Serious Eats: Chicago
The Brunch Dish: Caffè Oliva is a Vacation in Your Mouth
I haven't taken a vacation in years, but I manage to relax myself by setting my Gmail theme to "beach" and having brunch at Caffè Oliva. Eating brunch on a beach is my favorite form of staycation therapy, even if the sun does make it too hot to drink coffee, and I wind up sunburned.
Brunch at Caffè Oliva, located right on Ohio Street Beach, is as close to a legitimate getaway as I've gotten in a long time, but unlike most beach-centric vacations I've been on, the food here is shockingly ambitious and memorable.
Hats off to Caffè Oliva for putting so much effort into their small but crafty weekend brunch menu, which just launched a couple weeks ago. They could have served me Capri Sun and Doritos and I would have raved, but they reach a lot further than that with items such as their "signature" fried chicken and pancakes ($10.95). The name is a bit of a misnomer, in that it's only one large-ish pancake and it is not topped with the type of fried chicken one would expect with, say, waffles. The pancake is actually filled with shredded morsels of fried chicken thigh and topped with shards of fried chicken skin.
This is the wackiest brunch dish I think I've ever eaten. It's likely to be a very polarizing dish, especially for beach fare, but I enjoyed the quirky presentation and the flavors within. The pancake is made with a yogurt batter, and although it gets a little dry, it provides a subtle tang to offset the richness of the chicken. The chicken skin is like chicken candy, crackly and brittle-esque, breaking up the monotonous softness on the plate with a bit of crunch. It's all flecked with sage and served with a side of I-would-drink-this-through-a-straw orange zest maple syrup. I'm still scratching my head over this dish, but not in a bad way. More like how I was puzzled and enraptured after seeing Paranormal Activity for the first time.
Every item on the brunch menu seems to be competing to out-wacky one another. In case the fried chicken pancake is not enough to spin your head like a top, go for the island French toast ($11.95). This is a dish that strives to clobber you over the head with vacation-y flavors, and by vacation-y I mean rum. The portion of this French toast makes the pancake look like an amuse bouche, absolutely brimming with apples and flambéed peaches. Book-sized slices of challah bread are soaked in rum before given the French toast treatment, adorned with a hefty scoop of rum gelato from Black Dog Gelato. Pretty sure they should preface this dish with an ID check. This is unabashedly a vacation dessert, with each and every bite tasting more and more like a fruity Mai Tai.
Caffè Oliva could easily surf by on lackluster beach shack fare, but they put a laudable amount of effort into their menu offerings. You could still go the predictable route and order a cheeseburger, but why do that when there's fried chicken pancakes and drunken French toast to be had? Plus, it's enjoyable to eat such gluttonous food while shirtless people with ripped bodies exercise a few feet away.