We are visiting Chicago, my favorite city in the US. I really enjoy New York City; San Francisco is beautiful; Boston is home and special for all sorts of reasons, but I love Chicago. We lived here for seven years in the 90’s as my husband did his training. Both Principessa and Middle Man were born here, at Prentice Hospital, and this city holds a world of memories for me. However, it is not just the emotional link to place that makes it my favorite; I think this is one of the most visually beautiful, culturally dynamic and fun cities anywhere. It is by far, one of my favorite places to visit.
This weekend I experienced an entirely different part of Chicago, that I haven’t explored all that much before… the world of small dining. We came for this three day weekend because Hubby had a conference and I wanted to see one of my closest friends. Perfect set up. We have been friends with this couple for twenty-two years now, before we had children. Actually, we met when they needed a babysitter; I had Principessa a year later. We try to see each other once a year, and visiting the city is a nice way to do two things we love. They live in the Northern suburbs but have a family condo in Lakeshore East, the kind of place I never imagined staying back when we lived downtown. Now, we come to the city and stay in the most amazing condo, on the 75th floor, overlooking this city I love so much. My heart swells just typing that!
For this visit, we decided to all stay in the city for two nights and then drive to the Burbs for Saturday and fly out late Sunday from O’Hare. As we’ve all been dining fiends for as along as we’ve known each other (even if early dining involved Potbelly Grinders and Foodlife, because we couldn’t afford anything more), we all love to explore the restaurants that we read about in travel journals and foodie reviews. This weekend it was Ria and Graham Elliot. Both were incredible experiences but for my money, Ria rocked the weekend.
Thursday was an interesting day all around. I woke up in Bellingham; got the kids off to school and then made a mad dash for the airport. Our little airport was once so easy that you could practically arrive minutes before your flight and walk through security no problem. Instead, I got there an hour early and could not for the life of me find a parking spot! Panic set in as I watched the clock tick away and had to drive back to the overflow. When the shuttle driver insisted on waiting for each person that was parking their car (something I’d normally cheer), I decided that I would definitely miss my flight. I lost thirty minutes to parking and figured it was pretty likely I’d be driving to Seattle to try and make my connection. When I walked into the terminal, the lines went all the way back to luggage (for those of you who live in Bellingham, yes, that bad!). I decided that my only hope was to be really ballsy and jump to the front. I went to the front of the line and asked if anyone was trying to make the 9 AM to Seattle (in 30 minutes) and it turned out that the first twenty or so on line were part of a hockey team. They were delightful and shot me right to the counter, when I told them I was a goalie (hey, I was making that flight!). I did the same in security and when I got to the TSA agent, he checked my stuff and told me I could officially relax, I would make my flight. He had been watching my antics and thankfully was amused. Ahhh.
By then I was pretty sweaty and stressed and it took a while to come down and accept that I would indeed make it to Chicago after all. Though I’ve heard it before (and our son in fact missed his flight in August for similar reasons), I will now allow an hour and a half from our tiny airport . The situation upon arrival in Chicago was worse. We had a 6:30 dinner reservation at Ria and my flight pulled up to O’Hare at 5:20. I had carry on and our friends were right there to pick me up, but we then hit the worst traffic I’ve seen in ages. We sat, or rolled at walking speed, for so much of the ride that we all figured we would be eating elsewhere. I had to change into nicer clothes and figure that more than one commuter got an entertaining view as they sat beside us. While most of us women pride ourselves on pulling off a Flashdance bra change, it does not work when the collar, waist and sleeves of your silk blouse are elastic. I did not manage with any stealth and had to laugh that we were going to one of the nicer restaurants in the city and I had put on make-up without a mirror and dressed in the back of my friends’ Tahoe.Another close call, but we pulled up to the restaurant just minutes after our reservation, with me dressed though a bit flustered.
Located in the beautiful Elysian Hotel, downtown, everything about our dining experience at Ria was fantastic. The staff was fun and attentive, without being annoying. Each course was delivered on elegant, white dishes with domed tops with tiny silver knobs, so that when it was time the waiters could simultaneously lift each and we all could behold our food together. It was one spectacular surprise after another! I had to hold my sarcastic tongue when the the “Bubbly Cart” was brought, at the start of the meal and they described one of the champagnes as “biodynamic, and gives back to Mother Earth,” but we had a few laughs about that one over and over all weekend. Biodynamic!?
We all did the Chef’s tasting, allowing the Chef to choose each course for us and promising a seletion of all the best options. We were not disappointed. The food was clever and elegant, using all the things that make me smile and gain weight: foie gras, caviar, lobster, cream, Waygu beef (the absolute best entry of the evening!), Dover sole, duck and more. Each course was perfectly sized to allow an incredible taste, but we didn’t leave overwhelmed. On any other day, I would have called it mini-food, but it works when you’re eating so many great things at once! My favorite was the beef and I would have sacrificed dessert for more. At the end, I asked if the Chef might come out and as we were putting on our jackets, he did. Danny Grant is only 29 (I asked) and was completely charming and humble as he asked us about our experience. I told him that the lobster needed one minute more (I know my lobster) and the duck was definitely undercooked, but still delicious. I also told him that I’d probably sell my soul for more of the beef and that pretty much everything else was beyond brilliant. He was was lovely about it and we shared a laugh and some short, friendly chat. We left with a pretty bag that contained two beautiful hot chocolates (add warm milk) and a copy of the menu. What a night!
Back at the condo, we were greeted by a Disney sky and the most amazing view of Chicago at night! Our friend’s father is the developer of Lakeshore East and the new Radisson Blu hotel, and seeing what he’s built and staying in this incredible condo were absolute highlights of this weekend. Years ago, he told us that he was building a town inside the city and I had my doubts. Having lived just blocks from there for years, I couldn’t imagine it ever feeling like a small community. Wrong! As we explored the area on Saturday, I was blown away by the townhouses, the beautiful little park for kids and others to enjoy, the grocery store that I would kill for at home, and the small community feel. Bravo Mr. C! We were treated to a full tour of the new hotel that had just opened days before, by our friend’s dad and those who run it. It was amazing. The architecture of the building we stayed in is one of the most spectacular high rises I’ve ever seen. The balconies bend and twist, creating a sense of movement to the building that is stunning. It changes as you move around it. It was such a treat to enjoy the pleasure of staying in such a beautiful place while visiting my city.
My friend and I visited Millennium Park, as we headed out on Saturday. I hadn’t been yet, as we’re always in the city for a quick visit and running around, and we had the perfect day. Blue, blue skies, warmer than it might be for Chicago in November, and gorgeous foliage. From there, we walked down Michigan Ave, with me snapping photos and looking like the tourists I once had disdain for, when I called this area home. So many memories. Each block brings thoughts of Middle Man and Principessa as we took our strollers to Wednesday Park days, the Disney Store for days when it was too cold to play outside, but we needed a break, or just the fact that I used these streets every day, to get out of my 800 square foot apartment, where I was raising two very active kids. My friend and I recounted these memories over lunch at Joe’s Stone Crab, our new tradition and a day of walking and talking. We had our babies together in this city; we built a lifelong friendship, that has sustained me for twenty-two years now; and we have had more good times in this city than seems possible. As I walk these streets, I can practically hear my children’s little voices, smell their yummy smells, and I wish to go back and spend one day with them in the park across the street from our old apartment on Chicago Ave, which is no longer there. The building was torn down to build the new Children’s Hospital. Spending another day together with my friend, here was so sweet.
Our 2nd dinner was at Graham Elliot. He has gained fame on TV and in the world of molecular gastronomy, or: very small, very strange food. In the past, I’ve had meals in this genre that truly make me feel as if I’m in Willy Wonka’s factory, though this was a tad more traditional. In contrast to Ria, this was a much louder, hipper place. We found the music to our liking, but too loud at times, and that took away from the dining for me. The atmosphere, while equally professional, just wasn’t as friendly either. The food however, was amazing. While I would still pick Ria over Graham E’s, both were a night of amazing dining. Many of the dishes here were similar in ingredients, but very different in preparation and presentation. One of the most unique servings of the entire weekend was a Foie Gras lollipop. I was so amazed that I forgot to take a photo. It was round ball of Foie Gras, on a stick and rolled in watermelon pop-rocks. Yes, your read that right, watermelon pop-rocks! The flavor was amazing and the obvious aftertaste of little explosions in your mouth was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. (Most surprising to the rest of our group, was that I’d never tasted pop-rocks).
Most notably, tiny ruled. No doubt, the various tastings seemed even smaller because they were served on the biggest plates possible. At one point, when they served a 1″x 2″ course on a 14+” plate, one of our friends said to the server, “Could I have a bigger plate please.” One of the courses, was a small teacup full of a rich Chinese tea, with shaved mushrooms on top. I hated it! Hated. It smelled so much like Delhi, India to me, I just could not bring myself to drink it. The smoky flavor was clearly orchestrated to impact your experience when tasting the next course, a “hen,” but I was not having it. The hen though was delicious. When we finally finished and left, I was full… very full. Now, in fairness, at ten courses, even with tiny food, you’re bound to be full.
It was two nights of kick ass, amazing food and a mellow day spent enjoying my favorite city. We laughed and took our time; I didn’t feel the need to hit every store, or visit all the places I might if I were just another tourist. This will always be my other, other home. It changes each time I come, and I find myself feeling lost in places that I once knew so well, but the people I love are still here and there is always a new adventure. We are fortunate, our life is very good, and I know it. I am very grateful to have had such a special weekend.
On our way out of town, we stopped at the Original Potbellys and I got my very favorite sub/grinder, bar none, anywhere (sorry Scituate friends, better than even Marias). As we stood in line Hubby and I remembered all the times we ate here when he was on call at Children’s Hospital. We spent our meal trying to keep our two small children from burning themselves on the potbelly stove (now closed off) and it was a splurge, because we had no money for eating out. I ate it in the car, driving North to our friend’s home in Lake Bluff. That sandwich was sublime, smaller than it used to be, but delicious. This morning, to end my weekend of amazing food, my good–> friend “A” made me her yummy Greek eggs. Tomorrow, back to Bellingham and a week of dieting to make up for all the small food I ate this weekend. Big city, small food, huge times.
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