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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Visitors’ Guide to Chicago

We have just returned from a whirlwind visit to Chicago to spend time with my sister and her fiance and have a number of exciting items to report on. First of all, who knew that Chicago is quite the foodie haven? There are food trucks, farm-to-tables, and many other exciting gastronomic delights. Secondly, early November in the windy city is remarkably bearable. Third, when the great suppliers of the MTA ticketing stations also manufacture for the Chicago Transit Authority, you’re bound to see some familiar infrastructure. Go public transportation!

But back to point number one… We spent the weekend gorging ourselves on some of Chicago’s finest and have lived to tell the tale. Below are a few key recommendations from our visit. Keep in mind that all reviews are based on one visit only.

Giordano’s — fairly standard deep-dish pizza with a long wait and cheeky decor. This is a Chicago staple, but we were hoping for better.

Big Bowl — the biggest surprise hit of our trip. This restaurant was equal parts Chinese and Thai and remarkably good at both and with a strong emphasis on fresh vegetables. We ordered a hot and sour soup with freshy made tofu (I haven’t had hot and sour soup as good as this outside of the Pacific Rim), a green curry with a plethora of vegetables, and Kung Pow chicken with baby spinach and chard. There was also a stir fry bar where one could select from an extensive assortment of vegetables and sauces. Further, there was a table of an older Chinese family at the restaurant, so we knew it was legit!

Cafe Iberico — among the best seafood either of us have had. It was a pretty  no-frills tapas place with extensive seating upstairs. (A key difference between Chicago and New York is the enormity of space available and the frequency of midwesterners!) We went as a party of six and ordered one paella, 8 tapas, and a pitcher of sangria. The most adventurous item in our order was noodles with scallops and snails. The snails were perfect.

Al’s Beef — another Chicago staple. We ordered a Polish sausage that came in a poppy seed bun with relish, onions, and mustard, and an Italian beef sandwich on a soggy baguette. Though the soggy baguette was supposed to be part of the charm, and even considered desirable, as bread snobs, we were a bit underwhelmed. These were some of the best fries we have had though, and I am sure Upton would roll in his grave if we came to Chicago and did not have encased meat.

Signature Room — Having done these high end cocktails from the top floor of very tall buildings only twice, I will say our experience in Shanghai was heads and shoulders above what the Hancock Tower had to offer. The drinks were fine, we paid what we expected, but the lines were out of control. Yes, a line to enter the elevator, a line to enter the bar from the elevator, and a line to return down in the elevator. They didn’t rush us once we got there (part of the reason why the lines were so long, perhaps) and the view was incredible, but I don’t think I would recommend this as a must-do for a first-time visit to Chicago. But like many people have mentioned to me, should you decide to do this, the view from the ladies’ room is the best.

Cumin — This was one of the best Indian restaurants we have been to (and Michelen rated). They market themselves as being Nepalese and Indian, which may be a bit disingenuous as the only item on the lunch buffet that was new to us was a Nepalese style goat stew. Everything else looked fairly standard Indian (though very good). The restaurant was in the neighborhood that we stayed in, Wicker Park, which is sort of a Chicago version of Brooklyn. It was very hip and cool with some high end retailers, some graffiti, and a good amount of attitude.

Buzz — This was among the snootier (read: better) coffee shops I have been to which has pour over coffee and tasting notes on a dozen varieties of beans. We ordered a cappuccino which was fantastic and a pour-over yirgacheffe.

If we had more time, there were a number of other restaurants we were hoping to try — Purple Pig (wine, swine, and cheese), Mindy’s Hot Chocolate (James Beard outstanding pastry chef award winning), The Peasantry (elevated street food), Saigon Sisters (home of a fabulous banh mi), and others. If you have a chance to visit Chicago, do pass along other recommendations. Overall, we had a fabulous time and will look forward to the next visit!

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One of the highlights of our trip to China this summer was a 4 hr river cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo with our friends Paige and Paul and Melissa and Matt. The river cruise winded through layers upon layers of karst cliffs (Photos 1-3 above), and ended in an adorable town called Yangshuo. Here we rented bikes and biked through farmlands sitting amidst mountains and attended a cooking class also nestled within the mountains.

Photo 4 is a a shot of a fruit peddler approaching our boat on a small bamboo raft to sell fruit to the passengers through our windows. Photo 5 above shows the kitchen on the back of every boat where the kitchen staff prepared lunch for the passengers.

The cooking class was a 4-hr event, including a trip to the local market where we encountered a winter melon wider in circumference than Paige’s face (Photo 6). Photo 7 shows the en plein air set-up of the school, Photo 8 shows us happily enjoying our meal, and Photo 9 is the food we made.

Steamed Chicken with Mushrooms

150 gm chicken breast, sliced
2 dried Chinese mushrooms (soaked in hot water for 10 minutes), sliced
2 red Chinese dates
1 t goji berries
salt, pepper
1/2 t peanut oil
1 t rice wine

Slice chicken breast. Mix chicken with salt, pepper, oil, wine and place on a plate. Scatter mushrooms, dates, goji berries over the chicken. Put the plate in a Chinese bamboo steamer basket with lid and steam for 15 minutes. Drizzle sesame oil and serve.

Egg Wrapped Dumplings

100 gm minced pork
half bunch of mint, chopped (chives or garlic scapes can also be used)
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 t oyster sauce
1 egg, beaten
1 T peanut oil
3 T water

Beat eggs, set aside. Mix minced pork, mint, salt, black pepper, and oyster sauce together.

Heat wok, then add oil. Pour in tablespoon of egg, and when set, place a teaspoon of pork mixture on half the egg, as in an omelet. Fold the egg over so that the dumpling is in a crescent shape, then move to the side of the wok.

Repeat until all the mixture is used. Turn over and place all dumplings in the middle of the wok. Pour the water over the dumplings and cover the wok with lid. Cook for 3 minutes, remove lid, and serve dumplings when all the water has evaporated.

Eggplant in Yangshuo Style

250 gm eggplant, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
25 gm ginger, crushed and minced
2 scallions, sliced
2 T peanut oil
1 t black bean and chili paste (available at most Chinese grocery stores)
2 t oyster sauce
4 T water

Heat wok and add oil. Then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked, smashing the eggplant to release moisture. Reduce heat and add garlic, ginger, chili paste and cook until fragrant. Add water, turn to high heat. Add oyster sauce and spring onions, and mix. Serve immediately.

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Who would have guessed that some of the best restaurant food we’ve had all summer would be found in Western Massachusetts? Yes, we have traveled halfway around the world and back this summer, eating mango shaved ice and Shanghai soup dumplings to our heart’s delight, but it was a tiny little restaurant in a tiny little town that really wow-ed our gastronomical senses. (Not to knock the food in China — more to come on that, for sure!)

We headed up to Northfield, MA for a weekend trip in late June thanks to a groupon deal for an adorable bed and breakfast. The Centennial House is one of two accommodations in town, featuring charming rooms, a grassy estate with occasional sightings of wild bunnies, and a delightful innkeeping couple, one of whom is a former labor economist. The three-course breakfast included a fruit salad served in goblets, a hot carb-and-egg entree, and a rustic, fruit-based baked good. The first morning we had a strawberry-rhubarb galette, and the second morning we had an apple-pear coffee cake.

Western Mass is a “right to farm” community, which means both that it really values locally grown products, and that it has the right to deny nuisance suits against farmers. Our dinner at the Gill Tavern really showcased the former — much of the menu is locally sourced, including eggs and chicken and produce. The steak we ordered was from an organic, grass-fed cow farm out in California, and the mead was from a meadery just a few towns over. The food was phenomenal, easily comparable to any of our favorite places in New York. Gill is not, however, a destination town. It’s a town of just two public establishments — the Gill Tavern and a local library — and is easy to miss if you blink. If you do wind up in this part of the world, do stop by and visit, and enjoy a bottle of mead for us while you’re there!

Another phenomenal meal we had was at Bella Notte. Often, these restaurants with a view seem to really over-promise and under-deliver, and the food can be insipid and uninspired. Shockingly enough, Bella Notte over-delivered on both the view and the meal.  Based on the website photos, we imagined we’d be overlooking a small grassy field. Instead, we were greeted with miles and miles of hills upon hills, an incredible view of the moon, a setting sun off in the corner, and some playful tomfoolery between a fox (yes, a real wild fox!) and a rabbit. The food was also incredible — I had a salmon poached in white wine and lemon, with fresh artichokes and a medley of summer vegetables. We finished our meal off with pistachio gelato topped with chocolate, and a lemon sorbet drizzled with limoncello.

Things to do in Western, MA

Barton’s Cove — kayak and canoe rentals
Drive-in movie theater — sits on the border of MA and NH
Local ice cream
Hiking — extensive trail system with varying difficulties

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Wisconsin — the land of cheese and cherries and not a whole lot else. We just returned from a weekend away in Sturgeon Bay, a beautiful little waterfront town with Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. Door County is the hometown of one A.M. who recently married a good friend of Greg’s, A.U.

One thing I learned about A.U. on this trip is that he is “no respecter of persons” — in that he has little to no concern for silly social cues and codes, willingly befriending those that may be deemed unlovable. We spent a good part of the trip learning about various disabilities like blindness, deafness, and degeneration, and realized how silly the world can be with our values on physical perfection.

A few miscellaneous highlights:

Renard’s Cheese
An adorable little cheese shop off the main highway in Door County, where we learned that the leftover whey from making cheese is re-sold to calf-food-producers and packing-peanut-manufacturers. Think twice next time you pack up a box — these little  styrofoam nuggets are not vegan products!

The Lodge at Leathem Smith
Their online presence claims to be a “historic website archive” not worth linking to, but this hotel and reception site was very cute, newly renovated, and right on the water. It has beautiful grounds, and compared to the tiny-ness of Manhattan, seemed extravagantly expansive.

Snow Globes
Apparently not allowed on planes departing LGA.

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Little did we know that in our attempts at a rustic getaway, far away from city dwelling, we would end up in a series of small towns entirely populated by New Yorkers! We’re talking real New Yorkers here, of the snobby New York City variety, the ones who import Chobani yogurt and agave sweetened gelato to the deprived mountain people, the ones who still miss the city even fourteen years after they’ve left. We met a lady from Flushing, Queens, who wanted to reminisce about the old Kaldor and gossip about the new box stores and trendy karaoke bars. Another lady we met works at DE Shaw, wearing the same exact DE Shaw sweatshirt Greg owns from his tenure there. Our innkeepers were outer-borough-ites, having lived all over Queens and Brooklyn. And serendipitously, we also met a Franciscan friar, who lives on 143rd and Broadway, mere blocks away from my last apartment in New York, buddies with a former roommate of mine. Nearly everyone we conversed with was not a local Catskiller, but a New York City transplant.

For not this reason only, our trip to the Catskills far surpassed our expectations. On our first night in town, we stumbled upon a small theatrical society, showing Woman of the Year, an adorably feminist ’40s flick starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The film started with a number of 1940s newsreels, advertisements for Americans to buy war bonds (ie “pay your taxes to sink the axis!)” and ended up with a radical-for-its-time hyphenated last name. We had incredible wood-fired truffle-oil portabella pizza with a sesame seed crust at a local dive lacking in aesthetics and charm. Our hikes the next day led to beautiful waterfalls and panoramas over the Hudson, some splashy mud puddles and more Manhattanites. We came across a small general store on our drive back to the lodge, with burgers for $2.50 and ice cream flavors like cannoli and red velvet cake.

One final highlight was Peekamoose,  a fancy schmancy “rustic” restaurant supporting local farms with a very highly regarded wine list, acknowledged by the likes of Wine Enthusiast and so forth. Strangely, the prices appear to be distributor prices, which in some cases mean $18 bottles, and in some cases mean $200 bottles. We had a very good 2007 reserva from Chile which put Greg over the edge and forced me into the driver’s seat. We also had a twelve-ingredient (very) chopped salad, onion rings with a red curry aioli, an incredible wood-grilled sirloin (by far the best item on the menu), and a braised spring rabbit with flageoulet bean ragout which led to multiple rounds of “Little Bunny FooFoo” all the way home.

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Greetings, friends, family, and cyber-stalkers! We’re about to head out for a celebratory weekend away in the Catskills for our one-year anniversary, but realized it’s been nearly three weeks since our last post, and we couldn’t leave the world of computers and cell phones and the like without one final update. (Confidential revelation: we may actually have all such devices of modernity available where we’ll be staying in the Catskills, but we have plans to strictly limit our use to Netflix-streamed episodes of Pushing Daisies and no email!)

Before we head out, here’s a shot of our pre-departure lunch — whole wheat penne, grilled leeks, sauteed mushrooms, ricotta. It’s a cinch to make — boil pasta, grill leeks on a Foreman grill or a panini press or an actual grill (which we’re to acquire soon thanks to the tremendous generosity of a certain friend’s parents), saute up some chopped mushrooms, and stir in ricotta.

And in honor of our anniversary, we leave you with this: “Murder, certainly; but divorce, never!!”

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Day Two in Ottawa was yet another culinary success. After dropping Greg off at the conference, I browsed through the shops and stalls at Byward Market and procured the following for a gourmet picnic:

1 loaf olive bread, The French Baker
1 wheel triple creme Brie, House of Cheese
$1 of wild boar and fig pate, House of Cheese
$5 of apricots, peaches, and blueberries, market stall
1 fig, Byward Fruit Market

We set up a small picnic outside the main conference site, complete with real plates and silverware procured from the hotel restaurant and a makeshift tablecloth, surely drawing the envy of many an economist. There aren’t too many places to eat right by campus, and we suspected that the majority of the other participants refueled at a nearby nondescript bar and grill type place with surely mediocre fare.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Ottawa while Greg was off hearing Daron Acemoglu (of instrumental variable fame) present on political regimes and institutions. Highlights from my afternoon included the following: touring the Peace Tower at Parliament (the castle-like structure above); happening upon a Syrian protest; obtaining an invitation to an invitation-only Iranian event at the National Arts Center; sitting by the Rideau Canal spectating a family of ducks learn how to swim. Highlights from Greg’s afternoon included a lecture on binary choice models with endogenous regressors.
When we reconvened for the evening, we went off in an ultimately failed street meat tour, Ottawa edition — a quest to try a variety of shawarma vendors in Ottawa. Spoiled by our initial journey to Shawarma Palace, 45 minutes later and half a dozen shawarma locales visited, we decided to trek back to Shawarma Palace, a 20 minute walk away. And our appetites were surely rewarded! The amount of food offered was constrained only by the size of the plate with some allowed amount of spillover onto the tray — tabouleh, hummus, shawarma chicken, cardamom brown rice, pickled vegetables and fresh vegetables piled HIGH on our plate, and a bag of pita bread tossed on the side. In a nutshell, it was awesome. And our recommendation is the following — even if you’re starving and accompanied by a big appetite-ed companion, a split order of a shawarma plate will leave you satisfied.
And this mostly concludes our trip to Ottawa. Greg is presenting this morning on Labor Allocation and Productivity: Consequences of the 2010 Health Insurance Reform, and then we’re off to New Haven!

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