Book Club Hits the Road… Again.

Bel CantoI don’t think I’m capable of putting into coherent English how pleased I was when my book club chose Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto as our latest read.  See, the novel has without a doubt been one of my favorites for years; in fact, I reread it every twelve months or so.  No lie.  Also, everyone I’ve ever suggested the book to has loved it — honestly.  Here’s the story:

Bel Canto is set in an unspecified South American country, where an elaborate party is taking place at the vice president’s mansion.  Government officials and entrepreneurs are present to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, as well as watch the performance of a celebrated opera singer.  The intimate concert is interrupted by a terrorist group, who then takes the entire house — servants, guests and opera singer — captive.  Eventually, some of the hostages are released, leaving only a handful to be guarded by the terrorists.

What unfolds in Patchett’s three hundred pages is wholly unpredictable, indescribably lovely and utterly devastating; the plot was inspired by a similar event which took place in Peru during the mid-nineties, though Patchett spins what could have been a perfectly good fact-based thriller into something leagues more heartbreaking, emboldened and new.  Even now, years after I first cracked its spine, Bel Canto still gracefully slides past my grumpy, gloomy demeanor, and gently leads me through its pages.  It also led to some fantastic conversation in New Hampshire, where we had carpooled in order to visit the Currier Museum of Art and a very special property that is part of the collection.  The book we had read previous to Bel Canto was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the fictionalized account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney; it seemed only fitting to travel to the only Wright home located in New England that is open to the general public.

Zimmerman House, 1The Currier’s Wright is called the Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, after the husband and wife who commissioned the architect to design them not only a home to fit their lifestyle, but also interiors, landscaping and a mailbox that also suited their needs.  In a sense, our docents informed us, the Zimmermans were Wright’s ideal clients, deferring to him in all matters related to their home.  Because of this relationship with these clients, Wright’s radical and nontraditional vision was truly able to flourish — it thrives even today, almost sixty years after the project was completed.

Zimmerman KitchenEven if you’re not like me and neither design nor architecture interests you, I’m certain that the Zimmerman house would mesmerize you conclusively.  Let’s not even talk about the clever, well-thought-out details like the wall of windows that fully capture Lucille Zimmerman’s beloved garden from each and every room or the in-floor heating that runs beneath the length of the home.  I’ll skip all that specifically to discuss this: the Zimmermans were the only people to ever live in this home.  They bequeathed the structure to the Currier, the board of which left the house exactly as Isadore and Lucille did.  Those are Lucille’s dresses hanging in the bedroom closet, Isadore’s books on the shelves, their collection of pottery catching your eye.  The slim kitchen (scanned from a postcard I purchased in the gift store; interior photography is not permitted) is stocked with their pots and pans, their coffee tins, their dishtowels.  It is also the Zimmermans’ ashes interred together in a corner of the yard underneath a memorial plaque, overlooking the home they loved.  How much more fascinating does it get than that?

Note: Visitors may tour the Zimmerman House by reservation only.  The Currier offers several different tours throughout the year.  Click on the photo of the house for a four-picture slideshow of the exterior.

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org

Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104
603.669.6144
currier.org
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A Late Dinner at The Publican.

A sad but true story:  My friend Lara and I lost touch when we went away to college.  We had spent high school sitting a few seats away from each other in more subjects than I’m capable of remembering (I think we were in at least one Global Studies, almost all of our Spanish courses, perhaps every English class…) but I did such a terrible job at maintaining a long-distance friendship that our level of camaraderie dwindled because of it.

Here’s the happy ending though: an e-correspondence has popped up between us.  Since Lara’s finishing up with her Ph.D at the University of Chicago, the moment I knew I was going to be in town I immediately sent her a message detailing our plans.  We decided to meet up for a tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on the university’s campus in Hyde Park and then spend some time catching up before getting to our reservations at The Publican.

the-publican2The Publican is the newest eatery from the team behind Avec and Blackbird, but unlike its predecessors, the focus at this restaurant is on beer.  Had I been drinking that night, I would have started with the Cane + Ebel red rye from Illinois’s own Two Brothers Brewing Company, before moving on to Goose Island‘s Pere Jacques, a Belgian-style ale.  After all, when in Chicago, right?  Massachusetts law makes it tricky for breweries and vineyards to ship product in; the selection at liquor stores can be very limited, so when we travel Keith and I try to take advantage of locally-made drinks.

publican-dining-room1When we walked in the restaurant’s doors, the first thing I noticed was the noise.  The dining room is big and cavernous; sound bounces around the space like a superball.  The second thing I that caught my eye was the space itself.  For one thing, the ceiling is ridiculously high, and from it hangs countless globe-shaped light fixtures.  For another, like at Avec, a majority of the tables are set up family-style; the rest are shuttered away behind mini barn-like doors.  (You can see them in  this picture here, which is from the Publican’s site.)  I was happy to learn that our table was one of the sealed-off; not only did we get a little bit of privacy — the wooden walls are came up past my shoulders, when I was seated — but the three of us were able to have a conversation without shouting at each other, which is always nice.

the-publican-1The Publican is similar to Avec in one more way: the menu encourages sharing.  Our server informed us that three small plates and two larger ones would be more than enough for our little group, so we had a caucus and decided on our choices.  Since we said we were okay with our selections arriving as soon as they were ready, our dinner started with frites ($5.00).

If it were up to me, all meals would begin with frites, so I was thrilled to see them blooming out of a paper cone like a golden bouquet.  I wasn’t disappointed by the fries — they were so warm they all but melted, and the garlicky mayonnaise we requested went fantastically with the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites.  Lucky for Lara and Keith, a member of staff placed the cone on the opposite end of our gated table from where I was seated.  Otherwise, it would have been very likely that I wouldn’t have shared a single stick.

the-publican-2The second plate we received over our barn door was pork belly atop a pool of black-eyed peas and pickled shallots ($16.00).  Lara had never had pork belly before; once we learned this, Keith and I both insisted upon ordering it (though, to be fair, chances are I probably would’ve demanded the belly regardless).  As I watched Lara have her first bite of belly, I realized how badly I wanted her to love it as much as I do.  In my mind, belly of pork is as close as you can get to heaven — while eating, anyway.  I love its tender texture, and the finger of fat that covers the meat is my absolute favorite part of each bite.  My mouth is watering now, many meals later.

the-publican-3Another plate that we three agrees on was the boudin blanc ($15.00), much to my absolute delight.  I love hot dogs and think of sausages as their chicer, equally lovable older sisters, so the thought of passing the boudin up was a devastating one.

Boudin blanc is white since the sausage is made without blood; this one was served atop a small pile of  apple and celeriac.  Orange-infused mustard had been drizzled over it all, resulting in something fantastic.  Each bite was a bit tangy and a somewhat nutty and, as with the frites, I did not want to share at all.  I did, albeit reluctantly.  I still regret it.

the-publican-4I’m just now starting to realize how pigcentric our meal was, especially now that the time has come to discuss the next dish: pork ribs with polenta and a helping of caraway-mint slaw ($20.00).  The ribs were sweet and lovely, and the polenta crisp, but what really got my attention was the minted slaw.  I had never known that I liked slaw until I had the Publican’s version; it had the perfect amount of mint essence.  Sometimes — well, more like oftentimes — I find mint to be one of the most overpowering of aromatic herbs, beating down into submission whatever other flavors might be present.  That was definitely not the case here.

The ribs, briefly, were sweet and meaty, and devoured almost instantaneously.

the-publican-5The three of us wanted to make sure we ordered some sort of vegetable-focused dish, particularly since  we knew we had one more porky plate coming our way.  Once I saw the  sunchoke sformato ($6.00) with pancetta and dill vinaigrette on the menu, I knew which vegetable I would be voting for.  I had tried sunchokes for the first time last spring in Maine and had loved their crunchy sweetness; I wanted to taste that flavor again.  Not only wasn’t I disappointed with the sunchokes, but a small piece of me totally fell in love with the sformato.  Creamy and milky, it added a lush sort of luxury to the earthy vegetables.

the-publican-6Our last plate, a potée, was another meatastic dish, though it didn’t revolve completely around the axis of pork, as it featured a veal cut.  The Publican’s potée was made out of a minced-meat crépinette, a sizable piece of pork tenderloin and a veal breast ($25.00); the three cuts had been simmered with vegetables, and was similar in feeling to a pot-au-feu.  I think of both dishes as comforting, cold-weather food, the sort that is meant to heat you from the inside out — which ultimately, for me, made the potée perfect Chicago food.  No frosty breeze would be able to blow me over, not with this warming my belly.  In fact, when we left the Publican, the temperature had dropped even further, something that made a perverse sort of sense as we were amongst the last of the patrons to gather our coats and slip reluctantly out into the cold.  The truth of the matter is this: I had forgotten about the chilly air outside, and the iced-over puddles lacing the street.  All that was on my mind that night was the food, the company and the conversation, and how the combination of it all filled me with a toasty glow that stood up to an arctic Chicago evening.

The Publican
845 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
312.733.9555
thepublicanrestaurant.com

Publican on Urbanspoon

Back in Town.

Friends, I am exhausted.  During a vacation, I normally like to make sure I’ve not only time to explore a new place but also that I’ve set aside an hour or two to take off my shoes and relax. An ideal schedule for me would be something like a semi-early start with a nice breakfast, followed by checking out an interesting museum exhibit, sitting down to a three o’clock lunch and walking around a picturesque neighborhood; as the day winds down, I love chilling out with a drink before heading out for a late dinner.

This, however, was not a kick-back trip.  Practically the only minutes Keith and I had off of our feet were those that found us riding the El or sitting down before a plate of food — otherwise it was all hustle hustle hustle before falling into bed each night and waking up feeling only partially restored.  Regardless, I had an absolute boatload of fun.  I’ll write more specifically on certain aspects of it, but for now, here’s a highlight reel of sorts:

hot-dougs-avecThursday
Arrived at O’Hare before ten in the morning, tired but excited,  so after a quick Starbucks detour at the baggage claim* (skinny vanilla latte for me, skim chai for Keith), we grabbed a taxi to our hotel on the Gold Coast to check in before flagging another taxi for the ride across the city to Hot Doug’s.  Afterwards we wandered around the area for a bit before sliding into fourth taxi of the day (the first was from our apartment to Logan at 5.30 AM, EST) for a ride to the Water Tower and a chilly walk up and down the Magnificent Mile.  Stopped in Borders to pick up a Frommer’s Guide and take a break from the cold; at some points, I couldn’t feel my face.  My absolute favorite building was the one that houses Bottega Veneta at 800 North Michigan, a charming gem absolutely dwarfed by the more modern Park Hyatt.  Walked back to our hotel, ducking into Barney’s and Jake when we felt too cold.  Later, we met up with Keith’s old friend Dave for a drink at the Hotel Burnham‘s Atwood Café before the three of us flagged a taxi (number five — luckily Chicago cabs are cheap) to take us to Avec in the West Loop.

millenium-park-2Friday
Overslept, but only in the sense that I got up, took a shower, then got back into bed for another two hours.  Does that count as oversleeping?  Regardless, we got off to a late start, only having time to poke around Millenium Park before hailing the first taxi of the day to ferry us to Blackbird for our one o’clock lunch reservations.  Rode the Green Line to Adams/Wabash, the stop for the Art Institute.  We didn’t get tickets to the Munch exhibit but I was excited to see Ivan Albright‘s That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), which is creepy and sad and evocative and thought-provoking.  Left the musum at exactly closing time, walked across the BP Bridge and along Lake Michigan to Navy Pier — which should be renamed McDonald’s Pier, as everything in sight seemed to be emblazoned with the golden arch logo.  Taxi number two back to the hotel; hung out before dinner at Alinea.  We took the El to North/Clybourn and walked from there to 1723 North Halsted, but afterwards had a taxi called for us; it was almost one AM.

chicago-riverSaturday
Wanted to sleep in but couldn’t — we had prepaid for tickets to take an eleven o’clock tour with the Architecture Foundation (though when we arrived at 224 South Michigan no one even checked).  Traveled amongst the insanity and congestion of Saint Patrick’s Day while making our way downtown.  Didn’t see the river actually get dyed green but saw the end results while we walked with the tour, squinting up at Art Deco buildings.  Avoided stepping into green-tinted vomit.  More walking to the North Wells location of Gino’s East, Dave’s recommendation for deep dish pizza.  Didn’t realize deep dish takes forty-five minutes to make so afterwards hailed a cab to bring us to the Metra, one of the few ways to get to Hyde Park and Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Robie House; had more prepaid tickets for a tour, as well as plans to meet up with my friend Lara, a Ph.D student at the University of Chicago.  After the tour she took us around campus, stopping at the Oriental Institute and Hallowed Grounds, before heading to Hopleaf for a pre-dinner beer (the bartender suggested the Goose Island Matilda and I’m here to tell you it was fantastic) and then over to The Publican for the meal itself.

the-lake-2Sunday
Wake up for brunch at Bistrot Zinc with Dave, his wife Isobel and their daughter Paloma, who just might be the most laid-back, Zen baby in the entire world.  Walked to the Lincoln Park Zoo; the weather had gotten considerably warmer and the ice was audibly thawing.  Heard two lions roar, an incredibly impressive sound, and a jaguar, um, mark his territory (if you get my drift), much to the childrens’ combined delight and disgust.  Dog watched outside the zoo before walking through Old Town to Isobel’s dining recommendation, Adobo Grill.  It was probably our earliest dinner of the year at five o’clock but within a few minutes the restaurant was packed so our timing was perfect.  Dogwatched some more from our seat next to the windows.  Realized haven’t taken a taxi all day.  Walked back to the hotel and packed.

Total number of taxis taken during trip: 9 (including taxi to O’Hare and from Logan on Monday)

* Generally, I like to travel with carry-ons only but since Alinea requests that men wear jackets, we had to not only check Keith’s suit but also pay the additional fee to do so.

“The city looks so peaceful from up here.”

chicago1

I’m headed to Chicago for a little mini-vacation — we’ll be checking out Frank Lloyd Wright‘s Robie House, taking an architecture tour and eating some fantastic meals.  Here’s a hint of which restaurant Keith is most looking forward to

I won’t have internet access while I’m gone, but I promise to fill you in when I get back!