Go Deeper

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Posted June 12th, 2009

Hi kids! My name is Nick Gilewicz, and I’m your Festival Blog manager. I coordinate our coverage of all things performance in Philadelphia, and sometimes worldwide. That’s me on the left, smelling my hands. More on that later.

You may have noticed that last Friday and Monday we had no new content. I didn’t mean to abandon you, but I had to go to Chicago for a ridiculously awesome weekend in a ridiculously awesome place. Ostensibly there for a college reunion, I skipped all reunion activities and instead ate and drank my way across the city, consuming some culture (and, as always, doing some work).

After the jump, in the spirit of getting to know one another a little better, let’s enjoy a big sloppy wet kiss to my weekend in the city: the Art Institute of Chicago, the finest meal I’ve ever eaten, a bit of theater, meeting Pig Iron’s Alex Torra, and a trip to the wilds of the Chicago suburbs.

Friday: Arrival, Art Institute, Schwa

schwaAfter the long El ride to the Loop from O’Hare, we checked in to our hotel, and headed over to the new modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. The wing is pretty cool, and has a magnificent block-long ramp over Millennium Park that leads you up to the third floor of the space. Despite soaring spaces and a lovely terrace, the galleries were pretty much extensions of the rest of the museum: small rooms, lots of work, and every single piece has a card detailing what’s there and why. The re-installation of the work was a bit uninspired, sad to say, although there’s a great show of recent Cy Twombly work up now.

After the museum, we headed to a still-gritty strip of North Ashland Avenue in Wicker Park for dinner at Schwa. Things you should know about Schwa, and what it’s like to dine there:

>>>It always looks closed, and it’s exceedingly difficult to get a reservation. We got very lucky, because some fools cancelled theirs. When my wife got a call back last week, whoever called just said, “Hey.” She replied, “This is Schwa!” He replied, “I know. Thanks for telling me.”

>>>Your waitstaff are also your chefs, which you can see from the scars and burns on their hands and arms.

>>>Schwa is for omnivores, and for those with dining stamina. We arrived at 7:00 pm, and over the next five hours, our nine-course meal evolved into a 12-course meal. You bring your own wine; our consumption averaged out to one bottle per person. After finishing our wine towards the end of our meal, the chef-proprietor, Michael Carlson, poured us some Lillet blanc from another person’s table. He also pointed out the Hendricks gin and green bubble-tea concoction that a woman from that table was drinking. He told us we wouldn’t be having any. We left around midnight, after the second dessert.

>>>At one point, as I was passing through the kitchen (which one must do to reach the bathroom), Carlson pulled me aside and asked, “Hey man, does your table like beer?” I said sure, and asked why he was asking. He said, “No reason, I just like statistics and shit.” Five minutes later, he came by the table and said, “Hey, forget what I told you about the beer. Just forget it.” I do not know what he was talking about; nor did I find out, although I wish I had.

Ice Cream>>>Towards the end of the meal, Carlson set a medicine dropper on our table. On it was a piece of red tape, and handwriting on the tape read “bacon.” He said, “These are bacon bitters from The Violet Hour. The best way to enjoy bitters is to put a drop on your hands, rub it around, and inhale.” Then he walked away. Thus the image of my face buried in my hands; I had sort of hoped that the bacon bitters would be dessert. Then the ice cream came, a drop of bitters was placed on each cone, which we then ate in one bite.

>>>I told a friend last night that, “If Schwa served me a puppy I would eat it.” And I probably would.

sweetbreads>>>The food at Schwa is unlike anything I’ve ever had. I’m a fairly decent cook, and I’ve eaten some pretty solid restaurant meals in my time here on the good green Earth. But I’m a cook, not a chef. This meal changed everything for me. Candied veal sweetbreads inspired by Cracker Jacks (pictured left, with lavender foam). Black quinoa, deep-fried and transformed into something distantly akin to Rice Krispies, topped off the lobster dish. It was transcendent, inspiring, and awesome in the proper old-school sense of the word. I don’t want to eat out anymore. I want to learn to cook like the guys at Schwa.

Saturday: Reunion (sorta), Sister, Iberico, Bottom Lounge

After a very slow Saturday morning, with a very mediocre breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we headed to Hyde Park, home of President Obama and my alma mater, University of Chicago. I caught up with an old friend in the neighborhood, had lunch at an old haunt called the Medici, went to register at the reunion thingy, stole a “TRUSTEE” label for my name badge, walked around the neighborhood with my younger sister (now a student there), and then, well, left.

We headed to the River North neighborhood for dinner at CafĂ© Iberico. Another old haunt, Iberico is the first place I ever ate tapas, and is still among the best. Astonishingly, their prices haven’t really changed very much over the past decade; even with a copious amount of Estrella Galicia, mojitos (yeah, I know they’re Cuban, but whatever), and sangria, our meal for eight came out to a little over 30 bucks a head. Nice!

I had stolen study time from my sister, who had final exams this week, so we packed her in a cab and sent her back home. Then we got in a cab and headed over to the Bottom Lounge, a rock club managed by my old friend and roommate Jeremy. It’s west of the Loop, in a neighborhood that was just awful ten years ago, and is now the boundary between the massive overbuilding of condos and an area that’s still awaiting some revival. The bar was pretty dead, and the show was done by the time we got there, so he took a minute to show around. Pretty good sound, a sweet roof deck, and two Shellac shows later this month. Also nice! Around two, our vacation debauchery started to catch up to us, so we headed back to rest up for the morning.

Sunday: Publican, Ping Pong, Busman’s Honeymoon, Giordano’s

Publican is a bigger, brassier outgrowth of Blackbird, another renowned Chicago restaurant. Publican brunch is surprisingly reasonable in price, from a few bucks for a dark-chocolate-and-fig scone, and topping out at $18 for the mussels. We dined as if it was tapas, sharing their homemade ricotta, not one but two sausage dishes, a smoked trout and chive cream cheese bagel, and a slice of maple bacon whose fat melted as soon as I put it in my mouth. This was not the healthiest dining weekend I’ve ever had.

ping pongWe had some time to kill after we ate, so we burned some calories by walking downtown to our friend’s office, where we played ping pong. She works in financial services, so they have, you know, nice stuff. Even after the crash! I demand office ping pong, for, you know, brainstorming.

We had tickets for a four o’clock showing of Busman’s Honeymoon at the Lifeline Theatre. Nestled in a small section of Glenwood Avenue hard by the Red Line El tracks in Rogers Park, where indeed, the train does go by so often you don’t even notice. Lifeline focuses on developing and presenting a lot of adaptations of literary work.

The story behind Busman’s Honeymoon is that mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a play to further explore the two main characters, Lord Peter Wimsey and his mystery novelist wife Harriet Vane, who’s relationship from Gaudy Night endeared them to readers. After the play was produced, Sayers wrote an eponymous novel that expanded upon the play. Lifeline took the novel, and adapted it back into play form. Why? Well, they wanted to include aspects of the novel that weren’t in the original Sayers play. I’m not sure it was the right decision, but Lifeline is a good example of how small theaters are ubiquitous in Chicago, and the lifeblood of the scene is in these small spaces distributed throughout the city.

We ended the day at Giordano’s, a small pizza chain that offers my favorite deep dish pie in all of Chicago. Like I said, not the healthiest eating weekend. My sister “forgot her ID,” so they wouldn’t let her have any beer. Meanies.

Monday: Ann Sather, Alex Torra, The ‘burbs

Hopped the El and headed to Ann Sather, a beloved brunch spot with a number of locations in Chicago. For my “side” of cinnamon rolls, I received a block of sweetness about the side of a brick. I went up to the Lakeview location to meet Alex Torra (Welcome to Yuba City) for brunch. He’s assistant directing Up at Steppenwolf right now, and I caught up with him for an article about working with Pig Iron and what he’s up to in Chicago. We chatted about how awesome the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe are, bemoaned the lack of similar projects in Chicago (although it looks like that may be changing), and found a surprisingly small degree of separation, given that we’d never crossed paths before. Check back Monday for an article on Alex.

After brunch, I grabbed a cab back to the Loop to check out, met up with my wife, and took the El out to Forest Park to meet our friends Joe and Jacinda, from whom we demanded the presentation of their progeny, an adorable little girl named Hyacinth. It always freaks me out how much kids synthesize their parents, and seeing it in the flesh is, well, bizarre. Very cool, but bizarre. We grabbed an early dinner on the patio of a pub near their house. They kindly gave us a lift back into the bosom of O’Hare, which truly is freakishly enormous, and we wended our way to our gate.

If you’ve read this far, I’m surprised and grateful, and I encourage you to replicate the dining portion of the trip. And if you’re one of our supporters, I assure you that all the dimes (and it was a hell of a lot of dimes) dropped on this journey were, sadly, my own.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Jasmine Davila.