Xmas Post V through XXII: Chicago Vacation!

Okay... I don't know if anyone particularly cares about this saga-length, photo-filled blog post, but the event-packed four-day vacation in Chicago with Sarah was just fantastic. I'll try to limit myself to one photo per cool event... but I'll probably slip up in the process. Sorry, I quickly gave up on this idea while writing…. lots o’ photos incorporated into this post. And many of them courtesy of Sarah, her kick-ass digital SLR, and her mad skillz—thanks, sweetie!



For two days, we were at a hotel that I booked via a points/rewards program—some consolation for the amount of time I spend on the road.

The hotel was pretty slick—right downtown, at the three-way junction of the rivers in Chicago. Also, it overlooked Merchandise Mart--a huge building built in 1930 to try to integrate wholesalers, retailers, warehouses, etc. It was the largest square footage building until the Pentagon was built; it was bought up by Joseph Kennedy (Sr.) during the Great Depression, and the Kennedy family held onto it for several generations. It is now the home of many upscale shops, among other purposes.

Incidentally, a 7-day CTA pass cost $23 per person, which worked out exceptionally well for our tourism; it covered both train and bus fares—strong recommend.

Art Institute

I know, I know—only a day at the Art Institute? Yeah, it felt like we were barely scratching the surface—only a quick drive-by of George Seurat’s Sunday. I think there will be many trips there in my lifetime. The Great Stairwell had an exhibit of various architectural elements salvaged from historic buildings that were being torn down—cast iron, terra cotta, Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass.

After a few art-filled detours, we ended up in the Modern Wing, a recent addition designed by Renzo Piano. New York Times review of the wing here. I have to say… wow, a really great space. Also parts of the design seem similar to the California Academy of Arts and Sciences—blogged about that visit previously.

We also looked at the architecture and design wing—I have to say that it fits so many stereotypes that there is a framed Frank Gehry in that gallery that is not much more than a scribble (“Um, we’re building what here, boss?”).

Afterwards, we wandered around Millennium Park, and did “the Bean” (i.e., Cloud Gate). Obligatory Chicago skyline reflected vanity shot!

Buddy Guy's Blues Legends

And shifting gears, we then grabbed dinner, and caught a few blues acts at Buddy Guys’ club—c’mon, we’re in Chicago, we gotta do the blues! Both of us have been to Kingston Mines in the past, so this was “the other club.” A kickin’ (although loud and tiring) evening—Guy King and his group, followed by Carl Weathersby.


New Hotel/Old Town

We changed hotels, finding out the hard way that the CTA Purple Line doesn’t run on weekends. Oops! Our new hotel was up in the Gold Coast area, a relatively short ride from downtown, but a slightly more sedate neighborhood. As for lunch: deep-dish pizza in Chicago (Edwardo’s): check!

We had an afternoon wander around the local neighborhood, which is known as Old Town. We found an exceptionally ornate automotive garage (no doubt a building of greater grandeur back in the day), with a huge terra cotta façade on the front.

But if you look closer, I have to say that these look like zombie squirrels:


uh… wait…



This was the serious food pilgrimage of the trip—Grant Achatz’s molecular gastronomy showcase. It was as incredible, beautiful, and delicious as I had hoped for; it probably warrants its own post, but this will have to by my summary for now. We had the 12-course tasting menu, with a bottle of wine (not the wine pairings).

This was the shot they took before we dug into the “deconstructed pork buns”—incredible slow cooked pork with magically modified lettuce (frozen? dehydrated?)

They do such a wonderful job of building up anticipation, and the presentation of the courses—artfully choreography of presenting the dishes and whisking them away. The silverware gets set down on these specific pillows before each course.

One favorite was “hot potato/cold potato”—a cold cream-based potato soup (truffle flavored too?), with several pieces of hot potato suspended by a pin, stuck through the side of the paraffin bowl. You then pull then pin (“grenade!”), dropping the hot into the cold, and throw it back like a shot, getting both hot and cold sensations. Sarah and I geeked out with our waiter, asking why they ended up choosing paraffin as a material (easier for them to make in-house, I believe… perhaps also the self-sealing and hydrophobic properties of paraffin reduce any leakage around the pin).

Desserts were fantastic as well—including various bits of maltodextrin magic (sweet hot peanut butter crunchy wackiness).

I had to take a photo of the gleaming kitchen behind the glass doors, where an army of cooks was toiling away. Wow. I think I’m going to buy the Alinea cookbook, not necessarily to make anything, but more to find out “How the heck did they do that?!?”


Architecture Tour

Sarah suggested and set up a tour given by the Chicago Architectural Foundation—we did “Historic Downtown: Rise of the Skyscraper”—basically from the invention of the steel-frame skyscraper through the 1930s. A cold, blustery day for walking around and looking at buildings, but we had respites to look at interior details as well.

We checked out the Monadnock Building, which I geeked about on a previous trip. A beautiful Art Deco skyscraper (135 South LaSalle) was on the tour—completed just as the great depression hit, so it ended up being the last skyscraper built in Chicago until the 1950’s. Having grown up in New York, I think I have a soft spot for Art Deco…. it’s just how old skyscrapers are supposed to look!

Chicago is also the home of architectural terra cotta (basically fired clay, like flower pots, made into decorative architectural elements—covered in exhaustive detail on the National Park Service website). For instance, check out the decoration on the entryway of the Fisher Building.

Scale Model

Afterwards, we explored the scale model of the city that the Chicago Architectural Foundation has in their museum. They built it with CAD files and 3-D rapid prototyping technology. Interesting, because Sarah used to work for Z Corp, one of the companies that makes 3D printers--so she could tell me all about the methods, detail resolution size, etc.

But I really want to come back sometime, along with a 12" tall wind-up Godzilla doll, and unleash it on the city while taking video. Raar!

But check out their model of Millennium Park… including the bean, complete with mirror finish! Too funny.

The evening wrapped up with a visit to the Contemporary Photography Museum, coffee at Intelligentsia (thanks for the tip, Jess!), and dinner at Salpicon (modern Mexican, with an amazing wine list).


Lunch with Tappan

Tappan lives here in town, and he has long recommended a place near him, Kuma's Corner--we tried to make it there last time I was in town, but failed.

It’s a joint with kick-ass burgers and a heavy metal theme (with matching blasting music). The burgers have names like the Black Sabbath, the Metallica, the Judas Priest, or the Slayer ("Burger, Chili, Cherry Peppers, Andouille, Onions, Jack Cheese, and Anger").

Tappan is doing pretty well, telling triathlon stories—it was great catching up with him!

Surgery Museum

Sarah has a great guidebook that includes all sorts of offbeat museums—and our hotel was pretty close to the International Museum of Surgical Science. A geeky museum with creepy old medical devices? Sign us up!

It's located in a gorgeous old mansion on Lake Shore Drive; walking there on a snowy blustery day was unpleasant, but we made it all right.

It had surgical implements both old (iron lungs, medieval-looking body braces)…

…and new (rib spreaders, replacement heart valves, and spine immobilization implants that look for all the world like high-tech climbing equipment in stylish-colored-anodized metal).

They had an exhibit on the development of x-rays for medical purposes (this is an x-ray tube stand, circa 1897-1905).

One laugh-out-loud moment was an excerpt from a 1910 Company Catalogue, of "Two Ways of Locating a Bullet"

Old Way: Patient: Doctor, I have been shot, can you find the bullet? Doctor: Let me see. I guess it might be here, but I will have to probe for it. [patient has a slight grimace on his face]

Present Times: Patient: Doctor, I have been shot, can you find the bullet? Doctor: Oh yes! I can see it. I can take it out without trouble. [patient looks reassured, with a smile on his face]

Wow... patients were so polite back in 1910! I'm just envisioning the modern-day version:

Patient: Mothaf***er shot me! He f***'in busted a cap in my ass! I'm gonna get that mothaf***er!! Doctor: Calm down, calm down! Where are you shot? Patient: Man, you got tha f***in x-ray machine, you tell me!

Evening of Theater

Since Chicago is known as a theater town, we decided we had to go see something. The Steppenwolf Theater was showing David Mamet’s American Buffalo; however, Sarah and I had seen Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the New Repertory Theater recently. We considered comedy at Second City, but they were sold out. However, the LookingGlass Theater Company was showing Icarus, a modern retelling of the Icarus/Daedalus Greek myth with a six-person cast, and some incredible athleticism and aerial/rope work. The author’s focus—coming from the point of view of a father of a 3-year old—was the devastating loss of a child dying. I thought it was exceptionally well put together, and a fine evening to wrap up our trip.

Also, the theater space was part of Chicago Avenue Pumping Station near Water Tower Place—i.e., this beautiful old stone building...

... with... holy cow, a pumping station inside! I actually did a double take when I opened the door and saw that this was inside. Water works at Water Tower Place… who’d a thunk it?

Conclusions and Recommendations

Wow, you read down this far? I think I owe you a beer.

Overall, vacationing with Sarah was great--we have pretty similar travel styles, likes and dislikes, and active time/slack time needs. No problem with spending the better part of the day walking our way around the city. Both of us have a good comfort level with mass transit (both el/subway and buses), figuring out our routing as we go via iPhone and BlackBerry. Sharing meals—both highbrow and lowbrow—was great. I think we might just be doing this type of thing again!


At 1:34 PM, Blogger Seppo said...

Hot Potato, Cold Potato is actually a really easy dish to make. Ei-Nyung made it for a dinner party, bowls included.

We had the pork belly dish that's in your picture, and the recipe's not in the cookbook, but someone described what they did to the lettuce at some point, and it's a lot more complicated than I'd ever have imagined.

I can't wait to go back one day - easily the best meal I've ever had.

At 6:26 PM, Blogger da said...

...and now I'm kicking myself for not going into the pump station, which I passed about a dozen times over 3 days when I visited dan. That is amazing.

Excellent vacation writeup, sir. :)

At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yay tappan!!!

yay crazy medical history museum!!

yay bats!! happy new year and much love!! :) xoxo

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Philip said...

Backpackers' lodgings are usually very social. Some are party palaces where sleeping is not paramount.

Cartagena in Colombia


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