Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Farewell Dinner: Perfection

Last night Marie and I decided to indulge in a farewell dinner for ourselves. The spot: Sweets and Savories in Lincoln Park. It was one of the restaurants in our deck of discount cards and its review in the Sun-Times as "a destination of the savviest foodie" set our expectations high. As if that weren't enough, it's BYOB (we had a bottle of champagne chilled and waiting in the fridge) and Tuesday night they offer half price dinner!

The stars aligned and we were able to score a reservation due to a cancellation. Originally it was going to be three of us; but when our third got stuck late at work, it was back to the dynamic (and inseparable) duo. Fitting.

A little quirky best describes both the staff and atmosphere of Sweets and Savories. It's small--one rectangular room with seating for about fifty--and three wall posters sums it up for decor. Each staff member we encountered shared a curious timid demeanor, soft-spoken to the point of irritation and seemingly uncertain of how to respond to questions.
But oh the food. After a fifteen minute deliberation, we decided on two appetizers--a butternut squash risotto with crispy sage leaves and a gnocchi with escargot, mushrooms, and harvest vegetables. The latter was a risky move, as I've never had escargot and was a little nervous, but it was salty and delicious. For an entree we split the amberjack--a meaty white fish, much like halibut--served with lentils and tomato butter sauce. It was a tough choice as other menu options included a yummy-sounding gourmet burger, seared scallops (perhaps my favorite food), and a NY strip that I enviously spied on more than one table. But the fish was superb, especially the sauce, and it was a perfect portion for sharing.

When our waiter gave us the dessert menu, we took one look and said in unison, "Berry Cobbler." It was no contest and our instincts were right-on. Sweet but not overly so, and with a crumbly crispy crust, and a scoop of lavender ice-cream, it was the perfect finish to an outstanding meal meant to celebrate an amazing summer.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lollapalooza, in pictures (from a disposable camera)


Thank you Walgreens for the functional and fashionable ponchos. 
Thievery Corporation 

Passion Pit, "Little Secret"

Techno Stage

Some long-awaited pics

Pritzker Pavilion 
Sears Tower- View from the bottom (Line was too long for a view from the top)

Before our bike ride. The owner of the bike shop thought he was a professional photographer. He ensured us that, "This [meaning, shooting from below] is the way they all want it" (???)

I love this one. Not just because it shows how far we biked!

Some Thoughts on Reading, and one Great (Chicago-related) Book in Particular

I'm ashamed to admit that I just finished my second book of the summer. I'll chalk it up to my general distraction with other things, the upsurge in my online reading, and the recent failure of my usually strong ability to judge a book by its cover.

My literary habits this summer prove, without a doubt, that I'm all or nothing when it comes to books. If I'm not into it--recent examples include, Tipperary, Running in the Family, The Lady Elizabeth, My Life in France--reading is the painful process of forcing myself to get through two pages a night before nodding off, book in hand. I rarely make it to Chapter Two. 

On the other hand, I just finished a 500+ page novel in 3 days, engulfing the last third in a mere afternoon. I'm not bragging--the extremism of my reading style is less than ideal. My literary pursuits often leave me in disheartened reading lows, or else all-consuming highs, and I end up, addict that I am, trying to prolong the feeling, refusing to close the book until I've read through the Acknowledgements, About the Author, and sometimes even the painful Reading Group Guide. 

But I digress. This blog is about Chicago, and I am writing this post because my latest fix was Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. Truth be told, it came to my attention the same way it probably did for many of the other readers who helped put it back on the bestseller list--the recent movie adaptation. However, I can safely say that the author's Chicago roots and the setting of the book in my current hometown were what pushed me to buy it. 

With one of the most creative plots of any book I have read, Time Traveler's Wife hooks you with its unpredictability and wand-less, spell-less magic. Its beauty as a love story will appeal to the most hopeless of romantics, while the tough questions it raises about time, knowledge and free will, would keep your college philosophy professor satisfied. 

Word to the wise: With the first few chapters, stop scratching your head and over-thinking it. Resist the temptation to give up as the chronology gets shifty and the events more unbelievable. Submit to the element of fantasy, and, like Henry, the time traveling protagonist, just hang on for the ride. 

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thanks Tom!

The Art Institute of Chicago has been free on Thursday and Friday evenings all summer. For the past, oh, I don't know, seven weeks, Marie and I have vowed that this will be the week we go. Somehow though, our last Thursday in Chicago arrived and we hadn't yet made it to this showpiece of the city's cultural attractions.

Even though I was feeling a little out of sorts (please don't be swine flu), I'm very glad we went. We started in the Modern Wing, but after one exhibit (which, I would describe as pleasant to look at but unimpressive as far as artistic skill goes) we opted for the classics.

A few favorites: from an interesting special exhibit on wine in art, one in particular stood out; the impressionists, as always, delighted, especially Monet's haystack series, of which this one was particularly beautiful; this giant piece gives the sense that the people are going to walk right off the canvas; and this, which I had never seen before, made me want to go to the circus. Hopper's Nighthawks made me nostalgic for a favorite quirky professor. The large crowd surrounding it, staring at it intently, made me wonder aloud to Marie whether famous pieces like this are actually better than those that we skim over, or whether we simply see them as brilliant because we have been told they are.

We checked off another long neglected item on our to-do list Thursday night: eat at Frontera restaurant. Since our first visit to the grocery store, we have been buying the made-for-stores salsa from this hot-spot Chicago eatery. Rick Bayless, the chef behind Frontera and its two neighboring restaurants Topolobampo and XOCO, is somewhat of a celebrity figure, having recently starred on (and won) Top Chef Masters.

Buying into the buzz behind Bayless and his restaurants, with the bar set high by the salsas (they really are that good), and with Marie's stepdad's generous blessing to go out for a good dinner (see blog title), we perched ourselves at the crowded bar and ordered up a couple of margaritas.

Unfortunately, I have to say I'm going to be sticking to jarred salsa by Bayless, and I might even go so far as to offer my services as guacamole chef for his restaurants. The guac was bland, in need of salt and lime, and the lame excuse for a bowl of salsa was neither wide nor deep enough to give a chip a good dunk. The chips were the saving grace, not too greasy, and good and thick and crispy. Desperately wanting Frontera to live up to our expectations, we ordered another appetizer, sopes rancheros--"crispy corn masa boats with savory shredded beef, roasted tomatoes, avocado and homemade fresh cheese"--which were tasty but nothing special. Though I had hoped for more behind this so-called master chef, I'm glad we checked it out, because I would have always wondered about the restaurant behind all the hype--and the phenomenal jarred salsa.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Google can Cook!

I think I'm late getting on this bandwagon, but I'm excited about it anyway. 
After deciding that I wanted to make something good for dinner tonight, I surfed around on my go-to recipe website. As we are laughably low on kitchen staples--spices, utensils, cookware, space--all the recipes were looking like they were going to be more trouble than they were worth. I had decided on a fallback--chicken fajitas--when I happened upon this blog posting mentioning a Google capacity I had never heard about. If you type a list of ingredients into Google and search, it brings up a litany of recipes using pretty much exactly what you put in (and to my delight, in most cases, not much more). We had the puzzling trio of chicken breast, spinach, and sweet potatoes on hand, and with one click of my mouse, voila!, I got a recipe made to order to those exact ingredients. I'm happy to say we are in the process of making a chicken and blackbean quesadilla, with spinach and sweet potato, and judging by the smells wafting from my teeny tiny kitchen, it's going to be delicious...and ready just in time for the season premier of Gossip Girl. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lincoln Park Conservatory

A few pics from our pit-stop on the way to the Arts Faire.