Sweet Exile in Cancale-ville

Michael Nagrant / 06.24.19

At the corner of Armitage Avenue and the Kennedy expressway, some only see a Volvo dealership and a neo-Georgian red brick office building, a bland dereliction of architectural duty. Though it has long been demolished, I instead see myself at 3 a.m. sitting in the corner booth at Marie’s Riptide lounge where minutes ago I’ve dropped a dime and conjured Patsy. The gifts of Willie Nelson and my bourbon-addled brain are en fuego as Cline does her glissando slide amidst a honky-tonk piano tinkle into the opening line… CRA-zeee! Shots roll from the bottle, proffered by THE Marie (Wuczynski), the bar’s snowy-bouffant-crowned namesake. Though she is geriatric, she is always game. She pours one for me, and one for her. I am, whether I like it or not, and oh, God do I, paying for both.

I have often felt that I live in two Chicagos. The Chicago of now, and the city embedded in my memory, that no longer physically exists. It’s not particularly different anywhere else, I guess. Live somewhere long enough, things are gonna go. The Riptide has. Marie did. And so too, shall you.

But, then again, New York still has the Village Vanguard and Café Wha? (we’ll get to this). Rome has the Coliseum. Paris still has the Café Deux Magots.

And yeah, the Green Mill still stands, for now. But Chicago, amongst all the great metropolises, has never been particularly sentimental when deploying the wrecking ball. Maxwell Street was demolished in favor of whatever University Village is, and A. Finkl & Sons steel is now rubble awaiting the future suburban delights of Lincoln Yards.

On second thought, I actually live in three Chicagos. There’s also the Chicago in my mind, that I never knew, the Chicago, whether it was ever real or not, that I’ve mythologized. I am a native Detroiter, but the idea of the stockyards, the broad shoulders of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Sears Tower (it will always be), was to me like the torch of the Statue of Liberty calling to a Dubliner, a beckoning.

Like Bob Dylan making the pilgrimage to the Village, strapping on the six string at Café Wha? in search of Woody Guthrie, I came to Chicago looking for MY heroes, Roger Ebert of Old Town, Ernest Hemingway of Oak Park, and Nelson Algren of Ukrainian Village.

Other neighborhoods that blazed deepest in my consciousness were Wicker Park and Bucktown, lair of Liz Phair, Tony Fitzpatrick, and, yes, I’m sorry, the great pumpkin, Billy Corgan.

Because this is Chicago, and no one remembers shit, for a while they called that confluence of North, Milwaukee and Damen, “the six corners”, even though that moniker had been claimed long ago by the intersection of Milwaukee, Irving Park, and Cicero. Today they call it the crotch.

For most of my twenties I executed a self-imposed exile in crotchville, soaking up the spirits that once haunted, in hopes of my own naturalization, on the curbside patio at Pontiac Café, in a dark corner of the Artful Dodger, and over fried chickpeas at Del Toro.

Against all odds, one place that remains from that time is the godforsaken burrito emporium Flash Taco. Given anything that could go, that Flash Taco’s griddle-steamed carne asada still exists is some kind of immaculate persistence. There were much better Mexican-inspired establishments on this strip that died first, including Chino Taco, which provided a free chili-spiced pickled salsa so corrosive, I am positive that they are responsible for the old man stomach pains I endure far too frequently. I’d have thought the glorious packets of charred pork belly from the Pontiac’s replacement, Big Star, would have put the Flash out of biz, but nope. It’s like they knocked down the Empire State Building, but somehow left behind the municipal parking meter that stood in front.

But, if in vino veritas, then, in beer and booze, bad choices. I am as guilty as anyone for supporting the Flash. I remember one night, procuring a Sprite and a foil wrapped steak bomb and walking past another defunct neighborhood relic, Big Chief. A screaming guitar solo thundered as folks filched fags on the sidewalks. I stopped, placed my spoils on the trunk of a white Datsun so I could listen to the music. Distracted, I turned to see my burrito hightailing it off in the distance, sour cream and meat juice dripping from the trunk like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, as my hangover helper left me in a lurch.

That of course is a metaphor. But the reality is, Bucktown and its environs have been dismantling forever. Del Toro, for example, which before was Mod, and a bunch of other things before that, had this incredible Antoni Gaudi-eseque mosaic designed by Suhail (he too an artist many have already forgotten), filled with thousands of painstakingly hand inlaid glass tiles, that was demolished.

If you didn’t feel the slow burn, maybe you saw the explosion a month or so ago, when they laid blowtorches to the iconic neon marquee, the Double Door Liquors sign, which was banished to secure a permit for the construction of the Yeti-brand boutique of bro coolers.

Progress can be good of course. Big Star’s patio is filled with better brown liquor and way killer comestibles than the Pontiac ever had. The intricate stone wall of Del Toro may be gone, but in its place, sits one of the best cocktail bars in America, The Violet Hour. Del Toro’s chefs also blew up. Andrew Zimmerman opened the magnificent Proxi and has been a great steward of the menu at Sepia, while Rob Levitt became Chicago’s premier butcher at Butcher & Larder, and now Publican Quality meats (PQM).

This brings me to PQM’s new sister restaurant, a new division of One Off Hospitality (Big Star, The Publican, Pacific Standard Time, Dove’s, Avec, etc.), Café Cancale, which sits, apologies, smack dab inside the sweaty nethers of the crotch. 

One Off and Cancale’s principal chef partner is Paul Kahan, who in many ways, as much as Algren or Phair, is also one of my heroes. I lived in Cleveland for a short time after graduating from college. Living on my own for the first time, without a dormitory steam table to sustain me, I was faced with a lifetime of eating Hot Pockets or learning how to cook. Despite my continued fondness for the occasional pocket, and Totino’s party pizzas, I chose the latter.

Obsessed with learning to cook, I ate everywhere I could. I dialed for reservations to The French Laundry like I was trying for Nirvana tickets at Ticketmaster (Stubhub didn’t exist back then). I devoured Food Network (when they actually cooked) and the cookbook canon, working my way up from salsa to soufflé, cooking alongside the Charlie Trotter books, Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking, and the Chez Panisse series.

Cooking out of the Trotter books produced a trail of tears, but I did ok with the others, save the occasional burn incurred from Prudhomme’s “Cajun napalm” technique for making roux. It was the Panisse books that made the most sense to me. Though I was living in a world of artificially-ripened tomatoes and having a hard time procuring goat cheese, a simple beet salad, and the adherence to seasonality, rung me like a bell.

So it did, too, for an applied math student and eventual computer programmer Kahan, who (for reals), hopped a freight train and hitchhiked to California with a buddy. While living in California, he ate a tomato salad at Chez Panisse that changed the course of his life.

By the time I’d heard of him, Kahan had launched Blackbird. I’d maneuvered a job change from Cleveland to Chicago in no small part because I’d exhausted all of (future Iron Chef) Michael Symon’s spots in Cleveland, and I wanted to live in the city of Charlie Trotter, Blackbird, and Frontera Grill.

I’ll save the Trotter’s experience for another essay, but, the short version is it didn’t quite meet my expectations. Against everywhere else I’d eaten, though, Blackbird was Sid Vicious smashing guitars over the heads of the well-heeled at a country club banquet.

I’d always been obsessed with the clean lines of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, and George Nelson. Blackbird’s stark white, black, and silver dining room was the future home I wanted but could never afford (because I was blowing all of my disposable income dining out). The tables at Blackbird were so close. Elbow to elbow with your fellow diners, sometimes you could grab a bite from the plate of a complete stranger. I felt like I’d found the dining equivalent of moshing at The Metro. Rock and roll on the house speakers, I destroyed sweetbreads that tasted like molasses candy coins, and mowed through sweet corn crepes bursting with ricotta, nestled in a wild mushroom broth, wondering if maybe I should give up my carnivorous ways for the vegetarian lifestyle.

Like an itinerant jam band groupie I’d follow Kahan from restaurant to new restaurant, desirous of his newest set list of dishes, hoping for an improvisation I’d never seen before. Kahan’s restaurant group which had once been 4K, aka Four Knuckleheads, became One Off Hospitality. And they stayed true to that name, until they opened Publican Anker, basically Publican 2, electric bugaloo, in bar form. Unlike Blackbird, it was an annoying noisy jostle. Communal tables were a little too communal, with servers accidentally delivering dishes you ordered to the people sitting next to you. Tears rolled down my heart as I watched some sleeve-tattooed lady crib my pork collar one night.

But, Paul Kahan, thankfully, is a man of many life-changing experiences. On his fiftieth birthday, he forewent the hobo life, and hopped aboard a transatlantic flight to France. He descended on the sleepy coast of Brittany and a town called Cancale, one of the premiere oyster spots of Europe. He ate and cooked until he was possessed to deep six Anker in favor of a new concept, Café Cancale.

Stand on the corner of Milwaukee and Damen and gaze upon Cancale’s majesty (which is a very brave thing to do in these ridesharing electric scooter times). The restaurant will summon you with its blue and white sailor striped-awning capped with a rosy paint strip. You can almost smell the Gauloises.

The dinge of Anker has been banished in favor of a pleasant buttercream yellow paint scheme, a zinc-like bar top capped by a light fixture which looks a giant set of old-fashioned bloomers, and button-tufted blue banquettes.

You will be greeted jovially by general manager Felipe Ospina wearing a Cubs hat, jeans, and bespoke-looking sportcoat so perfectly sewn to his lithe torso, that it feels like a single oyster bite will pop a button.

This is also a good time to mention that Ospina recognized me, and as such, my service experience, which included a gratis éclair and a cordial of pineau de charentes, may or may not mirror yours.

Ospina, like his boss, Kahan’s long time managing partner, Donnie Madia, is classy and cool. This is frankly the overall theme which extends to the food executed by chef de cuisine A.J. Walker, which is to say, Cancale is inspired as much by The Clash as it is by the classic bistro.

You may think it’s coy to compare a seemingly sedate seafood restaurant to a punk rock, but in 2019 you gotta have major couilles (if you don’t know what those are, check urban dictionary Paris edition) to serve up walleye quenelle, a centuries old Escoffier wet dream, which is basically a steamed fish mousse donut. In Walker’s hands however, it is a cloud-like seafood soufflé swimming in a lake of cognac and lobster essence capped off with a verdant mound of pea shoots that tastes like soil and fresh spring air.

No one in their right mind tries to reinvent the perfection that is the jiggly runny yolk, the hunky lardons, and the vinaigrette-kissed greens of a salade Lyonnaise. But Walker, flips you a righteous bird, by also throwing in crisp scrims of mandoline-shaved fried potato wisps and smoked nuggets of eel, to take things to the next level.

I should back up a second. I have often joked that my life loves, in order, are Detroit Red Wings hockey, food, and family. But, maybe, that is not quite right. Rather, if I’m being honest, it is probably, raw or lightly cooked seafood, pizza, and sexual healing.  

Foie gras and steak are fine, but I’ll take abalone and Kusshi and Royal Reds all day long. On this count, Cancale, in the form of Fiddler’s Cove oysters, that taste inherently like brine and butter, delivers like Domino’s.  

There is also an impeccably “dressed” lobster, featuring salty, creamy cool chopped claw and tail meat dusted with black lime (Joe Strummer would approve) tossed with crunchy commas of celery. It does take a while for this dish to arrive. My wife is so hungry, she suggests that she’d be fine eating it naked. The good news is our server warns us of these minor pacing delays, so we’re not left wondering if we’ve been forgotten.

Cocktails at Cancale feel like they’ve been named after unpublished Edith Wharton novels. There’s the “Cotillion”, the “Pablo in Paris, and “Lilacs of Spring”. I especially dig “Mirth in the Afternoon” a brew of licorice and lemon made with Pineau des Charentes, Pernod, Absinthe, sparkling wine, and lemon peel. Many of the drinks, like the ultra-luxe “Superb Last Word” are served with sidecars sitting in ice-filled hammered-copper sleeves, so that each sip of gin, lime, and chartreuse, is frigidly delicious.

Ribbons of toothsome pappardelle, covered in a snow of pecorino pepato, wrap themselves around winey-flavored pistachios and steak-like morels.

The only real mis-step of the night is an ammonia-tinged plank of trout featuring a giant fat globule. But, even then, the fish’s skin is crispier than George Hamilton’s face, and the truffled and pickled peach olive and radish slivers encrusting the top are taste bud firecrackers.

Dessert from Erika Chan, including a sweet and salty mountain of strawberry sundae featuring chocolate ribbons and an orange-scented cookie crumb bottom is redemptive.

The One Off Hospitality team is populated by stellar butchers, bakers and Cancale-makers, none more accomplished than Publican Quality Bread head, Greg Wade, his kouign-amman oozing butter and sticky caramel alongside a dollop of Chang’s silky maple ice cream.

If I have any criticism of Cancale, it’s that it’s slightly a victim of its restaurant group’s own standards. Whether it’s the crazy garden wall at Nico Osteria or the Viking-chic of the original Publican, diners now expect to be completely transported and inspired by the rooms in which they eat. The elbow-shaped space of Cancale, it’s peaceful dining room cut off from the boisterous bar area, is still a tad awkward. If you sit in the bar room corner like I did, you’re shoehorned in next to a fairly unattractive wine cooler, and a plastic silverware tub.  It’s not a huge deal, though. The staff has to make efficient use of what is a fairly tiny restaurant space.

What is undeniable is that in the spectrum of progress and the transformation of Wicker Park, Cancale is the kind of Chicago of now I can get behind. However, Cancale will also soon be surrounded by the new tenant of the adjacent former-Double Door space, a Yeti cooler concession. That a super expensive plastic insulated box concern has displaced one of city’s holiest cathedrals of music is an unabideable stink to those of us with the memory of what once was. The good news is that through breaking Wade’s artisan bread, guzzling down crisp Muscadet, and gorging on killer crustaceans at Cancale, all of that unpleasantness will, I believe, be driven away by the imagined perfume of briny North Atlantic breezes and the anise waft of Pernod.