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Dining with Grown-Ups

Ten years ago, my aunt and uncle took me, my parents and my cousin to Trio for dinner. Everything about the meal was new and memorable, from the level of service to the overall fanciness of it all. I tried truffles and foie gras for the first time. I learned what brioche was. And at the end of the meal, the servers let us peek into the kitchen so we could watch Grant Achatz work for a little bit.

It’s crazy to think Achatz was just 29 then, already famous but not the demigod of molecular gastronomy that he is now. I used to lurk on eGullet in the early days and remember when Achatz, using the handle “chefg,” would visit the forums and share tidbits about a new restaurant he was planning called Alinea.

Alec and I made our pilgrimage to Alinea on Saturday to celebrate the launch of his novel. We dressed up and everything – look how good Alec looks in his skinny suit from Hong Kong!

Now, the Internet is overflowing with intricately detailed Alinea reviews that have amazing photography and exhaustive recaps of each course. You’ve probably figured out that I’m not that kind of blogger. I tend to take photos like this:

Yeah, that’s me looking like I’m going to stick the eighth course (orange, fennel, ham, squid on a metal antenna) up my nose instead of eat it like a properly socialized human. This is just one of many reasons why, instead of giving you a sophisticated bite-by-bite recap of Alinea, I will give you a list of Memorable Moments.

  1. We got our choice of three types of sparkling water, and each was described in detail. I went for the Badoit, which has the smallest, most demure bubbles. Alec chose the Vichy Catalan, which our server described as having medium bubbles with a slightly briny aftertaste. It’s funny how just the explanations of the sparkling water choices can sound like an elaborate parody of a fine dining experience. But as someone who loves sparkling water, I will say that there was indeed a difference in carbonation levels and taste between the Badoit and Vichy Catalan.
  2. The first course was arctic char roe with coconut, carrot, yuzu, tarragon, emulsified curry and maybe some other elements I missed. Alec said, “This is maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” And this was just the first course! That’s how we knew things were off to a good start. Also, as the course was finishing, I confessed to Alec that I had to push a bit of food onto my spoon “like an ogre.” He said: “I did that when you weren’t looking.”
  3. I had been taking notes on the meal in my sky blue Moleskine. As we were finishing one of our favorite courses of the night (scallop cooked in soy milk and grapeseed oil to resemble tofu and served with eyes-rolling-back-into-my-head-good dashi broth), the server came out with a piece of Alinea stationery for me! Yay for a bonus souvenir.
  4. The ninth course was a whole porgy (that’s a fish! I’d never heard of it either), served with caponata, chickpea crackers and mint sauce. The server said we weren’t expected to finish the entire fish because the meal is so long. Hahaha! As if 1.5 Chinese kids were going to leave delicious uneaten fish on the table. I even made Alec take apart the head so we could get the good stuff out of the cheeks.
  5. One course was served on a linen pillow filled with the scent of Hollywood Juniper. As the pillow slowly deflated from the weight of the plate resting on it, it released a woodsy aroma. The set-up was so inviting that after I was done eating, I put my whole face on the pillow. One second after I did that, the server emerged silently from the corner like a ninja. I was mortified, but Alec said he’s probably seen other diners do that.
  6. The server overheard me talking about the serving pieces and said they’re custom made by a guy named Martin Kastner, whose company is called Crucial Detail. You can buy their stuff online, so maybe I’ll start serving everything on metal antennas.
  7. The first sweet course, designed to evoke “winter wonderland in New Hampshire,” was served on rocks frozen in liquid nitrogen. That’s 200 degrees below zero! The server warned us not to touch or lick the rocks. (I immediately poked the rock with my spoon because I am four years old.) He said one diner disobeyed and had to go to the ER, although the person did finish the meal first. Here are my notes from this course, transcribed verbatim: “w wanted to touch a rock. A was like woman did you not listen to the warnings.”
  8. One of the final dessert courses was a balloon, made out of green apple taffy and filled with helium. Alec expertly sucked the helium out of his balloon and started singing the Lollipop Guild song from The Wizard of Oz. I started laughing so hard that I began crying, and then my balloon popped on my hand and I had to lick my hand to eat the course. Peasants, pay attention! This is how CLASSY PEOPLE dine at Alinea.
  9. Our friend had recommended that we split the wine pairing. This was a very good idea because we are a couple of lightweights. Case in point: my notes for the final course read: “–Banguls silicon tablecloth.” If anyone wants to tell me what “Banguls” is, I’m all ears!
  10. You should read Alec’s blog post on Alinea. It’s way better than this one.

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As I mentioned before, we had barely any time to get ready for Christmas this year. All the shopping got done, and we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol and White Christmas, but that was pretty much it. I think we’re the only house on the block without Christmas decorations – not even a wreath! And inside, we’ve got no tree, no tinsel, no garlands, no stockings.

We did, however, rummage up a wrinkled roll of wrapping paper that somehow survived the move from the apartment. When I got home from work, Alec had wrapped some presents for me and put them by the fireplace, along with a little Christmas tree that my brother gave me several years ago. (I was living in Buenos Aires and he sent me a box with the tree, some ribbon, fake snow and a string of lights – one of the best Christmas presents ever!)

I added my own presents for Alec to the pile, which then looked like this:

It’s kind of like Charlie Brown Christmas, but I think this is pretty good under the circumstances. Also, I’d like to give Alec a shout-out for making this cool gift tag out of a spare Edward Gorey holiday card:

But I’m supposed to be the crafty domestic one, right? So what did I come up with for Alec’s present?

Yup, I reused a bag I got from my parents last year and didn’t even bother to take off the old tag. Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!

P.S. When Alec read this post, he said: “Oh, that’s for me? I thought it was something your parents got for you.”



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Holiday Eats

Edible gifts are awesome. I mean, you can eat them! What’s not to like? This year, because we are spending Christmas with Alec’s extended family in California, I had ambitious plans to do homemade edible presents for everyone. That didn’t really pan out because I had so little time to do anything between getting home from our Asian vacation and leaving for California.

Fortunately, Chicago has many talented food artisans whose products are far superior than anything I could make. So this year, I put together little Chicago food samplers for Alec’s relatives. I bought everything at Goddess & Grocer in Bucktown because it was on the way home from church on Sunday, but Chicagoans can find these items at other stores such as Provenance Food and Wine, Whole Foods and the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park. (If you’re going to Marion Street, make sure it’s the weekend and order the Belgian waffle – easily the best waffle I’ve ever had!)

These are the items I’m putting in the samplers:

Rare Bird Preserves. It was hard choosing among the flavors, but I settled on apple caramel, plum apple hibiscus and clementine cranberry. These jars are sitting on the sideboard, daring me to open them and eat their contents with a spoon. I will resist! By the way, if you’re wondering whether jams/jellies/preserves qualify as liquids under TSA rules, they do. Sigh. This means I have to check my suitcase. Looks like we’re getting to the airport three hours early to wait in line!

Vosges Chocolate. I’m pretty sure Vosges has national distribution, but they’re still a Chicago company and their bacon chocolate bar is one of my favorite chocolate bars of all time. Again, hard to choose just three flavors, but I went with peppermint candy cane, Woolloomooloo (I did not make that up – it has macadamia nuts, coconut and hemp seeds in it) and the Barcelona (hickory-smoked almonds and Fleur del Sel).

Metropolis Coffee. Both bags are La Cordillera Blend fair trade organic. I am taking a chance that Alec’s uncles’ families haven’t switched to Keurig machines or something because I bought whole beans.

Grandma Dees “Everything But Dee!” gourmet cocktail mix. I got a bag of these nuts for Alec’s grandparents because he doesn’t think they are coffee drinkers.

If I had more time, I would have tracked down some cute, Chicago-themed canvas totes to package up all these items. But that obviously didn’t happen, so it’s brown kraft paper bags and tissue paper to the rescue.

Now, if Chicago’s food truck vendors could figure out a way to package their products and keep them fresh, I’ve got a killer idea for more edible gifts for Christmas 2012!

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Last Minute Gift Ideas

It’s nearing the end of the final weekend before Christmas – who still needs gift ideas? Shopping for presents is one of my favorite things, even when the process is slightly rushed, like when we got home from our Hong Kong/China vacation and saw we had just under two weeks to buy gifts for everyone. If you’ve still got shopping to do, here are some items that you can still buy this week – either in a store or via that most magical of services, Amazon Prime. (Not to sound like a shill for Amazon Prime, but we ordered some stuff on a Sunday night and on Tuesday at 9:30 am, we heard a little thump on the front porch and there was the Amazon package. I wasn’t fast enough to catch a glimpse of the little elf who delivered it.)

1. Design*Sponge At Home by Grace Bonney. Confession! I actually requested this for myself this year because I’ve been a fan of the Design*Sponge blog for some time now. But I also bought it for my sister-in-law (don’t worry, she’s not one of the five people who read this blog) because she and my brother are putting on a big addition to their house and she’s looking for practical decorating ideas. She’s also pretty crafty and I think she’ll like the DIY projects.

2. Brooks Brothers men’s flannel pajamas. I bought these for Alec a few years ago and he wears them every day of the winter. They are the kind of silly and luxurious thing most boys (that I know of, anyway) would not buy for themselves. I originally was going to get Alec Turnbull & Asser PJs, based on this Padma Lakshmi interview in the NYT where she endorses them (and also drops ridiculous double entendres such as “I work every part of body below the belly button”), but they were kind of hard to buy online and there’s no store in Chicago.

3. Oregon Scientific weather station. My co-worker bought one for his dad and said older people really like these gadgets because they like to talk about the weather. I got this one for my dad last year and I think my parents actually use it. Yay!
4. Serveware and dinnerware from Fishs Eddy. This store (they’re in NY but you can order stuff online) has the cutest selection of dishes. I am partial to the Brooklyn pattern – we own a beautiful and sturdy ceramic crock from this line – but I see they have a New York Times Crossword puzzle pattern, which is one hundred kinds of adorable.
5.Luxury plush throw from Restoration Hardware. I saved the best for last. And it’s marked down to $29 right now! My high school girlfriends (meet them here, here and here!) and I call this the magical blanket because it is so soft and fluffy you would think it was made by fairies from the hair of My Little Ponies or something. We all own this blanket and I have recommended it to pretty much everyone I know. So now Alec’s grandparents have one, and my co-worker bought one for her friend, etc. Restoration Hardware does a whole line in luxury plush. I haven’t tried out the other products, but how can you go wrong with something called a “plush foot duvet?”
Hope this list provided some inspiration, whether you’re shopping for loved ones or yourself! I’ll be back later this week with a peek at the food-centric gifts I put together for Alec’s extended family members.

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Going Digital

A few weeks ago, we finally took the plunge and bought a Kindle. This was a big deal for us, given that we’ve both built careers around the printed word and have a lot of fondness for physical books (and newspapers). You can read more about Alec’s view on the Kindle on his blog.

The $79 price point was a huge factor in our getting over the e-reader hump. For me in particular, I was also getting tired of lugging around a ridiculously heavy work bag. My George Costanza-like wallet isn’t helping, that’s for sure. And I’m never without a book because I have a 45-minute commute each way and that is prime reading time. Right now I’m finishing the marvelous and reasonably sized UK edition of Disney War by James Stewart.

But there are lots of fat books out there I want to read too, like American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. I found the hardcover version for $10 at Myopic Books in Wicker Park and started reading it at home in the evenings because it was way too heavy to bring on a commute. But then I stopped and never went back to it. I seem to be incapable of reading unless I’m on public transportation.

And there’s also the issue of new hardcover releases. I do buy these pretty often, but the Kindle versions are cheaper – and lighter! All these reasons were nudging me toward the digital age, so here I am:

Part of the fun of getting a Kindle was buying a cute case for it. There were some tempting options on Etsy, especially this Totoro one. But I wanted a case I could open like a book, and it couldn’t be too girly because Alec will be using the Kindle too. So I decided on a navy blue and red case from M-Edge and it’s working out nicely so far.

Tonight I downloaded two books: The Magician King by Lev Grossman (have you read the first book in the series, The Magicians? It is awesome. And don’t let anyone tell you it’s “Harry Potter for adults” because while I love Harry Potter too, The Magicians is much different in tone and flavor.)

Oh, and I also downloaded American Pharaoh. I feel better already!

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Thanksgiving marked the first visit by Alec’s parents to the new house, and they spoiled us with a whole bunch of housewarming gifts. These items were so nice I wanted to devote an entire post to them.

My in-laws know about my love of seasonal dishware and serveware, so they got me these two metal trays at a vintage store in their town. The one with the ornaments has a funky retro aesthetic that, oddly enough, reminds me of Dean Martin’s Wild Party, a video slot machine that my MIL and I both like. (Seriously. When you get a bonus, an animated Dean Martin comes out and sings to you. What’s not to like?)
 They also got us a lovely coffee table book with photo illustrations done by an artist friend of theirs and another book about home design and practical living, which is totally Alec’s thing (I kind of aspire to live more simply, but I also spent the last paragraph talking about a video slot machine, so you know, work in progress).
 And now for some Finnish stuff (Alec’s maternal side is Finnish). A Finnish recipe book! So exciting. There are lots of ways to cook root vegetables in here, which is great because if last year was any indication, our produce service is going to be all tubers, all the time from now until March. And as a traditional housewarming gift, we got bread and salt, symbolizing (if I remember properly) always-stocked cupboards.
What great presents! I can’t wait to start shopping for everyone’s Christmas gifts – I hope they’re even half as thoughtful as these.

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Well, I’m Floored

The two guys who are refinishing our hardwood floors are named Andy & Andy. I’m not sure if they have last names. If their surnames exist, they are a mystery. Our realtor, who hired them to refinish the floors in her new house and has recommended them to a half dozen clients over the years, does not know their last names. All she knows is that they do great work for a reasonable price. We were sold!

Andy & Andy also like to start work early, as I found out when the elder Andy called to say he’d meet us at the house at 8 am. “How about a little later?” I said. “Why?” said Andy. And I didn’t have a good answer, except that I am a princess who doesn’t like getting up early. So Alec and I left our apartment at the terrible hour of 6:45 am. The El was packed, much to my surprise. You mean other people get on public transit this early to go to work? Shudder.

When we got to the house, we saw that the plasterers have pretty much smoothed over the walls in the entryway. They look great!

The plastering crew has moved onto the kitchen. Here you can see the work halfway through (and our lovely art glass window, on the other side of which is the powder room):

The main event for the day, however, was the flooring. The sellers told us they had meant to get the floors refinished, but hadn’t gotten around to it and instead convinced themselves the floors were part of the house’s old-timey charm. There can be something kind of nice about worn hardwood floors, but refinished ones are even better! And hopefully, if we take care of these floors, the investment we’re making now will last a long time. Here’s a shot of the floors now. You can see how tired they are, even beneath the fresh layer of dust and plaster:


The younger Andy started sanding the master bedroom floors right away. That is some serious exfoliation.

Then Andy & Andy gave us four choices of stain. We were looking for something a bit darker than the warm golden wooden trim found throughout the house. The differences between stains were pretty subtle. See for yourself:

Clockwise from the top left is nutmeg, golden oak, golden brown and some color whose name I didn’t catch. We chose…drumroll please…NUTMEG! It has the cutest name by far. And it should look great in the house for many years to come. We just have to make sure not to scuff up the new floors when we move in next week.

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