Lovely: A Bake Shop┃1130 N. Milwaukee, 773.572.4766┃1138 W. Bryn Mawr, 773.253.5335┃Hours: M-F 7am-6pm, Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9am-4pm┃Serves Intelligentsia┃
Photo Credit: You Are Lovely
My introduction to Lovely: A Bake Shop didn’t occur at the Milwaukee Avenue bakery itself, or even at the second location on Bryn Mawr. It happened about 30 minutes away in a tiny boutique grocery store in Downers Grove. Normally, I prefer to do my shopping wherever I can get the most bang for my buck, but a gift certificate had given me the ability to splurge on a few luxuries: some organic whole wheat flour, a few imported cheeses, a bottle of orange blossom honey and a gorgeous little mason jar full of fancy jam, its label bearing just one word––Lovely.
It was, too. The peach, lavender and vanilla preserves were light, bright and, best of all, not too sweet. The perfect thing to take my cupboard from “cough drop keeper” to “storage space of someone who might be an adult!” Determined to discover what other ways Lovely could improve my life, I decided to drop into the Wicker Park bakery on a weekday afternoon.
The term “shabby chic” gets thrown around a lot these days, but it’s the only way to accurately describe the vibe at Lovely, which looks like it might have been dreamed up by the “Fried Green Tomatoes” set designer. A step through the creaky screen door welcomes you into a large, but quiet dining room filled with well-loved vintage tables set with mismatched chairs. A handful of stools saddle up to a counter surrounding the coffee bar, while the back of the shop yields up weathered bakery cases, walls lined with colorful retro tea towels, and the occasional antique knick-knack such as a scale or a large cabinet radio. Lovely indeed.
I had come intending to order a pie, but the baked goods case was noticeably absent of any such sliceable sustenance. I would learn, upon chatting up the guy at the counter, that Lovely had a Groupon that was expiring that day, and that the morning had yielded a bit of a run on baked goods. No matter. No pie meant more room for sampling the many sweets still left. But since it was just after noon, I decided to settle in for a light lunch before indulging my inner carb demons.
Sandwiches and soups are the meat and potatoes of the lovely lunch menu, with options such as toasted turkey with homemade pesto, roasted eggplant, zucchini, and squash on multigrain, and curried mayo chicken salad. The latter presents a nice variation on a café classic: instead of arriving overloaded with celery (something I find personally offensive, as a chicken salad lover), this one gets its crunch from a heavy hand of onions, which contrast nicely with the sweet-tart bite of green grapes. The spicy yellow curry also splendidly balances the sweetness of mayo and the buttery flavor of the croissant that holds everything together. A small cup of bacon potato salad was my side of choice (other options include veggie chips or a small green salad), and I must confess I had low expectations. We are strictly warm potato salad people in my family and I’ve never really understood the appeal of the cold, mayonnaise-laden stuff. I do, however, understand bacon and its astounding ability to make everything better. Lovely’s potato salad comes loaded with the stuff, nicely mingling with red skinned potatoes, green onions, and a light dressing that was neither too tangy, nor too sweet. I could almost imagine myself becoming a cold potato salad convert…sometimes.
With such a…well, lovely, lunch behind me, I had high hopes for the box of sweets I had hand selected with a few suggestions from the staff. I ate my way through with almost shameful voracity and emerged on the other side with decidedly mixed results.
The chocolate croissant suffered, as many American versions do, from being all flake, its insides consisting of large, air-pockets rather than the sort of tender, buttery spirals that unravel at the first bite. The hard-as-a-rock chocolate filling had also sunk to the very bottom during the baking process, making it almost impossible to get chocolate and croissant in the same bite.
Far better was the blueberry almond tart, which is served whole or by-the-slice. A buttery, sugar cookie-like crust laid the foundation for a soft, gooey filling that, in texture, wavered somewhere between a custard and an incredibly moist sponge cake. Whole berries suspended in this ooey gooey layer provided a nice tart pop, while a scant sprinkling of toasted almonds lent just enough crunch.
Then, there are the macaroons. Not the fancy French kind, mind you, but the humble lumps of coconut and egg white churned out of many an American kitchen. Lovely elevates the cookie nicely by giving it a sticky, caramelized exterior; the kind that makes you really work to get at the soft, flaky, syrupy sweet inside. If I knew how to get a crust like that on my macaroons at home, my waistline––and my fillings–-would be in serious trouble.
The inconsistencies are apparent off the plate as well. Why, for instance, would a place that bothers to arrange its lunches in quaint wicker baskets, then serve a blondie––one of its signature sweets––in sealed plastic wrap? The lackluster presentation immediately called to mind a factory-manufactured snack cake and, sadly, so did the taste. Dense, dry and studded with chocolate chips, walnuts, walnuts and more walnuts, the chewy, melt-in-your-mouth interior that makes most blondies so irresistible was instead replaced with something that reminded me more of a foil-wrapped granola bar.
But just as I had started to write it off, Lovely surprised me once again. The star of my meal came from the most unlikely of places: a golden raisin scone that I very nearly deemed “too boring” for review. But boring, it turns out, can be beautiful. Unlike its cousin the blondie, Lovely’s scone screams homemade, from the slightly––and deliciously––burnt edges that crumble as you bite into them, to a dense and surprisingly moist inside that just melts on the tongue. This is the type of baked good that begs to be savored across a long afternoon, preferably with a good book. And one that makes you appreciate what can happen when people put time, care and love into their baking.
At the end of the day, there are hoards of bakeries in this city churning out knock-your-socks-off croissants and blondies, but when someone asks me where to get the best scone in town, I’ll know exactly where to point them. And really, isn’t that sort of lovely?