Not just another review: Marion Street Cheese Market

Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 S. Marion St, Oak Park, IL 60302, (708) 725-7200
Hours: Open Mon-Wed,Sun 9am-10pm; Thu-Sat 9am-11pm with some exceptions – Call ahead.

Full Disclosure: I work here.

While covering different aspects of the Marion Street Cheese Market (MSCM) – the process of being Green certified and an interview with their executive chef, Leonard Hollander – I passed on doing an actual review for fear of violating the unwritten code of food writers that, while not on par with the strict regulations governing mention of Fight Club, kept me from writing. At its worst, this would be a puffery piece meant to impress. But at its best, it’s insider information, a view only a select few are allowed. In a perfect world, every food writer would be allowed such access from which to form their opinions.

For months, this dilemma kept me silent.

But I am weak. The food is too good and the mission too great. But what do those words mean – too good food, too great a mission?

The Food and the Mission

“The cauliflower is flash-fried – which is a fancy way of saying it’s fried for the shortest amount of time possible so as to not soak up oil. The edges brown, crisp up and a nuttiness, once hidden, emerges. The cauliflower is then lightly salted and drizzled with honey from their own hives. Tart green apples are sliced thin and added to temper sweetness and provide a toothy soft crunch. An almost undetectable amount of curry aioli is smeared on Labriola multigrain bread. Lastly, an aged cheddar is melted on the bread. This sandwich is the hardest sell and yet, is the most popular item on the lunch menu.”

There exists one sandwich that remains untouched from season to season, menu update to menu update: The Honey Glazed Cauliflower. Literally, people come undone with this sandwich, their vocabulary and carefully manicured social skills reduced to just a simple “How?” while a little bit of their last bite flies out and across the table. Carnivores exclaim that they can’t believe there’s no meat because it’s so filling.

At its worst, the Honey Glazed Cauliflower sandwich can be greasy. It’s true! But this is rare. This is a statement that carries a lot of weight coming from a server who has served such a sandwich many, many times. Scores of times. Perhaps hundreds. Last March, the ABC7’s food critic Steve Dolinsky – the Hungry Hound – stopped in and reviewed four sandwiches. I was the lowly server who served him.

He was pleasant but quiet and ordered three sandwiches. The kitchen immediately noticed the ticket of one person ordering three sandwiches. Chef was working that day and sent out a Ham and Cheese. When the review went up, it was the Chevre Sandwich that was deemed best sandwich on the menu and quite possibly all of Chicago. The Ham and Cheese was also mentioned as something worth the calories. The Honey Roasted Cauliflower, alas, was not mentioned.

For all of us who worked at the café, we knew better even though the Chevre Sandwich is amazing. So, too, the Ham and Cheese. All this points to a strange impossibility of food writing, that just like people, restaurants are complicated. First impressions are very important; they can make or break. But some things cannot be qualified on first impressions alone. With food writing, second, third and even fourth impressions are not enough. Unfortunately, food writers cannot literally get a job somewhere just so they can develop that near-omniscience necessary to cull together the informed observation serving as the heavy-lifting and expert analysis necessary to generate something meriting not just interest but informed opinion of the most delicious kind.

Take for instance the Smoked Trout:

“The Smoked Trout sandwich is the most delicate sandwich on the menu. While the smoked trout tends to dominate, it easily gives sway to the shockingly potent burst of the sunflower sprouts. The capers, like they always do, fortify the flavors with their salty, herbal loveliness. The roasted red peppers not only add their sweetness but, perhaps more importantly, lend to the bite a fleshiness the carnivore in you might desire. So, too, do the pickled onions with the racy sulfur of onion-flavors tamped down from the pickling. Lastly — and this can’t be emphasized enough — the marble rye perfectly absorbs just enough as well as complicates the bite with rye deliciousness.”

And then there are the Shrimp Tacos:

“These tacos challenge the palette to reconsider what the word ‘taco’ indicates. The tortilla, firmed up by a minimal fry, does what it should: frames the picture. The texture is firm enough to house the ingredients but does not overpower them with either dense corn flavors or unyielding texture. At the same time (there’s lots happening here) the corn flavors and savory oils fill out the periphery of flavors.

A smoked chili aioli smeared on the tortilla continues the ambient flavors with richness and a slight tinge of heat on the finish. What’s not so subtle are the shrimp. Using the daily inspired beer found on tap — and these are always small-batch artisan beers — the chefs whip up a batter in which you can actually taste the beer living within the crunchy firmament of the batter. Before things get too out of hand, the sweetness of the shrimps come to the fore as they, too, gently crunch against your bite.

The pumpkin seed slaw adds further complexity while the sweet corn salsa fills out the spectrum with lovely bursts of converted starches.”

Each item on the menu is worth such storytelling. This is no accident as Chef Leonard approaches each sandwich as an entrée, complete with beginning, middle and end. This philosophy seems simple; the sandwiches provide a substantial argument to the contrary.

But there’s another reason why even the sandwiches taste so good at MSCM. Most restaurants have two to three food distributors. MSCM has close to 20…if you dare to call farmers distributors. The significance of this – beyond the ethics – that MSCM buys their produce from people who know how to grow the vegetables, who know carrots need to be stressed in order to build up the necessary sugars to make them taste better. And when there’s no stress available, they select the right seeds.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Krista Tippet covered the importance of taste on her show On Being in the episode, “Driven by Flavor,” in which she interviews Chef Dan Barber. At one point, Barber talks about the brix or sugar levels in carrots found on the shelves of typical grocery stores. Specifically, Barber discovered these carrots barely register a reading. This, in contrast to carrots he raises on his farm that register a 13, a number that’s literally off the charts of a scale that only goes to 12. More importantly, perhaps, is that when produce is raised in a way that forces them to convert their starches to sugars, they not only taste better but are more nutrient-dense. Bringing it back to what’s happening at Marion Street Cheese Market and other restaurants that purchase produce from farmers instead of large food distributors, the foods usually taste better because they’re, well, grown better.

The Drinks

Marcus Lohrmann is the wine guy at MSCM. Most wine lists reflect the balance between wine quality and price points with the latter influence often dominating, a duality that seems to be unavoidable. Other lists convey the philosophy of its curator while striking a balance that goes beyond quality vs. price.

When prodded for some backstory about the current version of MSCM’s list and retail selections, Marcus practically jumps out of his chair. He launches into the stories of wine producers, some of them making wines out of their garage. He speaks about the distributors and how some of the larger ones actually lobby congress to make it harder for the smaller producers to stay afloat. And then he explains reasons, for example, why there’s no Pinot Grigio on the list but instead an obscure – at least much more than Pinot Grigio – French grape called Groulleau Gris from Domaine Herbauges. He talks about how it has the typical Pinot Grigio citrus, minerality and levity but that it’s also a rich, golden color (in contrast to the clear Pinot) and has just a touch more viscosity or richness or oilyness, even, than Pinot Grigio. While the list has the stalwarts of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Noir – two of them as well as two Roses – it also has plenty of wines for those seeking an adventure.

Working closely with Marcus is Charlie Molinaro, the beer guy. Whether it’s a reflection of buying beer in an area that’s exploding with so many local brews to choose from or a reflection of larger cultural differences with beers versus wines, Charlie’s approach seems different even though they both have the same philosophy. With two constantly rotating seasonal taps, Charlie maintains the standard placements including a stout or porter, an IPA or something similar, a lager and a Belgian ale. Worthy of note is Charlie’s decision to replace Bell’s Oberon – something that’s found everywhere – with ChiTown Windy City Belgian White Ale that’s brewed with honey and spices. Again, it’s not as ubiquitous as Oberon, so it might be more difficult to sell. But it allows for more adventure and is local at the same time. Plan for their next beer dinner happening today, August 31st, featuring the local brewery, 5 Rabbit and amazing food pairings care of Chef Leonard Hollander.

The spirits list reflects this same focus on local and small batch artisan selections including Chicago’s first distillery since Prohibition, Koval. Consequently, you won’t find any Jack Daniels or Smirnoff on their list. And sometime in October (hopefully), MSCM will start carrying spirits; the city of Oak Park will be meeting next month to vote on allowing such a license, the first of its kind since – again – Prohibition.

The Cheese

Lydia Burns is the cheese maven (or more formally, the wholesale accounts manager) for MSCM. Last July, Lydia competed in the 2nd Annual Cheesemonger Invitational held in Long Island City, New York. Like The Gathering in The Highlander, Burns competed against cheesemongers from all over the world. Blind tasting, cutting and wrapping, plating and ability to be socially appropriate in a succinct way were the skills tested in the challenges. In the end, the event was meant to celebrate the role of cheesemonger while having fun along the way. Burns survived and joins an elite few who survived and will gather again when the time is ripe. Until then, she sharpens her skills during the day-to-day challenges hoisted by Oak Parkers and their relentless kin of Chicagoland.

Fellow cheesemonger Alyssa Stone leads the in-house management of the cheeses including staff training and curation of menus items.

Of special note:

Hours: The café closes from 3-5 everyday but still serves cheeses, charcuterie, soups, desserts and full bar.

The Kiddos: While many might not consider a cheese market child-friendly, MSCM is. On Monday mornings from 9:30 to 10:30 starting September 19th (they take a hiatus when school is out), MSCM hosts Story Hour with Miss Marissa while Miss Kate helps the parents with their caffeine or pastry issues.

Miss Marissa is also known as Marissa, lowly student in a master’s program at Dominican for library science. And she specializes in children’s books. She’s also just as skilled in the ways of latte art.

Aside from Monday mornings, MSCM also features a great children’s menu along with crayons and plenty of space in need of color.

Dietary Considerations: Gluten-free bread is available from Rose’s Wheat Free Bakery in Evanston. Chef Leonard also kept such considerations in mind with each entrée – from sandwich to large plate – prepared in a way that usually can be deconstructed to avoid any offending ingredients.

All Credit Cards Accepted

Reservations: They are recommended and a necessity for Groupon users.

After eating at the bistro, you get 10% off all retail items.

The El: The Green Line Harlem stop is literally across the street and one block down from the Marion Street.

Construction: Marion Street in front of the bistro is closed. South Blvd. is open with traffic allowed only one-way from east to west (or toward Harlem Ave). Construction will continue on until the winter but when finished, will include not only a more aesthetically pleasing Marion Street but even heated sidewalks!

BYOB: No. While the retail section includes wine and beer (and soon – pending a vote by Oak Park Council – spirits), there is a corkage fee for taking purchases into the café. It’s recommended to just stick with the café’s own offerings in this regard. This same “corkage fee” applies for cheeses and every other purchase in the retail area, but it’s recommended you stick to what’s on the menu. Truffles, however, are allowed.

Bathrooms: Located on the retail side, there’s one room for the ladies and one room for the gents. These spacious bathrooms are literally pieces of art with frosted, stained glass embedded with hand-blown rondels in the windows facing out to the street care of local Oak Park business, Morava Glass Studio. They actually feature the MSCM windows on the first page of their website. The faucets are motion activated, the hand dryer handsfree, the lighting is very nice and the water pressure is great. The women’s bathroom has a changing table.

Music: Every Thursday

Fridays…: Free wine tastings ever Friday as well as free tastings from the artisans that make the food sold in the retail areas of MSCM. Last Friday, for instance, Madeline Fiore from Viola Imports was tasting out truffle salt and white truffle honey produced by the Savini Tartufi family. MSCM provided bread and cheeses to compliment the truffle loveliness. Another Friday Uzma Sharif was tasting out her truffles! Also watch out for weekend events when local farmers and cheesemakers stop by to taste out their food treasures. There are also long-standing weekly specials like on Mondays with their half-off glasses of wine or Wednesday wine-flights or Tuesdays with their 3 courses for $33 and only $27 from 5-6pm.

See slideshow on Flickr »

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