Sky Full of Bacon

#19: Shokolad, decadent bourgeois cafe

One of the lasting testaments to the awfulness of the Soviet system is the fact that so many countries in that part of the world are now identified with a gray, cheerless inhospitality. If you want to describe the experience somewhere as being utterly without charm, grace or initiative, as truly not caring whether the customer lived or died, few adjectives can improve on “East German” or “Bulgarian” or “Albanian.”

This may not seem as terrible a charge to lay at Communism’s feet as, say, the gulags, but I would argue that destroying the natural impulse toward hospitality in the peoples who wound up under Soviet domination is as striking an example of the soul-killing aspect of totalitarianism as anything you could name. Consider some of the countries not far beyond the USSR’s borders—Sweden, Austria, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, India, Thailand, Japan; nations where the pleasures of the table and the profession of hospitality have been raised to the highest level of warmth and conviviality. And then there’s Albania. A country that ought to be a second Italy spent half a century eating gray mystery meat in sullen silence, and its natural tendencies toward producing good food and good times were wrecked.

All this is rather a heavy and possibly unkind way of setting up some comments about a new bakery and cafe in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, a rare example of an actual Ukrainian business opening new in a neighborhood otherwise turning hipster-generic. There are clearly some good things happening here—desserts in the case looked innovative and interesting, and the list of Ukrainian specialties would excite my mom’s Mennonite-heritage-bug (our branch, though German in origin, lived in the Ukraine before coming to the US and picked up a lot of dishes like pelmeny and varenyky, basically pierogi). There aren’t many cafes advertising both free wifi, and a roasted goose leg dinner special.

But at the same time, breakfast on Sunday morning was a frustrating experience because the service just didn’t have the warmth and consideration that comes naturally to non-Soviet peoples. It’s a little thing to have to ask for coffee, after a life spent watching waitresses at breakfast come at you coffee pot in hand or at least asking you first, but add an item never arriving despite two requests, having to shut the ajar front door ourselves several times, watching the waitress catch up on the things that should have been done before opening before she takes our order, and dealing with blank-stared mutual incomprehension over a simple matter of ordering a side of hash browns (we nearly ended up with potatoes in my son’s chocolate-banana crepes, I’m certain), and, well, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly like our breakfast at this place.

Still, it’s an ambitious place, as new ethnic joints go, and breakfast was, if a little monotonously sweet, reasonably tasty and well-prepared. I will probably give Shokolad another chance, and hope that this Sunday morning was just an unfortunate reversion to Soviet type, in an atmosphere otherwise of unbridled, customer-pleasing American entrepreneurship.

2524 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 276-6402

UPDATE: Shokolad is featured in the “Save This Restaurant” column in this week’s Time Out.

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