Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part travel story to Chicago. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first story.
The City That Works. Second City. Windy City. Even "City of the big shoulders," from Carl Sandburg's 1916 poem "Chicago." As for any big city, Chicago has a slew of nicknames, some of which are copacetic with native Chicagoans, and some that are not.
But Heart of America is my favorite. It's a reference to Chicago's billing as one of the largest transporation centers in America and its location near the center of the U.S. On a recent three-day trip to the city, my best friend, a new Illinois transplant, and I did our best to uncover the essence - the heart - of the bustling city.
On our first full day in the city, we took a riverboat architecture tour, walked around Millennium Park and visited the always-magnificent Art Institute before climbing aboard the city bus. We headed north to Lincoln Park, where we stayed in a hostel near the north end of the park. We dropped our luggage off at the clean but unremarkable hostel and then climbed back aboard the bus heading further north, past the packed streets near Wrigley Field, where a Cubs game had just wrapped up, to the hopping Hopleaf Bar (5148 N. Clark Street, Chicago), a favorite locals joint with an extensive draft beer list. We people-watched and sipped on Zombie Dust, a pale ale from nearby Indiana brewery 3 Floyds.
Dinner and an opera
After our pre-dinner drink, we walked a few blocks to Cere's Table, a cozy chef-owned and operated restaurant. Named for the ancient Roman goddess of the harvest, the restaurant uses local and seasonal ingredients to serve up contemporary American fare with an Italian focus. Chef Giuseppe Scurato delivered the first course - arancini, or as we called them, balls of goodness. Warm taleggio cheese oozed out of the center of the crispy fried risotto balls. The artichoke salad, rife with small wild mushrooms, sliced artichokes, arugula and slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano, was dressed with a simple, creamy black truffle and lemon vinaigrette I'm still thinking about. While our entrees - the goat cheese ravioli and pork chop - were quite tasty, it was the first courses that really blew our hair back and, if I went back, I'd order a slew of appetizers for the table.
We bid the kind wait staff adieu and hailed a cab to head to American Theater Company, where we had tickets to see the theater's latest production (co-produced wtih About Face Theatre) "Rent." Nearly a decade ago, I saw the Broadway production of the landmark rock opera in New York City. This production was on a much smaller scale, but the intimacy of the theater, and being just a few feet from the talented actors, was what really set this musical apart. And the same themes that stuck with me the first time I saw it - especially the call to celebrate each moment of life, be it good or bad - resonated.
Misty morning market
The next morning dawned foggy and cool. Under cloudy skies, we walked a few blocks to the first Green City Market of the year where noted Chicago chef Sarah Grueneberg of Spiaggia, a participant in Top Chef season 9, demonstrated how to make a chilled creamy asparagus soup with spring garlic, spinach and crescenza cheese (for the recipe, visit www.greencitymarket.org/recipes/recipedetail.asp?id=99) in front of a crowd of people. The bustling market was filled with people, dogs, kids and strollers lining up in front of vendor booths selling everything from bright spring flowers to tasty cheeses and smoked fish. But it was the beautiful produce - bunches of purple and green-hued asparagus, spring onions and garlic, and assorted lettuces, and even wild morel mushrooms for a whopping $56 a pound - that caught my eye. We gathered our suitcases from the hostel and headed back downtown. Our next stop was The Peninsula, a very sophisticated hotel in the heart of the Magnificent Mile that was to be our evening's accomodations.The luxury chain of hotels has nine properties - stateside in New York and Beverly Hills as well as a handful of Asian hotels - Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Bangkok, Manila and Beijing. That would explain the underlying Far Eastern theme I felt immediately: from the stately lion sculptures (outfitted in Chicago Bulls basketball jerseys) flanking the hotel entrance, to the gracious staff decked out in crisp white traditional uniforms and caps, to the soaring ceilings and elegant Asian-inspired lobby decor. They let us check in early. Our room, on the eighth floor, had a killer view of Michigan Avenue and lots of extras - its own fax line, marble bathrooms with ultra-deep soaking tubs and separate showers, iPod docking stations and more. After a night in a tiny, less-than-comfortable hostel bed, it was the ultra-comfy bed, stacked with pillows, that really beckoned, but it would have to wait.
Asian with a twist
After lunch - individual Chicago style deep dish pizzas and a chopped salad - at the famed and uber-busy Giordano's Pizza across the street from hotel, we decided to check out the stores along the Mag Mile. Joining the hordes of other shoppers on Michigan Avenue, we ducked into a few stores before heading back to our hotel for a much-needed cat nap.
Waking refreshed and ready to see more of the hotel, we donned swimming suits and the hotels plush robes and went looking for the pool, a 25-meter lap pool on the top floor of the hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows looking down on the chaotic city below. It was the perfect place to take a relaxing swim and lounge in the hottub before getting ready for dinner at Shanghai Terrace, the Asian-with-a-twist restaurant in the hotel.
The intimate eatery has a 1930s supper club feel and serves traditional Shanghainese and Cantonese dishes, but with modern touches. We sipped on the fruity-but-not-too-sweet signature Ning Sling cocktails while we waited for the first course. Try the traditional Shanghai soup dumplings to start, along with an order of the golden shrimp, lightly crisped sweet shrimp set atop cucumber rings with candied walnuts and Chinese mustard mayonnaise. With our server's urging, we ordered the Hong Kong beef tenderloin with homemade black pepper sauce, and were quite pleased with the tender meat and the still-crisp Chinese broccoli alongside.
After dessert - sublime jasmine creme brulee - we walked a few blocks to the nearby John Hancock Building. The entrance to the John Hancock Observatory was completely empty at 10:15 p.m., likely in part due to the foggy weather. We climbed into the elevator and shot up 94 floors, our ears popping from the change in pressure. Looking out across the skyline, we spotted the carnivalesque Navy Pier first, and Lake Michigan beyond. Next time I'll be sure and take the audio tour, but on that night it was enough to silently stare at the ocean of twinkling lights below.