In which she arrives, eats well, sleeps well, and shops excessively.
The idea for this trip started when I noticed, a few years ago, that Christine Ferber gave an annual class at the French Pastry School in Chicago. It was really expensive, but I thought I'd save my pennies and eventually get to see the goddess of jams and jellies in person and learn a few of her secrets. At the time I first noticed her class, it was open to "food enthusiasts" (hereinafter, as legal writers say, "FEs") and pros alike. I figured I'd stay in a hotel, and sightsee and/or shop in my off hours. When I finally had the time and money, the class had been changed to a pros-only event.
The FPS explained that after the prior class, they'd had the students fill out feedback forms. The FEs had complained that the class moved too quickly, while the pros had felt it was too slow-no doubt held back by the aforementioned FEs. So they decided to limit the class to pros and have another class that was more introductory. They assured me I'd enjoy that class, with "Chef Bob", and they were right.
The fellow you see pictured is not Chef Bob. In fact, he is entirely made of legos, and sits on a bench outside the Chicago legos store. I had a better photo of him, with his arm around an elderly (live) gentleman, who was waiting for his grandson, who was in the shop. He let me take his photo, but made me promise not to "put him on the internet", because, "My wife would kill me." Apparently she felt he might be (virtually?) kidnapped, and reappear on a porn site. So I will keep him safely ensconced on my own computer, having downloaded him from my phone. All the pictures you will see were taken on my phone- I cleverly forgot the camera.
Warning: Due to the nature of the travelogue/diary format, we don't actually get to the class itself until the next post. However, as a member of my class pointed out, Legoman is not entirely un-food-related. I'm not sure if you can tell from the phone-photo, but there is a chicken on his head, and a cracked egg on his shoulder. I'm just saying.
Somehow I have managed, once again, to begin with a digression, time-wise. So now I'm going linear: I flew into Chicago on Monday, and the plane was delayed, convincing me that my day-ahead approach was best. Despite an ETA of 1:30, and a class time of 4pm, I would have been late if the class had started Monday. Tim, my bench partner in class, flew in from Oklahoma on Tuesday morning-and sure enough, it made him a little late. It seems that all planes are now presumed delayed, unless the stars align just so. There was an unexpected bit of good luck on board, however. I was crazy, and ordered coffee. It was excellent. I mentioned my surprise and happiness to the flight attendant , who smiled slyly. "That's because it's from the pot I made for myself," she said.
I stayed at a hotel called the "Club Quarters" on West Adams, which I picked mostly because it was in very easy walking distance from the FPS, thus eliminating worries about finding my way back after class, at night. The hotel is part of a small chain, and supposed to be in some way private; but I booked it through Expedia, so how private is that? Still, you can't just call up to make a reservation; I tried that first. I recommend it highly.
What a deal! For $125 per night, in the middle of the Loop, I got a very large, ultra clean room. It had a huge desk, with reference books above and 2 ergonomic chairs, a bathroom with shower and the usual amenities, a flat tv, (which I never turned on, having a good book, and being too busy), a full kitchenette(!), a super, super comfortable bed, WIFI, and a real coffee maker with really good coffee to make. I suspect the decor is what they think businesspersons would like, very plain, dark blue and green necktie prints. I wasn't expecting Paris with a balcony, so it was more than fine with me- I prefer it to the usual mid-priced hotel idea of prettiness- I just bought a few flowers for cheer, as I was staying 4 nights.
Another reason for being glad I came the day before class started was that it gave me a chance for an evening meal, and it was a good one. I had dinner at Brasserie Jo, the "more casual bistro" of Chef John Joho of the super-posh Everest restaurant in Chicago, as well as the "Eiffel Tower" restaurant in the Paris Hotel, Las Vegas. I came to town with a copy of the Slow Food Guide to Chicago. The idea was that I would do some sight-seeing and/or shopping in the morning, find someplace neat to eat my main meal of the day at lunchtime, and then have a little rest before the 5 hour class, repeat X3, with possible light snack supper after class in my room. So this was to be my only major evening meal.
I really enjoyed my dinner at Brasserie Jo. Though I am not shy, and have had many meals out on my own, I have been a little cowed by the idea of a really special meal out, all alone. In part, this is because eating is such a social activity in my mind, but only in part. I think I was mostly nervous that the other diners and the wait staff might think it odd, or feel sorry for me, and that I would sense this, and rush- spoiling the entertainment of it all. Also, I was a little worried that it might be tricky to get a taxi afterward, in the dark.
Not a bit of it...it was great. I got a little bit dressed up, grey silk jacket, strappy sandals, and felt very woman-of-the-world the whole time. My photos of the restaurant are useless, due to dim lighting, many mirrors, and my lack of skill. You can check it out at the website.
It is a nice example of traditional brasserie decor, art deco-y, and less crowded between the tables than is the usual brasserie custom- all to the good. Personally, I am comforted by banquettes, mirrors, wood, brass and displays of magnum bottles of wine on shelves. Perhaps I was taken to such a place as an infant? The very look and feel of this sort of room makes me hungry.
Dinner was delicious, and I enjoyed being fussed over by my very young waiter, who took my salad off my bill because he was disappointed that I hadn't finished it. (The vinagrette was too salty for my taste- the only, and minor, flaw in the meal.)
Chef Joho is a native of Alsace, and the menu reflects this heritage. There was so much to choose from, many delicious things- sweetbreads with crisp macaroni, escargot, flammkuchen of several kinds, duck rilettes; I was wildly torn, until I saw my very favorite thing, skate wing with brown butter and capers. When I ordered it, the baby waiter broke suavity, and cried, "Ack! I love that! That's totally the best thing on the menu!" Which was, you know, endearing. The skate was served over some delicious, very creamy mashed potatoes, and a little fresh spinach, with small curls of very crispy, but pale-colored fried onion, or maybe leek? I absolutely cleaned my plate with the help of some of my very own small baguette, made (well) by a bakery down the street.
Dessert was creme brulee, very considerately prepared in a shallow dish, allowing for plenty of the ultra-thin, crackly top to go with each bite of the smooth custard. I took the rest of the baguette back to the hotel with me, and pretty much just crashed. I mean, you know, I was trying to read this very interesting book (about which more later), and woke to find it's form imprinted on my cheek, the book open to page twenty. Fortunately, I was in bed while reading.
Tuesday morning, I hit the hotel restaurant- a proto pub called the Elephant and Castle- for an insanely huge "English Breakfast", which involved grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, "bangers"(a/k/a fat sausages), cubes of fried potatoes, and eggs. This caused a revision of the lunch plan, as I was stuffed to the gills, and rendered unable to consider another meal of significance until the following day. Okay, really. I love to eat a big breakfast out, and walk away from all the greasy dishes, like a guest at the Mad Hatter's tea party. After a brief trip to the building across the street to stock the fridge with sandwich stuff, and buy flowers, I did me some shopping.
I started at Vosges Haut-Chocolat (520 N. Michigan) to pay my respects at the home of my very favorite chocolate treat- the Barcelona Bar-(Deep milk chocolate, almonds and sea salt). Owner chocolatier Katrina Markoff creates incredible flavor combinations in her truffles, hot chocolates and chocolate bars- kaffir lime, cardomom, wasabi, chipotle- crazy but delicious, and somehow never weird. I stocked up on candy bars, and also tried a fancy box of nine marshmallow toffee chocolate things, a new and very worthy item, which they store in the freezer. Each one is pretty much a dessert unto itself. I got four free truffles for having my own shopping bag to carry off my loot.
Other stops included the Lego Store (900 N. Michigan) and Nordstrom Rack (the discount shop for the department store, it's near Macy's-formerly Marshall Field). At the latter, they were having a sale of large sized shoes! (I'm an eleven- a size not carried at all in many shops; I was over the moon.) It took me way too long to pick out my bargain- the choices were so overwhelming, and the prices so good. I decided to go for the crazy, since they were so affordable, and now I have some silvery Taryn Rose sandals.
I gave myself a good 2 hours turnaround time for class, and headed back to the hotel, a little more footsore than was really wise, under the circumstances. But more on that, later.