I recently concluded a morning greeter tour without stopping for lunch with my guests like I usually do (they opted to forge ahead on their own with some other sightseeing plans). Feeling a bit adrift and not wanting to pop in to the usual joints nearby the Cultural Center, my eyes latched onto a sign at the corner of Wabash and Washington advertising a Heaven on Seven inside the adjacent building at 111 N. Wabash. HOS is a locally well-known Cajun restaurant that's been serving up gumbo and cornbread to Chicagoans since the early 80s. Even in the Food Network-crazy world of today, we don't have a lot of Cajun cuisine to choose from around here, so HOS has been our torchbearer for New Orleans cooking for the better part of 30 years. I'd once eaten at the River North location with some co-workers and had made a couple of visits to the now-departed HOS in Wrigleyville (it became a German brauhaus, somehow a more palatable option to inebriated baseball fans wandering by on Clark, which I guess already resembles Bourbon Street on most gamedays), but, unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon the original HOS that Chef Jimmy Bannos opened in an old coffee shop in the Garland Building (on, of course, the 7th floor - hence the name) in 1981.
My first impression upon entry was that the space is pretty small, yet packed with character. I could easily imagine a smoke-filled room of insurance salesmen and newspaper reporters hunkered down over a midday egg salad sandwich and a cup of joe in here sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. I took a seat at the counter and faced the wall that you see in the photo above, which was dominated by shelves of hot sauce bottles and a cooler filled with gargantuan slices of pie. The waitstaff was friendly, but a bit harried, as there wasn't much room for nonsense in the narrow serving walkway leading to the cramped kitchen area. Still, given the constraints on layout, the menu was surprisingly large, covering traditional breakfast, Cajun breakfast, burgers, and plenty of Creole specialties, including jambalaya, shrimp and grits, po' boys, and red beans with rice. Almost everything comes with a cup of gumbo.
I opted for the soft shell crab po' boy sandwich, which quickly arrived looking rather dramatic on the plate (see photo above). I had to break off a few of the appendages just so I could eventually close the roll. Although it didn't quite measure up to the amazing po' boys I had in New Orleans last year, this one certainly satisfied my immediate craving for Cajun (I'd probably try a different variety next time). My cup of gumbo that preceded the sandwich was fantastic, however, and would warrant a return trip on its own.
In lieu of a 1,000 calorie-slice of chocolate peanut butter pie, I left HOS in favor of Toni Patisserie (65 E. Washington), a French-style bakery and lunch spot literally across the street from the Cultural Center for dessert. Since I'm a sucker for macarons (something I thought the progeny might actually eat), I chose a couple of strawberry and pistachio versions sporting day-glow colors, along with an apple pastry and a chocolate-caramel tart to share with the babysitter (my mother-in-law). With a bit of time to kill before heading home, I located an empty park bench in Millennium Park and lustily eyed my purchase before diving in (see photo above). Everything in the box was rich and decadent (and messy, I might add - I don't advise trying to eat a chocolate-caramel tart half with only a couple of unused pocket tissues to clean your fingers), with the sweets bringing to mind a not-so-long-ago trip to Paris and its many associated sugary creations that soothed the soul.