The first thing to know about Cellar Door Provisions, the little corner cafe with a soul of a bakery, is that the bread and butter are exceptional. For a city that only recently began to take bread seriously, this is very good news.
Every hunk is a good hunk: dark, crackly crust gives way to a chewy interior and a faint tang of sourdough. It’s the kind of bread that makes carb counters question their life choices, and is best enjoyed the same way my grandfather used to eat poppy seed bagels: with a pat of butter slathered upon every bite.
But at this Logan Square eatery co-owned by Ethan Pikas and Tony Bezsylko, it’s necessary to try everything. That could mean bold, resourceful veggie dishes like mapo turnips and broccoli rabe kimchi (the menu changes, naturally). It definitely means quiche. It also means you are not allowed to leave until you’ve had a croissant.
Photo: Cellar Door Provisions
In the three years since it opened, Cellar Door has flown mostly under the radar. It recently, however, found national fame from a story in Bon Appètit, who named ours the “Restaurant City of the Year” and described Cellar Door Provisions as the Sqirl of Chicago, “minus the crowds, national hype, celebrities and lines.” [Ed. note: read our coverage here.]
Which is not far off.
I spent the morning there a few weeks back to understand what goes into the best damn breakfast in the city. And to (hopefully) eat half my weight in bread and butter.
It’s 9 a.m. by the time I arrive, the place by now buzzing with young families divvying up pastries and laptop-wielders sipping coffee. The 20-seat room is bright and airy thanks to a much-needed remodel over the winter that traded dark, heavy wood tables for blonde reclaimed slabs dyed with turmeric and custom ash-wood chairs. The breakfast and lunch menus, which will remain for just a week or two, are scrawled on two big mirrors affixed to the wall.
General Manager Emily Sher is at her usual morning post in the back corner, updating the week’s menu online (CDP is closed Mondays and Tuesdays). Like any good GM, she seems to know everyone who walks through the door on a first-name basis.
“People tell me being here is like eating at your friend’s house,” she says. “Your overly ambitious friend’s house.”
Behind the counter, the orderly kitchen hums with activity. Bezsylko discusses a new pig’s tail breakfast dish with chef de cuisine Gabriel Moya while he shapes cardoon croquettes. The bitter thistles were milk-poached and wrapped in tight bechamel sauce before chilling overnight. Soon they’ll get coated in breadcrumbs and seeds, fried and piled on bread-thickened romesco sauce for lunch.
Cardoon croquettes with romesco and seeds
Pastry cook Tessa Vierk is folding croissant dough between dashes to the oven to check on black walnut plum tarts. Across from her, line cook Chuck Cruz preps tarragon butter for celery soup.
Pikas, meanwhile, is still at the Green City Farmer’s Market, making the first of two weekly produce runs. “That way, we can watch how the week unfolds and not spend more than we have to,” says Bezsylko. He’s moved on to processing a whole mess of corn for masa, which will get incorporated into yellow mole and served with charred cucumber, sesame leaf, corn and cucumber water in the first course of an upcoming collaboration dinner with Birria Zaragoza’s Jonathan Zaragoza.
Cellar Door Provisions has offered BYO, prix-fixe weekend dinner service since February — part of the impetus for remodeling the dining room.
“It’s easier to maneuver with the new configuration,” says Sher, who helped Pikas select the new furniture. “It feels great to have so much of ourselves in the place.”
Ethan Pikas (left) and Tony Bezylko (right)
Just after 10 a.m., Pikas bursts into the kitchen bearing a late-summer bounty of stonefruit, berries, greens, onions and tomatoes. Kale will join radishes and shiso in a hearty pork cheek dijonnaise salad on the breakfast menu. Assorted tomatoes will be marinated in vinegar, confited with herbs in sunflower oil, heated with kombu then strained into water, reduced and added to aioli with dashi and garlic — then assembled into a tomato tartine on Moya’s bread (seen above in our main image).
Hearing Pikas describe these dishes makes me marvel aloud at the ambitious way they codify breakfast: Rapini with smoked onions and bordelaise? And most weirdly, the aforementioned pig’s tail, with barbecue sauce, yogurt and cucumbers?
Is this kind of veggie-forward breakfast even allowed in Chicago? Surely, it is now.
Beyond the team’s inventiveness, this approach also speaks to Cellar Door’s rigorous sourcing and waste-minimization standards. CDP almost exclusively sources less-expensive “off” cuts of meat. And every bit of byproduct — be it buttermilk, beet pulp or green tomatoes — gets swirled into soup, dehydrated into powder or fermented to add depth to dishes.
In that way, adding dinner service has been like a creative belt-loosening for the team.
“The really cool thing about dinner service for me is that we can focus more on a single ingredient and highlight it because there’s a succession of the meal,” Pikas says. “With breakfast and lunch, each dish needs to be more complete and able to stand alone.”
Just then, Bezsylko drops off a taster bowl of the celery soup. Brined celery has been poached in housemade buttermilk with housemade dashi, garlic and black pepper, then pureed and streaked with tarragon butter and dotted with marigold flowers. The end result is perfectly presentable, with hints of garlic, butter and soft acidity. We try it.
“So?” I ask.
“It needs a little vinegar and honey — it’s not totally round,” Pikas replies.
The week the Bon Appetit story came out was perhaps CDP’s busiest of the year, unheard of in typically sleepy August.
“It felt legitimizing in a certain way,” Pikas says. “Being under the radar has been good because it has allowed us to do whatever we want. But we also need to fill seats. It took a long time to get to a place where we were even confident enough to receive press like that.”
He’s proud that all the local restaurants that made Bon Appetit’s top 50 restaurants of the year (Elske, Giant, Mi Tocaya Antojeria and Smyth & the Loyalist) are independent, which he says speaks to the growth that CDP and the restaurants around it have shown in the last three years.
“If we put pig’s tail on the menu in the first two years, it would not have sold,” he says, noting that the current dining-scape speaks to the evolution of people’s tastes. “We have developed trust with a lot of folks, which is super cool.”
It’s after 1 p.m. when I finally pack up my laptop and get ready to head out.
“We’ll see you soon, right?” Sher calls.
Absolutely. Take your pick: breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Photos: Tom Gallagher
Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.