At least two revelations so far this summer, one a city and the other a grill accessory.
First, the city. I had briefly visited Chicago seven or eight years ago for a work conference, but shuffling between the hotel, convention center and assorted dinners and receptions was not exactly conducive to connecting with the place. Not sure I even got a slice of deep dish on that trip, let alone went to a restaurant owned by Rick Bayless or experienced the timeless charm and ivy of Wrigley Field. These were serious errors of omission that needed to be addressed.
So, with a week of vacation scheduled for mid-July, and our default summer destination (Vermont) in mind, I called a last-minute audible and suggested a little family road/food trip to Chicago instead. To my surprise and delight, the girls were on board - all of them - and we booked a three-night/four-day excursion that was nothing short tremendous.
We had the pizza we had mail ordered from Lou Malnati's right out of their oven, and appreciated the difference. We saw the Cubs beat the Phillies. We were the only people to bring kids into a packed and awesome Paul Kahan "scene" restaurant that looked like a narrow sauna called avec, and the food, atmosphere and accommodating staff turned it into a highlight of the trip.
We found no shortage of family-friendly activities and attractions, including the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum (where we were happy to meet a boy - or a girl - named Sue), Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier, Lincoln Park Zoo, Museum of Science and Industry. It was all great, and I know we just scratched the surface. We were all blown away by how clean and beautiful the city was, which was particularly evident during an unforgettable Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour on the Chicago River.
We are huge fans of Mexican food, and one of the driving motivations for the trip was visiting what has to be the pinnacle of Mexican dining in this country, the expanding empire of culinary authority and authenticity at the corner of North Clark and West Illinois - three incredible restaurants owned and operated by Rick Bayless.
We had a lunch at Frontera Grill, followed by homemade hot chocolates and churros at the casual cafe XOCO next door, and it was all phenomenal, but we saved the best for last. Dinner at Topolobampo the next day was nothing short of extraordinary and was, Gwen and I agreed, one of the best meals we'd ever experienced. We ate inspired food that only could have come out of that kitchen, and then we went back and met the man himself, Rick Bayless, who was a familiar face as a result of his excellent PBS show Mexico: One Plate at a Time. He gave Ava a signed cookbook after she spontaneously told him that she wanted to be a chef, "just like you," when she grew up. We all left stuffed, happy and amazed by the experience on many levels. And the meal stayed with us, floating around in our heads, like a great film, song or novel. We were still talking about little details a week later, and we will find a way to get back to that corner, and to the incredibly gracious and talented chef who made it what it is, before too long.
We opportunistically did a few days in Washington, D.C. last summer on the front and back ends of a drive to see relatives in Tennessee, and think we're onto something with this little "introduce the girls to a great city" summer trip concept. Boston and Los Angeles are in contention for next year's installment.
The second revelation of the summer so far has been the Weber pizza stone Gwen and the girls gave me as a birthday present, which we have been using to crank out some of the best smoky crust creations we've ever produced - with the added bonus of not subjecting the house to a 500-degree oven in July/August, or scattering corn meal and flour all over the place.
I have to admit I was skeptical at first, it didn't seem like something we needed, but making our own version of perfect food outside has actually elevated the experience. Long-time readers will know that pizza at home is one of our favorite weekend meals, and the additional flexibility of the grill option has been a highlight of the summer, which is still - I'm happy to note - not over yet.