Travel

Off to see Montana’s Mermaids — a road trip to Great Falls

Oh my, I am way behind on blogging. I’m truly sorry. But, wow, what a whirlwind few months: busy summer, wedding in San Francisco (um, not mine, in case you were wondering) and then almost a month traveling through Italy, France and Morocco. Watch for posts on that soon — I promise. Until then, here’s a trip I took in the spring.

 

Jesus bought a round of shots as one of the mermaids swam by, her slightly diaphanous tail rippling in the aquamarine water. And that moment solidifies the oddness of the trip we’re on.

We have come to Great Falls partly for a chance to get out of town and do a little shopping. But mostly we have come for the Sip n’ Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn – a tiki-themed bar where mermaids swim most nights as patrons sip their themed drinks.

Almost a decade ago, GQ named the Sip n’ Dip it’s top pick for bars worth flying for. It’s a distinction the bar remains proud of, noting it on its website.

I can’t remember who told me about the mermaids or when.

Mostly, I have associated Great Falls with a Target and being the site of one-time Lethbridge alderman Dar Heatherington’s faked disappearance from the Montana city, which grabbed international headlines. But somewhere along the way, the idea of seeing the mermaids swim at the Sip n’ Dip took root and was at the back of my mind when I’ve thought about heading stateside for a road trip and cross-border shopping. My friend, Kirsten, who flew out from Victoria for an extra long weekend, was game. So we booked our hotel online, made a six-hour playlist for the iPod (a key factor for song choice were ones we could belt out as we made the trip) and, passports in hand, headed for the border.

Any expectations I have are challenged as we get out of the taxi at the O’Haire Motor Inn on a rooftop parking lot in front of a non-descript door, surrounded by a handful of smokers.

The bored-looking bouncer checks our ID and wraps our wrists in bright yellow bands with Sip & Dip Lounge, Great Falls, MT, written on them. And then we push our way in.

Sip n' dip Lounge wristband

The ceiling is a faux thatched roof; pleather banquettes ring the edge of the small establishment filled with fake flowers and Christmas lights, mermaid-inspired plaques and statues. It all looks as if it hasn’t changed since the 1960s.

Sip n' Dip Lounge

It’s packed with patrons, sipping American beer and blue cocktails. Many have gathered around the pleather-padded seating area that encloses Piano Pat Spoonheim and her key-boards. She is as vintage as the decor.

We can barely spot her – her tiny stature, combined with the tall bar (and even taller guests) make it nearly impossible – but her voice carries through the bar.

Her rendition of Sweet Caroline gets the entire bar singing.

We push past the crowd and settle into two turquoise seats right at the main bar – prime seating in front of the two windows that look into the pool where a goggled mermaid finally swims by, long hair and colour-coordinated tail floating behind her.

She surfaces quickly for a catch of breath, then slips down again to wave and smile in the few seconds she has before needing more air. At last, a second one appears and for a minute or two they co-ordinate their appearances – one for each window.

Mermaids at the Sip n' Dip

A flutter of dollar bills, tips taped to the window in exchange for a smile and wave, obscures part of the view, but we are two of only a few actually watching the underwater act.

Mermaid at the Sip n' Dip

We order some drinks and I marvel briefly at the $3 price tag for a highball before moving onto one of the nautical-themed drinks, some of which are available in giant, keepsake fishbowls.

At the bartender’s suggestion, I pick the Marvellous Mai Tai: a four-shot, three-rum concoction with a hint of citrus. It leaves me feeling like the mermaids are not the only ones swimming.

And then Jesus strikes up a conversation, eventually offering to buy a round of shots.

Jesus, who goes more simply by the name Jay, moved to Great Falls from Texas, taking on odd jobs at a nearby ranch. He barely looks at the mermaids, but I watch the windows carefully for their brief but steady appearances, waving back when they wave, echoing their smiles.

I’m delighted when one finally swims through a hula hoop set up in the middle of the pool.

And, as we watch, the crowd thins and Jesus calls it a night.

The mermaids disappear from the swimming pool, taking their glowing balls and hoop. They reappear in human form in the bar, wet hair and all, to gently peel the dollar bills from the window and head home.

The next day we fulfil our second mission: shopping.

We hit the stores along the main drag: Target, the Ross and JC Penney at the Holiday Village mall, and the independent boutiques inside.

But we also head down-town where brick buildings house antique stores and other shops, including Candy Masterpiece, where we stop for chocolates, gummies and other candies. Their vanilla caramels are so good we stop again the next day as we are heading back. But not before lunch at the retro 5th Street Diner. The burger is average, but the milkshakes and soda floats are stellar.

Coke float

Burger and fries

Stools at the counter II

And then, with the iPod on and the sunroof open, we make the drive home.

Me and Kirsten at the Sip n' Dip

Kirsten and me at the Sip n’ Dip at closing time.

Leftovers

In the last few months, I’ve shot photos for meals and food adventures here and there that haven’t made it in to any posts. Julie and I were joking that we should just do posts of these leftovers with no real preamble, just letting the photos speak for themselves.

So, yup, that’s what this is.

Enjoy!

Pasta Carbonara

Pasta Carbonara. (Recipe over here)

Pasta with tomatoes, peppers and wilted spinach

Penne with cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers and wilted spinach in a cream sauce.

Japa Dog

Oroshi dog, topped with freshly grated daikon from Japa Dog in Vancouver. My favourite part was chatting with the staff in Japanese.

Shio Ramen

Shio ramen from Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. Check out Andree’s review for more.

Charcuterie

Charcuterie from Cassis.

Steak and potatoes

Steak and potatoes from Cassis.

Strawberry Tart

Strawberry tart from Cassis.

Shrimp Po' Boy

Shrimp po’ boy from Big & Little’s in Chicago.

Lights at the Publican

Lights at Publican in Chicago.

Cinnamon Bun

Pecan sticky bun from Publican in Chicago.

Digging in

Digging in to the Pecan sticky bun at Publican in Chicago.

Kimchi Fried Rice

Kimchi fried rice for brunch at the Publican in Chicago.

Portland a.k.a I went to Oregon to eat a burger

Warning: This is a photo-heavy post.

So, the story goes that I went all the way to Portland, Oregon for a burger.

Honestly, it’s not all that far from the truth.

And here’s where our story starts . . . .

Once upon a time, I came across a post on one of my favourite websites, A Hamburger Today, that talked about a burger in Portland. The headline was: Gruner makes a burger worthy of obsession. The photo that went with it? Worth at least 1,000 words. In one: mouthwatering. (Go on, check it out. I’ll wait here.)

So, when my friend Suzi and I were talking about taking a trip together, I pitched Portland. I had been interested in the city for a while because other friends had visited and raved on about it, the food trucks, Powell’s Books and the Oregon coastline (which, granted, is about 90 minutes away, but stunning). And Suzi was game. Especially because I sent her a photo of the burger.

Let me get right to it: it was JUST as good as I hoped.

Behold, the beautiful Gruner burger:
The Gruner burger

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even though I knew exactly what I wanted, I checked out the menu.
Gruner Menu
And they brought us some beet-stained devilled eggs.
Beet-pickled devilled eggs
Although the burger was the main attraction, check out these yummy pickles. (Pickles, it would turn out, would be sort of a theme for the trip.)

The Gruner burger II

But the best part?

When I took that first bite and squished the burger down slightly and it erupted in a volcano of hot, delicious meat juices.

The photo doesn’t really do it justice, so just trust me on this.
The Gruner Burger III

It went very well with my Arsenic and Old Lace drink (Monopolowa gin, Dolin Dry vermouth, Rothman & Winter crème de violette, Kübler absinthe) with a fantastic housemade maraschino cherry.
Arsenic & Old Lace

After that we pretty much had to roll ourselves out of Gruner. Luckily, we were just a couple of blocks away from Powell’s. Semi-conscious in a meat coma, we trawled the shelves and picked up a few books before walking back to the hotel. (The fabulous Jupiter Hotel, which was funky and clean and close to downtown — something that came in quite handy.)

The plan for Day 2 was to pick up our rental car (a Prius, of course!) and head to the coast. The Prius, I have to say, was a bit weird initially. I mean, it’s so damn quiet. But I loved that we drove to the coast and back and tootled around town the next day and still only used a 1/2 tank of gas.

Before we set off, we stopped at Pine State Biscuits.

I swear I was a southern belle in a past life. If only because I am completely obsessed with biscuits and sausage gravy. (On my Delicious right now, I have at least three recipes bookmarked for biscuits and gravy. This winter, it will be made. Stay tuned.) Also, fried chicken. So, the thought of fried chicken AND biscuits AND sausage gravy (not even mentioning cheese and a few slices of bacon) made this a priority stop for me.

We didn’t eat again for seven hours. You can see why:
Pine State Biscuits breakfast

I miss the ocean. A lot. If I don’t get a fix of that briny air and sharp coolness of the Pacific every few months, I start to feel a bit off. I was really looking forward to seeing the waves, smelling the salt air and checking out the rugged coastline I had seen in pictures.

Like the burger, I was not disappointed.
Cannon Beach

Windswept

That night we had dinner at Biwa, a Japanese restaurant known for its ramen. Like beaches and burgers, ramen has a special place in my heart. I ate a lot of it when I lived in Japan. In nice restaurants and little holes-in-the-wall. When I went back a few years after living there, I spent a few days in Kyoto and one fond memory really sticks out. I was eating ramen at a restaurant not much more than two meters wide — just enough space for a long counter, some bar stools and an aisle-wide kitchen. The one server had to scoot around the cook to serve steaming bowls of noodles, slurped up by a handful of men sitting hunched over the counter. While they concentrated on their ramen, I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha and trying hard not to get any of the rich broth on the book’s pages as I was engrossed in the scene when Sayuri meets the chairman in front of the Minamiza kabuki theatre. After I paid my bill, I walked outside to find I was standing across from the theatre itself.

A bowl of ramen was definitely in order, but so was a dish of pickles (adorable) and barbecued garlic (beautiful and the sharp flavour was mellowed by heat) and chicken karaage (essentially, fried chicken — and one of my favourite bar snacks in Japan).

Mini pickled vegetables
Barbecued Garlic
Chicken karaage
Ramen

It was like being back in Japan, but I got to drink bourbon sours the entire time, so that was a bonus.

To follow the theme of the night before, we went to the Portland Japanese Gardens the next day (after a less-than noteworthy breakfast not worth discussing).

The Pavilion

And then it was time for ice cream sandwiches from Ruby Jewel. I must give Suzi full credit for finding this gem. Soft housemade cookies sandwiched around soft and luscious ice cream. In this case, chocolate chip cookies with salted caramel ice cream. You get to pick the cookies and filling.
Ruby Jewel ice cream sandwich

By sheer coincidence, the weekend we were in Portland was just after the James Beard awards had been announced. One of the winners was Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, who claimed the title of Best Chef Northwest for 2011. Pok Pok had popped up a number of times when I was searching for good restaurants in Portland, so it was already on the list. When we caught wind of the award, we knew there was going to be a lot of interest and possibly a long wait. Luckily, Ricker is also behind Whiskey Soda Lounge, a more casual, bar-like drinks-and-snacks establishment just about kitty-corner from Pok Pok. You can put your name on the Pok Pok list, then head over to WSL for snacks and drinks. When your table comes up at Pok Pok, they come and find you, allowing you to settle the tab and wander across the street for round 2.

I started with a Tamarind Whiskey Sour (sours also being sort of a theme for the weekend), followed by another. And possibly another.
Tamarind Whiskey Sour

Then we dove in to some of Chef Chew’s Khai Luuk Khoei: deep-fried eggs with sweet-spicy tamarind sauce and fried shallots. Incredibly tasty, but one of them was so spicy, I drained my drink and ate all the vegetables on the table to try to quench the fire.

Chef Chew's Khai Luuk Khoei

One of the things I really love about Thai food is that the cuisine is all about complex flavours that come together in a fresh and light way. Salty, spicy, sweet, sour. These Miang Kham embodied all of that. Chilies, ginger, peanuts, dried shrimp, lime, shallot and coconut with a ginger sauce, all wrapped up in a betel leaf.

These were amazingly fresh and light, yet had complex flavours. I’m pretty sure if I’d had enough room, I could have downed another round of these. (And, as I write this, my mouth has started watering again.)
Miang Kham

For Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, the menu simply says, “Yes, these are the wings you have been looking for.” And it is right.

See above re: eating a second plate.
Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings

By the time we had eaten all of that, our server came over to say our table was ready at Pok Pok. We were pretty full, but went over anyway for some pork sate and a green mango salad. After all, it’s not every day you get a chance to eat at a James Beard-award winning restaurant.

Our plan for breakfast on Sunday was to go to one place. In the cab, the driver mentioned the Screen Door and how popular it is. At that point he may have also mentioned chicken and waffles. (You may remember I’m a fan.) We actually had him turn the taxi around. This place had a long line, despite the drizzle. But that first glimpse of their version of chicken and waffles was enough confirmation the decision was the right one.

This was an insane amount of food. Three fried chicken breasts atop a fluffy, tall sweet potato waffle. I barely appeared to make a dent in it. For scale, that is indeed a large steak knife buried to the hilt.

Chicken and sweet potato waffles

So, perhaps it’s surprising I was hungry in time for dinner. Or not.
Just across the street from our hotel was Le Pigeon, a small and much loved restaurant whose chef, Gabriel Rucker, had also just received kudos from the James Beard Foundation; he was named the 2011 Rising Star Chef. Le Pigeon is also known for its burgers. They only make five a night (the other restaurant, Little Bird, does not limit the amount) and Suzi and I nabbed no. 3 and 4. First, though, there was a glass of gorgeous sparkling rose.
Rose at Le Pigeon
And a quick glance at the menu to determine what to start with.
Le Pigeon menu
Eventually I decide on an arugula salad with duck egg and apricot.
Le Pigeon - first course
Before diving into the burger.
Le Pigeon burger

It was very juicy, and very tall with some lovely coleslaw-like topping. The crispy potatoes were also a nice switch from the standard fries.

We had snagged spots at the bar (because we didn’t have reservations, we took what we could get. And we only managed to grab those by waiting by the front door as the restaurant opened for the night at 5 p.m. I mentioned it’s a popular place, didn’t I?) and had the chance to watch the kitchen in action.

Le Pigeon kitchen

And for dessert — vegetarians, avert your eyes and skip ahead — I could not resist the foie gras profiteroles. When I ordered them, I assumed simply they were filled with foie gras mousse. But overhearing a conversation between one of the chefs and another patron, it became clear there was more to it than that. I asked the chef for clarification. It’s actually foie gras three ways: fat from the foie is used to make the choux pastry, foie is used as a mousse-like filling and then more fat is used in the caramel sauce.

Dear god.

Foie gras truffles

And then we were down to our final morning.

Packed suitcases in hand, we went to Blueplate. It’s a little diner-like establishment downtown that features old-school fountain drinks (like egg creams!) and comfort food like grilled cheese sandwiches and, ahem, burgers. (Yes, I have a problem. I know it.) I had heard about Blueplate on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and had mentally added it to my should-try-if-ever-in-Portland list.

I love old-fashioned soda fountain drinks and the egg cream (containing no actual eggs nor cream, but milk, soda water and chocolate syrup) is one of my favourites. It went well with my wee burgers and mashed potatoes.

Egg cream at Blueplate

Blueplate burgers

Stuffed, we carried on to the airport where we went our separate ways.

It’s possible, I’m already planning a return trip.

Momofuku Ginger Scallion Noodles

Last year I was lucky enough to travel to New York for a week.
Central Park

Fire Escapes

Brooklyn Bridge

And my friend, whom I was visiting, was open to all the restaurant suggestions I had. And there were plenty of them. But at the top of the list was Momofuku.

One of the first meals we enjoyed was at Momofuku Noodle Bar. And, towards the end, we had another amazing meal at . . . Momofuku Noodle Bar. Because even though I had wanted to go to the Noodle Bar and Ko during the trip, somewhere along the way things got confused and when I thought we were at Ko, we were at the Noodle Bar. Whoops.

We could have later gone to Ko when we realized the error, but I didn’t feel I could visit Momofuku and not have the ramen, which is one of those dishes that instantly transports me back to Japan (when it’s done right) and yearn for Japan (when it’s not).

That first night at the Noodle Bar we ordered the pork buns (which I still daydream about sometimes; they were just unbelievable) and the Ginger Scallion Noodles. These, these were so good that I was almost tempted to order them the next time we went back. Chewy ramen noodles, doused in a mix of thinly sliced green onions with a pungent hit of ginger, a slight hint of salty soy. I don’t think we left a single slice of scallion in that bowl.

Ginger-Scallion Noodles

We ate a lot of amazing meals that week (and had some incredible experiences too: a Broadway show, an afternoon at the Met) but I found myself coming back to Calgary and thinking about the noodles. When I took the job as the Food Writer for the Calgary Herald, I was quietly ecstatic to discover I would have access to a fairly good library of cookbooks (for research purposes, of course), which included the Momofuku cookbook by David Chang and Peter Meehan. I may have pulled it off the shelf to flip through in my first week on the job (for research purposes, of course). And then I kind of put the idea of making the noodles on the backburner.

Until this week.

When, suddenly, all I wanted to do was make those noodles.

So I did.

The recipe is ridiculously simple and it’s really only mincing the ginger and slicing the onions that takes any amount of effort (and, in the end, not all that much).

But the cookbook also outlines how the restaurant serves up the dish that I had fallen in love with a year ago:

Cook six ounces of ramen noodles, drain and toss with 6 tablespoons of the ginger scallion sauce, then top with bamboo shoots (another recipe from the book), quick-pickled cucumbers (another recipe from the book), pan-roasted cauliflower (pretty much just like it sounds), more sliced scallions and a sheet of toasted nori.

Yup, that sounds delicious. But I just didn’t have the patience to do any of that.

Maybe next time.

(I wrote more about my trip over here, if you want to check out some of what I ate — hint: Crack pie! — and some hot shoes I bought.)

Scallions

Ginger

Ginger and Scallions

Ginger-Scallion Noodles II

Ginger Scallion Sauce

  • 2 1/2 cups thinly sliced scallions (greens and whites, from 1 to 2 large bunches)
  • 1/2 cup finely minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup grapeseed or other neutral oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons usukuchi (light soy sauce)
  • 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or more to taste)

Mix together the scallions, ginger, oil, soy , vinegar and salt in a bowl. Taste and check for salt, adding more if needed. Add several spoonfuls to cooked ramen noodles.

(You can find ramen noodles in most grocery stores these days, typically in the produce section by the fresh herbs and wonton wrappers.)

Summer Travels

Kids, this has been a busy summer. And I mean that in the best possible way.

First there was Chicago in June, then NYC for a week in July, followed by two back-to-back wedding weekends in Panorama, B.C. and Ottawa.

Consequently, there has been very little cooking or baking in the Patent and the Pantry kitchen. Luckily, there has been some amazing eating in all these great cities. And I thought I would share some of the highlights.

I’m going to be honest here, there aren’t photos of every meal because I kind of just enjoyed having a few meals with no camera in tow, savouring bites without worrying about natural light and flash and angles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that I do love to photograph food, but, occasionally, I just want to be in the moment of a fine meal.

Chicago

This was never a city high on my list of places to go, but when a friend moved there I was happy to have a chance to travel to a new town. And then I fell in love with the Windy City, owing, I’m sure, in no small part to the oh-so-good eating I had there during my first trip in February. When the chance came to head there again in June, I jumped at it.

I was eager to have another dinner at Avec. And I was equally eager to try out a few new places. Luckily, my friend Suzi always has good suggestions, including a trip to Franks n’ Dawgs, a neat little joint that takes the humble hot dog to a brand new level. Think bratwurst with sauteed morels, a beef and curry sausage with orange marmalade and raisin slaw, and andouille with gumbo sauce. And, people, they do truffle waffle fries. Seriously. *Drool*

We had the Lamb Keema, a “Middle Eastern lamb sausage with English peas, cucumber salad, caramelized pearl onions and Socca strips.”

Lamb Keema hot dog

It was fantastic; my favourite of the hot dog trio we sampled.

Still, the others were pretty good too.

This was the Turdoggen: a turkey and date sausage with crispy duck confit, herb garlic aioli, house pickled onion relish and pickled carrots.

Frank n' Dawgs hot dog

and this was a Kobe beef Italian sausage topped with the restaurant’s marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, caramelized portabella mushrooms and basil.

Pizza dog

But, did I mention the truffle waffle fries? Yeah. Seriously.

On another sunny afternoon, we headed to The Purple Pig, another small plates establishment, this one on the Magnificent Mile. They basically had me when I saw we could have pork fried almonds with rosemary and garlic. With a glass of rose (which I drank pretty much exclusively while in Chicago; such a perfect wine for hot summer afternoons!), I also chowed down on salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and a pistachio vinaigrette, a dish of asparagus and snap peas, as well as a cheese plate.

For dinner one night we had pizza from Great Lake, a very odd little restaurant with almost no seating and a somewhat perplexing service system. When we went to order from the limited list of ingredients (owing to them using only local and fresh ingredients, which I can’t really criticize), each ingredient we asked for was “sold out.” That said, the pizza was fantastic. We ate it sitting at a park bench outside in the dark with some cans of pop purchased from the corner store. I don’t think we spoke for a full 10 minutes except to exchange “mmmmmms.”

Ok, it wasn’t all eating. We did take an architectural boat tour one hot afternoon, taking in the stunning buildings along Chicago’s river. The architecture in this city is stunning and well worth a boat tour if anyone is heading there in the summer months.

Chicago skyline

Chicago architecture

On the last day, just a few hours before flying out, we went to the Art Insititute of Chicago to wander around in the modern art wing. But first, a little more eating. This time at the Terzo Piano, the institute’s restaurant also in the modern wing. It’s a lovely, bright, airy room with a fairly impressive menu. But, well, I just couldn’t stay away from the idea of the burger trio: one shrimp, one beef, one lamb. They weren’t fabulous, but they weren’t terrible.

On the other hand, the bread that came before lunch was fantastic. And I loved the presentation of serving it with unsalted butter, flaked salt and parmesan crisps. That, with another glass of rose, was my favourite part.

Bread, butter, salt

Rose in the afternoon

New York City

Owing to some very good luck, I was able to head to NYC for a week to stay with my friend Julie in a Soho apartment. It was hotter than all get-out and the humidity meant I had to finally give up on wearing my bangs down, but it was an excellent trip. Due, in no small part, to the fact that Julie was willing to try out a lot of the restaurants I had on my list.

Like Shake Shack.

What? Please, everyone who reads this blog by now knows I have an undying love of burgers. As if I was going to go to New York and not go to this famous burger joint. Pshaw.

I spent the morning in Central Park, checking out Bethesda Fountain, the Ramble and then lying in the grass at the edge of the great lawn to read under a blue sky. And then it was off to meet up at Shake Shack for a cheeseburger, krinkle-cut fries and a lemonade, all eaten sitting on a bench across the street.
Shake Shack burger

We went to Momofuku twice, though only the Noodle Bar owing to the fact that I really wanted to try a few dishes and, hey, when is the next time I’m going to have a chance to go there? The first night we had the scallion-ginger noodles, sauteed corn with potatoes and the dreamiest, mouth watering-est pork buns. Slabs of rich pork belly stuffed into a pillowy soft steamed bun with scallions and hoisin sauce. If I wasn’t so full at the end of that meal, I would have ordered more of those. They were definitely the best part of that dinner, though the noodles were a close second.

The next time I had the ramen, which was also delicious. Though I have to say that I had some fantastic ramen when I lived in Japan. This time we tried the chicken buns and they weren’t bad but the pork buns remain my favourite. In fact, my mouth is watering a little bit right now just remember them.

New York was a lot about the desserts too.

We had Magnolia cupcakes.

My cupcake

And made a trip to the Momofuku milk bar where Julie agreed that we needed to buy the Franken Pie. That’s two pieces of each of their four types of pie, clockwise from the top: cinnamon bun pie with a cheesecake filling; grasshopper pie with mint cheesecake and brownie filling; Momofuku’s signature Crack Pie ®, kind of like butter tart but none of those pesky raisins; and the candy bar pie that has a chocolate crust, caramel, peanut butter nougat and a pretzel.
Momofuku Franken Pie

Crack Pie

I know Crack Pie is what Momofuku is known for, but I was completely won over by the candy bar pie, which was the perfect combination of salty and sweet and oh-so rich.

To cap off the week, we had a decadent afternoon tea at the Plaza. This was absolutely luxurious. The setting was stunning, the service lovely and the food delicious.

Menu

Ceiling in Knife I

Cucumber Sandwich I

Pastries

Of course, it wasn’t all eating… there were shoes that needed to be bought!

So, I’ll share two pairs that are my faves from the trip.

Some Betsey Johnson satin, leopard-print platform peeps:

IMGP3757

And these beauties from Kate Spade that were
a) red platform peeps
b) 50 per cent off
and, perhaps most importantly, c) their style name was Gwen.
That, my friends, is what I call shoe fate.

Kate Spade shoes

Anyone interested in checking out more photos from either of the trips can feel free to check out my flickr.

Taste of Chicago

We have arrived for burgers — the kind that people talk about on the Internet long after having wiped the final crumbs from their lips. But we are distracted from the mouth-watering scent of smoke and beef by the hostess, standing with clipboard in hand and pen poised, telling us the wait will be about two hours.

Kuma’s Corner is a popular place. Glimpses at the burgers coming from the coffee-table-sized kitchen are enough to make me pause and then put my name down on the list.

After all, what’s waiting at one more restaurant?

Kuma's Corner - the burger

We’ve already lined up around the block for a hotdog, sipped drinks to pass time while hoping for space at the counter of a trendy hotspot, and waited on a ramp overlooking the dining area of another restaurant, mouths watering as another platter of chicken and waffles was carried by.

Chicagoans, it appears, know what is good, what they like and are willing to wait.

And so will we.

It begins at Hot Doug’s, a hotdog joint well outside of the downtown core, where the faithful begin to line up before the place opens at 10:30 a.m. When my friend, Suzi, and I arrive around 11, the queue snakes out the front door, around the corner of the building and along its brick facade. Inside, every seat is filled.

Hot Doug's

Hot Doug's - waiting

But the delay is productive. The man in front of us, a regular, gives us the low down on what dogs are worth the wait.

For him, the Linguica — a Portuguese pork sausage — will always be the first pick. It’s one of the myriad specials proprietor Doug Sohn has dreamed up for the restaurant featured on TV shows and numerous newspaper and magazine articles, including Bon Appetit and Saveur.

The Linguica is on the menu, along with a curry lamb sausage, a chicken one with cranberry and walnuts and the item I already knew we’d have to try: the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.

This is no ordinary hotdog place.

Hot Doug's - menu I
Hot Doug's - menu II

A side of fries cooked in duck fat — Friday and Saturday only — to go alongside and we were ready to go.

The thick squiggle of saffron aioli and cubed chunks of Iberico cheese played against the spicy sausage flecked with red chili. It was the hands-down winner between the two, although the duck dog with the rich mousse was worth the excursion.

Hot Dogs at Hot Doug's

Sauternes - cross-section

Linguica - cross-section

We would have thanked our lineup buddy for the recommendation, but he vanished after gobbling down his two dogs and disappeared into the sunny afternoon.

Total wait time: 45 minutes

In the daze that often follows a decadent lunch, Suzi and I headed back downtown to wander Millennium Park and admire Cloud Gate — a.k.a. the Bean — the stainless steel sculpture designed by Anish Kapoor that reflects Chicago’s stellar architecture, sunny skies and tourists like a classy funhouse mirror.

The Bean II

The Bean III

The wait for Avec is estimated at an hour, but we’re allowed to give a phone number and we head next door to Meiji, a Japanese influenced restaurant, for a sushi roll appetizer and glass of wine.

Just as we finish up the phone rings and we wander back the 25 steps or so to squeeze into two seats at the counter that runs almost the length of the narrow restaurant.

Avec, a wine bar part of a series of successful restaurants in Paul Kahan’s stable, boasts a menu of homemade charcuterie, flatbreads cooked in the fire-burning oven, tender salads and other items all easily shared.

The decisions are tough, but we settle on the flatbread stuffed with tallegio cheese, a salad comprised mostly of prosciutto and apple, the signature dish of chorizo stuffed dates in a tomato sauce, and another dish or two.

From the counter, we watch the chefs bustle at the two wood-burning ovens and chat with the server who offers up a few nightlife recommendations, while pouring a glass of rose.

The prosciutto salad that mixes the salt of cured ham and sweet apples is a clear winner, but it is the crisp flatbread with its oozing cheese centre that I can’t stop eating.

Total wait time: 60 minutes

At Jam, we wait only 10 minutes for a free table for brunch. We have to chalk it up to good timing because after we sit down, the queue starts to stretch along the half-wall from cash register to front door.

Jam

The grey walls and concrete tables could feel industrial, but instead the air is cosy. From our table we have a clear view into the open concept kitchen — a tiny space that somehow fits at least three people co-ordinating plates and getting them out to patrons quickly and with style.

Amuse Bouche

The eggs benny with crisped pork belly and beet hollandaise is almost art with the black-salt-topped eggs and bright pink smear of sauce. The braised pork cheeks are not quite as attractive, but meaty and tender.

Eggs Benny at Jam

Steaming coffee

Total wait time: 10 minutes

The next morning, the waiting is a little more tedious as we join an almost two-hour line at Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. It is a Sunday, after church, and the view of gorgeous hats sprinkled among patrons at the tables is beautiful but not enough to take our minds off the time we have to kill.

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles

Trays of hot waffles and crisp-skinned chicken passing almost under our noses seemed to only prolong the wait.

The first bite made it almost seem worthwhile. Apart, the fried chicken and waffles drizzled with maple syrup were good. Together they were a revelation. The hot, crisp chicken and the sweet tender waffles combined to become something better. Salt and sweet and crisp and soft. If I could have polished off the plate, I would have.

Chicken and Waffles

Total wait time: Two hours

We work it off by wandering the Art Institute of Chicago where I gaze, just as they did in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, at Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. I’m hypnotized by the pointillism, though that could be a soporific side-effect of breakfast.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

But by the last day, my patience for waiting has waned.

There is one final stop before the flight home: a burger joint that has received rave reviews online.

Kuma's Corner - Exterior

It’s a takes-no-guff place that has posted rules on its website, including no reservations, no music requests and “We will not ‘put on the game, bro.’ ”

When the hostess tells us the wait could be up to 2 ½ hours, we are prepared. And we’re learning. We put down our names and then head back out to hail a cab to take us to a nearby neighbourhood where we can window shop.

About 90 minutes later we’re back at the restaurant, hungrier than ever and only 20 minutes away from being seated at a tiny table near the equally tiny kitchen where staff are pumping out burgers like a machine.

Kuma's Corner Interior

Next to us, two young men are tackling the macaroni and cheese platter — a behemoth portion of pasta that can be topped with just about anything: prosciutto, caramelized onions, peas, sweet corn.

I, however, have eyes only for the burger and the two-hour wait has sharpened that craving, so I’m quick to decide on the “famous Kuma burger,” adorned with bacon, cheese and fried egg.

The patty alone is almost a softball of meat, slightly flattened. With the egg, cheese and bacon atop, this burger is a force to be reckoned with. When I attempt to cut it, the steak knife is buried to the hilt in the centre of the burger.

Kuma's Corner II

That first bite makes the wait dissolve into a distant memory.

The crisp waffle fries push it even further away.

Leftovers in hand — which will serve well as an inflight meal — we push out into the sunny afternoon.

There is nothing left to wait for, except the next trip back.

This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald’s Travel section. For more articles, visit CalgaryHerald.com/travel/index.html.