Memorial Day in Chicago, 2013

I spent Memorial Weekend 2013 with something new, something familiar, and something strange. The strange was my introduction into gangster bluegrass music. More on that later. The new was our successful launching of the S.S. Blue Heron, an inflatable kayak big enough for three. And the familiar was the hanging out with friends on the eve of my big birthday (whose siblings guessed that I was turning 50).

I have known the Skokie Lagoon by bike since the trail extended to the Botanical Gardens sometime in my early teens. I remember riding with my family a little further north each weekend until we met gravel (and then the following weekend that gravel was paved and we were able to get a little bit closer to the gardens before hitting new gravel). Yesterday was my first time though seeing it all by boat.

We may have actually seen more blue herons than boaters. Each one would stand still like an awkward stick stuck in the mud before suddenly taking flight. It made naming our boat easy. We also made conversation with several fishermen casting from shore. All those good vibes and the pleasant water made it easy to forget we were just twenty minutes north of the city.

Corey, Henna, and the S.S. Blue Heron

Memorial Day/ my birthday was overcast and gloomy. A perfect day to spend indoors but we spent it outside at a blue grass festival instead. At the City Winery in the west loop played three bands, Bubbly Creek, Whistle Pigs, and Gangstagrass. The first two bands were of the more conventional toe tapping yodeling type. Gangstagrass is the brain product of Rench and blends NY infused hip hop with traditional blue grass music. Their song “Long Hard Times to Come” is the theme song of FX’s Justify.

Gangstagrass at City Winery

Gangstagrass at City Winery

So there we were, my first day at forty, and children were dancing under an overcast sky, a friendly Ice Cube like performer rapping wild while his friends fiddled and yodeled behind him. It felt good to enter another decade. Noel

Memorial Blue Grass Festival at City Winery

A Night at Charlie Trotter’s

Our neighbor, friend, and long time Hennacornoeliday fan Jean recently had a “milestone” birthday.  To celebrate, her and husband Glen treated us and another couple to an extraordinary culinary event; an evening at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.  Per Wikipedia, this restaurant has been ranked as the 16th best in the world (not sure who gets to do that type of ranking) and is one of only three two star Michelin restaurants in the Chicagoland area (I also am not sure why anyone cares what a tire manufacturer thinks about food).  Incidentally, Jean and Glen are one of only a few neighbors to have received the Four Star Good Neighbor award nine years in a row.  If you are a neighbor and wish to receive this award, just take us somewhere like Charlie Trotter’s.  It’s that easy.

Not only did we dine at Charlie Trotter’s for their final Saturday ever, but we did so at the famed kitchen table.  Usually when one eats at a restaurant kitchen table it is due to some dress code violation or other misadventure.  That is not the case here.  The story is that at a young age Charlie Trotter toured Europe’s finest restaurants but was never allowed access to the kitchen.  Chef Charlie vowed to do differently at his restaurant. 

There is only one table in the kitchen and it is seated twice a night.  The table itself did not feel very solid and rocked back and forth each time I put my hand down.  Behind me chefs meticulously grated ingredients before handing the plate to the head chef for final inspection.  If he approved the food was then moved to the diners. 

The Kitchen Table Menu consisted of fifteen tastings; each tasting was about two or three fork fulls.  The other two dining options were the Vegetable Menu and the Grand Menu and consisted of eight tastings.  A lot of people reviews (Google, Yelp, etc) talk about leaving the place hungry.  Not so with the Kitchen Table Menu.  For over three hours we were fed morsel after morsel of delightful food.  What did we eat?  I really have no idea.  After each course was served the waiter explained in detail the ingredients and preparation.  This was forgotten before he was finished speaking.  We left with menus listing what we had but it is like reading IKEA directions; they just leave you more confused.  For example, our second tasting was “Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Geoduck Clams and Jicama.”  It tasted great, but I only have a foggy notion of what I actually ingested.  I do distinctly remember eating antelope loins.  These antelope are supposedly native to the Himalayan mountains and are raised on a million acre ranch in Texas where they are hunted by helicopter (in order to ensure the meat is not tainted by adrenalin).  But the menu does not mention that at all.  In fact, looking at the menu now I do not see the word “antelope” anywhere.  It is as if the antelope never was.

If you think we were intimidated by the place, we were not.  Everyone working their (except maybe the boss) was friendly and approachable. The lack of choices in what we ate alleviated a lot of head scratching.  They served it, we ate it (Corey, a mostly vegetarian, ate lamb toung , beef cheek, and antelope to name a few interesting tastings).  The wine menu was another matter.  It was the only menu I have ever viewed that had a table of contents.  But the Sommelier was helpful and Glen allowed him to pair our food accordingly. 

Toward the end of the meal Chef Charlie showed up.  This arrival was announced by him berating our nice waiter (he did not raise his voice but our waiter’s body language was one of defeat) and the calm kitchen suddenly appeared a little more stressed.  He then came to our table and asked, “Forgive me, but how many times have you dined with us?”  When told this was our first time he asked where we were from and then, when told Chicago, he called the males at the table “goumbas” for not taking our dates there sooner.  I suggested he put his place on Groupon which resulted in laughs from everyone but him.  As he walked away I asked him about his work with Chicago Public School students.  My mistake was in how I asked (“I understand that once a week you allow high school students to tour your kitchen.”)  His response was an over the top, “No, that is not what I do.  (an exaggerated look down)  Do you want to know why?  (another exaggerated look down- I actually responded with a distinct “no” but he was not actually talking to me, he was speechifying).  [chef’s name] come over here. (the chef dropped what she was doing and came over).  Do I just give high school students a tour of the kitchen once a week?”  (the chef nervously said “no”).  Three times a week, fifty weeks a year, I cook for CPS students…. (he then proceeded to describe in detail his program which includes having students ask questions about the food and general discussions concerning “excellency.”  When I told him how cool his program was he agreed and said, repeatedly, it was “unheard of (this level of generosity on his part).”  He also, after softly giving another command to our waiter, leaned over the table and said “I do not know who I hate more, my employes or the customers.” 

It was close to nine at this point.  Glen was not finished with his coffee.  Chef Charlie led us from our table to take a tour of the kitchen (and in doing so we left our table for good).  Another chef then took over the tour.  I asked her what it was like to work for Charlie.  She said it was a dream come true (no sarcasm).  She switched careers not that long ago and was clearly in awe of the man.  Prior to the tour I asked a different chef how long he has worked at Charlie Trotter’s and he responded with a number and then, without a smile, stated a number twice as large to represent how long it was in “Charlie years.”  Another chef, when asked the same question, indicated that if the restaurant was not closing soon he would have left months ago.  The same person also stated that many chefs last only a few months working for Chef Charlie. Incidentally my mom, a retired special education teacher, knows of a blind chef who, after graduating from culinary school, could not find anyone willing to hire her.  Chef Charlie reportedly did which opened up doors for her. 

The night was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Glen and Jean, thank you very much.  Happy birthday Jean!

Note:  Henancornoelidays loves writing up fancy occasions (bar mitzvahs, weddings, christenings, whatever).  If interested just invite us along and we will do the rest.

Living the Rock and Roll Dream

One truth of the road is that the nicer the hotel, the more they nickel and dime you.  Find yourself, say, at the Holiday Inn Express in Ripley, West Virginia (I have found myself there and I have to say there is not much to do in Ripley, West Virginia) and expect free Wifi and a nice continental breakfast in the morning.  Go to the Burnham Hotel in Chicago, as we often do, and you now get Starbucks in the lobby.  But just until 10:30 and no rolls, bagels, or crackers.  The good WiFi will cost you extra and do not expect a mint on your pillow.  This time though they gave us $10 toward the mini bar.  With that voucher, we could have gotten no less than two M and M bags.  Instead we used it toward cocktails ($6 for each mini plastic Beam bottle- we drank it over ice because we did not want to spend $3 for a can of Coke).

One thing I do not get about the Kimpton hotels is the gold fish you can request.  One of our favorite retreats, Rustic Hideaway, used to have a resident gold fish.  Quaint.  And stressful.  “Did we feed it enough?”  Yes we did.  “Did we overfeed it?”  Maybe.  The comment book was filled with fish related fears and concerns.  Every once in awhile a fish died and the guests felt horrible.  By the way, that is exactly what we are looking for in our family vacations.  “Daddy, where do fish go when they die?”  Red Lobster.

At the Kimpton hotels, the fish is at least voluntary.  Which leads me to wonder, are business men   really so lonely that they need a surrogate pet.  I always thought that that is what hookers are for.  Maybe the pet care should not be voluntary?  Maybe part of the Kimpton experience should be that you, the visitor, are responsible for a pet of management’s choosing.  I see dogs, cats, boa constrictors, kangaroos (for their Australian properties) and Moose (Canadian properties) all in storage waiting for the lucky guest to arrive. 

The reason for my stay in downtown Chicago (I live on the northwest side of the same city) was to help me better cover the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival (CBB).  Another good reason is that hotels in Chicago are pretty reasonable in January.   One quick note about the festival; I have seen my share of bluegrass and I have to tell you that bluegrass festival in Kentucky (or anywhere else where the music is played) means something different than it does in Chicago.  For example, in Wyoming, where we once stumbled onto such a festival, it meant homemade quilts sold on the side and large, homeschooled families who do not care much for that Darwin fellow.  The only bluegrass I saw at the festival was being smoked in the bathroom. 

I have only been writing articles for Splash for a short time.  However, I can already tell how organized a place is by the press kit.  My favorite so far was what the Black Ensemble Theater put together.  It was on a flash drive.  They let me keep it.  I was happy.  At the CBB, I was emailed two photos prior to the date.  At the concert, there was a crudely put together sheet listing who was playing and when.  They would not let me have there only copy.  After some negotiating, they gave me an envelope and a pen so that I could scribble down some notes (I’m not always so organized myself; I forget a pen and the little notebook that I carry).  Later my wife had the idea to photograph the list and that is what we used the rest of the night as we texted each other notes. 

The music by the way was very cool.  And loud.  Very loud.  It also went on altogether too late and we left before the headline act got on stage.  And if that is not living like a rock star I do not know what is.

Note:  The link below will take you to my review of the CBB festival:

Big Trouble in Little China Town

Sorry, I could not resist that title.  I must have seen that movie, with Kurt Russel, a million times as a kid.  I think HBO must have devoted entire weekends to just showing that movie.  The three of us went to ChinaTTown and did not find any real trouble.  The midwest just does not do Chinatowns as well as the west coast.  I have never been to Cleveland’s China Town (I have no idea if one exists), but I am guessing Chicago’s is the biggest in the U.S. midwest and, I have to say, it is nothing compared to Porland’s, Victoria (B.C.), or San Francisco.  It was nice and we had a good lunch.  And we bought two small turtles from a vendor.  Corey:  What kind of turtle is this?  Vendor:  Ah, just a turtle.  Corey:  How big do they get?  Vendor:  It depends on how long they live.  I went to the bathroom, that conversation went on without me, and when I located my family they had two pleading faces.  Twenty bucks later we have two turtles to join our one aquatic frog, one hermit crab, and three cats.  I mean, it’s not like we go away a lot and need people to look after these animals? 

Getting to Chinatown was kind of fun and, for us, novel.  We took the metra then a water taxi south.  There was a line of tourists waiting for the water taxi north (those views must have been stunning).  Our views were gritty and the smells were riverish with a tinge of industry.  Last time on a boat that small we saw whales, seals, sea lion, and bald eagels.  This time we saw weeds, broken glass, and rusting CTA cars.