Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chicago Part III - From Dolls to Dawgs

Tulips on the Magnificent Mile - Chicago

Goodness. It's been a while hasn't it? Sorry, that wasn't my intention, but being under the weather and extremely busy with work for the last few weeks hasn't left me a lot of time to write. It's actually kind of a shame, because I have some things I've been wanting to tell you. First though, let's wrap up Chicago, shall we?

Tulips on the Magnificent Mile - Chicago

Our last day in the Windy City was spent walking up the stretch of Michigan Avenue known as the "Magnificent Mile" and back down to the Chicago Art Institute. The "Mag Mile" is reknowned for its shopping, though these days, somewhat depressingly, it's just full of the same mall stores you see everywhere else. The tulips were its saving grace.
Tulips on the Magnificent Mile - Chicago

Gorgeous, endless beds of them were planted on the City's major thoroughfares throughout the months of April and May as a sort of public art exhibition. They lined the full length of the Magnificent Mile and the riverfront along Wacker Drive, and huge beds of them filled Millenium Park. Each bed was carefully designed and color coordinated like an enormous flower arrangement. It was truly something to behold.
Tulips on the Magnificent Mile - Chicago

We didn't do a lot of actual shopping on the Magnificent Mile, but my mother could not resist the American Girl Place doll store.
American Girl Place - Chicago

I'm not much of a doll person myself, but even I fell for some of the more elaborately costumed ones and their furnishings, like the Swedish table and chairs set below. I was gaga over the "Josefina" doll's jade green bed with woven Mexican blanket and sheepskin rug - and the seventies "Julie" doll with her roller skates and lunch box with miniature Hostess cupcake.
Dolls at American Girl Place - Chicago

Upstairs they have the "regular" dolls - which come in different colors, hairstyles and features to offer the owners their best chance at finding a match for themselves. These come with pink hoodie sweatshirts and other less elaborate but still adorable "modern" outfits. Also on this floor was the tearoom - which had a surprisingly elegant menu, and plenty of tables available even though it was Mother's Day.
The tearoom at American Girl Place, Chicago

We also saw the doll "Hair Salon," where you can get your doll an updo or ponytail for around $10.00 - and the Doll Hospital, where a box of tissues sat on the counter next to the debit card terminal.
The Doll Hair Salon at American Girl Place - Chicago

Moving on down Michigan Avenue, we decided to stroll into the Drake Hotel, one of Chicago's oldest and grandest, to see what was going on. Mothers' Day brunch was being served in the ballroom and tea was being offered in the lobby, complete with costumed Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. I love old classic hotels, and the Drake just has that feel of one of those hotels that has always been and still is in the middle of the action - like the Plaza in New York or the St. Francis in San Francisco.
Mothers Day Brunch at the Drake Hotel - Chicago

On the way back down Michigan Ave. I snapped this photo of a classic "gangster moll" gown in the window of a nearby shop. It truly looked like it belonged in Chicago and nowhere else.
Window Shopping on the Magnificent Mile - Chicago

We made our way back down Michigan Avenue to Millenium Park and and the Chicago Art Institute. Sadly we were a week too early for the opening of the new Renzo Piano designed Modern wing - and by extension the new fancy restaurant. We ate a surprisingly forgettable lunch in their basement cafeteria. Normally I love museum cafes, but this one was the pits - as my mom likes to say.
American Gothic at the Chicago Art Institute

After lunch we toured the galleries and saw some of the most famous artworks of our time. Did you know that American Gothic is supposed to depict a farmer and his daughter? All this time I thought they were a couple. Oops.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, at the Chicago Art Institute

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper was one of the works I most looked forward to seeing. It's so evocative and has wonderful color and dimension.
Sunday on the Grand Jette at the Chicago Art Institute

This is probably the crown jewel in the museum's collection - Georges Seurat's Sunday Afernoon on La Grande Jatte. It even inspired the Sondheim musical "Sunday in the Park with George." It's lovely in person - I especially like that the woman on the far right has a monkey on a leash. We also saw several original Toulouse Lautrec posters and works. I got a little overdose of those in the 90's, but they're still spectacular in their full size original versions.
Art Deco furniture on display at the Chicago Art Institute

I especially enjoyed the stunning design and decorative arts collections. The skyscraper art deco bookshelf in the background and modern furnishings are still cool...
Gorgeous Viennese Art Deco Coffee/Chocolate Set at the Chicago Art Institute
and I just loved this Viennese coffee service.
Art Deco Entrance to the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago

After soaking up as much culture as we could stand, we walked back down Michigan Ave to our hotel on the riverfront. Chicago is chock full of these amazing art deco office buildings that once housed the offices of companies (even whole industries) that no longer exist. For example the Carbide and Carbon building which has been converted into the Hard Rock Hotel. Thankfully all of the stunning art deco details of these buildings have been preserved - just look at those light fixtures, would you?
Cafe Spiaggia - Chicago

Dinner that night was at Cafe Spiaggia - the slightly less expensive and more casual wing of the Obama's favorite Chicago restaurant, Spiaggia. It's a little hard to find, up a couple of floors in a rather nondescript office building on the North end of Michigan Avenue. The cafe is a warren of hallways and narrow spaces. Ask for one of the tables in the window bays - they're much more comfortable. (The photo above is of our 1st table - sandwiched between the bar and a party of six - which we left when one of the window seats came available.)
Chicken under a Brick at Cafe Spiaggia - Chicago

The service wasn't the snappiest, and the atmosphere was a little loud and cramped, but the food we ate at Cafe Spiaggia was some of the best of the trip. This chicken under a brick (which I believe they also serve in the main restaurant) was as crispy as duck confit and served with a nicely balanced vinegar-spiked demi glace over spaetzle - slyly adding some distinctive German flavors to an Italian dish. I think that might even be rosemary on top - normally it's my kryptonite, but this dish was so good I didn't even notice.
Pasta with Asparagus and Egg at Cafe Spiaggia

Our second dish was a carbonara-like pasta, topped with a softly poached egg and tossed with asparagus and crisp prosciutto. The housemade pasta was al dente yet tender and though it had cooled a tad too much by the time I got a bite (already holding its curled shapes) the flavors were nicely balanced and the egg was perfectly cooked.
Polish Sausage with Everything from Gold Coast Dogs

One of my biggest regrets as we got ready to leave the next day was that I didn't make it to Hot Doug's - the hog dog stand out in the suburbs that specializes in duck fat fries. That will have to wait for another trip (and there will be another trip) but I did manage to squeeze in a pretty respectable Chicago dog at Gold Coast Dogs at Midway Airport. (By the way - can I get a hell yeah for Sluggos - the Chicago dog place that used to be in La Jolla and UTC back in the 80's? I miss them like crazy.) I had a Polish dog with everything, and I have to say, it was a lot better than the one I had from Superdawg on the other end of the airport on a previous visit. Nice snap, good charred flavor, plenty of condiments - very satisfying.
Gold Coast Dogs at Midway Airport

After we finished our dogs, at my mom's urging, we got in line for popcorn at Nuts on Clark, just around the corner. I was skeptical - after all, packaged cheese and caramel corn is usually pretty stale - but the line doesn't lie. If you're flying through Midway - after your Gold Coast dog - do yourself a favor. Ignore the chocolate and nuts and get yourself a bag of mixed cheese and caramel popcorn for the plane - maybe a few gift bags too. You'll pay a little more for it than you really think you should, but I'm willing to bet you'll be darned glad you did when that drink cart comes rolling down the aisle.

Cafe Spiaggia
980 N. Michigan Avenue
(312) 280-2750
dinner only - recommend the Chicken Under a Brick

Gold Coast Dogs
Loop Location (check their website for others)
159 N Wabash Ave
(312) 917-1677

Nuts on Clark
Original location:
3830 N. Clark Street
also at Midway Airport, Union Station and Water Tower Place.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Chicago Part II - Magnificent Architecture and Some Pretty Good Food

Chicago Riverfront at Dusk

If you're going to travel with my mom, you need to be prepared. I'm talking like a Boy Scout. This lady does not mess around when it comes to, well, pretty much anything, and sightseeing is no exception. After dinner at the Publican it was still light out (being father North up there) and daylight was a wastin' - so we set out on a post-prandial constitutional down Wacker drive, up to Michigan Avenue, and almost halfway down the Magnificent Mile before turning back. The historic buildings you see there in the picture are the Chicago Tribune building (on the right) and the Wrigley Building. The massive cathedral-like Tribune building is really a sight to behold, particularly with all of the artifacts from famous monuments embedded in its walls - including the Great Wall, the Pyramids of Giza, and John Brown's Fort at Harpers' Ferry (no, really.) It made me very sad about the current state of newspapers - it so clearly comes from a time when no one could imagine their demise.
Yolk - great breakfast spot on Michigan Ave.

The next morning, we rose bright and early for a Chicago Architecture Foundation bus tour. Breakfast was at Yolk, a cheery cafe on Michigan Avenue a few blocks South of the Foundation's building. The food was excellent - and fast, which was a good thing given that we were due on the bus at 9:30.
The Sears Tower
Chicago's architecture is amazing and varied. Here you see the Sears Tower - the tallest building in North America - peeking up from between two older buildings. Did you know the skyscraper was invented in Chicago?
Tapestry of the original Daniel Burnham 1909 Plan of Chicago

This tapestry depicts a portion of the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham. (Read more about it here.) The plan was conceived as a sort of "Paris on the Prairie" and though it wasn't all implemented, it greatly influenced the design of the city.
The new Renzo Piano designed Modern Wing at the Chicago Art Institute

This is the new Renzo Piano designed Modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute. Unfortunately for us, it opened the weekend after we were there. We did go to the "regular" part of the museum, and it was quite spectacular. I didn't realize at the time that it is second in size only to the Met.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House

One of the highlights of the tour was a stop at the Robie House, one of Frank Lloyd Wrights' residential commissions, on the grounds of the University of Chicago. No photos were allowed inside, but it features some really great architectural details - such as a wall of leaded glass doors that open onto a patio, and a huge sunken fireplace in the middle of the living room. The lower floor (below ground level) has a gentleman's bar and a playroom, the middle floor (you can kind of see the row of doors above) was the living and dining room, and the top floor, with three sides of windows - is the master suite. All are linked by a central staircase. Quite an ingenious floor plan, actually.
Mies Van der Rohe's Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology

Another highlight was Crown Hall, on the campus of the Architecture School at the Chicago Institute of Technology. This building is remarkable for the fact that it is supported entirely by the trusses you see on the outside - there are no supporting pillars in the interior. Considering it was built in the early 50s, it's quite a marvel. It's absolutely huge inside, about 52,000 square feet - all completely empty, (Van der Rohe called this "Universal Space.") It's now used as studio space for architecture students. Architecture students are messy!
Crown Hall Interior

This shot is of the new student union at the Illinois Institute of Technology - just down the street from Crown Hall. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the building features a tunnel running through it - above, for the Elevated Train. It kind of feels like the People Mover at Disneyland.
The tube running through the Rem Koolhas designed Student Union at IIT

These are just some of the highlights - the tour also included the Rookery and other older buildings, and very interesting information about Chicago's past. After we got off the bus, we walked over to Millennium Park, right across the street, to look at the public art installations. The screens on this fountain display the animated faces of actual Chicago citizens (there are towers on each side.)
Millenium Park in Chicago

This very popular sculpture is known as "The Bean" - for pretty obvious reasons.

It creates a cool reflective effect - especially when you're underneath it. You can see a wedding party taking pictures there just at the bottom of the picture below, along with lots of reflections of me (the dark figure holding a camera up behind the couple.)
Under the Bean - Chicago

Just just past that is the Frank Gehry designed Band Shell - where Obama addressed the multitudes on election night. It looks very similar to the Disney Concert Hall in LA.
Frank Gehry Designed Bandshell in Millenium Park
We kept walking, all the way to Fox and Obel, a Whole Foods-like gourmet grocery not too far from the Lakeshore. The sandwich we had there was pretty good, but the chocolate chip cookies were To. Die. For. They had that great crisp-but-still-chewiness I can never seem to achieve at home for some reason. From there we cabbed over to the Second City Theater for a 4 PM matinee performance of their touring show, which was hee-larious. Highly recommend that if you're in town.

After that, even my mom was tuckered out - so we had a beer and some bar snacks in the lobby of the hotel, then went up to the room and ate leftover chicken from the Publican while we watched the White House Correspondent's Dinner on TV. After all - we had to save up some energy for the next day!

1120 S Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60605
(312) 789-9655

The Chicago Architecture Foundation224 S Michigan Ave.
(312) 922-3432
we did the "Highlights by Bus" tour with the Robie House, which was great. Tickets and information about other tours are available on their website. Tickets for the tours are about $40.

Fox and Obel
401 E Illinois St # 1
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 410-7301

The Second City
1616 N Wells St
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 337-3992