I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of writing about or visiting Chicago. Yes, I’ve been to New York (every year for the last 10 years for both work and pleasure), but Chicago has had my heart since the very first visit, and every subsequent visit makes it feel more like home.
I loved Chicago before this weekend, but the addition of the bike-share program Divvy (with hundreds of stations, and more planned) solidified it as my favourite city to visit, and stirred up even more pains of jealousy, because they so seamlessly added this program into the city landscape, in all kinds of neighbourhoods (note to Toronto: it’s not just in the downtown “tourist” areas), and put in the necessary bike lanes to make getting around on a Divvy the best way to navigate the city regardless if you are visiting or living in it.
The visit was a short one this time. We arrived on a Friday and returned on a Sunday, and, thanks to our brand new Nexus cards, the flying experience took less time than a drive to the cottage. Chicago is a town for those who love art, food, music and running. Yes, I said running. In all the cities I’ve visited, I’ve never seen so many runners, and this weekend we both got to take part in the Crosstown Classic 10K, a race that pits North siders against South siders (we each took a side, and I’m happy to report that my side, the North won). It was one of three different races happening on Chicago’s magnificent waterfront, and I think one of five different events happening around town. Amazing! Here we complain and argue about the inconvenience of putting on such things, and there all the good people (experienced or not) join in. It was one of my most memorable race experiences.
We didn’t get to the Art Institute of Chicago, or any of our usual jazz spots Blue Chicago or The Green Mill, but in Chicago it’s not difficult to fill your time with art and music. Our Divvy mode of transportation, which took us to a variety of neighbourhoods, led us to a number of street art installations (another thing I wish we had more of here in Toronto). Our one night of music was filled with the sounds of my favourite band Iron and Wine at one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve ever been to, the legendary Chicago Theatre. And this year, we finally made it to the The Randolph Street Market considered by “those who know” to be “a mecca of cool”, “the best hot spot for antiquing”, “the best Chicago venue for people watching”, and “the Barney’s of Vintage”. I was jealous, jealous, jealous not only of all the incredible vintage finds and original artisan work, but by the shear affordability of it all. We did manage to purchase an original large scale piece of art which will soon have a home over the fire place (as soon as we put it together 🙂
It was difficult to decide where we were going to eat, having only two real opportunities for some great food experiences; difficult because, in my opinion, there is so much interesting and innovative talent happening in the kitchens of Chicago, much better than I’ve experienced in, gasp!, New York, which I think may have to do with price points. Let me explain, I think it’s easy to do amazing for a lot of money; if I’m dropping $400 on dinner for two, it’s probably going to be great, but I think real talent lies in the ability to blow the mind of patrons for half that money. That being said, we returned to two of my favourites (who continue to occupy spots in my personal top 5 restaurants any where in the world), Perennial Virant and Longman & Eagle. I don’t know enough about food, nor am I any kind of food critic, but these two places have consistently demonstrated creative ways to impress the heck out of my taste buds (wine, cocktails and service are all equally top notch). We also managed to squeeze in a brunch visit after the race to the newest addition to Stephanie Izard’s goat empire, The Little Goat, which remains true to the food talent we witnessed at Girl and the Goat on our last visit.
So if you haven’t been to Chicago yet, please go and go any time of the year; there is so much to see, hear, eat, drink and experience about this great city.
So in catching up on this season’s episodes of Treme, and especially the Saints episode, I was inspired to write this blog entry, which I have woefully neglected to do since visiting New Orleans this past spring. I think my reluctance to write about this amazing city stems from the fact that I was unconvinced (and am still dubious) of whether I could do justice in my description of the Big Easy. However, my desire to share has overwhelmed my fear of writing inadequacy.
After talking about it for a couple of years, we finally made the trek to New Orleans, Louisianna during the Easter long weekend. Having spent much time in some great American cities, it only seemed natural to visit this iconic location for two of my favourite things: jazz and food. Visit any great US destination (Boston, New York, Chicago, Portland, Vermont) and you’ll find a running theme: a love of local food, drink and entertainment, and a people who love their place. Well, New Orleans is no different in any of these aspects, but where it does stand out can only be explained as a vibe. As cliché as that may sound I have no idea how else to describe the vibrating pulse which permeates the whole place; every experience felt like it was accompanied by some soundtrack that no one could really hear, but everyone seemed to be feeling.
Let’s start with the food because you can’t go to New Orleans without being seduced by the Creole and Southern inspired fair. This is not a place for the calorie-conscious, but it is a must for anyone who fancies themselves a gastronome. New Orleans is no stranger to great restaurants, and there is no shortage of renowned restaruants and chefs (8 of who were prestigious James Beard nominees this year alone), but a shortage of time and desire to visit the “classic spots” led us to couple of iconic spots including Commander’s Palace. Nestled in the beautifula Garden District since 1880, this histroic restaurant is well worth the streetcar ride, and the best way, I think, to experience it is through the tasting menu, or as they like to call it, the Chef’s Playground. Fantastic!
I’ve always felt the most at home in strange cities when I run or bike around local neighbourhoods. This time in New Orleans we did one more: we signed up for the Crescent City Classic 10KM . It wasn’t my first 10km race, but I was wholly unprepared for this kind or run, or shall I say, party. I was so happy to be part of a race run by over 21,000 runners and walkers alike; I stood amoung seasoned athletes, moms with strollers, participants dressed in costumes, and college partiers who had stumbld to the start line with Bourbon Street drinks still in hand from the previous evening. My surprise (and delight) came from the same vibe I spoke of earlier. This race was my worst 10km time ever, but the most fun I’ve ever had running. Live bands lined the route enticing participants to dance (which I did – with the Easter Bunny), as well as enjoy an early morning cocktail or beer (which I did), and everyone crossed a finish line into a field of New Orleans post-running celebration which included more beer, gumbo and live music!
As grand as these experiences were, nothing quite compared to the music – jazz! It was everywhere, and I was loving it. I embraced every stree-corner musical delay to our daily plans and spent as much time as I could listening to the music, but my most memorable moment came one evening when we stumbled into The Spotted Cat. It was crowed and smokey and filled with the jazz sounds of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, in other words, it was everything I imagined the New Orleans jazz experience to be.
This night was everything I wanted New Orleans to be, and again, I was loving it. I didn’t think this exeperience could be any better, but then a guy jumped up on stage to sing with Meschiya Lake; he looked familiar – “hey, that looks like the guy from Treme” I said; “It is!” said the girl behind me, and indeed it was Michiel Huisman. This was pretty cool; I was star-struck in a weird kind of way and it was an amazing way to end an unbelievable weekend.
Since that trip, which now seems so long ago, we have been talking about going back, interpreting all things that come up New Orleans as a sign that we need to return and I think the final omen came while watching that Saints episode of Treme when Michiel Huisman’s character Sonny takes his new girl out on a date to the Spotted Cat Music Club to watch Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns. For just a brief second I willed the camera to pan to the right because I felt like I was there again.