“Bread in the U.S. has no taste. It is very fat, uses very much sugar and shortening,” says Thierry Dieu, master baker at the Greektown cafe/bakery Artopolis. “It is not bread.” Dieu’s bread centers around the flour, and his ingredients meet exacting standards. Since Artopolis opened just over a year ago, his work has attracted so much attention from other food professionals that in early February the cafe’s owners will open a 5,800-square foot wholesale baking facility at LaSalle and 46th.
“We’re serving three very large Chicago hotels, their restaurants and catering departments, and some French restaurants too,” says Artopolis’s manager, Maria Melidas. “We didn’t expect the bakery to fly like this.”
Though she may not have expected such quick success, Melidas knew from the beginning that bread would be important at Artopolis. “The idea for Artopolis started as a bakery,” she says. “Artos in ancient Greek me ans bread, and polis means city. We tried to do a bread bakery and a city cafe, married in one concept.” The idea sprang from the ancient Greek agora–a gathering place where people came to discuss politics, and later just to eat and meet friends.
So Melidas–along with Artopolis owners Yianni Melidas (her husband), Tony Katsoulis (her brother), and James Alexander, who also run Pegasus decided to find a baker who would be true to their Greek roots. “In Greece, if you have zucchini in the garden, you had zucchini bread,” says Melidas. “Or if you had a lot of olives, you put them in the bread. We wanted to have more than what you know here as sesame Greek bread.”
Melidas met Dieu thanks to an introduction from a French oven seller. Born in France, the son of a farmer, Dieu had been working as a baker since age 13 and had trained as a food scientist in Belgium. When Melidas called him on December 1, 1999, he was working in LA for the oven seller, teaching bakery staffers how to use the ovens. One week later he flew to Chicago. He’s headed the bread bakery at Artopolis ever since.
A man with a taste for the world–and a mission–Dieu had left France ten years before. For a while he worked for a company that sent him to Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia, ascertaining that bakery products met the Codex Alimentarius, the European standard for food purity. When he came to America some-three years ago, he was in for a shock. “You never hear bakers talking in the media, perhaps because the media thinks American baking is no good,” he says. The presence of chemicals and hormones in American food upsets him, and he laments the excessive chlorine in our water. “The baker is an artist like the chef, only his art is scientific,” he says. He buys the best flours he can find on the market, then mixes them with the skill of a chemist. “There is no cholesterol in this bread,” he says. “You have to respect flour.”
Dieu gives the flour more than respect; he inflates it with passion, pumping out some 3,000 to 4,000 loaves, boules, and baguettes daily (with the help of his six-person staff). Chunks of tomato enliven tomato bread. Ginger bread, specially baked for a hotel customer, is pink inside. Some 50 varieties include Cajun spice bread, calamata olive bread, basil bread, rosemary bread, walnut raisin bread, and Parmesan garlic bread.
Armed with Dieu’s bread, Artopolis is its own little world, a surrogate Mediterranean square. Part gourmet grocery, part gift shop, it’s also a bar, a pastry shop, a place to have dinner or lunch. “You can have a complete meal, a glass of wine, buy a bottle of wine,” says Melidas. “It’s a very popular idea where we come from. You don’t go out just to eat. You go out and have a coffee and snack.”
Melidas and her husband opened their first restaurant, Greektown Gyros, just a few doors down from Artopolis, in 1986; they still run it. When Yianni opened Pegasus in 1990 with Katsoulis and Alexander, Maria stayed in the background. But Artopolis bears her imprint: when she isn’t taking care of payroll and employee relations, she might be straightening shelves, adjusting gourmet coffees, or primping the gift baskets.
Food offerings, in fact, seem like presents, remarkable for their color and taste. Eleven signature sandwiches spill with flavor, including roast lamb in Dijon mustard and chicken in tequila lime mayonnaise. Count ten wood-fired pizzas. Add some 14 salads and appetizers including a Mediterranean plate rich with hummus, fava, bean spread, baba ghannouge, tzatziki, tabbouleh, and olives. Tempting specials include salmon with fried leeks, decorated with varicolored roasted peppers. But most unique are the “artopitas,” succulent, round minipies based on a Melidas family recipe, a flaky crust socked with gooey ingredients such as portobello mushrooms and Emmentaler cheese.
Though the cafe’s name and owners are Greek the place sizzles with diverse influences. Kitchen chef Mahmoud Abdelsayea is Egyptian. Pastry chef Thomas Bauza is American. Tom Ullo, the designer, is Italian. Michael Moraris, the architect, is Cypriot.
And, of course, there’s Dieu. “You have to have partners in passion,” says Melidas. Artopolis is at 306 S. Halsted, 312-559-9000.
Martial Norguier turned in his toque at the Pump Room January 20 to take over for chef Patrick Robertson at One Sixty Blue; January 22.
Blue Fin, another new sushi restaurant, opened December 29 at 1952 W. North (between D’Vine and Cafe Absinthe).
On January 17, Mas partners Hubie Greenwald and chef John Manion opened Otro Mas in the former Dish space at 3651 N. Southport.
–LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.