Linda: It's 15 degrees on a very cold but sunny Chicago morning and we are off to taste scones. Scones are a sweet version of biscuits – made by cutting fat into flour, adding liquid, gently kneading, then baking. (Watch the lesson 1 video of biscuit making for how-to details.)
We're looking for a scone with the perfect combination of crunch on the outside, moistness on the inside (created by the fat melting during baking), and flavor in every bite. We visited four establishments -- from the hotter-than-hot Little Goat to a hidden gem on an alley, Interurban Café. Here's what we found.
Interurban Café and Pastry Shop, 2008 N. Halsted
(The store is actually on the alley off of the north side of Armitage, just west of Halsted.)
Sharon: Interurban Café was our first stop, and had my favorite scones of the day. The chef created the recipes for the donuts at Glazed and Infused, so her reputation (for me at least) made me anticipate some delicious scones. To my delight, she delivered! We tried a cranberry vanilla bean and a cinnamon raisin scone. The texture of the dough was optimal; it was the perfect "in-between" a muffin and a cake. I also thought the dough flavor was toned down when it needed to be (for the cranberry scone) to let the ingredients shine, and enhanced at other times (for the cinnamon raisin scone) with other spices and ingredients to really compliment all of the elements in the pastry. The only negative about the café is its location. Although perfect for passers-by of the alley, it's otherwise difficult to find, since its front door location is not actually on Halsted Street. Also, because it is only a walk-up window, it lacks the convenience of a place to sit. In the summer, this would be no issue, but on days where it is 15 degrees out, the scones are a little less appetizing if I know I have to eat them outside. Luckily, the bakery is planning on expanding soon to a location off the Grand station on the Red Line, where I hope it will do exceedingly well.
Linda: I agree with you; these scones were the best of our tasting. They had a nice crumb, not too cakey, not too dense. The dough was sweet but not too sweet, and each bite was uniformly delicious. The cinnamon raisin scone was my favorite scone of the day. My only complaint was that the cranberry scone had a slight baking powder after-taste. And you know these scones were good because, by the end of the tasting, we had a number of partially eaten scones – but we ate every bite of the Interurban scones.
Little Goat, 820 W. Randolph
Linda: The take out area is part of Stephanie Izard's newest venture: an upscale diner, a take-out bread shop, and a bar. Fortunately, there is parking for people picking up items at their bread shop. We purchased their only scone offering of the day, which turned out to be a savory square, flavored by garam masala and bits of apricot. I like the concept of a savory scone; this was the only savory scone we encountered during our tasting. The scone itself was very flavorful, with a strong, peppery after-taste. While I like garam masala (a combination of spices used in Indian cooking), it didn't work for me in this scone, and it overpowered the flavor of the apricot.
Sharon: I agree with you, Linda. I was excited to try the scone at Little Goat Bread; I was sorry that there was only one scone to sample, but it was definitely refreshing to have a savory scone. My enthusiasm unfortunately dropped after eating it. The texture of the dough itself was quite dense, more so than a majority of the scones we tasted, and although I want scone dough to be a little dense, I thought that the apricot masala scone was just a little too heavy. I also didn't love that the ingredients were hard to pinpoint. If I had not been told the flavors of the scone, I may not have guessed that the flavor was apricot masala.
On a more positive note, the atmosphere of Little Goat was by far my favorite. I loved the open window layout so customers can see their food being made. The dining room décor is lovely; it was definitely my favorite venue by far. Although the scone was not my favorite of the day, I commend Little Goat Bread for attempting something different, and I would return to try either another scone, or something else on the menu.
La Farine Bakery, 1461 W. Chicago
Sharon: La Farine was the first bakery we were actually able to sit! We were able to taste side-by-side the scones from here, Interurban, and Little Goat. La Farine is probably better known for its croissants, but today we were focused on their scones. I found the texture of the dough to be very muffin-y, and somewhat flavorless. There seemed to be little to no sugar in the actual dough, although the scones were garnished with sugar on top. Even with this, the scones were not sweet enough for my liking, which seems a little hard to do, since they were chocolate and blueberry scones. I also thought the chunks of chocolate, as well as the blueberries were too big for the scones, and a little sporadic. If La Farine added more sugar to their dough, broke down the additive ingredients, and mixed the dough a little bit less to achieve a biscuit-like interior, they might be on track to a really great scone.
Linda: I've tasted the croissants here in the past and they are delicious! So my hopes were high for their scones. I liked their scones better than Jess but I still rate them lower than Interurban and Taste of Heaven. The dough isn't tasty by itself, and adding sweetness by a heavy sprinkling of sugar on the top isn't ideal.
A Taste of Heaven, 5401 N. Clark
Linda: This store offered the widest variety of scones, and we sampled three: a cherry, a raspberry, and a blueberry scone. The staff here was very friendly and explained how their scones are made: a large batch of dough is prepared, the fruit is kneaded in, and then it is scooped into 4 oz. balls, dipped in buttermilk, and frozen. The scones are baked from their frozen state, to give them a crunch on the outside, while maintaining moistness inside. The resulting scones are huge! They are definitely shareable and a good value.
I loved the flavor of the dough of these scones, sweet and delicious. There is no after-taste of baking powder. My only complaint is that there wasn't an even distribution of fruit, so that many bites did not have fruit in them. Overall, these scones were my second favorite of the tasting.
Sharon: The scones at A Taste of Heaven were my second favorite as well. I loved that they offered to warm our scones, this was the only stop that presented that option. As you said, the service was wonderful too. I appreciated the time taken to explain their store's process of baking. The scone dough had great flavor, but was not exactly the texture I was looking for. Instead of the crumbly, partially dry dough that is typical for a scone, their dough was much softer, and a little more kept together. Also, it would have been a tougher decision between Interurban and A Taste of Heaven had there been a more even distribution of fruit in these scones, if the dough had a less smooth consistency, and if the kitchen was cleaner in the back. (Although not completely exposed, customers can sneak a peek en route to the bathrooms – flour was everywhere, as well as numerous other ingredients. As a culinary student, this is something I am especially sensitive to.) Overall, these were very good scones at an affordable price.