Around this time last year I wrote about a Lakeview shop called Jolly Posh Foods, a place that made this Anglophile positively chuffed. It wasn’t so much the prepared foods, a work in progress limited by a small kitchen, but more for the imported groceries that fed into this writer’s childhood nostalgia. (Maltesers, Walkers crisps, Lucozade et al.)
Two weeks ago, Jolly Posh moved a few blocks south from its Irving Park Road storefront to a space three times the size at 3755 N. Southport Ave. (872-802-3840). I had lunch here over the weekend, and indeed, it’s more charming and pleasingly laid out than its previous location. There’s now seating for 38, a wall of groceries with proper shelf space, and later this summer, an outdoor patio. The space feels warm now, with reclaimed wood flooring and exposed brick walls, inviting enough to bring out entire families — there were strollers aplenty, with toddlers adorably smearing their faces with Nutella sandwiches. It’s a bit like its neighbor Southport Grocery and Cafe, only at Jolly Posh, four on staff speak with a British accent.
The biggest difference though, owner Nick Spencer told me, is having a working kitchen.
“The big change is we’re going into dinner,” said Spencer, who’s looking at post-July 4 to expand beyond lunch service. “We can do an awful lot more hot foods. We’re cranking out meat pies for the first time, such as a chicken curry, steak and ale, and a cream of mushroom pie as well. When we go into dinner, we’ll have fish and chips and pub burgers. We’re going to have a roast pork sandwich with crackling, arugula and apple glaze. It’ll be like something you can find at (London’s) Borough Market.”
Here’s the original Cheap Eater column of Jolly Posh Foods from May 2013:
Before I could ride a bicycle or recite The Lord's Prayer, I remember sausages. Bulbous and gray, with brown patches from the fry pan, these links — ask my folks — were the quickest, cheapest way to quiet a hyper child. But my introduction to sausages was likely different from yours.
I spent my first six years in Hong Kong, which in the 1980s was under the flag of Great Britain (it reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997). My parents raised me in a dual-language household of Cantonese and English, and once a week I was tutored by a British woman. At the end of lesson, she'd reward me with Maltesers — crunchy chocolate balls with a dusty malt center, not unlike Whoppers. Walking home with my mother, we'd stop by the store for a cold bottle of Lucozade, a fizzy orange energy drink, and a packet of Walkers crisps.
But the most indelible food memory of my quasi-British colonial upbringing involved sausages. In Hong Kong, most versions I tasted were a derivative of the Lincolnshire style of British sausage, with a mild, fresh pork flavor. Biting into one reveals its most identifiable trait: a smooth inner texture similar to bratwurst, with a satisfying recoil against the teeth.
After immigrating to America, it seemed that sausages popular here, be it frankfurter, kielbasa or breakfast, were either cured or smoked. Its consistency, too, veered toward coarseness and chunk. These were perfectly delicious in their own ways, but you always remember first loves.
In Lakeview, Jolly Posh Foods is a grocer and cafe that rushes those tingly memories to the forefront. The name should offer a clue. It bubbles and squeaks with Anglophilia of the edible variety. Many who come here will find as much identification with this store as an Armenian grocer. For some, it will elicit wistful sighs.
The man responsible is Nick Spencer, a 35-year-old Brit who made the trans-Atlantic move six years ago for the love of a woman. After moving from New York to Chicago in 2009 to be closer to her parents, Spencer considered various business ideas. In food, namely ones from childhood not found in Chicago, Spencer found a deep-enough passion to justify a career change (he had worked for Ernst & Young in risk management consulting).
Spencer asked himself, "What do I miss most?" The most British-emblematic and American-accessible food was sausages. Spencer toyed with recipes, tweaking proportions of pork, salt and breadcrumbs, until — yes — one batch of Lincolnshire sausage tasted of home. A second recipe was assembled, this one for the coiled sage and thyme-prominent style known as Cumberland sausage. Then he worked on British bacon, closer to American ham than American bacon, a dry-cured pork loin minus the streaky fat.
With three packaged meats created to his nostalgic specifications, Spencer began spreading his gospel on the farmers market circuit around Chicago. His business grew to a point necessitating a retail space, and in June, Spencer opened his store at Irving Park Road and Southport Avenue. Bangers and bacon occupied coolers, along with British food imports on shelves from curry packets to digestive biscuits.
Spencer only began the cafe in March, and it's very much a work in progress. Hot sandwiches are only served on weekends; four cold sandwiches and a handful of in-house pastries are offered Wednesdays through Fridays. A posh afternoon tea service is presented here in regal splendor, with French-imported macarons and rectangular finger sandwiches, elegantly inlaid with smoked salmon and cucumbers. Attempting to break the house-made scones in half results in their disintegration to a thousand buttery crumbs. A knife's swath of strawberry jam and clotted cream — the dairy richness of sweet condensed milk — acts as scone glue, adhering errant crumbs. A swig of PG Tips black tea with milk and sugar completes the transport.
Jolly Posh's biggest contribution isn't in its in-house food, but the store's role in introducing British grocery goods into our conscience. Many (I'm grasping tight to my passport now) are an improvement over what Americans use. Few of us may know of brown sauce, a ubiquitous condiment across the pond, but one dab of its Worcestershire savor will convince most it's a superior substitute in any food requiring ketchup.
Similarly, the highlight of Jolly Posh's BLT sandwich isn't the bacon or custom-recipe white bread. It's the slather of Ballymaloe Irish Country relish, which is what artisanal ketchup should taste like: a sweet and chunky tomato confit with a balanced fruity tang.
Of course there are the sausages, succulent and less salty than your standard issue hot dog, tasting of my childhood. In sandwich form (The Double Decker), two bangers are baked, halved and served no frills on a toasted baguette. A squirt of HP brown sauce and the sinus-clearing Colman's mustard are mandatory. These sausages have a plainness in the best sense of the word, a subtle suggestion of nutmeg, a firm sponginess to the bite. The Full Monty contains one banger sausage and back bacon.
Spencer has since added to its roster of house-recipe meats. Black (a beef blood sausage) and white pudding (a cake of pork and oatmeal) are piled, along with bacon, sausage, baked beans, cheddar and Guinness-caramelized onions, into a two-handed behemoth called The Mega Monty. Here's a sandwich that sounds appealing on paper but tastes convoluted, messy and, well, American. Funny that for a shop refined and cheeky enough to used the term "Civilised Sandwiches," The Mega Monty exhibits all the elegance of "Never Mind the Bollocks."
All that just speaks to the British ethos — it's the cheese and tomah-to sandwiches, crusts trimmed off, that endure. That air of pithiness and concision, some say humility, gives its food a charming allure to us Yanks.
Take pork pies, lunch for a generation of British coal miners: a cylinder of minced pork sausage and bacon, entombed in a baked lard crust and eaten at room temperature. This means we have two excellent versions in town, along with Pleasant House Bakery 10 miles to the south in Bridgeport.
In the end, Jolly Posh Foods is, as Spencer said, where "people come in to eat a memory" — memories colored with Union Jacks, spoken in a dignified Lord Grantham voice, and all the Maltesers, Lucozade and Walkers crisps to make expats cheer. Surely with proper syntax.