1747 N. Damen
A recent Saturday afternoon found Mindy Segal swooping in and out of the kitchen of her new Bucktown restaurant, Hot Chocolate, in her chef's jacket and apron, pausing now and then to discuss a server's performance ("We need to have a chitchat") or check in with one of the kitchen workers ("How many potpies do I have?"). Three workers stood at a table, alternately frosting a carrot cake, rolling bread-stick dough into ropes, and weighing pieces of raisin-walnut dough for the bread served with the cheese course. Another stood opposite an oven big enough for a fairy-tale witch to push Hansel and Gretel into. He patiently made popcorn in a stove-top kettle and scooped it into dozens of small paper bags to be placed on each table as a predinner snack. Segal stopped by him midswoop. "The popcorn last night was a little--"
"Crappy?" he said.
"Yeah, why?" asked Segal. "It was, like, chewy or something." Too much butter, they decided. A minute later she asked the air, "The marshmallows are, like, a hundred times better. What's up?"
Segal's still getting used to being in charge. She started considering opening her own place about five years ago, while working under executive chef Michael Kornick at MK and MK North. Her signature desserts such as Cake 'n' Shake (chocolate cake accompanied by a miniature vanilla milk shake) became cult favorites at those restaurants. About two years ago she felt she was finally "old enough and mature enough" to run her own shop. "It's the hardest and most humbling experience I've ever had. I don't feel that this is my restaurant," she says. "I feel like Michael Kornick's going to come in telling me what I'm doing wrong."
Despite the fact that heretofore Segal has been best known for her stints as pastry chef at Kornick's restaurants as well as at Marche, Charlie Trotter's, and Spago, Hot Chocolate isn't strictly a dessert joint. Segal serves a small, perpetually rotating lunch and dinner menu of seasonally inspired creations such as seared arctic char, rabbit rillettes, and brie in brioche with a salad of mushrooms, asparagus, and parsley. Segal and her executive sous-chef, Erin Mooney (former pastry chef at Spring), collaborate on the menu. "I wanted it to have that feeling of Chez Panisse, with four or five different items in each category," Segal says. "I wanted to do food the way I eat at home--very personal and seasonal." Brunch is available on the weekends, and later this month the restaurant will begin offering retail products such as cookies, Danish, and fruit preserves. It's already selling "little noshes"--bags full of the breakaway remnants of Segal's brownies and fruit crumbles.
Of course, Segal's credentials guarantee an impressive dessert list. Her confections often have monoflavor names--Chocolate, Banana, Coconut--but many of them are really three desserts in one. The one called Rhubarb brings together rhubarb potpie, sour-cream and raspberry-jam ice cream, and lemongrass sorbet. "I don't think my desserts are complicated," she says. "It's not like I'm doing something that's confusing. I try to bring people back to their childhood. Then I throw a twist in there and let them think about it." Like her carrot cake: "It's served with a little cinnamon ice cream and a cream soda with a little carrot juice in it." She shrugs. "It's simple. It's good. It goes."
Segal swears she wasn't thinking of cocoa when she named the place. "I didn't have the drink in mind," she says. "I thought about what the word portrays: loungey, warm, sexy, relaxed." Still, the decor is pure Hershey's. The letters on the sign outside look like dripping chocolate syrup, and dark brown wooden chairs inside are arranged around butterscotch tables. Even the occasional white accents--a flower arrangement at the bar, a small porcelain cat statue, a painting of a pale, curvy woman--evoke lush marshmallows floating in a mug.
Back in the kitchen, Segal started the hot chocolate, which she offers in light, medium, and dark varieties, as well as "black and tans" (two-thirds hot chocolate, one-third hot fudge) and "half and halfs" (half espresso, half dark hot chocolate). While she emptied gallon jugs of milk into a pot, her father walked in. He and Segal's mom run the restaurant's office. "Now I'm working with my parents, I've got to be on my best behavior," Segal said. "You know what it's like working in a kitchen. We're all swearing pigs." Next she started dessert for the staff's nightly dinner. That day it was a tres leches cake fashioned from the leftovers of a wedding cake tasting she'd conducted earlier. Segal cut the sheet cake in two, lavished it with buttercream, hefted one piece on top of the other, and put it in the refrigerator. Around her, the staff discussed which menu items they wanted to try that night. The Wagyu beef skirt steak? The mussels with green curry? One of them said she'd just eat on her way home. "What are you going to eat?" someone asked incredulously, eyeing the bounty of ingredients spread on the table before them. "Fruit snacks from Walgreens?"
Segal grabbed a spatula from the worker beside her, who was spreading the batter for graham cracker tuilles (thin, crispy cookies served with Segal's caramelized banana dessert) into a pan. Segal spread the grainy batter swiftly but with concentration. "You see how I'm spreading it really thin?" she asked her staff, not looking up. "Got it?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.