Trip to the Windy City (a.k.a. Chicago)

Places

Chicago was never my go-to place. To be honest, the United States was always at the bottom of my ‘must-absolutely-[without question]-visit’ list. Reason being that the US is has a fairly young history and a culture that isn’t too different to what I’m familiar with.

However.

I am absolutely thrilled that I got the chance to explore this American gem all courtesy to my wonderful boyfriend who booked this holiday as my birthday gift.

It’s quite extraordinary that when I told friends and family that I was heading to Chicago, I usually got a very specific reaction – a puzzled look.

Why Chicago?

Well, I probably gave Marco the same puzzled look. But as I dug deeper, I realised that it didn’t deserve to be the underdog.

Chicago is bursting with architectural wonders, incredible artworks and a fire-blazing, gangster-ridden history. The architecture, the jazz scene, the speakeasies and Chicago’s trendier neighbourhoods, all speak for the State’s ability to marry old with new.

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Chicago Picasso, 1967

Although Chicago is the third largest city in the US, we found it easy to get around, well connected and not crowded at all. The busiest areas are within the Loop, which refers to both the elevated (L) rail as well as downtown.

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The Rail Loop

Downtown comprises the financial district, Broadway and the infamous Jay Pritzker Pavilion located at the Millenial Park. Not to mention Cloud Gate (a.k.a The Bean).

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The Mirror Ball

What I absolutely loved about Chicago was that there was also an abundance of landscaping, gardens and parks.

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Never knew I dressed like a tulip garden until this very day

But the real question is, is Chicago a foodie destination.  YES – it definitely has potential. And my blog post will give you my top recommendations, should you happen to be passing by.

 

DAY 1: After the River Cruise Tour by Shoreline Sightseeing, which was a brilliant way to be introduced to Chicago’s architecture, we had our first lunch. It HAD to be deep dish pizza.

The closest I ever got to deep dish pizza was Pizza Hut. Then I encountered Gino’s East – and it changed everything. Really. EVERYTHING.

We got the dish for two (with four slices in total) and we were able to mix and match different pizzas on offer. We got the Spinach Margherita and the Meaty Legend. [Be prepared to wait 45 minutes to an hour for the pizza to be prepared and cooked – they do warn you in advance.]

The best by far was the Spinach Margherita – the tomato sauce was rich, the dough was buttery and the cheese was well, cheesy. We found the Meaty Legend had too much going on, so our vote goes for… the Spinach Margherita.

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Gino’s East Meaty Legend

Because we enjoyed this deep dish pizza so much we tried another local haunt called, Lou Malnati. We ordered the Malnati Chicago Classic and the Lou. The Lou was not meant to be too different from Gino’s Spinach Margherita but it was overly garlicky and the crust wasn’t as delicious. Sorry, Lou!

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That same day with dined at Alinea, a 3 Michelin Star Restaurant I had discovered through Chef’s Table. There are three menus available and we chose the Salon Menu with 12 courses.  On the whole, it was a special multi-sensory experience, where you are challenged to think about what you are eating based on its appearance, flavour and texture. We were also invited to the kitchen to witness the chefs at work, guided by Head Chef Grant. There, we also witnessed the making of a cocktail, mixed by a rare cocktail shaker (1 in 30 in the world, modelled after the Victorian shakers).  Some pictures of the experience below.

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DAY 2: Because a 15-course dish isn’t enough to push the thought of food out of my mind, I decided to treat myself to Xoco‘s Pork Belly Chilaquiles made out of crunchy tortillas, tomatillo-serrano sauce, poblano rajas,  pork belly chunks, cheese, and a sunny-side-up egg. It was DIVINE. Ridiculously heavy for breakfast, but it was certainly my most important meal of the day.

Never skip Xoco breakfast.

And don’t leave without trying their Aztec hot chocolate.

Or their bacon popcorn.

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Xoco’s Pork Belly Chilaquiles

And Marco’s less exciting Chorizo variation.

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Xoco’s Scramble with Chorizo

As holiday’s are not just about food (something I need to remind myself), that day we visited the world-class Art Institute of Chicago which houses plenty of notable artworks from various periods, as well as modern installations.

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Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (Degas)

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Woman in Tub (Jeff Koons)

That day’s lunch menu involved a Chicago-style hot dog from the infamous Portillo’s – a local favourite, retro-style chain, selling fast food. The Chicago-style hot dog includes mustard, relish, celery salt,  onions, sliced tomatoes, kosher pickle and ‘sport’ peppers piled onto a steamed poppy seed bun. Chicagoans call this “dragging the dog through the garden.” Nice.

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Portillo’s Restaurants

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Chicago-style Classic Hot Dog

The weather remained poor (thanks Chicago!), so we spent the rest of the afternoon walking along the Magnificent Mile and taking shelter within the many high-street and high-end shops. On the bright side, the rain left a few lovely reflections in return.

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‘You Know What You Should Do’ Mural  (2011) Jeff Zimmerman

We then closed the evening with a historical tour on Chicago’s architecture and entertainment, which took us to a few Speakeasies and infamous watering holes known for their relation to Al Capone.

We then headed to our local speakeasy – The Drifter –  which is hidden within the Green Door Tavern. A classic speakeasy serving cocktails and wild entertainment.

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The Drifter

DAY 3: The following day was classified as Museum Day, as it was bitterly cold and windy, looking exactly like this.

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Museum Campus Skyline View

We visited the Shedd Aquarium and The Field Museum (a natural history museum). They were both wonderful, with the aquarium being my favourite as I feel right at home. [Not saying I’m a fish, but I’m not a fish out of water when I’m at an aquarium that’s all.]

OK, moving on.

 

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Fish in Water?

 

We also had no other opportunity other than that day to observe the Chicago from up high. This is what stubbornness amounts to (both from our side and the clouds’). Do visit the Skydeck or the 360 on a GOOD day. Unless you really like clouds.

Dinner was booked at the Untitled Supper Club, a vintage-inspired, high-end venue with a dress code and live jazz. They claim to have one of the best whiskey bars in Chicago. We had cocktails.

The weather remained shoddy, so we decided to spruce things up with some jazz at the famous Green Mill, where legendary figures such as Von Freeman, Franz Jackson and Wilbur Campbell, as well as young lions Kurt Elling, Eric Alexander and Orbert Davis, played. It has not strayed far from the atmosphere of the early ’30s and ’40s in service, price and music. Shades of Al Capone’s heyday are found in the wall memorabilia as you enter and in the famous booth where he and his henchmen could keep a cautious eye on both doors. Make sure to catch the late night show (midnight – 5am) with Sabertooth. Don’t let the jet lag get to you (now that Al Capone isn’t around). It sure got me.

DAY 4: On day 4, we decided to head north towards Lincoln Park, a beautiful, sizeable park hosting a free zoo. I’m not an advocate of zoos and me being there, confirmed it. Animals, especially large animals should be roaming free and not be confined to such small spaces. However, I can’t hide that I was especially happy to see this fellow.

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Lincoln Park Zoo

In the afternoon, we headed towards Old Town which is known for its 20th-century style, pastel coloured houses – all rebuilt since the great fire of 1971.

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At lunch, we were lucky to get ourselves a seat at The Twin Anchors, a well-known establishment serving barbequed ribs. They were sticky and sweet and came with a choice of sauce, side and coleslaw.

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We closed off the evening at the Steppenwolf Theatre – showing great productions since 1974.

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Day 5: This day was nice and easy. We explored the West Loop and Greek Town. The West loop is undergoing a period of transformation. Old establishments like the French Market continues to run, although don’t expect it to be very…French.

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The French Market

Fulton Market is pretty much completely under development but comes alive at night, with young, trendy folk. Rumour has it that gentrification is slowly driving its previous tenants, mostly Art Galleries, out of the picture as a result.

DSC_0263The Greek Town was a disappointment, as all it was was a string of Greek Restaurants and the National Hellenic Museum, which we didn’t have time to enter.

Thankfully we ended the holiday on a very sweet note. I may have found one of my favourite smokehouses – Green Street Smoked Meats. We ordered half a pound each of smoked brisket and smoked pastrami with a side of creamed corn with cilantro and paprika. Washed down with Chicago’s best Pale Ale – Daisy Cutter.

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If you’ve visited Chicago or will be visiting Chicago, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Later!

Marylebone High Street

Places

London. One of those places that you’ll never keep up with. Or could you?

With new restaurants and shops popping up in every nook and cranny, London may forever seem in motion. But there are a few neighbourhoods which retain their charm. It is this yin-yang sense of familiarity and flux, this sense of recognising the characteristics of specific London areas and how they metamorphose, that allows me to recognise and appreciate how spoilt for choice Londoners are.

One day, I might wake up feeling like I need to don my favourite Keds and hit the bars in Shoreditch or I could wake up wanting to flaunt my little black dress in the fashionable district of Kensington. Sometimes, I just want to wake up to Marylebone High Street – a place that occupies that sweet spot between trendiness and class.

Marylebone is an area that boasts of being sought after by residents as an attractive residential location, and by tourists for it’s landmarks – Madame Tussauds’ waxwork museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It’s central, a stone’s throw away from the regal Regent’s park, Mayfair and Fitzrovia. Teeming with Georgian houses, it prizes a Georgian mansion that houses the Wallace Collection of art and period furnishings, which typify the area’s elegant architecture. It dumbs down its commercial vibes, as it leaves most of that to Bond Street, which it borders. And it’s also got its own flair, with its modish Marylebone High Street. I’ve left a few suggestions below for those keen to explore.

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Plan ahead and visit with an empty stomach. Head to The Providores and Tapa Room, a Kiwi establishment that took London by the storm following the birth of its Turkish Eggs. I’ve also had a wonderful time at Fischer’s, a Viennese restaurant, evoking 20th-century dining, which I will be reviewing in my next blog post.

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For a cheeky one, try The Marylebone known for its quirky cocktails, a polite crowd and a retro popcorn machine with popcorn you can help yourself to. What’s not to like? For a cheeky second, you’ll want to do this in secret, so head to the prohibition-style basement bar Purl. Think leather sofas, dim-lit lamps, vintage accessories and a menu consisting of cocktails that come with mini-portioned nibbles purposely paired with your drink of choice.

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After you’ve wined and dined, I would suggest two non-food related places  (WHAT?!) to pit-stop by, on Marleybone High Street. Although you’d best be sober because these places are sure to induce some serious spending.

First, for some mindfulness, head to Daunt Books – a brilliant bookshop established at the beginning of the 20th c. housed in a spectacular Edwardian building with oak galleries and skylights. Specialising in travel, Daunt Books arranges its sections geographically, with guides, phrase books, travel writing, history and fiction grouped by their relevant country. Check out their website for news on talks and it’s annual festival held in March.

DSC_0965DSC_0963DSC_0961 For obsessive browsing, visit the Conran Shop – a shop that covers everything from furniture to lifestyle and wonderful gift ideas. It is delightfully bright and colourful, cluttered with all things intriguing.

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When you’re done with Marylebone High Street don’t miss out on Lamb Conduit Street, which is just as lovely.

DSC_0931I, as are many others, am ineptly in love with La Fromagerie which, as you may have guessed from the name, are especially known for their farmhouse cheese, hosted in their delectable Cheese Room. As if cheese wasn’t enough, they also sell fresh produce, baked goods and dry store ingredients.

Their Cheese Room is an experience in itself. As you enter the carefully controlled climate, you’ll be unsure where to feast your eyes – every sort of cheese you can think of is available, with eager staff ready at your beck and call, to tell you cheesy tales of wonder.

DSC_0948DSC_0947DSC_0946They also have a cafe at the back so that you can take a break from browsing and start your marathon of indulgement. I mean, you owe it to yourself, right?

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Hopefully if all went well, you’ll be leaving Marleybone considerably poorer, with a few precious books from Daunt, a colourful thing or two from The Conran Shop and a wheel of cheese. No, make that five.