Chicago – June 19-22, 2008
Wendy & I just got home from a short trip to Chicago. We went so I could participate in the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Annual Industry Conference. Wendy went along for the ride and to take in the sights of Chicago.
The conference was extremely informative as I come up to speed in my new position (Associate Director of Graduate Admission) in the College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. There were approximately 750 attendees from all over the world who went to lots of concurrent breakout sessions on varied topics — from Women’s MBA issues to pitching an idea in 30 seconds to evaluation of Customer Relationship Manager software and much, much more. One of the stated goals of the conference organizers was to make it difficult to decide between concurrent sessions, and they overshot in that attempt — it was nearly impossible to select between sessions! In fact, one suggestion that I will make to the conference organizers for future conferences is to offer some of the concurrent session offerings multiple times. During one of the breakout times, I wanted to attend 3 of the 4 offered sessions! The sessions I attended were excellent and really helped me in my ongoing learning process.
Around my sessions, we enjoyed exploring Chicago’s many fine eateries.
After a reasonable & uneventful 4-hour drive to Chicago, we had time for lunch before my conference began. We walked to Giordano’s Pizza, just a few blocks from our hotel near the south end of the Magnificent Mile, which is Chicago-style pizza at its finest. At the suggestion of our server, we split a small stuffed pizza filled with pepperoni and mushrooms. The menu (and server) will tell you that the pizzas take 35-40 minutes to bake and you may be tempted to order an appetizer to nosh while you wait (like we did). I suggest that you resist this temptation — not because their appetizers are not excellent (they are delicious) — but because the “small” pizza was too much for us to handle after the appetizers!
And you want to enjoy as much of this pizza as you can — the thick bottom crust is filled with an obscene amount of gooey, melty mozarella cheese and your selected ingredients, then topped with another crust which is itself topped with delicious marinara sauce. The server brings the pie to your table and offers to plate it for you. Say yes and you’re treated to her efficiently sliding the spatula under the thick slices and lifting it high into the air, delicious strands of cheese arching gracefully back to the pan. The pizza is delivered to the plate, the long cheese strands cut (and delivered onto your plate where they quickly cool and become a delicious chewy first bite before you dig into the pizza). Each bite is a mixture of pleasure and pain — pleasure because it is just. so. good, and pain because you know you’re filling up (especially after appetizers) and that you won’t be able to a> finish the pie or b> take the leftovers to the hotel (no fridge in the hotel room, you see). If you are hard-core, you might even find room for their exceptional desserts.
After conference events, Wendy & I were joined by my boss Jackie for dinner at Le Colonial, a short cab ride from the hotel. Le Colonial is a French-Vietnamese restaurant that captures the spirit of French colonial Southeast Asian from the 1920s. We started with drinks in the cozy upstairs bar (I had a lovely glass of Block 19 Cuvee from the Hess Collection (Napa)) then moved to our table in the front of the restaurant, overlooking Rush Street. We sampled a variety of dishes, and all were exceptional — Banh Cuon (steamed ravioli with chicken and crimini mushrooms with a lime garlic sauce) was tasty but lacked the promised “slight kick” of spiciness that led me to the dish. Ca Bam Xuc Bahn Trang was a real highlight of the evening. A dice of monkfish (poor man’s lobster!), chili, lemongrass, and peanuts served with toasted sesame crackers had us all craving more. I could have eaten a full order of that myself. Ca Song, tuna tartare with cilantro, tomato, and cucumber in a ginger soy dressing and served with wonton chips was another favorite on the table. The dressing added a subtly different flavor than what we’re used to on tartare, and it worked beautifully. Entrees were Ca Nuong (grilled salmon over vermacelli noodles with lime-garlic sauce), Vit Quay (roasted duck with a tamarind dipping sauce), and Wendy had a delicious shrimp dish (will check and get the correct dish on here ASAP!). Everything was very fresh and well-presented (though my hot duck dish was served on a cold plate — my Basic Cooking 1 students do not make this mistake!). I felt like the restaurant was a very good choice, though it wasn’t attempting to blaze new culinary frontiers (I cannot fault this — it has a laser-focused concept which does not permit much culinary invention). Still, a rock-solid meal and well-worth a visit.
After Friday’s full day of conference sessions, Wendy & I grabbed an enjoyable meal at Heaven on 7, directly across the street from our hotel, before heading to the Oriental Theater to see WICKED. The restaurant is on the second floor of the building and sports the largest collection of hot sauces I’ve ever seen (and I’ve see the collection at Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati!). Apparently, if a chili-head can bring in a bottle of hot sauce unknown to the restaurant, they award a free meal. We very much enjoyed our dishes — I had BBQ Brisket served with etouffee of the day, tater tots, and cole slaw) which I liberally dosed with some of the (18 bottles — we counted!) of hot sauce on our table. Wendy had Orzolaya which was also delicious. We split a Jalapeno Cheddar Corn Muffin which was served warm from the oven and was delicious slathered with honey butter.
After dinner, it was a quick cab ride to the Oriental Theater to see their production of WICKED. The inside of the theater itself is so ornately designed that it’s almost in competition with the spectacular set for WICKED. Ornate designs and sculptures line the enormous domed ceiling and surrounding pillars, with some truly fascinating work visible just over the head of the set’s moving “Time Dragon” piece. The show was very good (as expected), though the performances were lowest of the 4 times we’ve seen the show. It was as if the three leads (Glinda, Elphaba, and Fiyero) eased into their performances — the first half of each of their songs was their vocal warmup. Overall, the performances lacked the power and vocal strength that we’ve come to expect from other productions. Still, an extremely enjoyable evening, even with these minor annoyances. We also discovered the trick to getting a cab outside a busy theater… Walk half a block away from the theater and you can get a cab without delay.
After the conference ended on Saturday afternoon, Wendy & I were joined by Eric, my colleague at University of Kentucky, to wander around Chicago a little bit. Eric & I went to the top of the Hancock Tower while Wendy shopped at Water Tower Place (Wendy is not interested in ANYTHING 94 floors off the ground!). Expect photos shortly. After returning to earth, the three of us explored all three floors of the American Girl store, because, well, you have to see it to believe it. And even then, it is truly unbelievable. Eric was a capable tour guide through the store — he, like me, had learned that American Girl existed only a short time ago. Before you freak out, consider this… Eric & I are the wrong gender, the wrong age, and entirely the wrong demographic for American Girl. Therefore, I hope it is understandable how we were ignorant of this phenomenon. Get your photo with your doll? Get your doll’s hair styled? Take your doll to the “hospital” for repairs? Buy matching outfits for you and your doll? Pay over $100 for a doll?! Whodathunkit!
Once we picked up our jaws, we walked down to Navy Pier to get cheeseburgers at Billy Goat Tavern, reportedly where John Belushi got his idea for the famous “Cheeseborger… Cheeseborger… Cheeseborger… No Pepsi! Coke! No fries! Chips!” routine for Saturday Night Live. While we didn’t hear any of that patter and the burgers led us to a discussion of our favorite burgers (note that Billy Goat Tavern appeared on no one’s list!), it was reasonably tasty food. We walked all the way around the pier and headed back to the hotel so Eric could (not) catch his plane back to Kentucky.
Wendy worked out and I napped in the room before heading off to an anticipated dinner at Blackbird, in the West Loop of the city. We entered the funky, bright space and were promptly seated at a small table along the wall. The space is very open, bright, and minimally decorated. It is also fairly loud, which makes intimate conversation difficult (though we did enjoy talking with the locals to my right (thanks for the brunch suggestion) and the recent college graduate and her family to my left) but evokes a community experience.
When Wendy made our reservation, we decided to do the 7-course tasting menu since that gave us an opportunity to see the scope of the restaurant. Our server was David (“Bear”), who took exceptional and extremely personable care of us through it all. We opted for paired wines with our tasting menu (a great value). The dishes and wines were as follows (thanks to David for keeping track of what we ate — and for doing so on one of the restaurant’s menus, so we not only have a list of our food, but of the restaurant’s offerings!):
- Amuse: Marinated Octopus Salad with Rapini Pesto, Strawberries, and Sea Beans
Henriut Brut, N.V., “Souverein”
- Chilled Cuttlefish with Jicama, Snow Peas, Cardamom — the cuttlefish was cut into long, thin, spaghetti-like strips. The entire dish screamed freshness.
2006 Dr. Von Brasserman, Jordan, Trocken Riesling
- Grilled Beet Marinated California Sturgeon with Boiled Beets, Stinging Nettles, Rhubarb, and Sunflower Seed Puree — a definite highlight of our evening, this dish with its mile-long list of ingredients actually worked extremely well without an ingredient out of place. A revelatory dish, instructing on balance and careful thought to ingredients.
2006 Francois Pinon Vouvray, “Cuvee Tradicion”
- Seared Tasmanian Sea Trout with Cherry Molasses, Kohlrabi, Baby Turnips, Forbidden Black Rice, and Salad Burnet — such a lovely, unexpected dish. The sea trout has a salmon-like texture and color, perfectly complimented by the flavors of the cherry molasses. The black rice tuile was a nice textural counterpoint.
2006 Gypsy Dancer Pinot Noir “Emily Ann Cuvee”
- Seared foie gras with pickled cherries, caraway ice cream — in honor of Chicago’s recently-lifted foie gras ban, we requested this special course. While not seared as “hard” as I’m used, it was delicious. The caraway ice cream was a funky counterpoint to the flavor, and it worked.
2002 Chateau Sigalas, Rabaud, Sauternnes
- Braised Rack of Lamb with fresh soybeans, spring radishes, pickled feta, and lovage
1999 Mazur & Fils Cotes Du Rhone “Cuve Mazurka” — we felt that this wine didn’t pair particularly well (with the radishes), so David brought a wonderful Zinfandel that was outstanding (though he didn’t write down what it was!).
- Cheese tasting, epoisses, germain affine au chablis. David offered an extra course, a cheese course that he feels “is missing” from the tasting menu. He asked Wendy (I was away from the table) if she “wanted Epoisses or…” and Wendy cut him off, saying, “Epoisses”. So David brought a lovely taste of epoisses.
Unibroue “Ephemere” — a wheat/barley beer brewed with apple must, this was a shock (especially to Wendy who is a reluctant beer drinker (at best)) but it paired surprisingly well.
- Goat Cheese Tart with pumpkin seed granola, meyer lemon sorbet, and marmalade and Milk Chocolate Fritters with apricots, soy and rice milk sorbet — the tart was excellent, perfectly complimented by the sorbet (I could eat gallons of that stuff). The soy and rice milk sorbet was an interesting flavor profile with the chocolate fritters, but it satisfied on multiple levels — deep sweet notes from the chocolate, crunchy from the exterior of the fritter, bright sweet notes from the apricots, and a salty flavor from the sorbet.
Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti and
2000 Bertrand Grand Cru Banyuls
We were both deeply impressed with the service, atmosphere, quality of food, and overall experience at Blackbird restaurant. It’s a fun, funky place with great, innovative food at reasonable prices considering the quality and variety of offerings. One of the owners (“Danny” or “Donnie” — as stated, it is a fairly loud place!) stopped by the table and we shared our enthusiasm with him before we headed back to the hotel.
Sunday morning, we had time only for brunch before hitting the road, so we walked down to Bistro 110, one of Wendy’s brother’s favorite places to eat in Chicago. And it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite. Everything — from the warm bread with roasted garlic, raspberry jam, and butter served when we sat down to Wendy’s Grand Mother’s Frittata with bacon, mushrooms, onions, parsley, and garlic to my Eggs Louisana (poached eggs atop crab cakes with creole and hollandaise sauce) to the pomme frites & angel hair onions we shared — was excellent. It’s a lovely place for brunch, too, offering jazz on Sunday (maybe other days as well). Simple food done exceptionally well.
After eating, we jumped in the car and headed home from a great trip to Chicago. We look forward to going back!