Chicago for the New Year

Our holiday extravaganza in the United States continued as we boarded a plane to Chicago to brave the colder weather and visit with Gail (my mother-in-law), Kirsten & Eric (my sister and brother-in-law), as well as their two children, Maira (3.5) and Abby (almost 2).  In addition to spending time with family, the secondary theme of our Chicago visit was to take advantage of our time there and thoroughly enjoy decidedly un-French things like brunch, Mexican food, beer, deep-dish pizza, fancy coffee (for Jim), and movies.

We landed a few days before New Year’s Eve around lunchtime and we knew just where we wanted to go:  any Rick Bayless restaurant.  We settled on XOCO.  Jim and I had taken a trip to Chicago maybe three years prior and eaten at a number of Bayless’ restaurants (including XOCO), and were ready to get our Mexican fix on.  If you’ve never eaten a torta there and/or had a margarita there, I highly recommend you give both a try.  It’s fast, easy, and incredibly delicious.  We were on a mission to eat good Mexican while stateside, and I’d say by the end of our Chicago trip we were quite successful.

Kirsten and Eric met us there a little bit before dinner for some happy hour drinks/margaritas/beers, then we joined them picking up the kids at daycare and touring their new home in Lincoln Park (they just moved there over Thanksgiving).  That evening Jim got to tick the one thing off his Chicago to-do list:  eat deep dish pizza (which is non-existent in France).  On a sidenote, we kept hearing while we were there that deep dish pizza is overrated in Chicago (and maybe overrated in general).  Personally, I think this is bunk, as I LOVE a good deep dish pizza here and there…and we ate our fair share of deep dish in San Francisco at Little Star and Patxi’s (highly recommend both if you’re craving it while in SF…probably recommend Little Star a tad more).

The next night we had reservations at another Rick Bayless restaurant – Topolobampo.  This is another restaurant we visited on our first trip to Chicago together.  You might be thinking…Rick Bayless sounds familiar.  That’s probably because he won the first Top Chef Masters on Bravo.  Anyway, he’s known for his mole.  Let me tell you everything you read/hear about it is true.  It is outstanding.  We got the “Mexico: Taste and Time” chef’s menu, which was seven courses of deliciousness taking you through the history of Mexican cuisine with wine pairings.  We were told the favorite dish here was the “Mother of Invention – 1650,” which was mextlapique corn husk-roasted Alaskan black cod, herby butter, salsa of orange guero, garlic and snails, and caramelized eggplant puree.  It was pretty outstanding, but we both thought the “Savoring Independence – 1821” with chiles en nogada roasted poblano chile, pork picadillo, creamy nogada sauce, pomegranate, and parsley was the real show stopper.  What was even nicer was they gave us a menu (with the pairings included) after our dinner.  This place is pricey, but it’s special and probably one of our all-time favorite restaurants.  If you’re headed to Chicago, try to make a reservation here a month or so ahead.  It’s worth it.

Continuing with our food recommendations, we also hit a breakfast/brunch spot off the Magnificent Mile called West Egg Cafe.  Don’t be intimidated by what appears to be a long line (they have a waiting room/hallway), as we waited maybe 10 minutes, tops, before we got a seat.  The place is HUGE.  We both ordered the crunchberry pancakes (blueberries & granola in the batter) to which our waitress told us were “the BEST.”  They were pretty outstanding if I do say so myself.  Outside of that they had one of the largest brunch/breakfast menus I’ve ever seen – so if pancakes aren’t your thing there is surely something else to satisfy you.  Jim also ordered a side of sausage and I got a side of one egg and bacon.  The absolute perfect brunch for two expats.

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Chicago is the architecture.  On our first trip we went on one of those architecture boat tours (highly recommend) by the architecture society (or something like that).  This trip we enjoyed more of the buildings on foot.  As we walked down the Magnificent Mile, I was a little struck by the below buildings and got a little dreamy when imagining how amazing it would be to work in one of those buildings.  I mean, imagine you’re a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and that’s the building you go into each day for work.  Wow.

We also managed to get Jim some quality, “fancy” coffee while in Chicago at Intelligentsia Coffee.  There’s one location close to Millennium Park (where we were headed to meet up with the family) and Jim ordered his now favorite flat white while I had an incredibly good hot chocolate.  Their pastries were also no joke.  If you’re in the mood for a scone, grab one of their fruit options (we got a fruit and a savory).  Yum.  Following our coffee/breakfast, we joined the rest of the family over in Millennium Park where they saw “The Bean” for the first time and the kids enjoyed a pretty robust playground.  If you’re traveling there with kids, this seems like a pretty great place to turn them loose for an hour or two.

We also saw two movies: La La Land & Hidden Figures.  Before talking about the films, I’d just like to say these were both the most luxurious movie theater experiences I’ve ever had, as both were in smaller theaters where all the seats were full recliners.  Yes, I said full recliners.  What has happened in the United States in the last 10 months that there are now recliners in movie theaters?  Regardless, it was amazing.  AMAZING.  Maybe it’s even ruined other movie theaters for me (a little).  Is this a thing or only in Chicago?  There was no such thing in San Francisco, Philadelphia, or Austin.

La La Land has been cleaning up in the awards department, and I have to say there are elements where I get it and elements where I don’t.  I was also intrigued this is from the same director as Whiplash (which I loved).  The ending was a bit off to me, but the music was great (and I don’t like musicals), the chemistry between Gosling and Stone was perfect, and it was pretty.  It made LA look pretty, really pretty and mystical.  It also featured a jazz pianist, and we know how I feel about jazz pianists as well as old Hollywood glamour.  I’ve been whistling, “City of Stars” for days since we saw it.  I’d recommend seeing it because it’s fun.  Tap dancing, piano playing, and people falling in love with a pretty backdrop.  Yes.

Hidden Figures, however, was my favorite movie that we saw all break.  I wholeheartedly recommend this one to any/everyone.  You walk out just feeling good, or at least I did.  Makes me want to read up on the early days of the space program and more about each of the women featured in the film.  Great.

As our holiday trip came to a close, we found ourselves returning to Toulouse and sitting on our sofa after eating dinner and discussing how it’s really great to see family and be back in the US, but it really is true that there’s no place like home.  And I’m happy to say, Toulouse really feels like/is home now.






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