So we're back, and no not just from yet another long extended absence from cooking and blogging (ok well a bit of that), this time we're back from holiday. One week in Chicago, one week in New York, lots of time with some very good friends, good food, and most importantly of all sunshine. After the worst summer I can remember I had forgotten how good it feels to leave the house in a skirt and a summer top with no worries of chills or rain later in the day, on the first day I was hatching plans to move somewhere where the seasons mean more than just slight variations on mildly crap weather.
After an early flight from Heathrow and the stunning sight of Greenland's coast we somehow managed to stay awake long enough to shock our bodies straight into the correct time zone and woke up on Sunday to the promise of dim sum, the Chicago jazz festival in the sun, and finally more Chinese food courtesy of Ed's Potsticker House. A quiet labor day followed with a trip downtown and a dinner at home but on Tuesday we were treated to a trip to the Vienna Beef factory for lunch, the quantity of toppings on the Chicago style dog was pretty ridiculous, more toppings than hot dog, and I'm still more than a little scared of the fluorescent green cucumber relish. I definitely prefer the simpler NYC style hot dog with bun, sausage, maybe a little sauerkraut, mustard and maybe some ketchup.
We went to the other end of the scale for dessert and made a trip to the Vosges Chocolate shop in Lincoln Park - so so good, I particularly loved the hibiscus caramel and the peanut butter chocolates, but I wouldn't say no to anything from there (except maybe the bacon flavoured chocolate). A lazy architectural river tour in the sun rounded off the afternoon nicely and I'll just gloss over the slightly disastrous evening meal in Greektown...
Wednesday was our friend's birthday and we celebrated in style. An Italian Beef sandwich for lunch (drool inducingly good) followed by a bottle of wine at the top of the John Hancock Center and finally the main event, dinner at Schwa. I loved the small dining room where we were treated to a table looking straight into the kitchen. The only people working at Schwa are the chefs; they seat you, cook for you and present the dishes. We went for the nine course tasting menu and, while I won't go into every dish in detail, I will gladly pause to remember the thyme ice-cream (a whole bowl would be a beautiful thing), the surprise extra course of a quail's egg ravioli topped with truffle infused butter (I would go back for a repeat appearance of this, I wanted more and I wanted to lick the plate clean), and the dried prosciutto slices which I could eat out of a bag like crisps.
After a quietly hungover day that involved a lunch of a pulled pork sandwich for me and an oyster po' boy for Chris, a visit to a few galleries, and dinner with friends we were set up for (oops) another hungover day to be spent in the single minded pursuit of a Chicago stuffed pizza. After a few false starts we ended up at The Art of Pizza. I've been trying to describe this meal and all I can say is that you think you know what these look like but until one of these monsters is sitting in front of you waiting to be eaten you really have no idea. One slice was more than enough but somehow that didn't stop me having a little more and feeling like I was slipping into a cheese coma later in the night.
Having eaten our way around Chicago we were ready for New York and arrived to a room on the 37th floor of our hotel and a stunning view.
New York was a New York tends to be, busy with way more to do than you could ever manage in a week but there were definitely a few highlights. We went up to the top of the Rockefeller Centre twice during our week. Once on Sunday afternoon and then again on Friday night, it's great. It was quick to get in, quiet both times, and there is loads of space to wander around and see the view and, dare I say, it is better than the Empire State Building. I know everyone should go to the top of the Empire State Building and it is a must see but the main benefit of the Rockefeller is that your view actually includes the Empire State Building.
New York food obviously included pizza (vastly preferable to the Chicago variety), bagels, two visits to the burger heaven that is Shake Shack, and a Magnolia Bakery cupcake but a standout was Pearl Oyster Bar.
I had read about this place a few times and heard very good things about their lobster roll. Our friend from New Hampshire, who is an expert on New England style seafood, loved the bucket of steamers to start but they weren't really for me (the bellies were a little too squidgily large for my precise texture requirements). The lobster rolls were stuffed to bursting with beautifully cooked lobster in mayonnaise and what looked like a basic hot dog bun seemed to have been dunked in butter and toasted (imagine Homer Simpson when he thinks about food and this is a pretty good impression of how this memory makes me feel). Then there were the skinniest little straw fries I have ever eaten and all I can say is yum. It isn't a light meal so be prepared to do nothing afterwards but go and eat and enjoy.
The one big letdown of our trip was lunch in Balthazar. I had been looking forward to this but we won't be going back. The people on the door were friendly, the well executed bistro classics that I expected were good (not exceptional but good), the busboys and wine waiter were great but our waitress was bad. I've been a waitress and I know what a horrible job it is but please don't ignore us and then trip over yourself to fawn over the next table, don't try to change our minds over the wine we want and then forget what we've ordered (three times), don't come over to check how the food is and not bother to listen, and don't recommend a dessert (yet another menu item that you just love so much you have to tell us about it) when we've told you that all we want is an espresso. Balthazar is clearly a little too pleased with its position in the New York social scene and that attitude just isn't for us.
Ending on a happier note, one day it poured with rain and we took ourselves off to have lunch in the bar at The Modern (Moma's restaurant). There is a three page menu, and the sizes of the courses increase from light starter to main through the pages. We ordered two lighter courses each and it was the perfect quantity for a delicious leisurely lunch, good unobtrusive but attentive service, a glass of wine, and a wonderful dark chocolate and pistachio dessert to finish. I would go back in a flash and it is open all afternoon and evening so perfect for a late afternoon lunch on a lazy day.
Anyway, one horrible bout of jet lag later we are finally getting back to normal. Life is calming down, the weather is getting cooler and, as usual, that will be my cue to get back in the kitchen and start cooking again. The swift post holiday purchase of the new Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver books are already inspiring me to get going.