Chicago on the Fly

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Burger at BottleFork

Burger at BottleFork

Recently, my husband made an outlandish suggestion. “Let’s get on the train to Chicago on a Saturday morning. We will have three hours and Wi-Fi to make our plans.” Not known as a very spontaneous person, I surprised myself by agreeing. I also knew that Chicago, once it gets really cold and windy, isn’t a tourist mecca, and so we would be able to get a nice hotel or a restaurant reservation. So, off we went the Battle Creek Amtrak station for a 9 a.m. train.

Although we could have taken the car—a relatively short three hour Interstate drive—we decided to take the train, because of the iffy winter road conditions. The round trip train fare was $54 each –an economical choice even for two of us, especially when you consider mileage and parking in the city. A few cabs would costs a lot less. The Wolverine was non-stop to Chicago after the Kalamazoo station. The Wi-Fi on board the train was spotty, but worked well enough to assemble our basic plan.

First, we checked for last minute hotel deals. I had heard about an app called Hotels Tonight, which supposedly has the best last minute deals for major cities. They had a nice selection with some hotels we knew: the Swissotel, at $109, the Doubletree Chicago at $74, and the Talbott at $113 were the ones we considered. I hadn’t stayed at the Talbott for several years, and it had the highest “thumbs up” rating of 97%, so we booked a room. To compare prices, I checked a few other sites like Orbitz, which had a $146 rate available, so we saved a whopping $33.

Built in 1927, the Talbott had a cozy European feel with wood paneling and a fireplace. The cab ride to the Gold Coast address was more than to a downtown hotel, but I liked it because of its smaller size, only 149 rooms.

Unfortunately, there weren’t many plays we wanted to see. We agreed on a matinee musical called “The Man who Killed Sherlock Holmes” at the Mercury Theatre. Neither of us had ever heard of the theatre. When we got in the cab, the driver shook his head and said that it was “way north.” Luckily, it was still only a $20 cab ride and it introduced us to a part of the city that I hadn’t seen before, the Southport corridor.

We didn’t have any concerns about finding great food and walked by a place on Clark Street called Bottlefork. Little did we know that we had happened upon a hot new restaurant, according to Zagat’s restaurant guide. We sat at the 40-foot long bar counter overlooking the kitchen. Their cocktails, while pricey, were really tasty. I had a Vieux Carre with rye, cognac, vermouth and bitters, while my husband sampled his favorite, a Sazerac with whiskey, rye, cognac, absinthe and bitters. Our small plates were an incredible burger, Korean BBQ wings and truffle flatbread.

On Sunday, we decided on an early lunch at Chef Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill—at least that was where we wanted to eat. The Grill was filled, but there was space in Topolobampo, the Bayless-owned white tablecloth dining room adjacent. After a couple of the hand-shaken margaritas made at the table, we were happy with our last meal in Chicago. And we finished in time to take a relatively early train back to Battle Creek.

My best advice based on our overnight is, “Go ahead, be spontaneous!” Chicago is a wonderful city to see on the fly.

A Fall Trip to Chicago: A fiery festival and historic inn combined with a little pasta

Published In the Battle Creek Enquirer

We love visiting Chicago any time of year. It is truly one of the great cities, always offering something new and exciting to experience. Next weekend, though, is a truly unique, first time ever event that is worth a visit.

In 1871, according to legend, a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn and started the Great Chicago Fire, which burned for two days in October of that year. The Great Chicago Fire destroyed thousands of buildings, killed an estimated 300 people and caused an estimated $200 million in damages. Following the huge blaze, the city rebuilt quickly, demonstrating a gritty Chicago can-do attitude.

Next Saturday, join locals along the Chicago River for the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival. This different kind of event is billed as a celebration Chicago’s epic resurgence and strength after the Great Fire of 1871. You might ask, “How does one celebrate such an enormous tragedy?” At 8 p.m., fiery cauldrons will be lowered from the bridges, hundreds of kayakers will pull flaming buoys, and three floating sculptures resembling pre-1871 homes will be set ablaze, each revealing a dramatic interior core. The final extravaganza will be a fireworks show set to music in celebration of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Before the spectacle, starting at 3 p.m., you can stroll along the Riverwalk to sample different food vendors, crafts booths and music. And after the smoke clears, there’s another party aptly called the Afterburn at the Redmoon Theatre. Music, street food, and signature cocktails will entertain participants until the proverbial cows come home at 2 a.m.

IMG_1478If you get to Chicago a little earlier on Saturday, I recommend a stop at Eataly, a wonderful new addition to the already marvelous Chicago food scene. A project of celebrity chef Mario Batali and partners, Eataly offers 23 different eating choices, eat-in or take home. Visitors are invited to be active participants in their own eating and drinking experience. We bought bread and wonderful fresh buffalo mozzarella and the real deal Parmesan cheese at one part of the store, before wandering over to another station for a gelato. For our sit-down meal, we settled for the classic marguerite pizza and two different pasta dishes. My husband is a carnivore, so he went to another part of the store for a lunch of rotisserie meats. If you want to stock up on authentic Italian products to cook at home, Eataly also has aisles of imported pastas, oils, vinegars, and other treats from the home country.Where to stay? Although Chicago’s hotel scene is legendary, on a recent trip we opted for a quiet place in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—The Villa D’ Citta, billed as Chicago’s “Old World Style” Luxury Guest House. Conveniently located near dining, nightlife and local attractions, the Villa is a series of rooms in an expansively renovated gated row house, originally built as a family “cottage” in 1887, when wealthy tycoons selected the most desirable locations for their summer season mansions. Villa D’ Citta today has all of the luxurious amenities to make your stay relaxing and unforgettable. From the comfortably appointed guest rooms and suites—each unique with features such as panoramic views, fireplaces, whirlpool baths, saunas and private porches—to the fully tricked-out kitchen, The Villa won’t disappoint. Friendly Innkeeper Cathy took great care of us, steering us to the Sun Deck for a cup of Villa Blend Coffee, specially roasted for The Villa by Intelligentsia—just the sort of touch the Indulgent Traveler appreciates! All in all, it’s a great place to celebrate the resilient spirit of what Carl Sandburg called “The City of the Big Shoulders.”

 

Chase away the winter blues with artful luxury

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Who would ever guess that a former office building in Chicago could be transformed into a luxury hotel?

That’s exactly what the Langham hotel chain did last September with 13 floors of what had been known as the IBM building.

Designed by world famous architect Mies van der Rohe, the 52-story tower of anodized aluminum and bronze-tinted glass has been a landmark on the Chicago skyline since it opened in 1972.

IMG_1479The first floor lobby of the new hotel was designed as a tribute to Mies by his architect grandson, Dirk Lohan, and includes a two-story bronze beaded curtain along the east wall.

The lobby had a definite “Mad Men” feel, with sleek white sofas modeled after ones that Mies once designed for his daughter.

Every floor featured a different artist, and one could spend hours looking at more than 1,500 works of art throughout the hotel.

Since we decided to splurge on a Langham Club guest room, we were whisked up to the Club Lounge on level 12C, with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic views of the Chicago River and cityscape.

There we met the fabulous Carlos Carrera, the director of butler services for the hotel. The hotel employs a rotating staff of eight butlers to serve guests staying on the Club level.

Our large guest room featured wall-to-floor windows facing the river, a great carry-over from Mies’ original design.

The dark walnut paneling of the closet opened up into a wonderful Travertine marble bathroom.

As a bathtub fanatic, I found this bathroom to be one of the best designed and most luxurious I have ever seen. A soaking tub filled one wall, while the enclosed rain shower filled the other.

One of the special treats of the trip was the butler-drawn bath complete with rose petals and a glass of champagne. Heaven in a tub?

Early evening found us just in time for canapés and wine in the Club, sitting around the brightly burning fireplace, which was open to the room on all sides. With the snow swirling against the windows, it was a cozy place to spend an hour.

I wasn’t able to get an appointment at the Chuan Spa, another Langham signature experience that is modeled on Chinese elemental notions of healing, so I decided to slip in a quick workout before dinner and try out the spa saunas.

The amenities in the locker room included three saunas and two aromatherapy showers available to all guests.

An hour spent between the dry and wet saunas and then 30 minutes on the heated stone lounge chair made me too relaxed to actually exercise.

I did peek in, and the room was filled with state of the art exercise equipment. An indoor pool — also with heated lounge chairs — completed the scene.

We splurged the next morning on an exquisite brunch in the hotel’s restaurant — Travelle. Executive chef Tim Graham, formerly of Tru, delivered an unusual menu, including various types of “benedicts” and contemporary dishes based on Mediterranean flavors.

The pastry chef’s creations were divine.

With so much else to do, we didn’t have time enjoy mid-afternoon tea in the two-story Pavilion Lounge, but the setting was spectacular.

Huge hand blown glass pebbles were suspended at varying distances from the ceiling and designed to mirror the Chicago River, which runs along the south side of the hotel.

We did bring home one of the two signature teas, The Langham Blend, a twist on my favorite English Breakfast.

It was hard to drag ourselves out of the hotel, but its great location near all the good shopping and restaurants eventually forced us out onto the snowy streets.

Snow, yes, but a stay at the Langham Chicago was a wonderful way to chase away the winter blues.

Chicago Shopping Spree

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

How do you define S H O P P I N G? Three teenage girls at the post-holiday sales on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile call it as a non-stop trek from one end of Michigan Avenue to the other, fueled by good food, and singing top hits as they walk! I trailed behind as the girls power-walked from one store to another, looking for bargains. This was fun. Really?

Some hints for parents lucky enough to chaperone a 24-hour teenage girl shopping marathon: wear comfortable shoes, set a budget, keep your plastic handy, keep laughing and pick a hotel located on Michigan Avenue. I chose the Westin because of its room rate. Winter brings some great hotel deals in Chicago. The hotel’s cheaper rooms are a bit tired, and the hotel is overrun with other bargain-lodging shoppers. Also, it has no indoor swimming pool or hot tub, which would have been a boon for foot-weary shoppers. But for the location and the money, it was a great choice. And Westin does have a heavenly bed.

The Westin is across from the Water Tower Place. For those not in the know, this mall has every important store known to womankind, or mankind for that matter. It’s anchored by Macy’s and then goes up eight levels. I gazed wistfully at the American Girl Store on the first floor— that would have been our only stop a few years ago. Now it’s Abercrombie and Forever 21 with a quick blast through Free the People and a dozen other stores.

A stop at Jamba Juice is a requirement for every Chicago visit. If you don’t know Jamba, you’ve missed the smoothie experience of your life. They feature fruit drinks of every flavor and calorie count. Above Jamba is North Face, another required stop for any teenager. Whether it’s a new backpack, or a down jacket, this outdoor store’s clothes are worn on every high school campus in America, I imagine.

Luckily for me, The Grand Café Lux was on the approved list for places to eat. Lunch helped to fortify all of us. The Grand Lux is kissing cousin to the Cheesecake Factory, and the food is similar in portion size. For a chain, the interior is spectacular, with hand-blown glass fixtures and intricate mosaics. We settled for a pasta dish, a spicy buffalo chicken sandwich and chicken Parmesan, the start of our Italian-themed eating events.

We couldn’t miss Urban Outfitters on State Street. On our way back, we had to stop at Nordstrom’s and the Shops at North Bridge—had to stop, I tell you. The shoe sale was calling my name. Back at our end of Michigan Avenue, the girls stopped in at TopShop, a British store, and Francesca’s, a new store to me.  Big success for all at Francesca’s Collection.

Dinner was at the venerable Italian Village, a collection of three restaurants. A bit pricey, but they had a table for us immediately. We wanted to catch the 10 p.m. IMAX movie at Navy Pier. I have to tell you that Navy Pier seems creepy after hours, but the IMAX is spectacular.

The next morning we did a quick power round at Water Tower before heading over to get a seat at 11 a.m. at one of the Giordano’s’s Famous Chicago Style Pizza restaurants. If you haven’t had their deep-dish pizza, you haven’t lived. Three to four inches of cheese and sauce in a rich crust. A big slice of heaven.

We got home a little poorer in cash, but richer in fun times, good memories and some killer fringed boots.

 

 


Twenty four hours at the Peninsula Hotel, Chicago

To surprise my husband for his birthday, I booked a night at the famed Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. Even with a winter package rate, all we could afford was one night at this five star destination.  But wow, what a night and what a great hotel! The Peninsula is part of a chain of hotels of the same name. Several years ago we had stayed at the flagship Peninsula in Hong Kong and fell in love with the hotel.

We took a speedy and uneventful train trip from Battle Creek to Chicago’s Union Station. The Peninsula is a short cab ride from the train station.  Parking your car overnight is a cool $48 a night, which was more than the train ticket.  On a snowy winter morning, the train was a wonderful respite from sliding down the highway, and we could both enjoy Bloody Marys and cinnamon rolls, leaving the driving to Amtrak.

Walking into the hotel is a bit anticlimactic, since you have to go to the second floor to actually check-in.  At the end of a hallway, the two-story tearoom and restaurant opens up on the right, check-in is on the left, and the concierge straight ahead. Dramatic flower arrangements punctuate the understated décor. Our room was ready early, and the hotel did not seem overly crowded.  I was surprised they didn’t upgrade us. Don’t get me wrong. It was a Superior Room, done in pale, yet warm, beiges and gold tones and meeting all of the indulgent traveler’s check-offs.  Great bed—check. Marble bathroom with separate shower and tub—check. Great Jacuzzi tub—check.

Let me pause for a moment on the tub. Seriously, this was a very nice tub with room for two. And you could watch the inset TV on the wall at the foot of the tub.  The height of indulgence—a bubble bath and Desperate Housewives. But I digress.

It was time for tea, which was included in the package. Not satisfied with the Peninsula’s regular high tea (which was one of the choices of the package), we ordered the Royal Tea, which came with a glass of champagne, caviar and extra savories and sweets. Since they didn’t have the champagne that was advertised, the waiter kindly gave us an entire bottle of a very nice French bubbly. Nice touch. The soaring two-story dining room was filled with tables of guests from two to eight people, drinking tea in a most civilized manner. Who would have guessed that all those little plates could fill a person up?

And what a selection of morsels…plain scones, cinnamon orange Scones, lemon cornmeal savarin, coconut passion fruit cookie, rose hip shortbread, orange curd tart, key lime and graham chiboust, chocolate caramel mousse cake, curried chicken salad, spice-scented crepe,

grilled vegetables, lemon caper hummus, black olive tapenade, smoked salmon, citrus dill cream cheese,  pan de mie, roasted cauliflower, gruyere cheese and more – I am not kidding!

The scene outside of the large window was swirling snow and the frozen courtyard. We were tucked in to our multiple courses of delectables, and a lovely bottomless cup of jasmine tea.

We waddled back to our room, and my husband changed to go for his massage in the Peninsula Spa by ESPA on the 7th floor.  I went to the small, but very nicely outfitted gym to use the treadmill.  I did, after all, say it was his birthday.  An indoor pool and hot tub share the floor with the gym. Inside the ladies locker room, I chose to use both the wet and dry saunas, pretending that I was recovering from a grueling day of spa treatments. Afterward, a sip from the fruited water dispenser made all seem right with the world.

 

We capped off our afternoon and evening with a drink and appetizer in the Bar. The only downside to a visit in January is that the hotel closes both of its restaurants, Avenues and the Shanghai Terrace during that window.  The Bar is a cozy wood paneled room with a nice fire place.  Drinks and appetizer sucked up only a bit less than the $100 food credit that went with the package.  Really, we only had one drink and one appetizer apiece. The prices are not for the faint hearted. Waiting for us when we returned to our room was a lovely birthday surprise from the hotel, a small basket made of chocolate and filed with fresh berries and a bottle of wine—a Spanish red.

The king-sized bed delivered as good a night’s rest as I had imagined. In the morning, we ordered coffee from room service and enjoyed the newspaper delivered to our room. One of life’s simple pleasures is reading the thick Sunday paper with an outstanding cup of coffee. Room service was prompt, and our coffee included a small pitcher of heated milk in the European style—lovely.

To gather our strength before the train journey back to reality, we ate lunch at the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel, Pierrott Gourmet.  It was billed as a European-style cafe and was clearly a popular place with guests and locals.  Selections ranged from very unique sandwiches, soups and pizzas to a few more complete entrees. It was one of those menus where you wanted to sample everything.  My husband was impressed by the wine list, which offered a selection of wines by the glass, flights, and tastings in the afternoon.  The continuing snow outside kept us lingering over lunch while the line of people waiting grew.

The hotel staff had thoughtfully given us a late check-out, and we returned to the room to pack up, a full 24 hours from our arrival time the day before. When we emerged from the hotel to catch a cab back to the train station, I realized how close we had been to the Water Tower shopping mall. Darn. In my Peninsula cocoon, I hadn’t realized I was in the heart of Chicago’s Miracle Mile and a raft of upscale shopping.  From a travel budget point of view, that was probably a good thing.

We had snagged a wonderful take-out from the restaurant: cheese, fruit and bread for the journey eastward. Three hours later we were brushing more snow off of our car, with that feeling that you get when you really relax and let go of your daily burdens. A little of the Peninsula glow still surrounded us.