Friday, September 26, 2008

OFT No. 16 - Architecture River Cruise with Donald

Since Donald's birthday was last Friday, we took him on a cruise on the Chicago river last weekend. These architecture cruises are quite well-known and one of the 'touristy' things that are actually worthwhile. We weren't able to go last year, because we didn't look into it until pretty late; they sell out in advance and only run into the fall. Several different companies run these tours, but I have a membership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and have heard that theirs are the best, so we went with them.

The tour is 90 minutes, which is quite a long time but I felt like it only touched upon the plethora of amazing buildings that shoot up along the river. Downtown Chicago has probably the most amazing architecture in the country, much of it built after the 1871 fire. Many of the buildings were designed by a few architects/firms, so there is some thematic continuity among them. (I was pretty proud of myself for guessing that the Amoco building was designed by the same architect who did Waite Philips Hall on USC campus.) Our guide, a volunteer docent, worked in water management so we got to hear quite a bit about the development of the river and its effect on the growth of the city.

I only took a few photos, because if I snapped every cool shot, there would have been way too many. Here are a few:

Here we are, ready to embark!

One of my favorites, 333 Wacker Drive. I like it even more
knowing that it was used in the movie Ferris Bueller's
Day Off (as Ferris' Dad's office building)!

The view from some of the condos downtown, which
will soon be blocked by yet more condos.

Another nice skyline view

Another of my favorites, the United building. I didn't
take this picture myself, it's from here

One advantage of the cruise is that you get to see buildings that would be hard to reach otherwise. I'm really glad we got to do it (finally!) and I even think it would be fun to go again - I'm sure the tour is pretty variable from docent to docent, and the downtown cityscape is always changing with buildings going up and coming down.

OFT No. 15 - Chicago White Sox vs. Detroit Tigers

The chair of my department has seasons tickets to everything in Chicago - baseball, basketball, hockey, football, opera, you name it. He generously gives many of these tickets away to faculty throughout the year. Before the wedding, he offered to treat Brian and I to a couple of games but both times we had to decline because we were busy (I always felt bad - who wants to repeatedly deny their department chair?!?!). Finally he offered us tickets on a day that we were free, so a couple of weeks ago after some uncertainty due to rain issues, we found ourselves sitting in left field at US Cellular Field. He has 4 seats, so he and my boss were there too.

We're not the hugest baseball fans, especially on TV, but almost any sport is fun to watch live. This game was not too interesting at first - the White Sox were up 7-0 through I think 7 innings, but the Tigers scored a few runs and got a grand slam to tie it at 7-7. Tense, right?! Well, in the next half-inning, the Sox fought right back with their own grand slam, and that was that. Pretty exciting!

We live so close to Wrigley Field (we can see into it from the living room) but game days are more of an annoyance than anything, given the amount of blue-clad fans that clog the roads around the stadium. We *may* even root against them making it into the playoffs... (sorry! But game nights make my drive home twice as long!) Like I said, watching sports live is pretty fun because you get caught up in the action (even if you have never cheered for the team a day in your life). I'm thinking we just might have to go to a Cubs game or two while we're here. Brian probably disagrees... definitely a Blackhawks game, though!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

OFT No. 14 - LTH Forum picnic

Ok, I have a few OFTs to rattle off for you. Yes, we've been having fun, just not posting about it!

Here in Chicago, there is a very active online community called LTHForum, which is all about (what else?) food. It's similar to Chowhound, which I used to be a part of (kind of) when we were in California. Basically, if you have any kind of question (or opinion) about a restaurant, you will find information about it on here. There are also boards about recipes and cooking, and lots of other, food-related topics. Brian prefers to lurk and not post, but I like to post once in a while when I feel like I can contribute. We found out about LTH pretty soon after moving here, and have started using it quite a bit in our culinary adventures.

The people who frequent the boards are a pretty large but tight group, and seem quite friendly - in cyberspace, at least. There are always in-person events happening, and we decided we should begin to take part. Usually, it's just someone inviting others to join them at a restaurant, so maybe 10 or so people would go. But we decided to jump into the deep end, and make our first event the "Annual Picnic," a potluck affair held at a park picnic site. The signup for the event had almost 100 people on it!

There were dozens of dishes: homemade sausages, 'dragon turds' (incredibly spicy grilled chorizo-stuffed jalapenos wrapped in bacon), cucumber melon salad, homemade charcuterie, dreamy orange dessert squares, yak, deviled ostrich eggs, incredibly good kefta, braised raccoon, cherry pie, and so on and so on. You can see in the picture, that several long tables were heaving from all the food. Everytime we got up to walk around, new dishes appeared! Someone even brought a durian, but the smell was so offensive (to some) that they had to cut it open at a picnic table far away from the rest of the crowd. We brought cheese rolls (if the academia thing ever doesn't work out, Brian could be a bread baker) and Butter tart bars.

Here are a few photos of the day:

The spread... appears to go on forever, doesn't it?

People brought their smokers and grills for on-site preparations.

There was even a pinata for the kids! A chile pepper, no less...

It was a great foray into a new world, and we are excited to attend more events soon.

Random photo of the day - on our way home from the picnic, we spotted this auto insurance company beauty.
I wonder if their premiums are as retro as their sign?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Last Two Bacons of the Month - Aug/Sept 2008

Our last two bacon selections each offered something unique:

Swiss Sugar Cottage Bacon - August 2008

Apparently, "Cottage Bacon" is bacon made from the pig's shoulder, so the shape is very different from bacon made from pork belly. Not surprisingly, the Swiss Cottage Bacon was considerably leaner than any of our other bacons, but this particular variety did not have a lot of flavor, so it ended up being much more similar to a ham or back bacon ("Canadian-style" bacon). In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever added salt to bacon.

Edwards Cinnamon Apple Smoked Bacon - September 2008

You read the title correctly, our last bacon was cinnamon apple flavored. There was definitely a cinnamon aroma to the uncooked bacon, but the cinnamon flavor was quite subtle in the cooked product. Nevertheless, this was an outstanding variety of bacon, and made really good BLT's, especially with the heirloom tomatoes we received in our CSA box. This is an example of bacon that's best eaten as whole strips (rather than being chopped up as an ingredient in a larger recipe).

To compare, here's a picture of the uncooked bacons (Cottage Bacon on the top and Cinnamon Bacon on the bottom):

Before we get to the final bacon ranking, I just want to say that it's been really fun trying a different type of bacon every month. Thank you very much to all of the people who contributed to this gift. It's going to be difficult going back to Oscar Meyer and Farmer John's.

Final Bacon Ranking:
1. J. Samuel Whiting Hickory Bacon (Apr 2008)
2. North Country Cob Smoked Bacon (Oct 2007)
2. (tie) Edwards Cinnamon Apple Smoked Bacon (Sept 2008)
4. Vande Rose Farms Applewood Smoked Bacon (Dec 2007)
5. (tie) Hudson Valley Smokehouse Smoked Country Style Bacon (Feb 2008)
5. (tie) Burgers' Pepper Bacon (Mar 2008)
5. (tie) New Braunfels Smokehouse Comal County Smoked Bacon (June 2008)
8. Swiss Sugar Cottage Bacon (Aug 2008)
9. Jim Oliver's Hickory Smoked Bacon (Jan 2008)
10. Tripp Country Bacon (Nov 2007)
11. Loveless Cafe Country Smoked Bacon (May 2008)
12. Scott's Country Bacon (July 2008)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Four more months! Four more months!

Happy fourth monthaversary, hubs!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Score one for Thomas Hobbes

On my drive in to work on Friday, I was following a car that suddenly swerved to the right for no apparent reason. As they drove on, however, I realized what the driver had done - they had intentionally swerved into a flock of pigeons that was picking at some trash on the ground. In the car's wake, I saw that at least two of the pigeons were dead. I could not believe it. For a moment I thought about chasing after them, but quickly realized that was not a good idea. It was so upsetting that I started crying on the freeway. I am no fan of swarms of pigeons (visiting the piazza San Marco was like a living nightmare!) but I would never try to hit one on purpose. How can anyone be so cruel?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


I've wanted to go to L2O since I heard about the chef's blog, where they talked about the process of setting up the restaurant, the products they were using, and had pictures of potential dishes. So when Michelle chose it for her birthday dinner, there weren't any complaints from me.

We decided to go "all-out" and opted for the twelve course (+ extras) tasting menu. (The other option is a four course prix fixe where the categories are raw, warm, main, and cheese/dessert.) Overall, the dishes were all technically impressive with really attractive presentations and some innovative touches.

(We chose not to take pictures during the meal, but I have linked to pictures on flickr or on the L2O blog.)

Amuses: a clam (I don't remember the name, but it was similar to geoduck in texture) with cucumber and jalapeno, and a kampachi tartare in bonito gelee with lime foam

M: The jalapenos in the clam amuse were minced into the smallest cubes - maybe a square millimeter! All of the ingredients were treated with care, cut into perfect cubes or formed into perfect rounds.

1. Fluke. Sashimi with grapefruit, shiso and ossetra caviar. Really nice, but too bad it was only a single bite!

2. Tuna. The cubes of tuna were arranged like a checkerboard (similar to this) with some "squares" replaced by olive and olive oil emulsions.

3. Tofu. Housemade with red miso, bonito flake, and tomato.

M: I really enjoyed this, it was light but flavorful.

4. Shimaaji. Rubbed with red miso, with tiny radishes, and "soy salt". This was definitely an innovative variation on a raw dish. One of many gadgets they have in the kitchen is a freeze-dryer, which they use to freeze dry soy sauce to make the soy salt. (Similar to this)

5. Halibut. This was by far the standout dish of the meal. According to the server, the halibut was steamed, but I suspect that it was cooked sous vide because the texture was incredible. It was served on a jamon clam chowder, with a tiny frisee salad, and a ginger-parsley "cracker". Apparently, the cracker is made from a meringue which is piped into a circle and freeze-dried. The final texture is really light (almost like cotton candy). Altogether, this was an amazing and memorable dish.

M: The cracker was immensely cool. It tasted quite like lobster tomalley to me (in a good way), so much so that I was surprised to hear that it contained no such thing. The frisee salad included the tiniest chopped micro chives (seriously, I was won over by all the lilliputian ingredients in the meal. You could say it was all very cute, but that would undermine the detail and care that went into all the preparation).

6. King Salmon. With corn and jalapeno purees. Definitely well-cooked, but a bit of a letdown after the halibut. At the outset of the meal, Michelle wasn't too jazzed about salmon, so she asked for the substitute. They gave her skate wing with bordelaise sauce and asparagus (including these ridiculously tiny spears of white asparagus).

M: Again, with the tiny. We thought they might be strands of enoki mushroom at first, but upon closer examination and taste, they were definitely tiny asparagus. I was glad I got the skate wing, as it had an interesting, not unpleasantly stringy texture and a nice caramelization.

7. Lobster-Chanterelle. Lobster quenelles (like a dense mousse with very intense lobster flavor) in a lobster foie-gras broth with chanterelles.

M: I was disappointed that this dish was not "real" lobster but it was very interesting, rich, and very lobster-y indeed.

8. Cod Fish. With green olive, meyer lemon, white grits. Unfortunately, the first plates they sent us were overcooked, but they promptly sent us another plate that was much better.

M: It just goes to show that you should not be intimidated about sending something back if you know it's not right. The second rendition was SO much better than the first, I was glad we got the dish the way it should be made. I was just sad that I didn't eat all of the super-yummy grits from the first plate before we complained!

9. Pork Belly. Black truffle sauce, and caramelized potato (see here). Really rich with a very crispy skin.

M: The potato cylinder was piped with a potato cream that was really delicious. And the roasted pork belly, well... it was like a deluxe bacon and Chinese roast pork all in one...

10. Medai. A butterfish served shabu-shabu style with a very intense chicken-kombu bouillon. A very elaborate production.

M: This was really nice, as the fish was good both raw and lightly cooked. The best bite involved wrapping a piece of fish in a shiso leaf and dunking it in the broth for a few seconds. I was sad that the broth was taken away and not returned to us, and confused when the server explained that it only comes back when it is part of the 4-course meal, not the tasting menu. What a strange waste!

Pre-desserts. A chocolate truffle with soy salt (a really nice combo actually), and a canteloupe shaved ice with agave syrup.

M: I. Love. Fruity. Ices.

11. Mango. Sorbet (more like a frozen pudding) above chopped mango with a tropical fruit soup and soft "marshmallows". This was really refreshing and tasty.

M: I. Love. Icy. Fruits.

12. Praline. A ridiculously tall souffle (like this).

M: Swooooon, this was so incredibly good. Light and eggy, nutty and caramelly.

Post-desserts. An amazing pistachio macaroon (the green one in this image) and a chocolate ganache.

I also have to mention their standout bread and butter. Both the bread and butter are made in house, and they offered us 6 different kinds of breads (including tiny little baguettes and a bacon pain d'epi), all of which we ended up trying.

M: I loved all the extras. The breads really were just amazing, both because they were adorable replicas of larger artisanal loaves (my love of all things mini strikes again) and also because they were just plain tasty (there was also an anchovy brioche). And the pre- and post desserts and migniardises were all really good, not just thrown in as filler.

Overall, it was a great experience, but also the most expensive meal we've ever had. The most obvious comparison is to our engagement dinner at Cyrus in Healdsburg, CA, which I've previously described as our best meal ever, but it's a difficult comparison, especially if you consider that Cyrus was close to half the price. The service at Cyrus was much more polished and the individual dishes were stellar, but L2O was certainly more original. Luckily, there's a place for both!