Thursday, 15 October 2015

Boats, baguettes, biscuits, bands

Somebody had spoken about an architectural boat trip along the Chicago River and being as I haven't enjoyed a boat trip for many a year, the thought of buying a ticket lodged in my brain, although that was just it, a thought. I knew that I'd probably never get around to it.

Skyscrapers and lots of them in Chicago
So I'm walking along North Michigan Avenue wondering exactly what to do - I had some free time having been working most of the morning - and my initial plan was nothing more than a stroll around the city and then, perhaps, a bite to eat somewhere. Until, that is, I spied a small kiosk and a man offering the aforementioned architectural cruise. At just $32 it seemed too good to miss so I booked myself on the next boat and off I went.

The boat chugged merrily along the Chicago River and a guide pointed out various buildings, or should I say skyscrapers of architectural significance, that might be of interest to us humble tourists. He was good. He certainly knew his stuff, but he spoke at such a speed I doubt if anybody's brain could take in the information fast enough. Mine certainly couldn't.

I made a note of all the bridges we cruised under: the Du Sable Bridge, a bridge under Dearborn Street, Clark Street, La Salle, Wells St, Franklin St, Grand Avenue, after which we entered the north section of the river, then Ohio St where the boat turned around and headed for the south section of the river. Kinzie St, Lake St, Randolph St, Washington Boulevard, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson Boulevard, Van Buren, Congress, Harrison.

Our guide mentioned the Sears Tower, which used to be Chicago's tallest building, but not any more and while he did mention the name of the tallest building today, it was all so fast I've forgotten it. We passed the Civic Opera building where once, apparently, they planned to screen movies on the building's blank, river-facing wall, but it never happened as some local dignatory probably disapproved. We heard about how lots of companies were moving to Chicago and some were moving back to the city from the outer suburbs. As a result there was plenty of construction work going on.

To be honest, I wasn't that interested. I've never been the sort of person who listens too carefully to what guides have to say. I don't enjoy museums either, come to think of it. I'm not sure why that is, I just don't have the patience and I'd rather learn from a book. For me the thrill of the trip was simply being in a boat on the Chicago River, enjoying the sunshine, although there was a cool breeze.

The Chicago skyline taken from the boat
What did interest me was Lake Michigan. It's huge. I mean, it has horizons, like an open sea. But what I found amazing was that in parts it is over 900 feet deep. Now that's pretty amazing for a lake, I'm sure you'll agree.

Once back on dry land it was time to seek out somewhere for lunch and Toni Café and Patisserie fitted the bill nicely and it was inexpensive. There was something quaint and French about the place; it had marble-topped tables and a long glass counter displaying cakes and pastries. On blackboards high on the back wall behind the servery there were details of the food offering: sandwiches, baguettes and salads along with a range of hot beverages. This was the sort of place I'd been searching for; it was absolutely perfect. And while it was effectively a 'caff' it was licensed and sold some interesting wines.

I ordered a Pinot Noir (which came in glass mug, not a wine glass) but I like that sort of quirkiness, followed by cream of mushroom soup, a ham baguette, a cup of tea and a chocolate and walnut cookie. The tea and cookie was an afterthought, but because I loved this place so much I decided, having already paid my bill ($26) to stay for tea... and a decent cup of tea too.
Toni's Patisserie and Café. This place was the best ever...

Feeling suitably relaxed I wandered the city for a while. I travelled further down North Michigan Avenue, which became South Michigan Avenue and checked out a couple of bookshops  en route. In fact I wore myself out walking and by the time I returned to my hotel I was so tired I simply switched on the television, turned to channel 56 (BBC Americas) and watched Bear Grylls tackling the swamps of Sumatra and the wilds of Alaska.

I needed to be in the hotel at around 2030hrs so I could check in for my flight back to London using the hotel's business centre. The plan was to get a decent seat. But before that I figured dinner would be a good idea. I set my sights on a place called Spiagga - I think that's the right spelling. It took a while to find it. I knew it was out of my hotel, turn right and walk along North Michigan Avenue, but I couldn't find it at first. I'd almost resolved to find somewhere else to eat, but then I saw it. Or rather I saw the restaurant's name. It wasn't accessible at street level. I had to enter some kind of apartment building and take an escalator one flight before being guided into the restaurant, which seemed a bit poncy. Lots of waiting staff fussing around and being ultra polite. And then I realized why. This place was going to sting me for about $200! It got worse. The menus were 'tasting' menus and being as I know a bit about all this (having edited a fine dining magazine in the UK for four straight years and interviewed many a top chef) I can tell you now that 'tasting menus' are a big rip-off. Basically, a lot of little dishes in succession for an extortionate amount of money.

Foolishly I ordered a glass of wine ($16). Not too bad in the scheme of things, but did I really want to pay $195 for a tasting menu and be fussed around by a gaggle of poncy waiters all night? No I didn't! And I didn't want to part with my money either. To be honest, all I wanted was a main course dish, some bread and a glass of wine, maybe two glasses. I decided to make my excuses and leave. The original plan was to head back to Rosebud.

Downtown Chicago
Fortunately, Spiagga has a more conventional Italian restaurant across the hall and I decided to check it out. Certainly less expensive than the other place and not a tasting menu in sight. But while not as pricey, it was still annoying. The menu offered meals that were suitable for two people, meaning that whatever I ordered I was going to get enough for two. Why? Why can't I just eat a normal meal for one? But no, they were not that flexible. I ordered the charcuterie to start and a huge consignment of salami arrived. I was expected to eat it all. To be fair, I did, but then came the pork shoulder. It was reminiscent of the opening credits to the Hanna Barbera Flintstones cartoon when they go to a diner and a huge chunk of ribs lands on their car, toppling it over. I ate about half of it, had a couple glasses of Zinfandel and then paid up and left.

The food was alright, but it was still a bit pricey, and the only good thing was the waiting staff who had things covered. But in all honesty, I wish I'd gone back to Rosebud for a chicken Milanese. There's nothing worse than being confused by a restaurant - tasting menus, dishes that serve only two people and not one, it's all too much when all I wanted to do was eat and get back to my hotel. So I'm going to score Spiagga low, I'm afraid, and they can expect a similarly low score when I eventually get round to Trip Advisor.

Right now it's Thursday and I'm due to fly back this evening. I've checked in online, I've packed my suitcase and all I have to do now is check out of the hotel and leave my bags with the concierge until later. Then it's time to hit the streets of Chicago for one last time. I've really enjoyed it and I'll definitely return, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

Postscript: I really enjoyed my visit to Toni's Patisserie & Café yesterday. So much so that I returned today (Thursday) for roughly the same lunch as before, except that I had a second 'glass' of Pinot Noir and instead of a cookie I had a pastry. While I was there somebody walked in and stole somebody's wallet. It was all so quick and he was gone. The police were there in minutes, but whoever did it got away.

Then, out in the streets, as I walked along East Washington, I heard some tremendous music. Jazz Funk stuff. The band was fantastic. So fantastic it brought a much-needed smile to my face. I had to go and listen to the music and was transfixed when I found the band further down the street. The bassist was tremendous and the brass players were on top of their game, so was the drummer who only had a snare drum resting on a milk crate and and upturned plastic bucket. They drew quite a crowd and I have to say that I didn't particularly want to stop listening; I could have stood there all afternoon. This was much more than busking, these guys could really play, so I left some money in the bucket and took a card.

If you live in Chicago, check out David C Walker Jnr on dav3130@gmailcom or call him on 001 773 809 0769. He's also on Facebook:

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