Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chicago, Chicago

I took a mini vacation recently to Chicago, and had the most wonderful time!  Food, fun, friends ... it was fabulous!

Initially, my plan was to attend the exceptional and extraordinary exhibit of Roy Lichtenstein's work at The Art Institute of Chicago.  However, that morphed into a plan to finally meet my blogging buddy (so woefully inadequate a term!) Leanne, of From Chaos Comes Happiness, so that we could tour the retrospective together.  Leanne is both an artist and a beautiful, kind soul; she was the perfect person to attend this event with.

Sometimes you just know that you've found a cherished friend, even if you've never met her.  Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett fell in love via letters, after all.  Words have meaning, and Leanne's sincerity, empathy, and heart pour through in hers.  Her sister-in-law noted that our cyber-"relationship" and long-sought meeting reminded her of finding a new boyfriend on a dating site!  But we knew that we were already friends, rather than merely hopeful that we'd like each other.  Sometimes you just know ....

Leanne came running down the stairs of the Art Institute as I ran up them  - we had agreed, in a fashion similar to meeting at the Empire State Building in "An Affair to Remember," to meet at the south lion out front - and we squealed and hugged and smiled and laughed ... oh, it was so wonderful to finally really see her smile, the shine in her eyes, her joy!  We wandered in to the museum and were off on our adventure.

I have to truly say that the Lichtenstein retrospective is amazing!  Oh, the breadth and depth of it, from the earliest work to ones completed shortly before his death; from sculptures to the well-known comic strip paintings; and from homages to predecessors like Monet and Picasso to Asian-inspired landscapes.  Leanne and I kept leaning in to the pictures, studying and analyzing the color schemes, the famous screened dots ... until we were chastised a couple of times by the security guards for getting too close and for - gasp! - pointing.  We weren't just admiring, but really wanted to understand the process and the technique, as well.  We must have been cute, though, 'cause the guards let us off with just lighthearted warnings.

There were readily accessible pictures, like one of a hot dog and another of those ubiquitous black-and-white composition books we all had in school.  Part of the philosophy of Pop Art, of course, is to represent and transform everyday objects, as well as to elevate the graphic arts that we simply take for granted because they surround us in commercial venues and on marketable products.

But then there were more serious pieces, like my new favorite picture, "Ohhh ... Alright ...".  Which of us hasn't uttered those two words with deflation ... with resignation ... with frustration ... with sadness ... with exasperation ... with disappointment?  I took this fellow redhead into my heart, and Leanne and I called her "our girl" - someone we both could so easily relate to, a friend we wanted to console - for the rest of the afternoon.  It is a hallmark of the power of the artist that his image - distilled and deconstructed - could elicit such a response despite its seeming simplicity and deceptively cartoonish style.

We then toured the gift shop seeking presents and souvenirs, mementos of our afternoon immersed in art and in heartfelt conversation about dreams, loves both current and lost, dancing, hopes, fears, and family.  A magnet for my refrigerator - which I now look at each day, prompting memories and a smile - a postcard to frame.  And then there was not only a room devoted to books, but two of those books were calling my name loudly: Midwest Sweet Baking History: Delectable Classics Around Lake Michigan and Food Lovers' Guide to Chicago: Best Local Specialties, Markets, Recipes, Restaurants & Events ... sigh.  Temptation as I read, longing to cook and bake and eat!

Leanne's husband, Phil, had very sweetly made a dinner reservation for us all at the Park Grill, right near the Art Institute; he was going to bring their daughters, Katie and Ella, into the city for the afternoon and then we'd all meet up for our evening meal.  I'd hoped to be able to meet those dearest to Leanne, but I was only going to be in town until Sunday at noon; so this was a perfect plan!

Phil is a sweetheart, happily wound 'round the pinky fingers of all three of his "girls;" some men are just born to be the daddys of daughters, and Phil is absolutely one of those true gems.  Katie and Ella are gorgeous and sweet, polite and kind.  But still, even though you have faith that they'll behave beautifully in such a grown-up setting, be sweet to each other rather than bickering as siblings can often do (particularly after a long day in the heat), and be gracious hostesses to an out-of-town visitor, it was still so charming and wonderful to see them actually be those fabulous girls.

Dinner ... oh, my word, dinner was extraordinary!  And not just because of the very fine company, but also because it was sublime and succulent.

I am the least decisive person on Earth when it comes to food, as Leanne can now attest to herself having seen me in (in)action!  For starters - a salad? calamari? soup?  As an entree - Alaskan salmon? A Kobe beef burger?  And sides - sides!  Oh, too many choices!  It would be so easy if I were a picky eater and might only like one very simple, benign item.  But everything sounded wonderful!  Too much temptation!

Because I have that combined Catholic-Jewish guilt complex - a powerful entity if ever there were one - I finally forced myself to pick the melon salad and avoid making the waiter come back yet again.  This selection was light and bright and crunchy and sweet and salty ... every taste and texture working in perfect unison in each bite.  There were three types of melon, lightly toasted pine nuts, crumbled feta cheese, and a creamy cilantro dressing that added a lovely zest in contrast to the delicate fruit.

Leanne and Phil both ordered the roasted beet salad with goat cheese and pistachios, which Leanne generously let me taste in all its tender, sweet, gorgeous glory.  Leanne also let me try a bit of her creamy risotto, which featured springtime vegetables and was perfectly cooked; it had just the tiniest hint of an "al dente" firmness in the center of each grain of rice, a testament to great skill and patience in the kitchen.

Then I chose the bone-in pork chop, which the waiter had recommended with great praise.  It was tender and juicy and utter perfection, enhanced by fingerling potatoes and by a kale-bacon-mustard saute that offered both color and an ideal complement to the chop - a variation on the theme of "pork" that seconded the motion rather than competing with it.  (And I want to thank Leanne and Phil again for their very sweet gesture of taking me out to dinner, including me in their family and not letting me contribute anything to this cause.)

We didn't order dessert at the restaurant, as we were on a mission afterwards: Intelligentsia, an immersion in all that is perfect in a cup of coffee.

They take their coffee very seriously at Intelligentsia, offering classes and instruction, French presses, pour overs, finely-honed equipment, extraordinarily well-selected beans ... everything you could need for a perfect cup of coffee whether it's enjoyed at the shop, taken to go, or brewed at home.

Ella ordered an apple juice, though she tasted others' drinks; Katie was in her glory sampling decaf and a vanilla latte.  I chose a simple decaf, as I am a chronic insomniac and hardly needed anything more stimulating - or, rather, more stimulating than the excitement of visiting happily with friends! - to further impede my already limited ability to sleep.

But alas, young girls need to find their way home after an adventure in the city.  And old ones, like me, needed to get back to real life.  My new family - truly, they all made me feel so loved and welcomed and included! - walked me to my hotel, where there were hugs and kisses, smiles and teary eyes, lots of love and many promises to visit Ann Arbor and to come back again to Chicago.  It's my kind of town, after all!  With people who welcome you to their city, and also into their hearts ....


Jenn said...

Oh, what an amazing time you both had! I love the image of the two of you first meeting! Good art, good food, good company.. doesn't get much better than that!

Nicole said...

OH MY WORD! I just felt like I was with you on the entire trip. You described everything so perfectly. Wonderful! Woderful! Wonderful!

Leanne said...

Oh, my dearest Mary . . . what an absolutely wonderful telling of our adventures! I know we said it while walking the streets of Chicago that day, but I honestly couldn't imagine one single second going better than it did! It really was the perfect day, and one that I (and my family) will remember forever. You simply are just a class act, a dear soul, and a life long friend . . . And I am so blessed to know you! Thank you for sharing the tales of our day with our friends! Much love and peace to you!!!!

Bibi @ Bibi's Culinary Journey said...

Sounds like a wonderful mini getaway...I always wanted to go to Chicago, but never made it that way...hubby even has family there so I am hoping maybe one day :)

Debra said...

This all looks amazing! I love Chicago!

Carla said...

That is so sweet.
I had the opportunity to meet a blog buddy this February. It was just as you described.
What a great blessing for you both. :)

Candace said...

Outstanding! I loved, loved, loved this post, Mary. How wonderful that you were able to take in the city and the exhibit and meet your wonderful friends. Dinner looks amazing and the company even better! Thank you for sharing it with us.

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