Saturday, November 30, 2013

Pithy Philosophies #11

Seth Saith:

Class is most demonstrated at those times when you least want to demonstrate it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

'Elf the Musical' is Charmingly Cheery but Not All That Grand of Stature -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Elf the Musical 
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru December 15

I have never seen the movie Elf, not expressly because I am Jewish nor because it stars Will Ferrell (I am told it is one of his better ones).

But there have been a number of screen-to-stage adaptations I've greatly enjoyed despite not having previously seen the source movie--including Hairspray, The Producers, Kinky Boots and the seasonally-relevant A Christmas Story.

In some ways, without discounting the pleasure any good movie can provide, I almost prefer not to be familiar with the movie when seeing the stage version, especially in my role as a self-anointed critic.

If I and others are paying to see a live show, it should hold up as its own work of art, not merely a brand-name way to sell tickets. Although it should be noted that on Tuesday, the first night of Elf's national tour stop in Chicago, the balcony at the Cadillac Palace was as full as I've seen it in recent memory.

Photo credits: Amy Boyle Photography
And with the caveat that I am a Broadway in Chicago subscriber who didn't pay much, nor anew, to see Elf, I didn't feel cheated in any way. Elf will not rank among the best musicals I've seen this year, or even this month, but it was fun, festive and sufficiently tuneful. From it, I can imagine that the movie is likewise enjoyable if not sensational.

With Broadway Book of Mormon veteran Will Blum appealing in the lead role, Elf features a nice score by Matthew Sklar, with lyrics by Chad Beguelin. The two collaborated on The Wedding Singer musical and know their way around a professional showtune.

"Christmastown" and "A Christmas Song," are upbeat odes to the holiday season, while "Nobody Cares About Santa" is an imaginative, terrifically-sardonic piece sung by a host of world-weary department store Santas in a late-night Chinese restaurant in New York City.

Without knowing how much of the book came directly from the movie, I also was impressed--to a certain extent--by the work done by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. But the former had worked on The Producers and Hairspray and the latter The Drowsy Chaperone, so that they knew how to make Elf appealing without taking itself too seriously doesn't come as much of a surprise.

If one is looking for a enjoyable holiday musical, whether for the family, without such or just for ones'Elf, this warmhearted work should put a smile on your face.

Yes, it ultimately is rather facile, schmaltzy and even formulaic--I imagine the movie is too--and not every song or production number is a winner. But Blum does a nice job, as does Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Elf's love interest and Larry Cahn as his father.

I am certainly no worse off for having seen Elf nor having it included in my subscription series, and while @@@1/2 doesn't connote a rave review, it was actually considerably better than I was envisioning.

Per my ratings scale, @@@1/2 does denote a show somewhere between good and excellent, and both the piece itself and this touring production fit comfortably into that range.

I might even have to see the movie now.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Most Welcome Introduction to 'A Raisin in the Sun' -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
directed by Ron OJ Parson
TimeLine Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 7

I certainly won't suggest that I've seen every play that could be considered great and/or important.

But of those I'm aware of, I have attended many that could be regarded as works everyone should see:

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, My Three Sons and The Crucible; Tennesee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple and Lost in Yonkers, David Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and more contemporary classics like David Auburn's Proof, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. 

To this esteemed--and not nearly comprehensive--list, I can now add Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

No, I never even read it in high school, or saw the movie, or saw the musical version titled simply Raisin.

The closest I came was seeing Bruce Norris' terrific (and recent Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning) Clybourne Park, which plays off A Raisin in the Sun by imagining what might have happened in the years before--and long after--Hansberry's narrative.

Based in part on real-life events involving Hansberry's own family, and taking its name from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, A Raisin in the Sun chronicles the Youngers, a multi-generational African-American family living together on Chicago's South Side in the early 1950s.

The central character is seemingly Walter Lee Younger, who from the characterization and the casting at TimeLine Theatre appears to be somewhere in his 30s. Though I say this without any acute point of comparison, Jerod Haynes seems to play the role perfectly. (In a new Broadway revival next year, Denzel Washington will play the role. While Denzel can do anything he wants--and I would hope to see it--it would seem that he's a bit old to be playing Walter, at least as written with a son of about 10.)

Walter works as a chauffeur and while his wife Ruth--wonderfully played here by Toni Martin--seems to be content with their lot in life, Walter bristles with a desire, perhaps even a desperation, to do something more with his.

His disquiet is exacerbated by the anticipation of his mother--also superbly acted by Greta Oglesby--coming into a sizable sum of money due to the passing of Walter's father.

Although this is a famous play that has been around for over 50 years I don't want to reveal everything that happens. But while it involves less stage time than I expected, the crux of the storyline centers around Mama Younger's decision to purchase a house for her family that happens to be in a white neighborhood.

The bigotry the Youngers encounter is ugly, perhaps all the more so for the way it is depicted here, cased in 1950's decorum and "wouldn't it be better for you (not to move here)" bullshit, embodied by Karl Lindner, a representative from the new neighborhood (well-acted by Chris Rickett).

Although it debuted on Broadway in 1959, Hansberry began writing A Raisin in the Sun in the early 50s, prior to Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Era and Malcolm X, so it's quite impressive and somewhat eerie how prescient she was. And sad that all these years later, even with a black man in the White House, it feels like this play could be set in the present day. Other than some of the manner of dress, there is really nothing about Raisin that feels dated.

And as always, TimeLine--one of Chicago's best theaters--does an outstanding job staging it. The acting
is terrific, and given the close quarters of the auditorium, you almost feel you are in the Youngers' home with them.

As a small quibble on a first-time viewing--and explanation for not quite giving it @@@@@--I felt the 3-hour play took a bit too much time getting to the central crisis. I appreciated how Hansberry sets up all her characters, including Walter's sister Bennie (Mildred Marie Langford, also stellar) and a pair of suitors meant to serve as symbols, but I can't say I was truly riveted until the storyline focused more overtly on the family's decision to relocate.

Still, this is clearly a play that deserves its revered stature, and more frequent productions than it seems to get (since I started attending theater regularly in the early 21st century, I've never had a chance to see it in Chicago). Deservedly, it has been consistently sold out at TimeLine since opening in August, and its few remaining performances seem to be.

But TimeLine does have a standby policy, so if you're able to get to A Raisin in the Sun, you really should. And it not, perhaps next spring on Broadway with Denzel. Even if this may truly have been a better introduction.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Near West Side Story of 'Delicioso' Puerto Rican Food

Cafe Central
Puerto Rican
1437 W Chicago AveChicago

What I ate: Pionono, Roast Pork Jibarito, Yellow Rice with Pigeon Peas, Vanilla Flan

When it comes to the Taste of Chicago, the city's summertime smorgasbord of mass consumption, many avidly avoid it while others can take it or leave it.

I, however, love it, and continue to attend at least once a year even as the fest has shrunk. (Those who may care can see my Taste recaps from 2013 and 2012.)

It's not just that I love to eat, and while I don't mind the crowds--unless suffocatingly large on a crazy hot day--I am not primarily drawn by a sense of civic participation, nor communal partying.

As this blog should attest, and particularly my series on "Sethnic dining excursions"--a.k.a. the Chicago Dining World Tour--I love to explore. Creatively, culturally and, yes, gastronically. And the Taste of Chicago has always enabled me to sample foods and restaurants that are new or rare for me.

I tell you this because I trace my fondness for Puerto Rican food--which I recently enjoyed again at the erstwhile Cafe Central on Chicago Ave.--directly to the Taste.

A few years ago, probably no more than 5, I got one of the best and most unique items I've ever had at the Taste: a jibarito from Sabor Latino.

Though various stuffings are available, and I now know the jibarito is common to  multiple cultures--I had a good one at the Taste of Cuba restaurant early this year--that first "Taste" was of a Puerto Rican steak sandwich on fried green plantains instead of bread. There was also some kind of garlic sauce which made it even more awesome.

So in the intervening years, I've sought out a jibarito multiple times at a Puerto Rican place in Humboldt Park called Borinquen. And I was also taken to Cafe Central once by my friend Paolo. 

But it had been a good while since I had Puerto Rican food; hence a return visit to Cafe Central was quite welcome.

Dating back to 1952, and 1968 at its current location, Cafe Central has about as nondescript an exterior as a restaurant can have. And the interior isn't exactly fancy. But if you're looking for good food at good prices, Cafe Central is rather maravilloso.

For a beverage, I ordered mango juice and--as a big fan of plantains, fried and/or sweet--for an appetizer (just $1.90!) I was intrigued by something called a Pionono = fried sweet plantain fritter stuffed with ground beef.

It was really delicious.

I  easily could've ordered another one and had it suffice for my dinner. But I didn't because I was eager to order a jibarito, which the menu essentially describes as a sandwich served on green plantains with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise.

Although I imagine Cafe Central's steak jibarito is delicious--it's possible I've had one there--I chose a Roast Pork Jibarito, which is only available Thursday-Sunday.

This too was delicious--it came with cheese mixed in with the pork--as was the yellow rice with pigeon peas I ordered as a side dish.

The menu at Cafe Central goes far beyond jibaritos--a vegetarian version is always available--and other sandwiches.

Selections include omelettes, specialty rice dishes, specialty salads, creoles, mixtas (seemingly rice, beans and meat), seafood and a few "house specialties" (chicken, pork chops, loin & breaded steak), with a number of choices in each category.

Between the pionono, jibarito and rice, I was plenty full and satisfied, but in the name of, um, cultural culinary research, I felt compelled to order dessert.

I am not a huge fan of the consistency of flan, but I ordered a Vanilla Flan and happily consumed it all.

All told, it was a terrifically fulfilling, quite economical meal for which I'm running out of adjectives to look up in Spanish on Google translate.

As with many of the places I've enjoyed my gastro-ethnic expeditions, Cafe Central is a restaurant I certainly wish to return to again.

And if you're interested of tasty Puerto Rican food with little pretense and little expense, as I'll lyrically conclude this (near) west side story... "somewhere there's a place for us."

Saxman Redman Again Proves to be Quite Good, Man -- Chicago Jazz Review

Jazz Review

Joshua Redman Quartet
Symphony Center, Chicago
November 22, Chicago

Vacant of much astute analysis, the extent of this review essentially consists of me saying: I liked what I heard.

I can't tell you in any knowledgeable way what makes Joshua Redman such a fine saxophone player. He just sounds fluid in everything he plays, with impressive power and speed when applicable. (I should note that a well-played sax is one of my favorite sounds in the world.)

I can't tell you in technical terms any of the skills his quartet--rounded out by Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums--showcased Friday night at Symphony Center. (I appreciated how Redman, in his stage remarks at a venue he's now played 9 times, expressed confusion over whether the name is Orchestra Hall, Symphony Hall or Symphony Center; I likewise never am sure.)

I know several of the songs played were Redman compositions from his latest album, Walking Shadows--because he announced them as such--but I really couldn't tell you their names.

I can't even remember when, where and how I came to know Redman, the son of a sax great named Dewey Redman, with whom I wasn't familiar. The first time I saw him, at the same classic venue, was in 2008, when he was accompanied by Branford Marsalis.

Photo credit: Arne Reimer
I've also seen him at the Old Town School of Folk Music and again at Symphony Center with a quartet called James Farm.

This time the performance was billed as the Joshua Redman Quartet.

The concert started at 8pm with a half-hour opening set from pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Although to call it a set sounds a bit odd because he seemingly played the same piece--or perhaps just free form piano--for 30 minutes straight.

I hadn't heard of Abrams, but the program bio intimates considerable renown. His playing was certainly impressive, but I can't confess to being truly captivated. Regardless, it was a fine way to start the night. (I had bought a $28 gallery seat just 20 minutes before showtime.)

Walking Shadows is described as an album of ballads and though the Redman Quartet came onstage together, Joshua opened with some subtle playing accompanied only by pianist Goldberg. This sounded nice, but as I prefer my jazz fast and loud--as with most musical forms, especially those with which I only dabble as a fan--things really got great when Hutchinson kicked in on drums and Rogers on bass.

Affable and gracious, Redman said he thinks of Symphony Center/Orchestra Hall as "the largest jazz club in the world," and the respectable-but-not-full crowd repeatedly showered him and his mates with appreciation.

Though he announced each piece played, either before or after, I didn't note most of the titles, just that most were original compositions, several from the new album. I was surprised when he said one was by rock band Blonde Redhead (not that I'm familiar with their music), called "Doll Is Mine."

He later performed a high-velocity piece I believe he called "DGAF," which really allowed the quartet to show off their impressive dexterity, with drummer Hutchinson being particularly impressive along with Redman.

The performance ended around 10:15 with a well-deserved encore, and though I can't provide much acute explanation as to why, I found the entire show to be quite satisfying. Sometimes you just like what you hear, and with Joshua Redman I always have.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Even If It May Not Be All That Authentic, Brazilian Steakhouse Makes the Cut

Fogo de Chão
661 N Lasalle Blvd, Chicago

What I ate: Meat, lots of it, of various kinds

I have yet to visit Brazil--or anywhere in South or Central America--so I can't speak intelligently to the authenticity, or lack thereof, of a place like Fogo de Chao.

Though I'm aware that there are several Churrascarias in Brazil--including 6 Fogo de Chao locations--my assumption is that the Americanized versions are considerably bigger...and pricier.

Fogo de Chao employs skilled "passadores"--meat waiters/slicers--who are dressed seemingly in Brazilian garb. Yet even if modeled after a dining concept native to Brazil, unlike other excursions on my Chicago Dining World Tour, this one wasn't accompanied by ready imagination that I was somewhere else around the globe.

But it was delicious and satisfying nonetheless.

My friend Dave and I arrived at Fogo de Chao's River North location--there's also one in Rosemont--around 6:30 on a Sunday, having made reservations.

Dave had eaten there before, but though I've twice been to a similar yet now extinct churrascaria--Sal & Carvao--that was likely at least a decade ago and I hadn't ever been to Fogo de Chao. (Fogo de Chao is a chain with locations across the U.S. and in Brazil. Two presumably similar churrascarias in Chicago are Brazzaz and Texas de Brazil.)

While I couldn't help but be impressed by the salad bar, and did try a few small bites from it, I wasn't paying $51.50 to get filled up on lettuce.

Besides the cuts of meat--they promote "15" but it seemed a few short--diners are brought complimentary side dishes including mashed potatoes, caramelized bananas and cheese bread.

 Of course, these are all starchy and designed to limit one's gorging on the cuts of meat, but after awhile I was glad to have something different interspersed among all the red meat.

Click here to see the full lineup of meat served at Fogo de Chao, but Dave and I tried most of what the passadores brought around...and nothing disappointed.

A few cuts that really stood out for me were the garlic-flavored Picanha--a house specialty Prime Sirloin--the Rib Eye and some Filet Mignon, including pieces wrapped in bacon.

The way service at Fogo de Chao works is that each diner has a Stop-or-Go disc that one turns over to indicate if the passadores should offer you cuts of meat or give you a respite.

Each passadore has a different type of meat which he--seemingly universally, as I saw no female servers--slices off a skewer right in front of you. Unless you flip your "chow down/hold up" card to stop service, the passadores come by pretty rapid fire.

Thinking about it afterward, I should have regulated my intake valve a bit better.

Basically, with the switch turned on, I accepted every cut offered--except chicken; I'm allergic--and early on had about 6 different cuts of meat on my plate simultaneously.

I probably should have spread these out a bit more, as though both Dave and I estimated that we ate at least the equivalent of a similarly-priced steak at Gibson's, Morton's or any top chophouse, I felt that I got full a touch too soon.

Not a huge deal, as I liked what I ate--as did Dave--and likely wouldn't have consumed much more if I
allowed the cuts to arrive with a bit more stagger.

And as I staggered out the door--well-stuffed, without any thought of ordering dessert--even if I didn't have a sense of having just eaten in Brazil, I was heartily delighted with my Meatapalooza festival at Fogo de Chao.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

'Wicked' Still Defies Gravity as It Continues to Enchant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Oriental Theater, Chicago
Thru December 21

This was the 7th time I've seen Wicked, but the first in 5 years (all the others were within the first 5 years of the show's existence, from 2003-2008).

My strongest recollection is still of the first time I saw the show, on Broadway with original cast members Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Norbert Leo Butz and Joel Grey, but I loved it each time I saw it during its long, "sit down" Chicago run.

And though it's now been long enough not to remember how specifics compare, in terms of vocal timbres or production values, I still find Wicked to be an outstanding show.

It isn't my favorite musical of the 21st century--The Producers, Hairspray and the show that beat it out for the 2004 Tony, Avenue Q, outrank it--and the touring production once again filling the Oriental Theatre wasn't quite pristine.

Although I was thrilled to walk up to the box office at 6:30 and be sold an $82 ticket for just $40--Row N of the Orchestra, Center--the sound seemed a little soft. Unless amplified differently to my usual balcony perch, I imagined having a tough time adequately hearing the singing if I had sat up there.

Photo credits: Joan Marcus
But despite lacking a bit of the visceral power and punch I expected from such a close vantage point, Wicked nonetheless once again satisfied in all ways that matter.

The leads--Broadway vet Jenn Gambatese as Glinda, youthful Alison Luff as Elphaba--were well-paired and well-sung. 

The other key roles were all well-handled by an Equity cast, and those of us old enough to recall John Davidson from his TV days got a kick out of seeing him playing the Wizard. (I even dropped money into a bucket Davidson held post-show for Equity Cares/Broadway Fights AIDS.)

Even without much exposure over the past 5 years, Stephen Schwartz' tuneful score remains a delight, with a great mix of the wistful--"The Wizard and I," "I'm Not That Girl," "For Good"--and the ebullient and/or impassioned--"Popular," "Thank Goodness," "One Short Day," "Defying Gravity."

In Chicago for just another month--it seems it could stay much longer based on demand--Wicked is selling quite well, so tickets may be tough and/or pricey (though it never hurts to ask for ad hoc discounts at the box office like I did).

But it remains one of the best touring musicals you can see--its success helps it employ a top-notch Equity cast--and if you've never seen it (or even if you have) you really should.

To borrow a lyric from another wonderful musical, seeing Wicked--as evidenced by the standing ovation at the end--should, 10 years after its Broadway bow, make for some enchanted evening.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Groovin' with the Rascals in 'Once Upon a Dream' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Once Upon a Dream starring The Rascals
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 10 (run ended)

If you asked me a year ago to name bands I would most want to see reunite (of those with a majority of original/main members still able to do so), I could give you a healthy list--Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads, the Kinks, the Jam, the Smiths, Husker Du, Midnight Oil, the original Guns 'N Roses, the Replacements (who actually did this year!) and more--before I ever would have mentioned the Rascals.
But in the words of Steven Van Zandt, as printed in the Playbill for Once Upon a Dream:
"The opportunity to reunite the Rascals has been a lifelong dream of mine. They were the first band I ever saw, and their influence on me and my generation set standards we are still trying to meet."
Such is my regard for Van Zandt--who I'd revere just for being the guitarist in the E Street Band, but whose legacy as an activist, actor, music historian, radio programmer and much more looms just as large--that I made it a point to learn about the Rascals. Sure I knew "Good Lovin'" and a few other golden oldies from the 60s, but I'd be lying to say I didn't lump the Rascals in with the Lovin' Spoonful and Turtles and Paul Revere & the Raiders and various other American bands of the Sixties who I never considered on par with their British Invasion counterparts.

I now realize that was a bit of an oversight on my part, but though I've enjoyed my crash course in the Rascals and their reunion that resulted in Once Upon a Dream, which ran last week in Chicago--sorry I didn't have time to write this earlier, but it really shouldn't have swayed anyone one way or the other--I still can't say I like the Rascals as much as CCR or the Beach Boys, let alone the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Zombies, etc.

I now consider their legacy akin to the Four Seasons, another four-member band that--like Van Zandt--hailed from New Jersey. Their mega-successful biographical musical, Jersey Boys, must loom somewhere behind the creation of Once Upon a Dream.

But to Van Zandt's credit, this is a different show, which because it features the original Rascals--Felix Cavaliere, Eddie Brigati, Dino Danelli and Gene Cornish--playing and singing live on stage, works better as a concert experience than Jersey Boys. Though not nearly as good a theatrical experience.

Essentially, Once Upon a Dream is like seeing a documentary--or rockumentary, as others have called it--enacted in front of your eyes.

The Rascals sounded good playing several classics--28 songs in all, according to a Van Zandt interview; the songs aren't listed in the program--but the backstory was provided entirely through filmed recollections (by Felix, Eddie, Dino and Gene) and re-enactments (by actors playing the bandmates as their younger, hotter and cooler selves).

I appreciate what Little Steven was going for in this hybrid concert/theater/film creation, and it was not only fun to hear gems such as "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," "I've Been Lonely Too Long," "A Beautiful Morning" and "People Got to Be Free," performed live, but the videotaped parts--narrated by Van Zandt's Sopranos chum Vincent Pastore--were also entertaining.

So though the Rascals have now left Chicago, if you're a fan and can catch this show somewhere
convenient, there's no reason not to.

But at 2-1/2 hours, it had about 30 minutes more Rascals music than I needed, and some of the biography presented on big video screens had me confused. I felt a bit more time could've been devoted to depicting what the Rascals were like when they were young, and what caused them to connect with Van Zandt and others.

Steven might do well to provide his recollections on camera, for his underlying fandom gives this show--and even this band--considerable resonance in 2013.

For even though this wasn't quite once upon my own dream coming true, it was enjoyable to see Van Zandt's labor of love and--even 45 years paunchier than their peak--to see and hear the original Rascals, live on stage.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Enjoying the Art of French Cooking in Evanston

Jilly's Cafe
2614 Green Bay Rd., Evanston

What I ate: Escargots, Rack of Lamb, Chocolate trio, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir Sorbet

I've long been familiar with French cuisine being  considered the most exalted of all cultural cooking styles.

As a child growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I was aware of Le Perroquet and Le Français being regarded as the two best restaurants in the area, if not well beyond.

And "French cooking" was always one of those phrases, such as "the Rolls-Royce of..." or "24 Carat," that was used as shorthand for things of superior quality and/or belonging to "the good life."

Thing was, I never went to the aforementioned restaurants, or on a high school French class outing to Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights.

Nor did I ever watch Julia Child or peruse her famed cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

So even in having been to Paris four times--where if not seeking out the toniest restaurants, I've repeatedly ordered pricey selections only to get a Sizzler-type steak with soggy French fries--I really am little clued into what characterizes French cuisine and why it is considered so distinguished.

Even in having sought out lunch at some of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, including Le Bernardin and Le Cirque, I remember my meals being terrific, but can't recall anything that defined them as distinctively French.

So when my mom invited me for a birthday dinner at the restaurant of my choice--within reason, as in the past I've chosen Charlie Trotter's (sniff) and Alinea and wound up going Dutch--I didn't select French fare because I knew it would be sensational, but rather because I hoped so and had yet to write about it for as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour.

I noted two French restaurants in Evanston--Bistro Bordeaux and Jilly's Cafe--that seemed to be well-rated on Yelp. Jilly's was chosen because its vegetarian selections were more appealing to my sister Allison, who also joined us on a Sunday night.

Jilly's has been in the same, easy-to-miss spot on Green Bay Road just west of Central St. for 28 years, so it must be doing something right. Given its proximity to Northwestern University, I imagine its popular with NU professors. But on the night we visited, only two other tables were in use.

Which was fine, as it made it seem even more like a quaint restaurant in the French countryside.

Not that I've ever been to one.

But with a friendly waitress, pleasant decor including several nice paintings, good company and excellent food, in scarcely recalling the teachings of high school French, I would say that Jilly's Cafe was tres bon. 

Although I'm not much of a drinker, a glass of wine seemed apropos at a French restaurant. So I ordered Sauvignon Blanc, hailing in this instance--a bit curiously--from Chile.

I'm not nearly enough of a wine connoisseur to have a point of comparison, but it certainly seemed fine. Allison ordered a Bordeaux and had no complaints either.

Appropriately, we brought some terrific sliced French bread, accompanied not only but butter but--to the delight of at least one of us--Chicken Liver Pate. (Along with Allison being a vegetarian, not only am I allergic to chicken, but there is no flavor I abhor more than that of liver. But Mom, who has long loved chopped liver, was happy.

As my great gastroethinic excursion of 2013 should portray, while I am admittedly a meat & potatoes guy at heart, I have tried a pretty wide variety of foods--whether around Chicago, at the Taste of Chicago or around the world.

But never before this particular Sunday had I had escargots, or specifically Escargots a la Bourguignon, which were snails baked with herb butter and garlic. 

As you can see in the photo nearby, the escargots came on a tray oddly reminiscent of a revolver chamber, with each snail hidden under a puff pastry in a bath of herb butter, with garlic.

The little puffs were good themselves, but the snails even more so. I'd say they tasted like oysters, or had a similar consistency, but I've really only had those a few times in my life.

Mom and Allison shared a Field Greens and Poached Pear Salad with Blue Cheese, Walnuts and Red Wine Vinaigrette, which they enjoyed. I had some, too, and found it really good.

Then, unexpectedly, we were each brought a small scoop of Pinot Noir Sorbet, with which to cleanse our palattes before the main course. This also was delicious.

As was the Herbed Marinated Rack of Lamb with Blue Cheese Whipped Potato, Asparagus and Rosemary Jus. This was listed as a special, but appears to often be as our waitress cited it as one of their most popular dishes. 

I had also been considering an Herb Crusted Salmon Fillet with Pearl Couscous and Two Mustard Sauce, which sounds terrific, but I can't imagine it being any more satisfying than the lamb.

Allison ordered Mushroom Risotto with Herbs, Roma Tomato, and Garlic, Finished With Parmesan Cheese and Sweet Cream Butter. Risotto is typically an Italian concoction, but this made for satisfying French fare for ma soeur. Though I don't love mushrooms, I tried some and concur that it was quite tasty.

My mom went with the most typical French dish--among the three of us but perhaps more universally--Bouillabaisse = Scallops, Shrimp, Mussels and Market Fish with Braised Fennel, Roma Tomato, Garlic, Saffron, White Wine and Crouton with Rouille.

She really liked it, and my taste of the mussels reminded me of a meal I had late on the first night of my most recent visit to Paris. The Bouillabaisse is certainly something I might order on a return visit to Jilly's Cafe.

Before we bid adieu--and, of course, because this was a birthday dinner, we had to get dessert.

A lot of choices looked good, but we settled on the Chocolate Trio, featuring flourless chocolate cake, chocolate pout au creme and finally a vanilla ice cream filled profiterole with chocolate sauce.

It was just terrible.

As in terribly wonderful.

All-in-all, our little French excursion provided a multi-course dinner that was très magnifique, and for which I again say:

Merci beaucoup.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Satisfying, If Not Quite Spine-Tingling Thrills From Old Standbys -- Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Trust Your Eyes
by Linwood Barclay
now in paperback

Never Go Back
by Lee Child
now in hardcover
(read via Kindle app)

Along with Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Linwood Barclay are--likely in that order--my favorite contemporary authors, perhaps in any genre, but certainly in the realm of suspense thrillers, a.k.a. page turners.

Many of the book reviews I've posted here are about works by one of the three, so it's not as though I'm telling you about anyone I've newly discovered.

And I even have mixed feelings about penning brief reviews of Barclay's Trust Your Eyes, recently released in paperback, and Child's latest, Never Go Back, as while both are worthwhile, satisfying, even engrossing reads by writers I like, neither book approaches their best work, in my estimation.

So on the one hand, I'm happy to introduce you--well, any you for whom this isn't a reintroduction--to a pair of high-quality page-turner novelists, but these aren't the books with which I would suggest you start an exploration. Still, if you already know and like Child and Barclay, there's no reason to avoid these works.

For the uninitiated, Barclay's Trust Your Eyes probably works better as simply a good paperback for the train (not just because Never Go Back is still in hardcover). It deviates a bit from Barclay's usual premises about a loved one gone missing--Coben's common domain as well--and perhaps that's why it took me longer to warm to.

But in telling the story of brothers who get involved in a labyrinthian crime scheme, it is rather inventive.

The tale starts in the days just after their father has died, with the older brother, Ray, returning to the home where Thomas had lived with the dad. Due to some never specifically-defined behavioral health issues--perhaps autism--Thomas spends nearly all of his time in his bedroom, studying and memorizing online maps.

In one of the Street Views, Thomas sees what he suspects to be foul play taking place in a Manhattan apartment window, albeit months earlier. Although exasperated by Thomas' oddities, including a penchant for sending notes to the CIA and insisting he speaks to a former President, Ray helps to explore what Thomas has seen, and a pretty engaging mystery unfolds, complete with a mayoral candidate, his campaign manager, a nefarious ex-cop and an Olympic gymnast turned hitwoman.


As with all of Lee Child's 17 prior books--all of which I've read--Never Go Back is "A Jack Reacher Novel."

Reacher is a massive ex-military policeman turned nomadic superhero of sorts, essentially nothing like he was embodied by Tom Cruise in the forgettable 2012 film Jack Reacher.

Though he likely would've sold even fewer tickets than Cruise, I've imagined former NFL star Kyle Turley making for a fairly good Reacher, at least in terms of how Child describes him in the novels.

Most of the past Reacher novels have kind of blended together for me at this point, but in a previous one Reacher had spoken briefly by phone with a woman named Susan Turner, a military policewoman who now holds his former command.

Never Go Back opens with Reacher trying to meet Turner--uninvited--for the first time, but running into complications that threaten to ensnare them both.

Child is an artful enough writer, and Reacher a sufficiently-engaging character, that I never wanted to stop reading, but nothing much that happens in Never Go Back feels all that surprising. Much of it feels--for Reacher and legions of faithful readers, as all the books are bestsellers--like "been there, done that."

That doesn't mean that I won't look forward to the next Reacher novel, nor dissuade fellow Reacherites from rampaging through this one, but I wouldn't mind if Child takes Jack in a bit of a different direction.

Not that one needs to read the Reacher series in order, but if you have yet to be indoctrinated, I would suggest starting with Lee Child's first Reacher novel, 1997's Killing Floor. If you like it, I imagine you'd want to read several more, including eventually Never Go Back, which, for better or worse, is much the same old story.