Afternoon Tea at Atwood Cafe

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[Photograph: Amber Gibson]

Just for the holidays, Atwood Cafe is offering an afternoon tea menu, so stop by before year-end if you want to check it out. At the corner of Washington and State streets, it's the perfect pit stop as you trudge up and down State Street doing holiday shopping. They serve 40 covers a day for tea, and reservations are required.

Executive chef Derek Simcik doesn't have a pastry chef so he is responsible for both the savory and sweet side of the menu. Simcik started out as a savory chef, but first transitioned to desserts while working in kitchens in Vienna, Austria. He was born in Athens and has lived everywhere from Tunisia to Tokyo. It's only been the last nine years that the 30 year-old has lived in the United States and he's spent the past four years as the executive chef at Atwood.

Simcik's afternoon tea menu is not the most traditional nor the most extravagant, but it's one of the tastiest and best executed I've had. Plus, the cozy atmosphere amidst Christmas lights and wreaths is a great perch for people-watching along State Street.

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The three different finger sandwiches are pretty simple, but sometimes simple is best. I love that they serve four of each sandwich even at tea for two, so there is plenty to go around. I was especially impressed with how soft the bread was. When sandwiches are prepped in advance, the bread often becomes quite dry at the edges, so I appreciate Atwood's commitment to freshness. The sandwiches here are made less than half an hour before the reservation and covered with a damp cheesecloth to keep them moist. A cucumber tomato vegetarian sandwich is served with Greek yogurt and celery salt for a slightly different and very refreshing twist on cucumber watercress. House-smoked salmon is pretty standard, with pickled red onions and crème fraîche, but with generous portions of salmon. Chicken salad sliders on sesame brioche round out the trio.

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The scones at Atwood are a far cry from what I expected, but in a good way. These square biscuits are lighter and flakier than their British counterparts and each bite is punctuated with dried blueberries and raisins. A touch of still soft royal icing (scones are glazed to order) on top impressed, adding just enough sweetness to the fluffy scones. Instead of Devonshire cream, the scones are served with cream cheese, raspberry jam, and maple whipped cream. The whipped cream and jam are made in-house and absolutely delicious. I didn't even touch the cream cheese. The biscotti were a little on the sweet side, but very tasty when dipped in tea.

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The sweet tray is a chocoholic's dream. At first, I thought this might be too much chocolate, but Simcik uses a Costa Rican 72 percent organic dark chocolate, and it's so good I can't complain. Plus, he pairs the chocolate with fresh strawberries and raspberries. The macarons are quite good, even if the chocolate overwhelms the buttercream fillings with the pistachio, lemon, and vanilla flavors. The raspberry macaron (filled with the same jam that's served with the scones) is the only one that is enhanced by the dark chocolate coating.

Afternoon tea served is served from 2-3:30pm daily in December, except Dec. 25 & 31. The cost is $35 per adult, $20 per child under 12 and $10-12 extra for bubbles.

For more afternoon tea in Chicago, check out Allium's offerings at the Four Seasons.

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