Saturday in the Park

6 Sep



Downtown Chicago. Photo by MAG


If I can’t be in New York City, then Chicago is the next best place to be.

This past weekend I traveled to Chicago to visit J. and to get a little taste of a big city. As I’ve said before, J. is a serious foodie, so I know that when I visit her I can count on taking a break from my usual fare — protein drinks and frozen dinners — the food itinerary this Labor Day weekend was amazing, as usual!

On Saturday, we started the day with an amazing baked squash and onion tart that J. had made the day before, and then headed out to power-walk through an outdoor mall. J. and I don’t mess around when we shop because neither of us has the patience for browsing. We stop in stores that interest us, do a quick sweep of the entire place, and can be out in under 10 minutes – unless one of finds something to try on, then we’re out in 15.

After our trip to the mall, we headed to the Edgewater area and picked up lunch from Gaztro-Wagon. Owned by Matt Maroni [yes, he’s heard all of the requisite jokes], this little restaurant offers the most amazing naan-wiches. I had the Braised lamb with queso Panela, apricots, walnuts and padron peppers, and J. tried the Fingerling Potato with fennel, mushroom puree, and goat cheese. We also tried an order of the plantain chips and split a real Oatmeal Cream Pie [these are not at all like Little Debbie makes them!].


Otom dining area. Photo by MAG


Many hours later, we dressed up and headed out to Otom, Joseph DeVito’s restaurant down in the Chicago meatpacking district. Otom is a quiet spot that focuses on New American cuisine with a Southern flair, and its interior might just make even the most hardcore graphic designer smile as it combines Paul Smith’s iconic stripes with exposed brick and sleek modern furniture.

What really shines at Otom are both the food and the impeccable service. The staff was friendly, attentive and incredibly knowledgeable about the food, and it seemed as if DeVito had addressed all of the biggest pet peeves that diners have! The courses were served efficiently without being rushed, and when the server boxed up our leftovers she didn’t bring them back to the table. Instead, the bag was kept in a side area until we paid our check. This solved the problem of having leftovers sitting on the table during coffee – or under the table and being forgotten.

We started the meal with green tea smoked octopus served with grilled cherry tomatoes, fennel, and pie pan squash. For the main course, I ordered the Chef’s Fish Special, which was a combination of mussels, crayfish, and marlin on a bed of wilted spinach and fingerling potatoes, and J. had the Duck Breast with somen noodles, miso dashi, baby bok choy, green onion and duck egg. And we had to split an order of the “Mac & Cheese” made with trofie, sweet corn, white cheddar and accompanied by a corn fritter that could actually have been called dessert. We agreed that next time we’re going to hijack the server and demand a plate of the fritters to start.


Photo by MAG


Otom is pricey, but we had a Groupon that deducted $60.00 off of our meal, so the entire dinner ended up costing $50.00 with tip.

On Sunday, we put on our walking shoes and took the El from Lincoln Park to North Avenue and had lunch at Epic Burger. The burgers here are outstanding – fresh, perfectly cooked and on the best buns ever! The menu is limited, and as a result, they do burgers right!

After lunch, we walked from North Avenue down to Michigan Avenue, and strolled the Magnificent Mile in search of Garrett’s Popcorn. Garrett’s is an iconic Chicago snack shop which specializes in – you guessed it – popcorn. Year round, the line in front of Garrett’s Michigan Avenue store stretches down the block, and Labor Day weekend was no exception. We waited patiently in line with fifty other folks, only to find out that they were out of cheese popcorn just as we reached the front of the line. Since I was bringing it back for a Garrett’s junkie in Michigan, I made an executive decision and settled for a large bag of caramel corn.


Nine West. Photo by MAG


We also had to do the obligatory stop at what those who know me would call “The Mothership” – Nine West – to browse the shoe sales and see what they were carrying for fall. I didn’t buy anything because I couldn’t justify the cost/use value [the cost of the shoes divided by the number of times they will be worn], but just being in the store was enough — this time.

In the Michigan Avenue Gap store, I passed another milestone in my preparation for New York City. I bought a skirt – size large. For many folks [who are not women fighting with their weight], this will have no significance whatsoever, but for me it was a glorious moment as I stood in the dressing room modeling the first skirt I’d put on in fifteen years that wasn’t marked “1, 2 or 3X.” You’d better believe I bought it! I did not push my luck and try on pants, though. I’ll save that for the next trip.


Gap skirt. Photo by MAG


By the time we caught the El back to Lincoln Park, we’d been walking [and/or waiting in line] for about five hours, and were hungry – again! We made a quick stop at Nhu Lan Bakery on Lawrence Street, and picked up the best banh mi sandwiches in the city. If you go there, I highly recommend the #11. It’s a mixture of tofu that has the texture of cooked meat, sweet and sour pickled slaw and hot peppers on a freshly baked baguette. It’s a delicious and inexpensive meal, and tastes wonderful with a nice cold Brooklyn Lager.

We capped off the meal with a slice of J.’s freshly made Pistachio Cake with Fig Jam and Cream Cheese Frosting as we watched Inspector Lewis and Detective Hathaway solve yet another murder mystery.

I might still be a year away from my New York City experience, but in the meantime, Chicago will stand in quite nicely.


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