Wanna see Chicago foodies go after each other. Get them talking about Chicago BBQ. About as bad can be a discussion on Chicago pizza, especially if you salt your match with people who grew up in other cities (cough-new york-cough). Unite them, ask them about the state of Chicago deli's. Manny's may be listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica as Institution, Kaufman's in Skokie may offer more than decent take-out and Max & Benny's thrives in Northbrook, but the foodies or the media elite so to speak (e.g., about anyone talking food on the Milt Rosenberg show) will lament the lack of deli's around here. What they really need to be lamenting is the lack of a grand gourmet store.
Fox & Obel jumped into the fray several years ago, with press releases a-blazin' and heavy inlay of capital on packaging, but never quite fulfilled its destiny. Now on its, and don't quote me on this, third ownership team, the store does a few things well. It can bake bread. It has, I believe, by far the best baguette in town. It has a great tasting wall of olive oil. Does it have local?
I cannot resist popping into F&O if I am in the neighborhood. Inspector Local found Michigan asparagus the other day, priced at $3.49/lb, about what Whole Foods has charged and not that different in price from what I saw yesterday for Mexican asparagus at Caputo's. That was it. Any place with aspirations of gourmet grandeur should know that greatness begins with ingredients and great ingredients begins with local. Put another way, if Cassie at her tiny Green Grocer can do it, why cannot they.
F&O was not totally lacking in local. They have a good selection of dairy, including cream from Farmer's All Natural Creamery. They were offering samples of Wisconsin's Pleasant Ridge Reserve the other day. Still, their cheese department pales when compared to Pastoral or Marian Street Cheese.
A couple of other observations. I like that they carry some cuts of Tallgrass beef besides steaks; the 21 day dry aged, prime beef looks worth their exorbitant prices. When the store opened, they made New York worthy displays of whole fish and seafood, but lately it's been a pathetic display of fillets. Likewise, the cured meats and sausages section has deteriorated. F&O introduced us to La Quercia hams from Iowa, yet they no longer carry them. I like their whitefish salad, but its price is such that I (almost always) resist. I greatly admire, but fully resist the various sides of smoked salmon, hand sliced to order. Perhaps all this looking but not buying has made Fox & Obel what it is today.
Fox & Obel Food
401 E. Illinois Street
Chicago, IL 60611