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Instant picnics from Pastoral

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Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine
2945 N. Broadway
773-472-4781

According to Greg O'Neill, owner of the Lakeview gourmet-takeout shop Pastoral, a good picnic can't be complicated. "One of the biggest calamities is when you have all these things that require forks and knives, and it's messy and disorganized," he says. "The best picnics are simple and elegant."

A picnic calamity of his own was the inspiration for Pastoral, which he co-owns with his life partner, Ken Miller. Two summers ago some of O'Neill's friends enlisted him to put together a last-minute picnic for a trip to Ravinia. O'Neill, who lives in Lakeview, found himself scrambling around trying to cobble together a decent meal, finally giving up and grabbing a mishmash from the deli case of his local grocery store. "It was pathetic," he says. "We had this rather old grocery-store pasta salad, some Cryovac cheese. . . . I was trying as best as I could to pull together something nice, and it turned out like a dog's breakfast--a little bit of anything and everything, and nothing very good."

O'Neill, who has an MBA from Duke, and Miller, who got his culinary degree from Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, began a period of intense research to determine if a gourmet food store would work in their neighborhood. "We spent our own money and hired some people to interview hundreds of people on the street," says O'Neill. "We wanted to do our homework. So many small businesses fail because they do mother-in-law research, where they have three people in a room who say, 'That's a great idea.'"

They finally opened Pastoral last August. During its first year the store concentrated on picnic fixings: artisanal cheese, wine, and antipasti like handmade salami, chorizo, pate, and roasted vegetables. "But we had people come in and . . . I wouldn't say they were lazy, but they wanted the full solution," O'Neill says. "'Why don't you have picnics ready to go?'" So early this month he and Miller launched a line of premade picnic baskets and carryout sandwiches. They also added a small, shaded outdoor seating area. Each Pastoral picnic basket costs $25, feeds two, and includes a selection of deli meats, cheeses, olives, fresh bread, olive oil potato chips, fruit, and sweets such as biscotti and sweet olive oil tortas. Lunch boxes for one cost $13 and include a sandwich, chips, olives, cornichons, and dessert. Utensils are provided but not required.

To formulate the sandwich menu, O'Neill did yet more research, surveying 1,500 Pastoral customers via e-mail about their preferences. The results did not bode well for liver pate. "Pate is a highly polarizing taste," he says. "The people who wanted a pate sandwich really wanted it--and the other people didn't want it at all." The nays won out. More popular selections included a caprese sandwich with mozzarella, pesto, and tomato; the Bocadilla de la Mancha, which contains serrano ham, manchego cheese, quince paste, and grainy mustard; the Sinfully Healthy, turkey with creamy French d'Affinois cheese, mango chutney, and mustard on multigrain bread; and the goat cheese and Sicilian caponata sandwich, with eggplant, celery, grilled zucchini, and artichokes served on a crusty ciabatta roll.

Any sandwich is only as good as its bread; Pastoral's is made by Jory Downer of Bennison's Bakery in Evanston, whose team won this year's Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, or world cup of baking, in Paris. The contest has been won by an American team only one other time, in 1999. Downer sends half-baked loaves and baguettes to Pastoral twice a week to be finished in the shop's oven, from which they emerge throughout the day, warm and golden.

O'Neill and Miller spent the week prior to the sandwich launch tasting samples with their small staff, which includes fromagier Daniel Sirko, formerly of Fox and Obel and Artisan Cellars, and sommelier Jan Henrichsen, formerly of Bin 36. "Every morning Jill [Zenoff, a recruit from Kendall College] would come in and make sandwiches," says O'Neill, "and then later in the afternoon we would eat them all. We wanted to make sure that the sandwiches we chose would be as good at five in the afternoon as they were when they were freshly made."

The sandwiches continue to be refined according to customer preferences: "We lightened up on the pesto on the caprese," O'Neill says. The goat cheese and caponata may be going the way of the pate. "It fared the worst out of all of our sandwiches," he says. "It's hard to pick up; it's hard to eat. The goat cheese and the caponata are kind of messy, and I think some people are trying to avoid the messy option. So we're currently working hard at coming up with something new."

Pastoral opens at 11 AM; it closes at 8 PM Tuesday-Friday, 7 on Saturday, and 6 on Sunday. The store's closed on Monday. For a picnic basket, call 24 hours in advance. Menus are at pastoralartisan.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.

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