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I want to disclaimer this entry with the fact that I had just been traveling, working, and doing events and meetings for six straight days. (See previous entry.) I asked for permission to take Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon off in Chicago on condition that I would schedule appointments in that time. No problem. So I had fun.

Given the opportunity, I just had to meet up with one of my best friends in Chicago. I stayed at the Burnham Hotel, a Kimpton hotel. My reception was so well done that I now look for Kimpton hotels in each city I travel to. (I’m equally partial to Hyatt.) We ate lunch then scooted to the Art Institute to get in an hour or two before closing time. You know how you visit art museums for the whole experience but get really excited about the super-famous pieces? Is it just me? Imagine my frustration, then, when my friend and I wandered into the Thorne Miniature Room collection, 68 diaramas of perfectly furnished and historically accurate interiors, spanning seven centuries, all the size of a laptop computer. I mean, the collection comprises a masterpiece. Why couldn’t I get into it like a Monet exhibit? Why don’t college kids put posters of a 1/12 scale replication of a 16th century French parlor on their dorm walls? Rhetorical. So we checked out the armor and ancient art and literally could not find the “American Gothic” and “Nighthawks” we (I) had gone to see. The museum was closing, and we were actually running through the maze of stairwells to find them. Done, and done.

I had timed everything perfectly: when we left, we got in a cab and went north on Michigan to make it to the John Hancock Tower just before sunset. If you visit Chicago, you can get a great skyline one of three ways: the Sears Tower Skydeck, the John Hancock Tower Observatory, or the cocktail lounge just below the latter’s observatory. For less than the cost of admission, my friend and I could get a snack and watch the sun set from the front row. We felt very welcome to Chicago, indeed.

Nevermind that it was an average of five to fifteen degrees below zero the whole time!

I’d made reservations at Butter, a new Chicago hotspot touted by both Esquire and Food + Wine as a top restaurant in the US. My friend and I ordered a la carte: I had a risotto first course, the best of my life, done wish mushrooms and truffle oil. I ordered a pheasant entree prepared (if my memory serves me correctly) with cherries, again, the best of my life– but a slightly easier achievement given how rarely I get to eat pheasant! We ended with a couple of fruit tart desserts. We received several palate cleansers and tastes between each course, ranging from potato soup to sorbet. If you can go, go. My only complaint is that there is such thing as a bad seat in the house. We were off to a corner when the restaurant wasn’t even full, and I was originally facing that corner until I sat next to my friend against the wall.

I’ll spare all the details of our shopping excursion on the Magnificent Mile the next day except to say that all of the women were doing it, so I did, too: black polish manicure.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was that night: “Die Fledermaus” at the Chicago Lyric Opera. It was a Christmas present for my friend (and myself). The only tickets left were 8th Balcony Row ZZ seats (or something like that), but it’s funny– when my mom and I saw this opera (operetta, to be precise) performed by the Virginia Opera when I was 12 and we had cheap Wednesday night season’s tickets in the front row orchestra, we could actually see the singers sweat and, if they hit a really high note, we could probably even got some spray from across the pit. This was a pleasant –and really far– departure!

I chose the restaurant Avec for our late dinner after the opera, based on the many reviews I found and its close proximity to the opera on West Randolph. What fascinated me about Avec was not its food as much as the feel of exclusivity. We arrived at the address and saw a busy restaurant behind a wall of glass, but only a diminutive sign, and no obvious door. The large windowless door, to the left of the glass wall filled with pretty people, is not marked in any way as being Avec’s door. When you go in that door, you’re in a small, bare opening with another large, unmarked door to your right. We opened it, and there we were! Everyone was attractive, and almost everyone was male. Think Fight Club: a secret hotspot filled with beautiful men of all ages and shapes and sizes and colors. Based on the feel of the place, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Jared Leto there. A Brad Pitt, probably not. The food was great, but I would later return to the restaurant, and it wasn’t for the cheese plates…

On Sunday, we caught a matinee of the play Doubt at the Oriental Theatre. It deserves every Tony it received, but anyone who is raised Catholic will cringe through the entire play. Intense! For whatever reason, my friend and I decided that negative fifteen degrees was not, in fact, too cold to walk in. In pointy-toed boots, I walked the 1.5 or so miles (we didn’t take this direct a route, trust me) to the Navy Pier, contributing further densitization to my already frostbitten toes (old skiing “injury,” so to speak). Of course everything was closed! But we really wanted to have tea at the Drake Hotel, and that was quite possibly the worst way to go about doing it!

We ate dinner at Sushi Samba Rio. I was completely enamored of the interior, my Chu-Cumber cocktail, seviche, and creative sushi rolls, but after two straight days with my friend, I think we were no longer enamored of girltalk. It happens, we’re women. We parted ways in the morning, only to call each other hours later to gush. Again, we’re women!

After I’d wrapped up the business side of my trip in Chicago, I decided to end on a high note with sushi at Aria, which had also been written up all over the place. It was a hilariously bad experience! I began with a new shochu drink the staff was “playing around with,” essentially shochu and pear vodka. It was so potent (obviously) and I was so hungry that I was literally instantly drunk. Feeling suddenly bold, I ordered three items I wouldn’t otherwise: an octopus roll and one piece each of saltwater eel and sea urchin sushi. The octopus roll wasn’t bad, if you like mayonnaise on rubbery, fishy-smelling fish.  I happen to enjoy it at times. I assumed saltwater eel would be like grilled freshwater eel, and given how much I enjoy that, I was shocked and disappointed to learn that they’re nothing like each other. Saltwater eel has the texture of a dry sponge, and it’s what I imagine to be the color of brain– grayish tannish. No sweet, no salty, just fishy. Finally, the urchin came. It’s neon orange and has the texture of Nickelodeon Gak. (Click here for a good internet image.) Just the smell made me sort of gag, but I have never backed down from a food! I’m at the top of the food chain, dammit! I took a big sip of my strong-as-$#!% libation, closed my eyes and downed it. For days after, my gag reflex actually kicked in when I thought about it going down! The night ended on an even lower note, literally, when I was leaving the restaurant and slipped across melted snow, landing flat on my back! I still have the “Aria” pen I used to sign my check in my purse. It makes me smile now.

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Famous art!

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More famous art!

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View of the city, looking south, from the John Hancock Tower.

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Same view after sunset.

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Spy photography in Butter.

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Chicago Lyric Opera.

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Opera intermission.

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My thumb is frostbitten… just kidding. But really.

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Sushi Samba Rio! Their website has much better interior pictures than this.

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