Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And this is why internet dating is the ninth circle of hell.

Alrighty. So here is the latest in a long line of deep irritations with the whole internet dating thing.

And let me begin by saying, before you write in, I'm thrilled you met your fabulous boyfriend on Match.com, and couldn't be happier that your Cousin Sheila just married some guy she hooked up with on Chemistry.com. I'm just saying that in the seven years since my divorce I have now been on, wait for it....47 first dates based on online meetings.

Only two of these generated second dates.

I’m still single, so you know how those turned out.

This is not a good ratio in terms of time-management. I have essentially given up on the whole thing; it is too expensive, too subjective, and too time-consuming. I have been on first dates with guys who were 20 years older than they claimed, 50 pounds heavier than their pictures, and who were, whether they know it consciously or not, gay. Not effete or mincing. Just, um, never even peek at my cleavage, never had a girlfriend longer than six months even though you are in your forties, we-seem-to-both-be-distracted-by-the-same-hot-waiter GAY. Nothing wrong with being gay, a huge percentage of my favorite people are same-sex oriented, just, um, don't pretend you want to date me!

I have been on dates with guys who have been less employed, less racially-tolerant, less intelligent, and less divorced than they would have led me to believe. This doesn’t even take into account the endless e-mails with guys who never pull the trigger on the actual first date…and you know what? I’m awesome at e-mail. I’m witty. I’m creative. I FUCKING WRITE FOR A LIVING, and I’m tired of giving it away for free and then having the recipient disappear into the ether.

In spite of the numerous online-dating indignities I have suffered, I do, however, keep a profile posted on JDate, because I am single and Jewish and if we believe Elijah may come back, maybe he'll be cute and looking for a girlfriend. I do not pay for a subscription because it is $35 freaking dollars a month and I'd rather keep that in my cocktail budget, thank you.

On JDate, if someone sends you an e-mail, you have to be a subscriber in order to A) see who it is and 2) read it. This means that if you aren't paying them the monthly fee, you have no idea if 1) it is some guy who has tried four times to convince you to go out with him or B) your future husband. So my policy is to wait for someone to write, pay the toll, and deal with the financial consequences in the spirit of hope.

Besides, I only get a nibble about two to three times a year on JDate, so it is actually more cost effective this way.Yesterday I was informed that I had mail. I paid my $35 (SERIOUSLY, PEOPLE? $35? Without lube?) and checked it out. It was from a guy whose profile I had seen before, and frankly, hadn't been much impressed. Not unattractive, but not necessarily my particular flavor. Not inarticulate in his narrative, but didn't spark as particularly interesting in a way that made me tingly either. However, I know it is hard to reach out to a stranger, and his profile hadn't been awful, so I forged ahead with an open mind.Here was his e-mail:

Hey-- I read your profile and you really sound great, but I just can't understand how it can be that you can not make coffee. Good coffee is so easy to make! Maybe I could teach you how and then you would be perfect in every way? Josh

(In case you haven't gleaned, I mention that I cannot make a decent cup of joe in my profile.)

Okay. Not terribly original, but not totally inane either. I've been trying to be more open-minded about guys lately, I work at home lord love me, and am starting to be tempted to set things on fire so that Firemen will come over, I should give him a chance.

I replied.

Josh-I know, the coffee thing is really embarrassing, especially for a gourmet chef. So obviously you are a Master Barrista, anything else I should know about you? Stacey

To which he replied:

Hey Stacey-Sorry, I was just interested in the coffee thing. I didn't mean to flirt. I apologise for being a jerk. Josh

He did not apologize for being a bad speller.

$35 for this?

My reply:

Josh- Small note....this is JDate. The whole 'date' part of that title seems to generically imply that one would be here to, um, meet other single like-minded individuals for, well, DATING purposes. If you have a particular interest in offering coffee making lessons, I suggest Craigslist or the Reader Classifieds.

Or at least lead with "I'm not attempting to get to know you in any way, just wanted to offer to teach you how to make coffee." Doesn't make you a jerk, just sort of puzzling. Well, you might be a jerk. I don't know anything about you except you can apparently not only make coffee, but are willing to share that knowledge with others. I'll leave acknowledgement of your jerkiness up to you.

One other thing: Many people do not keep up a subscription to JDate, but allow their profiles to be seen. When someone gets an e-mail, they do have to pay at least a one-month $35 fee to read said e-mail and respond. If you tend to only have sporadic messages, often skipping two or three months at a time, it is still more cost-effective than maintaining the year-round expense.I share this only to say that, again, on a DATING site, you might want to think in advance whether your humanitarian coffee-making aid might be worth $35 to someone who might be here in an honest effort to meet potential suitors.

You know, just a thought.

Best, Stacey

I mean, really.

If you have a nightmare or two yourself....feel free to share with the class.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Affair to Remember

Anyone who has ever been married, or had a serious long-term relationship, knows that there are temptations everywhere. Even the most devoutly monogamous person can find herself drawn in other directions, intrigued by the new. If you are smart, your crush remains chaste; taking the best of what is possible, breaking neither trust nor vows. After all, there is nothing wrong with building a deep friendship; even if underneath that friendship is the tacit understanding that in a different world, in a parallel reality, the boundaries would be very different. If you are less disciplined, the passion takes over and you can find yourself in a full -fledged affair of the heart.

And so it is for me.

I am very happily married to Chicago, would never dream of living elsewhere, cannot imagine a life as full or rich as the one I have here. I want to spend all of my remaining days in my glorious apartment, which could not exist anywhere but on Logan Boulevard. I need everything about this city, up to and including our ridiculous weather, our endlessly heartbreaking sports teams, our amazing culture and, it goes without saying, our spectacular food. I need it like I need oxygen. This city feeds my soul, and I am grateful everyday to live here. As much as I love traveling to far-flung reaches of the planet, even taking extended multiple month trips, Chicago waits for me, and I’ve never thought for a second of leaving it. I’m not really meaningfully me in any sense without Chicago. I am the fifth generation of my family to call the city home; Chicago is in my blood and bones.

But I’m totally sleeping with New York.

I could never be married to New York. New York is moody, and expensive, and fickle, and that bad-boy edge which is so irresistible in a lover, would be a huge impediment to making a life together. New York is impulsive, loud, brash and occasionally cruel. New York would never remember to take the garbage out, would be rude to your mother and would flirt with your best friend. New York wouldn’t always come home at night. New York would forget the mortgage payment and chip the good china. New York doesn’t apologize. But for a little something on the side, New York is both irresistible and ideal. I have a wonderful group of friends there, people to play with. A great spa where I can get a mani/pedi almost as good as Margaret’s at EBella. A hairdresser who can give me a blowout almost as good as Michael’s at Fringe. I have a regular hotel where they know that I like the rooms that end in the number 10, down pillows not foam, extra towels, and a fridge in the room.And if you, like me, despite your deep and powerful love and connection to your hometown, occasionally need a wicked little fling…New York is the place to sow your outlaw oats.

In the past few years I’ve been spending more and more time in the Big Apple, traveling there for work and play, sometimes as often as once a month. I’ve gotten past the awkward first stages of the relationship, when you are on pins and needles all the time, not really quite yourself, unsure and a little lost, still jumping out of bed first thing in the morning to fix your hair and brush your teeth. I’m now solidly in the best stage, when you feel like you can be yourself, are free and uninhibited, when you know your way around and have figured out exactly what works best. I know where things are, which streets to take, when to jump on the subway and when to hail a cab--and most importantly, where to eat.

Here is just a small round up of some of my favorite New York spots; these are places that are dependable, places that I have been to with regular success and joy. Some will be familiar to you; some are the kinds of places that only locals really know about. All will deliver for you. But be careful…New York is powerfully seductive, visit at your own risk.

The Morning After: Breakfast/Brunch

Norma’s (in the Parker Meridian Hotel)118 W. 57th @ 6th Ave.Pricy, but worth it. Succulent eggs, amazing French toast, perfectly crispy bacon, and they bring the hot chocolate with a whole separate bowl of whipped cream on the side. Enough said.

The Cupping Room Corner of Broome and West BroadwayCharming little café, you’ll have to wait on the weekends, but they turn their tables pretty quickly and the wait is worth it. I go for the omelets every time, and the breads are spectacular.

H&H Bagels 2239 Broadway @ 80th St.1551 2nd Ave. between 80th and 81stThe classic New York bagel.

Gossiping with the Ladies: Lunch

For some reason in New York, for lunch I always seem to want French bistro food. And they have some of the best! Here are my top three:

Balthazar 80 Spring St. between Crosby and BroadwayYes, this place was heavily featured in Sex and the City, and continues to be a scene, but it also has spectacular basic French bistro lunches. If you’re starving, go for the classic onion soup and the Croque Monsieur, the best grilled ham and cheese ever. I prefer the sautéed skate wing with brown butter or one of the salads. And if you are really hungry, hit the steak frites, great juicy steak with a pile of perfect crisp fries.

Café Cluny 284 W. 12th St. @ West 4th St.I know it so isn’t French, but they have one of the best burgers I have ever tasted. Ditto the lamb Bolognese. And don’t skip their take on the warm goat cheese salad…this has watercress and green apples and a terrific shallot vinaigrette.

Café Luxembourg 200 W. 70th @ AmsterdamChicken paillard. Full stop. And start with whatever the soup of the day is, they are all fantastic.

If you are in the mood for New York Deli, you aren’t going to beat Katz’s, 205 E. Houston St. @ Ludlow St. And yes, you can sit at the table where Meg Ryan faked her famous orgasm. Hit the corned beef or pastrami hard, grab a matzo ball soup, and either a Black Cherry, Cream Soda, or Cel-Ray tonic. Perfection.

And for something a little different, try Cabana for Cuban food, 1022 3rd between 60th and 61st, the best black beans and rice in the city, and classic entrees like arroz con pollo and paella. I like to go and just order appetizers for lunch, especially the beef empanadas, and the tostones rellenos with chicken.

Afternoon Delight: Midday Snacks

New York is a walking city, and you are going to need sustenance. Never be afraid to grab a hot pretzel or a Gray’s Papaya hot dog along the way. But these places are worth making a special trip for:
Alice’s Tea Cup 156 E. 64th and Lexington220 E. 81st between 2nd and 3rd Aves.102 W. 73rd between Amsterdam and ColumbusI go for either crepes (Nutella with bananas, or strawberries with whipped cream) or scones with cream and jam, and a pot of tea. A great place to go with kids, their “menu for the small” is fun, and you’ll be tempted to order off it yourself.

Magnolia Bakery 401 Bleeker @ W. 11th St.200 Columbus @ 69th St.I know that everyone talks cupcakes here, and do not mistake me, they are serious contenders. But for me, it is all about the banana pudding. Fresh vanilla custard layered with Nilla wafers, fresh bananas and whipped cream. Get the small cup, it is too rich for more.

Rice to Riches 37 Spring St. between Mott and MulberryRice pudding. All rice pudding all the time. Sixteen daily flavors that change, amazing toppings like roasted peaches and cherries and buttered graham cracker crumbs. Chic little spot to rest for a half an hour in the afternoon, or to hit for dessert after dinner. My favorites are: chocolate hazelnut, caramel, traditional vanilla, and peanut butter.

I know many of you are saying “I don’t like rice pudding.” And to you I say, yes, you do, you just don’t know it yet.

Minamoto Kitchoan 608 5th St @ 49th (enter on 49th)Gorgeous traditional Japanese sweets. Not your usual snack, and some very unique flavors, but these little jewels are tasty pieces of art. I especially love the whole cherries suspended in peach jelly.

The Big Date:Fancy Dinner

DB Bistro Moderne 55 W. 44th between 5th and 6th Aves.Daniel Boulud can do no wrong, in my eyes, and the food in this warm lovely room is impeccable. I start with the orechiette pasta with lamb ragu and goat cheese, and the arugula salad is a triumph. The halibut with cauliflower risotto is amazing, and the hanger steak (one of my favorite cuts) is transcendent. But if you’re craving classic French, you’ll never find a better Coq Au Vin or Blanquette de Veau. I could eat here every night, although it would put me in the poorhouse. Let them recommend a wine, the white burgundy they suggested last time I was there was beyond perfect. And be sure at least one person at your table gets the Apple Tarte Tatin for dessert.

Perilla 9 Jones St. between Broadway and 6th Ave.For you Top Chef fans, this is Harold Dieterle’s (winner of season one) restaurant and he clearly won for a very good reason. His food is amazing. I start with either the crispy pork belly, the seared scallops or the duck meatballs…all beautiful and complex without being fussy. For entrée’s, the game hen is juicy, wrapped in bacon and anointed with pomegranate molasses, resting on a bed of perfect spaetzle. The steamed black bass is ethereal, and makes you feel almost virtuous. And the braised Elk osso bucco is a dish so good you want to jump in it. Get a side order of Brussels sprouts leaves. And for dessert, the vanilla doughnuts and sticky toffee pudding will fit the bill.

Alto 11 E. 53rd St. between Madison and 5th Ave.Chef Michael White, formerly of Spiggia and Fiamma is an old family friend, lucky for us, and does fine-dining Italian better than anyone. For appetizers, get the scallops or the octopus. Pasta is all done in-house and is uniformly amazing, extra points for the butternut squash ravioli, the duck and chestnut maccheroni, and the gnocchi (and I am not a gnocchi fan!). If you’re in the mood for fish, go for the branzino with black olives, and if meat is on your mind either the rack of lamb or the veal chop will make your night. Save room for dessert, the torrone is rich with chocolate and hazelnut, and bombolini lemon custard filled doughnuts will haunt your dreams.

The Cuddle Date: Moderate Dinner

Fabio Piccolo Fiore 44th between 2nd and 3rd Aves.This is your basic Italian restaurant with a twist…if you don’t see it on the menu, they will make it for you. Really. Their menu dishes are very good, veal marsala or piccata, excellent pastas, the menu won’t surprise you, but you will find plenty to choose from. But I come here when I most wish I had a kitchen. When I’m sad that I can’t just make something simple for myself. On my last visit I looked at my waiter and said “ I need pappardelle, light sauce…just some olive oil and lemon, no garlic, maybe some chicken breast and, um, zucchini?” Without even pausing he said “Very good, some capers, yes?” Sigh. “Yes, please.” The dish arrived, was topped with a flurry of Parmesan, and was exactly what I wanted. Moist chunks of chicken, zucchini slivers perfectly cooked, al dente pasta and just the barest anointing of lemony sauce with a scattering of capers. Almost like being at home.

Josie’s East 565 3rd Ave. between 37th and 38th Sts.This is always where I go when I’m meeting vegetarian friends. The organic cooking has plenty that is great for veg-heads and carnivores alike, and they often have innovative specials on the menu. Start with the potato-broccoli dumplings or a salad. I love both the roasted chicken and the rib eye, and my vegetarian buddies swear by the tofu with fried brown rice and veggies.

Prune 54 E. 1st St. between 1st and 2nd Ave.Intimate and cozy, this East Village gem is worth making a special trip for. The roasted marrowbones are an amazing luxury, and the Parmesan omelet is a unique starter. For entrees, I go for the roasted capon, which is chicken to the tenth power, and the lamb blade steak, a great and often overlooked cut. For side dishes, try the cardoons, which taste like the perfect combination of artichoke and celery, and the bitter greens are a bright and fresh accompaniment to the rich meats. Stick to the fruit desserts, I like the apple galette in its own caramel, and the fried sugared figs.

The Cheap and Easy: Inexpensive Dinner

Sometimes you don’t want to dine, you just want to eat. Whether picking up to take back to the hotel, or just grabbing something quick before the theater, you shouldn’t have to end up at some fast food grease palace.

Ippudo 65 4th Ave. between 9th and 10th streetsIf you’ve only ever eaten ramen as those salty packaged blocks we all survived on in college, you’ve never really eaten ramen. And frankly, for a good quick meal on the go, a bowl of hearty broth with great noodles and add-ins can’t be beat. I love the Pork Ramen Classic - Shiomaru Moto Sji Ramen with Berkshire pork chashu, cabbage, and scallions. They also have versions with miso broth instead of pork broth, and a vegetable version. Yum.

Grand Central Market Grand Central Station, Lexington Ave. between 44th and 43rd Sts.Am I actually recommending you grab dinner in the train station? Hella yeah. Grand Central Station has the best freaking food court and market I’ve seen, and you can get the perfect NY breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. Best of all, you can wander and cobble together a great meal from several different vendors, so if you want famous Junior’s cheesecake after your rotisserie chicken, its right there for you. Dishes, in the Marketplace on the upper level has great prepared foods, and on my last trip, in need of a decent meal I could take back to the hotel, I picked up a rosemary lemon chicken breast, tomato and smoked mozzarella pasta, and a fennel salad. A roll from the nearby bakery, and a piece of fruit from the produce stand, and I could feel sated and healthy, and very deserving of a night in with the Turner Classic Movie channel.

Moonstruck Diner 400 W. 23rd St. at 9th Ave.Classic diner menu, good service, reasonable prices. Eat in or take out. I love the patty melts…but you’ll be fine with any of the basic menu items.If you have favorite New York haunts, be sure to share with the class.

And don’t worry. If you decide to have your own affair with New York, I promise not to tell your hometown.

Yours in good taste,

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Um, I think I may not be able to hire you after all...

So today, after my fabulous lunch meeting (god bless Lula) I went for a manicure. (Don't judge me, there have to be some perks to working for yourself, and lord knows Health Insurance isn't one of them!) Upon arriving, it became clear that there was a small commotion outside the salon. Apparently, a gentleman, trying to retrieve something from inside the back of his van, became locked inside, and had to be rescued.

Poor fellow, I thought, isn't that embarrassing? My heart went out to him, since I have, on occasion, had some small car-related traumas. I'm reminded of the day I got my driver's license. My dad took me to the DMV, I took the written exam and aced it, took the driving exam and aced that, even the parallel parking part. My examiner handed me my sheet, only one point off for not stopping completely at the stop sign (had this guy never heard of the famous Chicago roll-and-go?) and he motioned to a door where I would enter to take my picture and get my license. I was so excited. I jumped out of the car, waved the sheet over my head and yelled to my dad "I passed! I've got my license!" Dad looked at me with a resigned smile.

"That's great, honey, I'm very proud of you. Um, did you? Just lock? The keys? In the car?"

I looked down at my hand, bereft of keys. I looked over at the door, firmly locked.

Dad called Mom to come over with the extra set, luckily she wasn't far, and the three of us went to Wendy's for lunch and they were both really cool about it.

They were also really cool when, three days later, I merged from the right lane of traffic into the rear passenger door of the car in the left lane.

They did not know until many years later about the night I borrowed Dad's car (1985 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, known colloquially as the Land Yacht), loaded it up with my friends and drove it to the now-defunct ice cream palace that was Zephyr. We spent a lot of time there, as it had the perfect combination of art deco decor, amazing ice cream sundae creations, and really hot waiters. (Ah, Patrick, where are you now, I wonder?)

Zephyr had a parking lot across the street with perpendicular parking. Now I might have been killer at the parallel, and any idiot can do the diagonal parking lot spaces, but perpendicular takes a little finesse. Especially in a car the size of an aircraft carrier. I somehow managed to pull the car into a space next to a Chevy Nova. And despite the fact that it seems to defy physics and logic, I parked so close that our rear bumpers were almost kissing, and my side view mirror was in front of their side view mirror, so that even if I had been brave enough to TRY to gently back out, I'd have taken off one or both mirrors.

The entire kitchen and bus-boy staff of Zephyr had to come outside, PICK UP the Nova and move it over one space, so that there was no damage to either car. Good thing those Nova's were made mostly of tin foil and spit.

I once locked my keys in the trunk. I took off my own side mirror in the parking lot of my parent's apartment building by running it into the huge cement pole next to the space. (I was looking at the pole on the other side in order to protect the other mirror and forgot to check my side)

So truly, I get it, it is so easy to have a braindead moment when vehicles are involved.

But, um, this is the truck the guy was locked in:

I took this with my cell phone, which is a great phone but not a great camera, so in case you cannot read the writing on the side, here is what it says.

Handi Co
Chicago's Premier Handiman Service
Carpentry, Electrical, Plumbing, Painting, Maintenance

But I'm guessing not car service.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Is there no limit to pretension?

Okay. I am going to admit to something that I am sure will get me no end of hate mail. Or, since we were never allowed to say “hate” when I was growing up, strong-dislike mail.

I don’t like Trader Joe’s and I love Whole Foods.

There. I said it. And I shall not be ashamed.

I have tried to like Trader Joe’s, really I have. I have gone, and spent money, and eaten of their bounty, and I just, um, can't get it up for them. The produce makes me sad, wan and limp and lonely. The meats always seem suspect. They are great for random snack foods, some frozen goods and a bottle of wine, but the truth is every time I have ever been to a Trader Joe’s, I have left the store and gone directly to a Whole Foods to fill out my coffers.

Which is not to say that WFM doesn't have its drawbacks. Obviously Whole Paycheck is a jabillion times more expensive. And things like an amazing cheese selection and delectable prepared foods sections are very dangerous to a fat-ass foodie like me. I have been known to leave with two small bags coming in at over $200 and gotten home to find that I don’t actually have the makings for one complete meal.

I don’t do my regular big shopping there, just FYI, I have a couple of wonderful local supermarkets that do not require one to hock a kidney in order to afford their wares. I would no more buy toilet paper or canned goods or other staples at WFM than I would order a gold plated toilet. (Not to be confused with the gold-plated urinal which happily resides at the Farm, and is a tale for another day.) I go for specialty items, treats and organics, and often for produce, which I try to buy if not every day, every other day as a means of combating my natural instincts to hoard food, which results in endless melty fruits and veg that need to be tossed out.

And then there is the clientele. I much prefer the gang at Trader Joe’s for companionability. While it seems likely they are all stoned to the gills seventy-four percent of the time, and one sees a much higher incidence of the truly unfortunate “white guy dreads”, at least at TJ I would never have overheard this conversation between a 4 year old and his mother.

4 year old (in very loud, whiny voice): But Mooooom, I don't LIKE the Merlot, I LIKE the CABERNET!!!! Nanny Suuuuusie knows that.

Mom (taking break from Blackberrying to shift her Bottega purse to the other shoulder, and rolling her eyes as best as one can with a Botox-immobile forehead): Lucien, precious, they are out of the Cabernet, you can have either the Merlot or the Chardonnay.

I stand there thinking that I have fallen down a rabbit hole into France, and wondering if she is going to hand the kid a cigarette next.

Lucien (stamping little feet in little Crocs and beginning to wail): I don't LIIIIIIKE the Merlot or the Chardonnay, I LIIIIIKE THE CABERNET AND NANNY SUUUUUUSIE ALWAYS BUYS ME THE CABERNET!!!!

Mom, with teeth clenched, causing little temple ripples in otherwise motionless forehead: Lucien, if you do not stop this right now you will get regular grape juice AND a TIME OUT when we get home.

Note: Since when is juice punishment? I mean, can you imagine YOUR mom saying such a thing? Punishment is no television (a punishment I once suffered for a whole freaking year due to being a brat of gargantuan proportions). Punishment is extra chores, or no dessert, or having a favorite toy taken away. Or having your birthday party cancelled. (Which I also suffered through, again totally deserved, and someone please remind me to call my parents and thank them for putting up with me during my raging mini-bitch years and not selling me to gypsies.) But somehow the HORROR of REGULAR GRAPE JUICE eludes me. But I digress…

Lucien, weeping softly, and attaining the cadence of a caricature Jewish Mother: I'm sorry Mommy. Never mind. I won't have any juice.

Mom, picking him up and cradling him: Okay, little man, we can stop at the other store on the way home and see if they have your Cabernet. Okay?

Lucien, having learned important lesson about manipulation: Thank you mommy. I love you!

In case anyone is curious, Whole Foods is now carrying varietal grape juices, regular old plain grape juice not being good enough for the delicate palates of today's toddlers, and in fact, apparently now considered punishment in some circles. Good thing they are closing Gitmo before the next truckload of Welch’s arrives…

It's almost enough to make me shop at Trader Joe’s.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cool travel gear, and you can win $4000!

So I've recently been focused on travel gear, for reasons that will reveal themselves in due course, and one of my favorite new finds is a travel vest by Scott E Vest Travel Appparel. A simple clean look on the outside, the vest has 22 pockets of various shapes, sizes and functions which hold essentially everything I would usually put in my carry-on bag, as well as their signature Personal Area Network, which allows you wire the vest with your iPod and other gear, even having special earbud pockets! Where oh where was this vest when I was trekking around the UK and living in Kenya??? The best part is that the weight management system means that no matter how much stuff I put into the thing, it never gets heavy or uncomfortable, and the design stays smooth and flat on the outside, so that no one knows you have eighteen pounds of gear hidden inside. Take that, pickpocketers!

At any rate, when you go to the site to buy your vest or jacket, because you know you want one, check out their hilarious new video contest. http://www.scottevest.com/woz/woz-green-screen-contest.shtml You could win 4K!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Restaurant Review: Custom House Chicago

Occasionally I eat someplace that inspires me to want to share the experience with the world, and Custom House is one of those retaurants.

For anyone who loves Chicago history, one of the most exciting periods occurred right after the Great Chicago Fire, when the Custom House Levee District flourished. If ever a neighborhood was devoted to pure pleasure, the Levee was it, filled with saloons, brothels, and gaming houses, home to the genesis of the classic pay-for-votes politics, and an oasis of sin and sensual pleasures. The higher class bordellos were as famous for the quality of their food and wine as they were for the charms of their girls, and the area we now know as Printer’s Row spent a glorious thirty-five years reigning as the place to experience carnal delights of every sort.

Chef/Owner Shawn McClain, winner of the James Beard Best Chef –Midwest Award and a chef who had nothing to prove to this city after the success of SPRING and GREEN ZEBRA, has managed to meld three of Chicago’s most famous attributes. As the epicenter of the American meat industry, Chicago’s stockyards made us Sandburg’s ‘hog butcher to the world’. Era’s like the heyday of the Levee District gave the city the reputation of a city of outlaws, wild characters, and excitement. And events like the Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair marked Chicago as a place of innovation, artistry and progress. So it should be no surprise that a local chef has taken the concept of a traditional steak house, and with a combination of classic technical skill and broad artistic vision, has transformed it into a place that both honors its origins and explodes preconceptions…and done it in the heart of what used to be the infamous Levee District.

The open room at Custom House, with tall ceilings and wide windows erases the idea of the dark paneled rooms one usually expects when one thinks of a steak house. A wall of stone, softened by light fabric on the chairs, and simple elegant lighting is warm and welcoming. Starters are an embarrassment of riches, and deciding between them is a Herculean task. After consulting with our server, we choose the Quail, Smoked Rainbow Trout, and the special of the evening, a Goat Leg Tart.

The quail, simply roasted and served with a caramel balsamic reduction and a cippoline onion beignet, is perfect. The skin crisp and well seasoned, the meat cooked medium, highlighting the mellow gaminess of the tiny bird, a hint of sweet savoriness from the light drizzle of sauce. And the ‘onion beignet’ is quite simply the best onion ring either of us has ever tasted. Frankly, I’d like a basket of them and some barbeque sauce to dip them in. (Which is something I’d never actually request, but a girl can dream.) The tart, a layer of pastry topped with caramelized onion, braised goat leg and baby leeks, is well executed, the meat deeply flavored, the onions sweet. We both wished the pastry was crisper to balance the softness of the toppings, but ultimately it was still a successful dish flavor-wise. But both of these were eclipsed by the Smoked Trout, a light salad with slivers of radish and celery-bacon vinaigrette, served on a cauliflower panna cotta. It is a dish neither of us would have ordered, but for the recommendation of our server, and it was by far the favorite. Served with buttery brioche toast sticks, it is the kind of dish that makes you smile with its inventiveness. The creamy cauliflower panna cotta, much more subtle than we had anticipated, is the ideal foil for the trout, smoked in-house, tender and flavorful. We have the 2006 Tavel Rose with all three, and the crisp clean wine with hints of strawberry is great with all three dishes.

For entrees, being a steak house, some beef was in order, and the Australian raised New York Strip with bone marrow butter and roasted cippoline onions did not disappoint. The steak, aged 80 days, rivals any you will find at more traditional places, with the rich bone marrow butter putting it right over the top. We were leaning towards the halibut, but our now clearly psychic server insisted on the sturgeon, and once again her advice was impeccable. The fish, served in a light morel mushroom broth, was tender and mild, a fish neither of us had tasted before and would definitely order again. Sides are designed to share, but making up your mind will be tough! We tasted a decadent oxtail risotto, which, when paired with the sturgeon became an inspired surf and turf. Creamed spinach, which actually tasted of spinach and not just cream, was enriched with parmesan bread crumbs and tiny cubes of fried celery root. Asparagus became a meal in itself, wrapped in prosciutto and anointed with black truffle. But the hands-down favorite, again a recommendation from our server-cum-guru, was the Pommes Anna, thinly sliced potatoes layered with ricotta and house-smoked bacon. My giddy companion referred to it as potatoes au gratin on crack. And yes, you will crave more the minute the plate is empty. And my mother would disown me if I didn’t tell you to order the Bulghur Wheat, which is her favorite thing on the menu! With this feast, the 2005 D & S Proprietary Red, a gloriously chewy California wine with tones of blackcurrant and chocolate, smoothed the edges.

Desserts were a rich warm toffee date cake, a tasting of three ice creams (white coffee, balsamic caramel, and triple chocolate) and a mini lemon bundt cake. All delicious, with the exception of the balsamic caramel ice cream, which, though we were looking forward to it, had a strange and unwelcome aftertaste.

Custom House is the sort of place you can return to again and again, the menu changes daily. And without question, let the exceedingly knowledgeable waitstaff influence your dining and drinking decisions, they will introduce you to some amazing new flavors.

Bonus of the week: One thing about food, there are trends, some enduring (Caesar salad in some form is still on menus highbrow and casual alike), some not (when was your last fondue party?). And certain ingredients come in and out of vogue like hemlines. But sometimes you find something that on first taste you know will become a staple of your kitchen. And for me, that new ingredient is Grains of Paradise. An African spice, which is similar to a pepper, but more closely related to cardamom, is my new go-to pal in the kitchen. I’m not a huge fan of black pepper, finding it often too bitter or its heat too powerful for the style of cooking I prefer. But this glorious spice, without the overpowering heat, and with both floral and citrus tones, highlights everything it touches. Salads are heightened, meats are enhanced, and even more surprising, fruits like pineapple and strawberries are taken to a whole new place with just a light grinding. Available at Whole Foods, or online at http://www.worldspice.com/ , it is the kind of flavor that will uplift the everyday, and inspire you to experiment. Use it wherever you would use black pepper to start, and then let your imagination lead you. And just to prove that I am as cutting edge as I think I am, Sam Adams Summer Ale proudly lists Grains of Paradise as an ingredient. I might have to have one now. And if you find the perfect recipe for it, be sure to post it on the message board for the rest of us.

Yours in good taste.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Gaslighting Oneself

Gaslighting, for those of you unfamiliar with glorious B&W movies of the 1940's, is a form of psychological abuse wherein someone attempts to manipulate the environment of another person in order to make that person believe they are going crazy until, ta da, they actually go crazy! Inspired by a play from the 30's and with a delicious 1944 movie version starring Ingrid Bergman, it is worth a Netflix if you are so inclined.

However it takes a very special person to Gaslight themselves. And you guessed it, dearhearts, I am just such a special gal.

I have a parking space behind my building. I have lived in my apartment for 15 years. I have had a car for all of those years. Therefore, I have pulled in and out of my parking space approximately 5495 times, give or take. And in my years here, I have never, to the best of my knowledge, ever backed into the space. There is plenty of room in my alley to make the turn, the spaces are wide and more often than not, I am the only car back there.

So you can imagine my reaction the other night when, leaving to run a quick errand, I walked back to the space to find my car mooning me.

Ass backwards.

My heart began to race. My palms got sweaty. How the F**K did my car get turned 180 degrees? Was I being Punk'd? I unlocked the doors which automatically turns on the interior lights, and slowly approached my vehicle. No one lurking in the back seat. No one under the car. I got in, took a deep breath, and went off to the grocery store, playing the day over and over in my mind, trying to think of a reasonable explanation.

Did, perhaps, the lovely young man currently painting all the windows of my building need the car moved and simply come in and gotten the keys? I leave them right by the front door, if I had been in the back I might not have heard him. But it seemed unlikely. He is desperately polite, and would probably have taken an extra five hours to do something rather than put me out.

All the keys for my car are accounted for, both main keys and the valet key, so no one else has access.

The simple fact is that I was unsettled, nearly panicky, for well over 90 minutes before I remembered that after running out earlier with my upstairs neighbor, when we got back home someone was double parked in the alley, forcing me to, everyone together now....


And yes, this happened a mere 3 hours prior to my running back out and scaring the bejesus out of myself.

Because I? Am an idiot.

Which is still better than early onset Altzheimer's.

Proving once again that I should not have such unlimited access to both Law & Order reruns AND WebMD.