M. Henry, Chicago

Blackberry bliss cakes
Blackberry bliss cakes

I used to hate New York City. It may have been my as now overcome preoccupation with cleanliness and order, a sense of overwhelming awe, a bit of Second City blues or perhaps a combination of all of the above. But I hated New York City. My mind changed, however, when I was asked  by my then employer if (read: “told that”) I’d consent to a temporary relocation there. Sufficed to say, my feelings were mixed concerning my temporary move. I was already burned out on the travel demanded by my consulting job and had just begun planning my wedding. It struck me as somewhat suboptimal to move half-way across the country to a dirty and frenzied city of which I was secretly jealous. In other words, I didn’t need this.

But, being the Sanjay that I am, I quickly decided to make something of it. I began to ingratiate myself in all things New York, from her people and culture to her nightlife and (of course) dining scene. I actually recall the exact moment when I realized that New York outclassed every city on the planet. I was walking through Central Park–already in awe of the scale of the park juxtaposed against the scale of the city looking in it–and managed to wander into the Conservatory Gardens. I was greeted not just by the three gorgeous European-style gardens, but by breathtaking brass sculptures. The sculptures were some of the finest and most profoundly beautiful I had ever seen. It’s not that other cities lack beautiful sculptures or gardens, but New York’s was somehow different in its unpretentious magnificence. That walk through Central Park provided for me a moment of clarity: This was a city with not just a spectacular wealth of culture and beauty, but spectacular wealth in general. Chicago–and indeed just about every other city on the planet–was simply not in the same league.

After that walk, I was broken; I conceded the title of single greatest city on the planet to New York City. And with that, I opened myself to truly enjoy what the city had to offer. And thereafter, I gained a far deeper appreciation of many New York wonders including modern painting, honky tonk, Bavarian cuisine and the phenomenon that is brunch. To be sure, I cannot overemphasize the importance of brunch in New York City. As equal portions salon, lush escapism, status-asserting and foodie cultivating; brunch is the social and cultural centerpiece of the young and affluent in New York City.

When I eventually moved back to Chicago, my city seemed rather small by comparison. I actually missed New York City. While in New York City, though, I learned the valuable skill of urban exploration. You might say I learned how to strive, to seek, to find. And so I began the delicate work of finding the New York in Chicago; in so doing, I began to discover Chicago as if for the first time. The best part of it all was to bring my taste for brunch back with me to Chicago. Unfortunately, Chicago’s brunch scene wasn’t quite up to the task, or so it seemed. Although it took a little exploration, ultimately I happened across some fine eateries including Owen & Engine, South Water Kitchen, Allium and–the most “New York City” of them all–M. Henry.

M. Henry sounds like a familiar mantra in modern dining: Farm-to-table, locally-sourced whenever possible and just about everything made in-house. M. Henry takes it all to a new level, however, as the restaurant pivots around the oven and the baker. M. Henry doesn’t just smoke its own meat and make its own sausage, they also bake their own bread, fresh, daily. They also use seasonal ingredients for their assorted pastries, pies, tarts, cakes and loaves. They serve up mean pancakes and waffles, as well. As a result, the sweet side of the menu takes on a new, elevated meaning here. It’s like going to eat at your obsessive baker friend’s home. Everything may be delicious, but the baked goods are clearly where the passion, thoughtfulness and love reside. This hyper-specified approach is what reminds me the most of New York City–a place where competition is so fierce, every restaurant must specialize or die.

Warm, spiced apple cider and Metropolis coffee
Warm, spiced apple cider and Metropolis coffee

There are some very delicious items on the main menu at M. Henry, but very often, some of the most magical stuff is on the seasonally-oriented specials menu. On a recent trip there, we ordered almost entirely from the specials and were not disappointed. I started off with the housemade warm, spiced apple cider and a cup of their locally roasted coffee from Metropolis Coffee Company, located just down the street. The coffee blend is hand-selected by the powers that be at M. Henry and small batch roasted as needed. As I understand, the restaurant receives two to three deliveries of fresh beans weekly and you can taste it in the cup. The cider–the clear highlight–was cloudy and pleasantly viscous with subtle hints of fall spice and a pleasant tart balanced with restrained sweetness which reflected the meticulous blending of a variety of apples. The cider was plainly produced with love–not just of warm cider tradition but also of seasonality and M. Henry patrons. It was a delight.

Jerk chicken empanada
Jerk chicken empanada

The Jamaican jerk chicken empanada was a slight disappointment. The seasoning balance was weighted heavily to fresh ginger and overwhelmed the other soft spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. To be sure, spice blending is something of a lost art and modern bakers seem to be too wrapped up in science and precision to care about tasting a spice blend ahead of its addition to a marinade or paste. As a result, the jerk chicken tasted amateurish and un-Jamaican–which is to say, far too clean, simple and with an obnoxious lack of heat. Although the empanada pastry suffered from the same drawbacks–a clear lack of ethnic flair or appreciation–it was in perfect proportion to the filling. Overall, I should say the empanada satisfied, but I only say so with extreme reluctance.

Peasant quiche with field green salad
Peasant quiche with field green salad

The “rustic peasant” quiche, off the static menu, is never to be missed. I’m generally skeptical of “rustic peasant” anything given how ubiquitous peasant cuisines have grown among the supposed haute culinary scenes of Chicago and, indeed, the United States. With rare exception, “rustic peasant” items simply mean that the kitchen lacks technical knife skill. Especially in a delicate quiche, a rustic approach can easily lead to an unrefined, clumsily-flavored and constructed quiche. This is not the case here. With a rustic feel, M. Henry has produced an ironically refined quiche, with a rich, but balanced gruyere and lorraine swiss custard with asparagus, sautéed leeks, shallots and just the right amount of chopped smokey bacon. As accompaniment, the kitchen includes whatever field greens happened to be available and, in my specific case, the most delicious and perfectly ripened berries I’ve had this fall.

Eggs benedict with house smoked wild salmon
Eggs benedict with house smoked wild salmon

The benedict on special that day was rather conventional, with a house smoked salmon, sautéed collard greens and a smoked paprika hollandaise. Although the hollandaise was nicely rich and the smoked salmon delightful, in an era of benedicts with brilliantly paired flavors this one was far too traditional. Fortunately, the fruit medley served with the benedict was so fresh and satisfyingly sweet that I barely noticed the ho-hum benedict at all.

Peach and cherry pie
Peach and cherry pie

Although I’m unclear if it’s really all that appropriate to have dessert with brunch, the fat boy in me prevailed (as he frequently does) when I saw the seasonal peach and cherry pie on the menu. As I said, M. Henry is a bakery first and it’s in the baked goods arena that their food shines brightest. The filling on the peach and cherry pie is made from ripe yellow peaches–instead of the conventional white peaches–and maraschino cherries which results in beautifully sweet-tart filling with perfect consistency. The pie crust is in two layers and all-butter, flaky goodness. Visually, the crust appears a bit thin, but once you bite into the pie, it becomes clear that buttery richness makes up for it. The pie is in perfect balance. Served with juicy yellow peaches, cherry purée and crème fraîche, it is the perfect brunch finale.

The static menu also offers a very competent french toast, a series of seasonal pancakes (pumpkin pancakes pictures at the top of this review), a simply brilliant “blackberry bliss cake” (also pictured at the top of this review). Of particular note are the bliss cakes, a generous stack of perfectly textured hot cakes with blackberry compote and vanilla mascarpone. It’s extremely rich, filling, indulgent and worth a try.

As a BYOB establishment, be sure to bring a bottle or two of good sparkling wine to carry you through your meal. After all, brunch is to be taken lush, in proper New York tradition.

M. Henry
5707 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60660
(773) 561-1600

Reservations not accepted.

http://www.mhenry.net

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