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October 19, 2010

Foodents: At Julius Meinl, taste the rainbow—the beige rainbow, that is

Beige, for those of you uninitiated, is a color. It lives somewhere between the realms of yellow and brown. If beige were paint, you couldn’t buy it in satin—only eggshell. If beige were a beverage, it would be a yogurt smoothie. Beige is not a dominating color. Beige is a subduing color. In the presence of beige, other colors don’t seem overwhelmed so much as bored unconscious and strangled with piano wire.

Beige is a lumbering Miocenian giant sloth, unknowingly crushing the dried leaves beneath its bulbous feet. Beige is unthinking, unfeeling, and glacial. Thrust ordinary law-abiding citizens into an unnecessarily beige environment, and they behave as though returned to the womb. They are quiet and dependent and warm, their eyes glazed, their minds a kind of pleasant jelly. Beige is the hand holding the ether handkerchief from behind the curtain; it is the pair of hands drawing you down slowly to a red-cushioned floor.

I think we can agree that no matter what its qualities, beige is powerful. And the Julius Meinl Café is certainly aware of this. It has yoked beige, tying the slumbering giant to a fragile but resilient idea. And that idea is Austrian food.

Julius Meinl is almost brilliantly, beige-ily soporific. The chairs are comfortable. There is a harpist from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra rattling off sweet classics from the Great Bavarian Songbook. The wall is lined with small mirrors, black-and-white photographs, and a veritable army of identical porcelain boys. The lights are dimmed to give the effect of candelabras. The place is inhabited by wandering spirits looking for one last croque-monsieur or Black Forest torte. Julius Meinl stands as a warm, glowing outpost in a strange and dark sea all too battered by gray and heavy storms. Its beacon may be shattered and unclear, but with faith one can experience its greatest treasure—comfort.

When approaching Julius Meinl, one cannot help but feel a sense of hesitation. The café, from the outside, could easily be mistaken for a Starbucks. The counters have the same assortment of espresso machines and variously-sized cups. The glass food display case is filled with the same ready-made sandwiches and wholesome desserts. Even the walls are lined with the same Thermoses and coffee beans, promising quality to those who want to take the ingredients home and grind them. The difference is, both literally and on a deeper level, that all of these things—the cups, the coffee, and the pastries—bear the indelible stamp of Julius Meinl.

Our meal consisted of apple cider, fresh-roasted coffee, frittaten soup, bean and bacon soup, roasted lamb spätzle, butternut squash spätzle, and three desserts: the coffee cardinal, the Mozart torte, and the Esterhazy (pear and hazelnut torte). So, our meal consisted of a lot of things, few of which were anything close to being normal. Most were completely superb, in a very notable and unique way.

Speaking of the desserts is probably the easiest and most familiar task. All three were great, but two were exceptional. They were as desserts should be, sweet but not overwhelmingly so. The cream was near perfect in its richness: just the right point between sublime and coma. The complexity of all three items was also surprising. Each played host to a wide cast of flavors, and as we ate, all three sensations mixed in exciting and unexpected ways.

The entrées were notable for their subtlety, particularly the butternut squash. The roasted lamb, though, was a little too subtle. But it was not the subtlety of the flavors that made the food of Mr. Meinl stand out; rather, it was the very sensation of eating it. Each bite of spätzle was like a hug from Grandma. It made you feel warm, cared for, and happy. As the food rolls into your stomach, a trail of warmth and comfort follows and leaves a sense of

fulfillment.

Drinks were also present at our meal. Drinks, of course, are not food, yet they deserve a passing mention here. They were very good, particularly the coffee. But this is not something we are concerned with. This topic will be left to others.

Surprisingly, this place is pretty cheap. A full entrée costs at most $12, soups $4, and desserts from $3 to $6.50. Remember to stay for dessert. It’s worth it. Are you?

Farewell, stay well, eat well.

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