Even here in the nation's bread basket, gluten sensitivity is entering the mainstream. For years Cookie Bar, the Lincoln Park spot run by once-West Coasters Joe Bova and Jeff Steinburg, heard more and more requests to expand its gluten-free options.
So when Cookie Bar came up on its lease at the end of 2012, they decided to move to Ravenswood and re-concept completely. Gone are all of the glutinous goods and eat-in desserts; the new standing-room-only bakery slimmed done its once burgeoning cookie offerings to a dozen or so select favorites, and added gluten-free layer cakes, quick breads, rolls, pies, and granola to the mix.
Bova and Steinberg were always choosy about their ingredients, and they experimented with a range of grain blends to get just-right textures and flavors for each baked good. "A lot of gluten-free places use white rice flour and potato starch, and everything just ends up tasting like Passover cookies," Steinburg says with a laugh. "I grew up in a kosher home, so I know—they taste like Manischewitz cookies, like dense bricks." Blends of higher-protein gluten-free flours, all by Bob's Red Mill, including teff, amaranth, quinoa, and sorghum, make up Cookie Bar's signature chewy-soft texture.
Longtime Cookie Bar fans will still find a familiar treats in the new location, like the vegan ginger molasses and oatmeal chili mango macadamia cookie, the latter of which "was one of our signature flavors," Steinburg says, and still is. All cookies are $12 for 6, or $20 for a dozen.
You don't miss the wheat in the snickerdoodle, which still nails that characteristically floury butter-cookie flavor and texture. The cinnamon is freshly ground from the Spice House, which makes a difference; and the vanilla is extracted in-house in smooth Polish potato vodka or tequila, both non-grain alcohols.
"A lot of cookies can be monochromatic, but this one is a lot more interesting," Steinburg says. Nicknamed "the kitchen sink," it features prominently atop the stack in the six-cookie variety pack, and being packed with peanut butter, coconut, nuts, potato chips, oatmeal, and chopped hunks of Callebaut chocolate, is the most satisfyingly hearty cookie in the bunch.
There are a few morning options, including this beautifully moist, dense, dark chocolate-studded hunk of vegan banana bread ($3 slice, $15 whole), among the best of the genre I've had or made. As with the other offerings, it's not a runner-up to traditional versions, but would satsify non-vegans and wheat eaters as well as those with diet restrictions.
The dried coconut and cranberry-studded granola ($11 per pound), which has a tendency to sell out before midday, has a deeply toasted, only slightly sweet flavor, and a crunchier-than-usual texture thanks to the tiny millet grains speckled throughout.
The gentlemen of Cookie Bar have always favored spice, so you'll find it everywhere, from the zippy pumpkin cheesecake to these sriracha-infused popover-style dinner rolls (6 for $8).
The apple crumble ($4.50 slice, $25 whole) won't hold together to save its life, but it's one of the best-tasting new offerings. Crunchy, brown-sugary oats (which are processed on equipment that's never touched wheat) cling to the apple slices, which are tart, layered in fresh cinnamon, and just al dente.
With the expanded Ravenswood kitchen, Cookie Bar is honing in on provisions for special events with an upcoming Thanksgiving menu or a luxuriously rich, dual-frosted, layered chocolate birthday cake. You can order one whole ($55) for a gluten-free loved one's special celebration, or just have them slice off a giant hunk for one of those you-deserve-it days ($6.75). I won't judge.