Mark and I took a mini vacation to Chicago this weekend, and I know what you’re thinking: Why would you trade in the freezing cold and snow of Michigan for the freezing cold and even more snow of Chicago? While it would be fabulous to head to the tropics at this time of year, Chicago is a fairly quick and easy trip for a relaxing weekend get-a-way.
The four hour Friday afternoon drive across the state of Michigan, through Indiana and up to Chicago was easy enough and uneventful. As we started approaching the Chicago suburbs around 2:45pm traffic became heavy and the skies, which had already been quite grey, turned even darker. It looked like dusk. At 2:45! In fairness, a snow storm was rolling in (typical), but I’m not sure the sun doesn’t actually set at 3 in Chicago. It is on the eastern edge of the Central Time Zone. (Okay, I just looked it up. Today’s sunset is at 4:21pm, which means by 3, it’s definitely starting to get dark.)
We made our way to the Dana Hotel on North State Street, just a block off of Michigan Avenue, or The Magnificent Mile, a main street full of world-class shopping. We chose the Dana because it is centrally located, has a spa, and they were running a really cheap winter special (apparently Chicago hotels are quite reasonable in the snowy months which is great for us being so close and yet so far that we wouldn’t go for just the day).
The Dana is a chic modern hotel with “the only” outdoor winter rooftop bar (which was really like a club whose music we could hear 5 floors below). Everything was as you would expect in a avant-garde boutique hotel: exposed cement ceilings, low lighting, large doorless shower with a glass wall looking into the bedroom and a big rainshower shower-head, floor to ceiling windows with sleek blackout shades, high-end iPod speaker docking station, and fully stocked mini bar with full-sized champagne and gourmet treats neatly packaged in designer tins.
Before the trip, I had done some research on where we should eat while in the Windy City. There are SO many good restaurants, so I combed through Food and Wine magazine for ideas, and Mark and I asked for friends’ suggestions. Unfortunately even three weeks out a lot of places were booked up for dinner either Friday or Saturday night. Food and Wine listed the bar at Pump Room in Public (high end hotel) as a must-go-to spot, so I decided to look at the menu to see if we might be interested in eating at the attached restaurant. It looked good and they had open reservations, so I booked a table for Friday night.
As I was reading Taste by Anthony Terlato about his life building an international wine empire based in Chicago, I noted that he mentioned working with Pump Room in the 1950s to be a leader in putting fine wines on their menu. Previously, restaurants would just offer a red or a white, as most people were not accustomed to drinking wine with dinner. He described Pump Room as an establishment restaurant (opened in the late 1930s), where many noteworthy people ate and drank, including members of the Rat Pack. Apparently it was the place to see and be seen.
Not having gone to the Pump Room website ahead of time, I told Mark as we were walking there, “Look, this place is supposed to be good, but it could be old and stuffy, no idea.” Upon arriving, it was apparent that the whole place had been renovated in the past few years into a sleek and chic bar/restaurant within the elegantly modern, clean-lined-but-not-in-a-sterile-way Public hotel. It was clearly still the place to see and be seen. Our reservation was at 9pm, but due to the obvious popularity of restaurant, we ended up having drinks and an appetizer in the loungy part of the bar until our table was ready at 9:30. The bar itself was wall to wall with beautiful people: men in tailored suits and horn-rimmed glasses, women with perfectly blown out locks, impeccable make-up and not a skinny going-out jean in sight.
I’ve decided that people in Chicago are generally really good looking. Everyone I saw, and not just at Pump Room, which I’m sure draws an upscale crowd comparatively, was well groomed, well put together and all around attractive. Chicago would be a great place to live – always a lot going on socially, extensive cultural, shopping and food offerings, but I would have to step up my wardrobe, hair and make-up game. Sounds tiring 😉
What I also had not realized about Pump Room prior to arrival is that it is a concept restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a James Beard Award-winning chef who is potentially one of the most famous chefs in the world with restaurants everywhere. I just got more excited than I already was to be on vacation, dressed up and eating in such a swanky-feeling place.
We ordered (and ate) a lot.
Super crispy yet not dry fried chicken with spinach, basil jus and buttery habanero sauce. Our waiter was amazing and gave us detailed descriptions of everything on the menu. He was a skilled salesman because he a) was genuinely excited about the food, b) gave us straightforward answers about what were the best dishes (#1 fried chicken, #2 short ribs, #3 scallops) without trying up-sell us, and c) was successful in having us order every single thing he recommended.
We were there with one of Mark’s friends from grad school, so the extra person made it easier for us to justify ordering lots of things to try. We obviously had to get the three most recommended entrees, so the three of us split the scallops and fried chicken to start, and then we each ordered our own short rib entree….We probably could have split that too because it was starting to be a lot of food.
The short ribs were actually lightly fried to make them crispy on the outside and fork-tender on the inside, which was a different twist. They were served with super creamy mashed potatoes, hot pepper rings, friend onions, and then to really make them pop: macerated sour cherries and somehow fried? crispy? baked? mint and basil leaves. THESE WERE THE BEST THING EVER. I have no idea how they made those leaves into dried flaky crunchies, but I could just eat them from a large bag like chips if given the opportunity.
Everything was fairly straight-forward and not “frou-frou” in terms of random, over the top ingredients, but the preparation was unique, unexpected, and made the meal special.
Our waiter was spot on again in his dessert recommendations. There were a few we wanted to try, so we ordered the doughnuts with chocolate espresso glaze, the pecan tort with ice cream (salted caramel? I can’t remember), and the chocolate chip cookie with malt ice cream.
(You can see the espresso cup for the doughnuts in the background.) When he said “deep dish”chocolate chip cookie he wasn’t kidding. It was also like a molten chocolate lava cake in that it had a hot melted chocolate center that oozed out when you broke into the cookie. Our waiter was like “You must order this.” And he was completely right. I could have forgone the other two desserts and eaten one of these myself without sharing. Good thing we didn’t do that though, as I already had a hard enough time sleeping stuffed to the brim with the amount of food I did consume.
This was definitely the best meal we had of the weekend, and when I woke up Saturday morning planning on meeting two good high school friends, their husbands, and one new baby for brunch, I wasn’t hungry one bit. But vacation is not about eating only when you are hungry 🙂
We met them at Siena Tavern, an Italian restaurant from Executive Chef Fabio Viviani from Top Chef (Season 5). My sister used to work with Fabio when she was on the PR team for the olive oil brand of which he was the face, and she said he does come to the restaurant fairly often. We were on the look out, but given the super snowy coldness of the weekend, I would have stayed in California too if I were him.
Mark and I waited at the empty bar with some breakfast cocktails and rose champagne until the rest of our party arrived and we ordered appetizers to share: monkey bread (warm nubbins of chewy bread topped with caramel, hazelnut cream, and chopped hazelnuts) and bomboloni, large light doughnuts that you fill yourself from squeeze bottles of caramel, jam, or pumpkin vanilla cream.
I ordered the short rib ravioli with porcini mushrooms because, even though I was kinda short ribbed out from the night before, it’s what I had been eyeing on the menu for a few weeks. They were pretty good; the sauce was delish but the inside of the ravioli was a little dry. It didn’t matter though because these doughnuts were really the star of the whole breakfast. That and the wonderful company…I loved meeting my friend’s new baby who was super tiny and cute, and hearing about my other friend’s new job (even though this means I can no longer commiserate with her in the unemployed high school friends club).
After brunch, Mark and I popped into Nordstrom (yay, first Nordstrom visit in months) to buy him a scarf because he can no longer get away with an exposed neck up in these parts. I would have loved to stay longer but what with the Christmas crowds, it was overwhelming and claustrophobic. We did make a plan to go (spend the day if I have my way) to the Nordstrom about an hour away in Troy, MI after the holidays though 🙂
We then headed back to the hotel for our afternoon massages. Conde Nast Traveler has ranked the Spa at the Dana Hotel #34 of the top 75 US Hotel Spas for 2013. I’m not sure why. The spa was quiet, clean and the massage itself was good and reasonably priced, but I wasn’t blown away by the ambiance. There was no sauna, hot/cold plunge pools or other amenities that I would expect in a high end spa, and the waiting/relaxation room was quite small such that multiple people didn’t have seats. I’ve definitely been to more impressive establishments at The Four Seasons in Baltimore or at the Aria in Vegas (massages in both those places are probably at least 50% more expensive however). In doing further research, I have now discovered that this was a readers’ poll, and there’s also a Top 100 Resort Spas in the US that is somehow different than hotel spas. Either way, this was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, and I’m not going to look a gift massage in the mouth.
For dinner, Mark and I had a date night at David Burke’s Primehouse in the James Hotel. A typical steakhouse known for their dry-aged hefty steaks, I chose the filet instead because I didn’t need that much more red meat in my weekend. I liked the tan pebble leather tablecloths and the stylized mural on the room’s transom depicting fashionable businessmen and ladies. I thought it may have been the same artist who did the paintings we saw at Chimney Rock winery in Napa, but in doing some Googling I think it was just an artist with a very similar style of portraiture.
We headed home early Sunday, and good thing we did, because we hit some lake-effect snow around Kalamazoo and while it wasn’t a white out, the roads were slick and skiddy.
To round out our mini-staycation we were so fortunate to get to go to the Ravens-Lions football game on Monday night. Thanks goodness Ford Field is in a dome because it was faaa-reeezing in Detroit (my first foray to Detroit by the way). It was a good game (because the Ravens won) that seemed to be relatively fast-moving even though we only scored field goals the whole time. Only two things put a damper on a fun evening: 1. Driving home was a snowy mess with barely one lane of semi-visible pavement and 2. Mark wore a BLUE shirt! OMG that’s the Lions color…so annoying…how could he do this to me? (Just kidding…sort of)
What a great weekend full of fun activities and catching up with old friends. Now it’s time to hunker down at home for the holidays. Go Ravens!!!