minimalist urban café (polished concrete floors and cool neutral walls) and part quaint Parisian boulangerie (actual bakers working in plain sight and a case full of artisan cheeses and salami for sale). Even in the dead of winter in Chicago, I felt inspired to buy a baguette, a hunk of Camembert and a bottle of Orangina and head straight to the River Seine for a picnic.
I didn't do that, but I did have a leisurely afternoon festival of carbohydrates with a friend. Baker & Nosh offers a small rotating menu of sandwiches, flatbreads, soups and pastries. They stop cooking at 3 p.m., so get there early or plan ahead. I called (anonymously) to check on the menu before I visited, and was told the staff would be happy to set aside my order so my top picks wouldn't be sold out by the time I arrived. How's that for customer service?
I devoured a flatbread topped with artichokes, Gruyere and thyme. The crust was crisp and the flavors of the toppings melded together perfectly. I also tried the ham sandwich — layers of sweet ham piled high on sourdough bread with melted Swiss cheese and generous smears of tangy mustard. Baker & Nosh's Facebook page advertised the sandwich as including arugula, which was sadly missing from the one I got. I think the arugula would have bumped up this very good sandwich into the great category. I'm willing to give it another shot.
I also tried the soup of the day, which was cream of artichoke. (A little artichoke with your artichokes, anyone?) It was flavorful, comforting and delicious, if just a tad too salty. The bowls of soup come with your choice of a roll, making it a cheap and filling lunch.
The best manifestation of Millholland's many bready offerings was the apricot coffee cake I had for dessert. It was incredibly moist, just sweet enough and topped with real cooked apricots rather than the congealed "apricot product" you'd get at most bakeries. The sticky buns also make a nice companion for a latte or a cappuccino. The buns are soft, sweet and clearly baked with love. I desperately wanted to try Millholland's rustic fruit tart, which had been beckoning me from the moment I walked into the place. But, despite my repeated requests, he wouldn't cut up the large pastry and sell me just one slice. The bigger desserts, he said, are for customers who drop in to pick up something special to bring to parties. I considered throwing a party just so I could get my hands on this thing. Sighmaybe next time.
Baker & Nosh definitely has some kinks to work out. Service is a little scattered, coffee drinks may not be quite as hot as you'd like, and there currently aren't knives strong enough to cut through the crusty sourdough bread. However, I'm not worried. I predict things will be running smoothly in a matter of weeks, and I expect Baker & Nosh to quickly become an Uptown favorite.
When the weather warms, the café will also offer outdoor seating on an adjacent patio. Even more exciting, Millholland said he plans to plant an accessible herb garden so customers can pick their own herbs to spice up and customize their mealsa true farm-to-table experience, right here in the heart of the big city.
Baker & Nosh is located at 1303 W. Wilson Ave.; call 773-989-7393 or visit www.bakerandnosh.com/index.php.
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