Monday, February 28, 2011

Good-bye February

Just one, quick, celebratory note that it's the last day of February. It has actually been quite a nice month, despite the weather. But I'm not sorry to see it go. March is the month that closes the winter, a season to which I am ready to bid adieu. Hello, March. :)

Restaurant Week 2011: Naha, Sepia, Cafe Spiaggia

This year, I finally participated in Chicago Restaurant Week. When Matt and I returned to Chicago on Tuesday, after spending the long weekend with my folks in Ohio, we were looking forward to our reservations. On Wednesday, we went to Naha for lunch. We arrived before the doors opened at 11:30 AM, but we didn’t have to wait in the cold for long before they let the growing crowd in. It was my first time at Naha. They seated us right away, and near the window, where plenty of light shone in, despite the overcast skies. The Restaurant Week options all sounded wonderful, and they really provided a nice variety of options. We skipped the wine (it was the middle of the work day, after all), and I ordered the simple salad, white fish with shrimp, and this banana dessert (whose name I couldn’t properly pronounce, let alone spell).

I loved my salad. It had plenty of crunchy beat pieces, colorful radish discs, and a nice mix of greens under a light, sweet dressing. Honestly, aside from dessert, it was my favorite part of the meal. The white fish was good, but there was something sort of licorice-y about the shrimp. I enjoyed the dish, but I wasn’t blown away.

By the time dessert arrived, we were staring anxiously at the clock. It really took forever for us to get each course, and we had to get back to work. A couple at a nearby table complained to the waiter, who replied that he was getting the food out as fast as he could. Granted, the restaurant was full, but an hour and a half for lunch? Seems excessive. Plus, I was freezing next to the window, so I felt a greater sense of urgency to wrap things up.

It’s a good thing the dessert was awesome. The dish had bananas sliced long-ways, on top of a flaky pastry with a crispy caramelized top layer, on top of some kind of custard or mousse. It had a hint of salty flavor to it, which added just the right kick. After that, it was a dash back to the office.

On Friday, we headed to Sepia for lunch. The atmosphere there is really warm. I’d describe the restaurant as having a kind of cozy eccentricity. I loved the classic chandeliers wrapped in modern cylindrical casings hanging from the ceiling. Our waiter was very welcoming—much more so than our waiter at Naha. Sepia’s Restaurant Week menu was a bit slimmer than Naha’s, however, so we decided to order from the regular menu. Matt ordered the trout, via recommendation, and I, for some reason, thought that the Cubano (a sandwich I would usually never order) with fried plantains sounded awesome.

My sandwich was, in fact, exactly as tasty as I hoped it would be. It had some kind of pickles on top of the ham that made a nice combination with the mustard. And I tore through the plantains (I love plantains). Matt’s trout, however, was amazing (I bit more of a specialty dish than my Cubano, I'd say). We were both quite satisfied with our choices. Plus, we finished lunch in just under an hour.

We wrapped up our Restaurant Week eats with Saturday dinner at Café Spiaggia. Now, I liked the atmosphere here, but our seat wasn’t great. It was the first table as you entered the dining area. We sat facing a window, which would overlook Michigan Ave., if it weren’t for a low roof directly outside the window obscuring the view. Basically, we had a lovely view of the cold drizzle falling outside. And it was chilly at that table. I repeatedly pulled my cardigan tighter around me, and Matt told me he was freezing through the whole meal.

The food, however, was excellent. First, the bread they bring to the table is delicious. I’m a total sucker for bread and olive oil. Theirs had a nice salty, cheesy light crust on top, with a little rosemary in the center. And there were large triangular crisps that were like crunchy parmesan heaven (I had to restrain myself to save room for dinner).

We stuck to the Restaurant Week menu, except for a couple of cheese plates for starters. Both of our cheese plates were tasty, but I highly recommend the buffalo mozzarella. As part of Restaurant Week, you get a little bit of each Cicchetti offering. I enjoyed the kale and the nuts, but steered clear of the olives (LOVE olive oil, but not olives). We both went with the Zucca (roasted winter squash, arugula, candied walnuts, and alpine cheese) plate for the next course, and I never realized how much I like squash. It was really delicious.

For our main courses, Matt ordered the cappellacci, and I had the wild boar gnocchi. I adore gnocchi, but if you’re choosing between the two, I’d go with the cappellacci. The dish is a little smaller, and lighter. With all of the food, the wild boar gnocchi was just a little too much for me.

For Restaurant Week dessert, you get to choose three flavors of gelato and/or sorbet. Matt went with espresso, chocolate, and chocolate hazelnut. The difference between the chocolate and the chocolate hazelnut was slight. I went with a cinnamon milk gelato, grapefruit sorbet, and mint gelato. I loved the cinnamon milk flavor—it tasted faintly like chai ice cream. I also enjoyed the grapefruit sorbet. The mint gelato tasted like chewing on mint leaves, to me, and was just a bit too strong. If only for two of the three flavors, I was excited that the dessert portions were quite generous.

We enjoyed our food at Café Spiaggia, but were quite happy to bundle up in our coats as we headed out the door.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my first Chicago Restaurant Week, and I’m still quite stuffed.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fickle February

February weather has been predictably erratic again this year. The first week of the month brought the third worst blizzard in Chicago history, during which time the city was hit with over 20 inches of snow. Most of it fell in under 24 hours, and we didn't leave the apt for two and a half days. Here's my take on the blizzard, written on Feb. 2:

The snow has piled up on the outside windowsills, obscuring the view of the flakes continuing to fall. It snowed all night long, and we’ve found it thrilling to watch the accumulation from the warmth of the apartment. We have been humming Christmas carols, and enjoying the excuse to stay in, cook, and enjoy each other’s company (well, when we aren't working anyway).

They’re calling this the blizzard of ’11, and, so far, it’s only the fifth worst blizzard in Chicago history, but the snow is still falling. We have been in since about 1 pm yesterday, an hour before the snow started falling hard. By 3 pm, most people were emailing with messages that they were leaving the office. Crashes on Lake Shore Drive started around 7 pm, last night. WGN has been interviewing stranded motorists this morning, who had driven onto LSD at about that time. A jack-knifed bus blocked the northbound side, and commuters found themselves stuck, running out of gas, batteries dying, and completely immobile through the early morning hours. This morning, the city is towing the 100 plus cars parked on LSD.

We were like school children last night, running to the window every half hour or so to track the storm’s progress. Thunder and lightning pierced the sky through the snow clouds; I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced lightning during a winter storm before. The wind was so loud, we often thought that an El train was approaching, only to find out that wind gusts were responsible for the racket.

Then, of course, two weeks later, we had two gorgeous days in the fifties. The heat, thankfully, melted away six-foot piles of dirty snow that had been shoveled or plowed up during the weeks before.

I didn't take a whole lot of pictures, but here are a couple:

This is my guy covered in snow after a lot of hard work.

Here's a picture of the street, covered in snow.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Living and Reflecting

"An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world." - George Santayana

There comes a point when your life is so busy that you simply don’t find the time to reflect and document. It has always been a pleasure of mine to document life, particularly Chicago life (hence the blog, of course) so that I could use my experiences to remind myself of the past, and save them perhaps to incorporate into one of my novels someday. Yet, as much as I love writing, and introspection, and sharing my life in Chicago, life in Chicago can be so fulfilling and I become so consumed by all the pleasure of living that I deny (or maybe even lose) the urge to document it.

It was easy to write when I was lonely (Henry Miller once wrote that "what the artist needs is loneliness," and this is true). I would come home from work many days, and indulge in my solitude, where jazz music and blogging provided great sustenance. As I have settled into my life in the city, however, I have become less lonely. I have made more friends, discovered more paid writing gigs, and found someone completely amazing with whom I love to spend my time. And, as a result, I found myself with fewer free hours for reflection. And it’s really only a slight twinge of regret that I feel toward this loss of solitude, but I do feel the need to strike a balance between time for unpaid, pleasure writing, and the active living of life.

I believe this is a dilemma faced by most writers. Whether simply opining, or working on a novel, poetry, or non-fiction, most of us are not gainfully employed by our passion. And so we work a 40-plus-hour/week job, and then we have friends and families and errands and chores, sleep, exercise, etc. In the end, our writing becomes constrained by the activities of life, which consume our minds even when we’re trying to clear them out and allow the imagination to roam. And our writing becomes confined to a few hours a week, maybe, during which time we fight to block out reality and tap into this thing called “inspiration” that doesn’t just come when you call it.

You cannot write anything worth reading without living life. But you can’t write without stepping out of reality for a bit. It’s kind of a lovely dilemma. I may sometimes find it frustrating that I don’t have hours to sit and ponder and write, but I’m grateful for the challenge. I will continue to do my best to reflect, document, and share my experiences, if only for my friends, family, and self.