Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best of 2013: The Best New Movies I Saw

Amidst congregating all these Best of 2013 lists--and if you happened to just stumble across this one, take a look at my past 4 posts--it's easy for me to forget that January was just as much a part of this year as is December.

And as I blathered on about in creating my Best Movies of 2012 list, without being anyone officious who gets to see every movie within the year of its official--I guess for Oscar purposes--release, I am stuck with tricky situations such as this. Two of my favorite movies of 2013--Zero Dark Thirty and Amour--were technically 2012 releases (as were perhaps some other foreign films I saw and liked this year).

But neither ZD30 nor Amour were released in Chicago until January 2013. Hence they didn't make my Best of 2012 list, but they also are far too good to ignore. (Interestingly, at least to me, the film I picked as Best of 2012--A Separation--was considered as a 2011 film by most list makers, but didn't open in Chicago until 2012; the same director's (Asghar Farhadi) new movie, The Past, is in a similar situation this year. Though it's had a limited U.S. release, it's yet to open in Chicago, and I don't know exactly when it will.)
So in titling this list the Best New Movies I Saw in 2013, I am essentially counting as eligible any film I watched over the past 12 months that I didn't have a reasonable chance to see previously. 
The 20 or so people who may care about this list should understand this conundrum, so I won't prattle on about rules and disclaimers. And if you don't feel like Zero Dark Thirty or Amour deserve to be included for chronological reasons, feel free to ignore them.

With that said, these are the Best New Movies I Saw in 2013:

(12) = Technically a 2012 release; (F) = Foreign Film; (D) = Documentary

1. Zero Dark Thirty (12)

2. 12 Years a Slave

3. Blancanieves (F)

4. Fruitvale Station

5. Gravity

6. Mud

7. The Hunt (F)

8. Amour (F, 12)

9. Dallas Buyers Club

10. Nebraska

11. Blue Jasmine

12. American Hustle

13. Philomena

14. The Gatekeepers (D, F)

15. War Witch (F)

16. The Place Beyond the Pines

17. Inside Llewyn Davis

18. Saving Mr. Banks

19. Prisoners

20. Her

Honorable Mention
Side Effects
The Wolf of Wall St.
Before Midnight
Sound City (D)
Star Trek: Into Darkness
At Any Price
Frances Ha
Fill the Void (F)
The World's End

Other Films Seen: The Spectacular Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, This is the End, The Bling Ring, Oz: The Great and Powerful, Springsteen & I, Escape From Tomorrow, A Good Day to Die Hard

Notable Films Not Seen: Rush, Captain Phillips, In a World..., Stories We Tell, 2 Guns, Blue is the Warmest Color (F), The Attack (F), 20 Feet From Stardom (D), Muscle Shoals (D), All is Lost, Spring Breakers, The Act of Killing (D), The Butler, The Past (F)

My Friend Dave's Top 13 of 2013
1) Blue Jasmine
2) Nebraska
3) American Hustle
4) Gravity
5) Neighboring Sounds
6) Zero Dark Thirty
7) The Silence
8) Fruitvale Station
9) Philomena
10) Before Midnight
11) Like Someone in Love
12) Amour
13) You're Next

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Best of 2013: The Best Musicals I Saw on Stage

With a relative scarcity of new musicals making big Broadway splashesonly Kinky Boots, Matilda and Motown the Musical seem to be successes worth notingand the relative mediocrity of Big Fish, which was Chicago's big world premiere production before heading to a disappointing run on Broadway, 2013 doesn't instantly strike me as a great year for musical theater.

Yet even without a trip to New York this year—seemingly theatrically unnecessary due to having seen Kinky Boots in its 2012 pre-Broadway Chicago run, catching Matilda while in London this summer and already having tickets to Motown next year as part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription—I wound up enjoying a good number of musicals I saw on stage over the past 12 months.

From the Lyric Opera's glorious staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma to a terrific touring production of Anything Goes to a resplendent, full-octane Les Miserables in London's West End, plus satisfying takes on Cabaret and Evita, I was reminded how mirthful "classic" musicals can be. Not too surprisingly, I was also fully satisfied with another viewing of The Book of Mormon before it left Chicago, and of Wicked in its return.

Oklahoma - Lyric Opera of Chicago
In terms of anything new, I largely loved Mary Zimmerman's lush staging of The Jungle Book at the Goodman Theatre (likely to wind up on Broadway), tremendously enjoyed the laudably rocking and rebellious Matilda and liked the recent Tony-winning Once, though wished I could have seen it in a more intimate setting than the cavernous Oriental Theatre.

Big Fish had much to appreciate--including Norbert Leo Butz in the lead role and inventive staging by Susan Stroman--but the songs were largely forgettable, an issue that also relegated Catch Me If You Can to just "so-so."

Once Upon a Dream starring the Rascals wasn't much of a "musical," but enjoyable nonetheless, as were Hank Williams: Lost Highway and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.

The Jungle Book - Goodman Theatre
I appreciated getting to see Barnum for the first time ever, in a strong Mercury Theatre production, and enjoyed the stage musical of Elf despite never seeing the movie.

All in all, out of 27 musicals seen on stage this year, from London's West End to Skokie's Devonshire Playhouse for community theater, there was really only one I didn't much like: Flashdance the Musical, and even that had its moments.

But after having cited virtually everything on it, here is my list of...

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2013:

(Note: My rankings are based on my enjoyment of the particular productions, but blend in the quality of the source material as well. I included a couple shows that were staged as operas.)

1. Oklahoma - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)

2. Les Misérables - Queen's Theatre, London 

3. Wicked - Oriental Theatre (my review)

4. The Book of Mormon - Bank of America Theater (Broadway in Chicago) 

5. Matilda - Cambridge Theatre, London

6. Anything Goes - Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

7. The Jungle Book - Goodman Theatre (my review)

8. Next to Normal - Drury Lane Oakbrook (my review)

9. The Grapes of Wrath - Northwestern University Opera Theater (my review)

10. Once - Oriental Theatre (my review)

Honorable Mention (in order of preference)

Barnum - Mercury Theatre (my review)
Barnum - Mercury Theatre

Buddy - Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Evita - Oriental Theatre (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Mary Poppins - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Hank Williams: Lost Highway - Greenhouse Theater (American Blues Theater) (my review)

Opera in Focus
Now & Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber - Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire (my review)

Jekyll & Hyde - Cadillac Palace (Broadway in Chicago) (my review)

Special Mention  

Opera in Focus (Puppet Opera) - June production featuring opera & musical selections (my review)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Best of 2013: The Best Concerts I Attended

Yes, this list is something of a farce. 

No, that doesn't mean it represents anything other than my honest appraisal of the rock concerts I most enjoyed in 2013.

But while I saw, and loved, several of the greatest artists in rock 'n roll history, including classic rock icons like Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Rush, The Rascals and Cheap Trick, as well alternative rock heroes such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Green Day, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Garbage, Pixies and a reunited-for-3-shows-only Replacements, none of these really had much of a chance to claim the top berth. 

So be it that Bruce Springsteen—my all-time favorite musician and, with the E Street Band, the best live performer in rock 'n roll history, IMHO—didn't play any shows on North American soil in 2013. And so what if I had already seen him 42 times, and in 11 of the prior 14 years?

Having never seen him in Europe—where he has arguably been bigger in recent years than anywhere in America beyond the New Jersey vicinity—in December 2012 I bought a ticket for his show with the E Street Band at London's Wembley Stadium on June 15, 2013. I didn't actually book my trip, using American Airlines' miles, until May, and in addition to London (where I'd been multiple times), I went to Krakow, Vienna, Budapest and Paris (see photos here).

While the trip and almost everything I saw and did was awesome, there was considerable time, effort and expense expended in going to Europe, and even just in getting to the venerable grounds of Wembley—the historic stadium itself was fairly recently rebuilt.

Plus there was the sacrifice of missing the entire final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in which my hometown Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins in 6 games.

But even with rather lofty expectations, per usual, the Boss didn't disappoint.

Except for a bit of an echo bouncing around the cavernous stadium, the concert was every bit as good as I could have hoped, with "Rosalita" being played earlier in the set than it ever has been, relative rarities like "Jackson Cage" and "Lost in the Flood," the Darkness on the Edge of Town album being performed in full and Bruce playing "Thunder Road" all by himself to close out the 3+ hour concert.

Thus, even in a year with an absolutely sensational Stones show, Sir Paul please pleasing me on a sweltering night in Milwaukee, Pearl Jam playing until 2am at Wrigley Field (following a lengthy rain delay), my first live exposure to the legendary Leonard Cohen, the reunited Replacements—long a favorite—being perfectly outstanding, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were virtually promised to land atop this list before 2013 even began.

And having thunderously fulfilled that promise, this "farce" of an open competition essentially begins with second place

Nonetheless, entirely filled with shows that I rated either @@@@@ or @@@@1/2—even those in  Honorable Mention—here's my forthright ranking of the Best Concerts I Attended in 2013:

(Note: I will cite opening acts in cases where I enjoyed them in their own right, but my rankings are based solely on the performance of the headliner. All venues are in Chicago area except as noted.)

1. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - June 15 - Wembley Stadium, London (my review)
(Full concert audio on YouTube) 

2. The Rolling Stones - May 31 - United Center (my review)

3. Paul McCartney - July 16 - Miller Park, Milwaukee (my review)

4. The Replacements - September 15 - Riot Fest, Chicago (my review)
(YouTube playlist of most of the show)

5. Pearl Jam - July 19 - Wrigley Field (my review)

6. Soundgarden - January 29 - Riviera Theatre (my review)

7. Willie Nile - October 18 - SPACE Evanston (my review)

8. Leonard Cohen - March 13 - Chicago Theatre (my review)

9. Depeche Mode - August 24 - First Midwest Bank Amphitheater (my review)

10. Elton John - November 30 - Allstate Arena (my review)

Honorable Mention (in order of preference)

Green Day - March 28 - Allstate Arena (my review)
Opening act: Best Coast

Ash - March 17 - Lincoln Hall (my review)

Brian Wilson - July 26 - Ravinia (my review)

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band - April 6 - United Center (my review)
Opening act: Joe Walsh

Fleetwood Mac - April 13 - United Center (my review)

Heart w/ Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience - July 29 - Ravinia (my review)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Best of 2013: The Best Plays I Saw

I have to assume that in any given year, I see more non-musical plays in Chicago (and its vicinity) than I would if I lived in New York, London or anywhere else on Earth. 

As has been the case as a tourist, in those theatrical meccas I would likely focus mostly on the big budget Broadway and West End musicals, with perhaps only a handful of dramas piquing my interest.

I prefer musicals and see more of them in Chicago as well, but I also have a subscription to the Goodman Theatre—which mostly stages non-musicals—and enjoy dramatic works at other first-rate “in-house production troupe” theaters such as Steppenwolf, TimeLine, Court and Northlight, the latter being just minutes from my Skokie home.

And then there are Chicago's true storefront theaters—something for which I believe there is little equivalent, at least in terms of breadth, in NYC, London, Toronto, L.A., etc.—including Profiles, Gift, Strawdog, Steep, Redtwist and many others regularly doing stellar work in venues seating as few as 30 patrons.

In 2013, I attended 18 plays—again, not including musicals—with 17 of them being at 10 different theaters in and around Chicago; I also caught an all-female production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre in London.

Blending together the play itself and the quality of the production in a completely non-scientific manner, here's my ranking of the Best Plays I Saw in 2013:

(Note: all are in the Chicago area unless noted; new or recent plays are denoted with an *)

1. Proof - Court Theatre (my review)
written by David Auburn; directed by Charles Newell

2. A Raisin in the Sun - TimeLine Theatre (my review)
written by Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Ron OJ Parson

3. Other Desert Cities* - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Jon Robin Baitz; directed by Henry Wishcamper

4. Measure for Measure - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by William Shakespeare; directed by Robert Falls

5. The Birthday Party - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Harold Pinter; directed by Austin Pendleton

6. Simpatico - A Red Orchid Theatre (my review)
written by Sam Shepard; directed by Dado

7. Stella & Lou* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Bruce Graham ; directed by B.J. Jones

8. The Whipping Man* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Matthew Lopez; directed by Kimberly Senior

9. Julius Caesar - Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (my review)
written by William Shakespeare; directed by Jonathan Munby

10. The Motherf**ker with the Hat* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Stephen Adly Guirgis; directed by Anna D. Shapiro

Honorable Mention (in order of preference)

Detroit '67* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Dominique Morrisseau; directed by Ron OJ Parson

Big Love - Strawdog Theatre (my review)
written by Charles L. Mee; directed by Matt Hawkins

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark* - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Lynn Nottage; directed by Chuck Smith

To Master the Art - Broadway Playhouse / TimeLine Theatre (my review)
written by William Brown and Doug Frew; directed by William Brown

The Taming of the Shrew - Globe Theatre, London (traveling troupe)
written by William Shakespeare; directed by ??

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best of 2013: My Favorite Rock Albums

And on the 8th day...of 2013...the Thin White Duke reappeared.

Kind of.

Ten years after his last studio album and about six since he made any type of public appearance or granted an interview (to my awareness)—prompting speculation about his well-being—David Bowie surprised just about everyone.

On the night of January 7, I went to bed planning on posting a classic Bowie song to Facebook the next morning in honor of his 66th birthday, while wondering if he would ever re-emerge.

The next day I awoke to find that—sans any social media rumors or hints that his silence might be broken—Bowie released a brand new single/video, “Where Are We Now,” and announced a forthcoming album, appropriately titled The Next Day.

Especially as it was preceded by seemingly universal praise, and another fine single/video, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” I could hardly wait for The Next Day to be released on March 12. Though it doesn't quite match any of Bowie's many 1970s masterpieces—Honky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Station to Station, Low, Lodger or Heroes, which the new album cover riffs on—it is a rather exemplary work, particularly given the circumstances.

And at a time when rock 'n roll is in a slumber in terms of no more than a handful of great new acts or recordings, The Next Day served to remind that—and why—David Bowie is truly an “Artist,” something that was further enunciated by the David Bowie Is exhibition I saw in London and which is coming to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in Fall 2014.

Although throughout the year I purchased some album downloads and listened to a number more on Spotify—which enabled me to hear several others over the last few weeks with an eye toward compiling this list—The Next Day was one of only four albums I cared enough about to buy on CD (something I still do for any artist I truly relish).

The other three CDs I bought were Paul McCartney's New, Pearl Jam's Lightning Bolt and Arcade Fire's Reflektor, all released in October.

But with the aid of Best Albums of 2013 lists from several other sources, as well as suggestions from friends, I did a deep dive recently—and some albums I hadn't heard or even heard of have wound up rather high on my list. Which, as my post title denotes, covers albums in the key of rock, although I use the term rather loosely.

My tastes start with electric guitar driven hard rock, but extend well-beyond, yet while I in no way mean to disparage the artistry many others have praised, my list won't include Kanye West, Daft Punk or Beyonce. In other words, these are simply the albums of 2013 that I liked best.

I can't provide any greater criteria, except to suggest that—as with the Bowie album—I like albums that seem to be substantive, not just in the present, but that I'll look forward to hearing years down the road.

A number of albums I checked out sounded alright, but just felt slight, or nothing likely to seem special in retrospect. Hopefully, some of those I deemed worthy enough to make this list, will not only merit your discovery, but stand the test of time.

And with that preamble, here are My Favorite Rock Albums of 2013:

1. David Bowie - The Next Day (Spotify link)
2. Johnny Marr - The Messenger (Spotify link)
3. Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse (Spotify link)
4. The National - Trouble Will Find Me (Spotify link)
5. Arcade Fire - Reflektor (Spotify link)
6. Paul McCartney - NEW (Spotify link)
7. Hey! Hello! - self-titled (Spotify link)
8. Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (Spotify link)
9. Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs - Under the Covers, Vol. 3 (Spotify link)
10. Pearl Jam - Lightning Bolt (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

Dawes - Stories Don't End (Spotify link)
The So So Glos - Blowout (Spotify link)
Elton John - The Diving Board (Spotify link)
Lee Ranaldo and the Dust - Last Night on Earth (Spotify link)
Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks (Spotify link)
Willie Nile - American Ride (Spotify link)
Cage the Elephant - Melophobia (Spotify link)
CHVRCHES - The Bones of What You Believe
(Spotify link)
Haim - Days Are Gone
(Spotify link)
Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork
(Spotify link)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Kyrgyz 'How Do You Do' at Jibek Jolu

Jibek Jolu
5047 N. Lincoln, Chicago

What I ate: Cheburek, Pirojki, Kesme soup, Beshbarmak, Pelmeni

In order to fortify my Chicago Dining World Tour, throughout this year I have regularly been looking for--and looking up--ethnic restaurants that I might want to explore.

But on a recent Saturday night, my friend Ken and I went to a place I only discovered during that week. By stumbling across the website ChicagoCabFare.com, I found several intriguing places with which I was unfamiliar, including those representing cultural cuisines I had yet to sample. 

The website provides ethnic dining suggestions from Chicago cabbies, and among the website's bounty was Jibek Jolu, which seems to be the only Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago. For the geographically-challenged, like me, Kyrgyzstan is a small country in Central Asia, essentially under Kazakhstan (I know, that likely doesn't help much).

Ken also had never heard of Jibek Jolu, and surmised from the address that its Lincoln Square location might make nearby parking a challenge, but we were able to find a space on the street right in front of the restaurant.

At which point Ken mentioned that he and his friend Ed, who had accompanied us on a Bulgarian dining expedition, had often driven by Jibek Jolu and noted that they should try it sometime.

We entered to find a bright, attractively appointed place with about 10 tables, initially mostly empty but largely filled in by the time we left.

Our waitress was friendly but seemingly not fluent enough in English to field some of our questions or provide acute descriptions of some of the menu items.

Still, from the nicely informative menu, several of the appetizers sounded appealing, and we selected two to share. 

One was a single Cheburek, described as fried pie filled with lamb. The shell was rather tasty but the word "filled" turned out to be a vast overstatement, as in splitting the cheburek in two, we discovered just a paltry piece of lamb and a whole lot of air.

The other appetizer, Pirojki, had a name that sounded enough like a pierogi for me to surmise it might be similar, but given the description (deep fried Russian pie, filled with mashed potatoes and scallion), it wasn't too shocking to discover that it wasn't really akin.

While there was nothing really wrong with the pirojki (3 came in one order), they weren't nearly as deep fried as the cheburek--or an Indian samosa--making for what was essentially mashed potatoes in a soft shell.

We were given some terrifically fresh bread and Ken ordered mint tea, noting how fresh its mint flavor was. I stuck with Diet Coke.

We both ordered soup. Ken chose Shorpo = Big pieces of veal with red potatoes, garlic and scallion.

He declared the broth to be very good but seemed envious of my choice:  Kesme = Noodle soup with freshly cut beef, potatoes, peppers, carrots, tomatoes and garlic, which was rather tasty.

I let him try some.

We ordered two entrees with the intention of sharing them. 

Our first choice was described on the menu as: A popular dish in Kyrgyzstan, the boiled Lamb is diced with knives and mixed with special stew and boiled noodles.

This was called Beshbarmak. We consumed it all and had no complaints, but the flavoring--particularly of the lamb--wasn't nearly as pronounced as I prefer.

Our other entree was similarly good but not great, mainly because the taste was more muted than zesty.

Available on a dish or in a soup--we chose soupless--Pelmeni = Homemade triangular dumplings stuffed with ground beef and onions served with sour cream.

Reminding me of Italian gnocchi, Polish pierogi and Chinese won ton, the dumplings were quite fresh and the whole dish was relatively nice & light.

As with anywhere visited on my "Sethnic expedition," our experience could likely have been considerably different simply by making different menu choices.

It seems possible this was the case at Jibek Jolu, where everything from the bread to the menu design was pleasant and pleasurable, but nothing that we ate really blew us away.

So Ken and I skipped any of the listed desserts (baklava, honey cake, tiramisu) and opted instead to engorge ourselves on a pair of crème brûlées--one regular, one chocolate--at Bonefish Grill in Skokie.

No offense to Jibek Jolu, where I would happily return sometime down the (Silk) road, but these were by far the most delicious calories we consumed all night.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Laschet's Inn Provides a Warm German 'Willkommen'

Laschet's Inn
2119 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago

What I ate: Hackepeter (appetizer), Rouladen, Sauerkraut Soup, Apple Streudel, Bayreuth Zwickl (beer), Apple Schnapps

It wasn't part of any grand plan for a German restaurant to follow an Austrian one on my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Although Laschet's Inn--the top-rated or at least first listed local German restauant on Yelp--was on my shortlist of ethnic eateries I wanted to explore, on the night I ate there I was actually aiming to partake of a different cultural cuisine.

But I found the other place unexpectedly closed (hopefully not for good) and getting to Irving Park Rd. near Damen wasn't too extreme a detour.

I arrived to find a bar that instantly felt like one of those "cool old places" one occasionally stumbles across in Chicago. While there weren't a ton of restaurant tables, they were in a section that extended pretty far back.

I was greeted and seated by a wonderfully friendly hostess--she may well have been a manager of sorts--and then helped by a waitress who was also terrifically nice and informative in helping me hone in on quintessentially German selections.

Though I'm not much of a drinker, I felt compelled to get a stein of German beer as Laschet's had a dozen on draft.

The waitress, JoJo, guided me to a Bayreuth Zwickl--"tickle your Zwickl," she enthused--saying that the unfiltered lager was surprisingly smooth and deceivingly dark.

Which I found to be rather accurate, as the beer was not nearly as heavy, stout or bittter as I might have guessed, even given her advice. 

For an appetizer, I ordered Hackepeter = steak tartare with capers and onions. JoJo not only indicated that it was rather emblematic, but provided instruction on the proper way to eat it. 

With the steak tartare already on small pieces of bread, you smoosh it down onto capers and onions that you put on a side dish, then sprinkle on some maggi sauce.

My entree included complimentary soup and I chose Sauerkraut Soup over another option I can no longer recall. 

Sauerkraut itself doesn't do much for me; it's fine on a Reuben or Brat, but I never like too much heaped on. So i was somewhat surprised to find the soup as enjoyable as I did. Some accompanying rye bread was also very good.

Not only did Rouladen (rolled beef; served with spaetze and German red cabbage) sound good among the entrees on the menu, but in describing what it entails--including mustard, onions and more--and in saying she had eaten it as a kid, JoJo convinced me it was a wise choice. (It also sounded different than anything I recalled on the menu at Cafe Vienna, the Austrian place at which I recently dined.)

It was good, although a bit too heavy and hearty. I could only get through one of the meat rolls--I took the other home for a second satisfying meal--but found it to be rather tasty. 

I also enjoyed the spaetzle, which is something akin to a bunch of noodles, or gnocchi, but isn't.

After my main course, JoJo told me I was entitled to a complimentary schnapps and offered me a variety of flavors.

I chose apple, which went well with the apple streudel I selected as a dessert. It was excellent, as was my entire meal and experience.

For although I've long been familiar with German sausages such as Bratwurst and Thuringer--both on the menu at Laschet's Inn--this was certainly a "Sethnic expedition" that expanded my awareness of a cultural cuisine.

And from Wilkommen to Auf Wiedersehen, the service was about the friendliest I've yet encountered on my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pithy Philosophies #12

Seth Saith:

Always believe you're special. 

Just not any more so than anyone else.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Well-Balanced 'Art and Appetite' Excels in Providing Food for Thought

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, 1942
Art Exhibition Review

Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine
Art Institute of Chicago (Exhibit Website)
Thru January 27, 2014

In exploring the Art Institute's new exhibit of food-related paintings by American artists, it occurred to me that there are two ways for an art exhibition to be terrific (at least in my eyes).

One is simply to have a plethora of awe-inspiring artworks on display, whether representing a specific artist, genre or theme. Certainly, the paintings (and perhaps a few sculptures) should be intelligently-arranged and enhanced by insightful wall text, but the pictures themselves are clearly what make such an exhibition “Great!”

But, as was the case here, an exhibit can be “Great!” even when the artworks—relatively speaking, of course—can only be collectively described as good.

For an exhibition is in itself an artistic work, and can in fact be better than the sum of its paintings. (Though the AIC's summertime Fashion, Modernity and Impressionism exhibition had a stronger gathering of paintings than this one, I similarly felt that the exhibit itself was even better than its collected works.)

John Sloan, Renganeschi's Saturday Night, 1912
While I enjoyed seeing many of the paintings in Art and Appetite, including both those on loan—such as Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want, John Sloan's Renganeschi's Saturday Night, Peter Blume's Vegetable Dinner and Richard Estes' Food City—and AIC holdings like Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, William Glackens' At Mouquin's and Archibald John Motley, Jr's Nightlife, I frequently even more so appreciated the information shared in the explanations that adorned each gallery.

For example, in the first gallery, themed around Thanksgiving—the exhibit opened on November 12—the aforementioned Rockwell and Roy Lictenstein's representation of a turkey were pleasures to see, but I also valued learning that Thanksgiving as an actual holiday doesn't date to pre-colonial times with Pilgrims and Indians, but rather was declared by President Lincoln during the Civil War.

William Glackens, At Mouquin's, 1905
Accompanying paintings of picnics, we were reminded that their popularity grew as did American cities, with urban dwellers becoming nostalgic for more tranquil settings.

It was conveyed that—except for a few, primarily within hotels—restaurants largely didn't exist in America until the Civil War, and in a room with Glackens' painting of a posh French restaurant in NYC and Sloan's capturing of a more Bohemian Italian eatery, the gallery introduction explained how immigration changed "dining out" through the influx of ethnic cuisines.

I also appreciated learning that the term "conspicuous consumption" was coined in 1899--by Thorstein Veblen, an economist and sociologist--amidst the "Gilded Age," but that most artists felt more comfortable depicting modest meals rather than glorifying ostentation.

All this isn't to imply that there aren't many excellent paintings, well-organized in themed galleries that allowed for the factoids I cited to be illustrated.

In addition to those already mentioned, there are paintings by John Singleton Copley, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, Edmund C. Tarbell (an American Impressionist reminiscent of Degas), Stuart Davis, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol (a Campbell's Soup Can), Tom Wesselmann and Wayne Thiebaud, whose Salads, Sandwiches and Dessert is one of the images most used to promote this exhibition.

There are also three works by the great Pop Art sculptor Claes Oldenburg, including "soft sculptures" of green beans and a fried egg, as well as a piece of wedding cake made of plaster (one of 250 actually handed out at a wedding in 1966).

So if you're an Art Institute member like me or are able to spend several hours at the museum to better justify the admission fee of up to $23--which includes the museum's permanent collection and special exhibits like this one--Art and Appetite certainly provides enough visual and educational nourishment for a exploration worth savoring.

That said, due to the Art Institute's magnificence across many genres, there are dozens of paintings in the permanent collection that are far superior to most hanging in this fine exhibit. So if you're a rare and/or out-of-town visitor to Chicago's best museum--and one of the 10 best art museums in the world, IMHO--Art and Appetite is likely worth only a relatively small portion of your time.

But if you can, don't just consume the appetizing pictures; take time to also devour the writing on the wall.

Richard Estes, Food City, 1967
Peter Blume, Vegetable Dinner, 1927
Marsden Hartley, Fisherman's Last Supper, 1940/41
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
Archibald John Motley, Jr, Nightlife, 1943
Edmund C. Tarbell, Breakfast Room, about 1903
Andy Warhol, Campbell's Soup, 1945

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Cafe Vienna Takes Me All the Way Back...to Summer

Cafe Vienna 
2523 N. Clark, Chicago

What I ate: Frittaten Soup, Wiener Schnitzel, Cherry Cheese Streudel, Apple Streudel Tea

My Chicago Dining World Tour, which has taken me to area restaurants representing over 40 different ethnic cuisines in 2013, has been gratifying in myriad ways.

I've discovered many excellent restaurants, eaten much great food, savored many new tastes, enjoyed the company of several friends & relatives and have had a lot of fun sharing my experiences through blog posts such as this one.

And as someone who has had the pleasure of traveling to many wonderful places, several of my "Sethnic Excursions" have stoked memories of various destinations I've visited, from Stockholm to Paris to St. Petersburg (Russia) to Ireland and Israel. (Other dining jaunts have stirred a desire to get to places I've yet to, like Greece, Jamaica and Costa Rica.)

This summer I went on a wonderful trip to Europe, including London, Krakow (Poland), Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary) and Paris. While I had been to London and Paris multiple times in the past, Krakow, Vienna and Budapest were all new, and amazing in different ways. (I had posted on-the-go recaps here; the first post of the trip was on June 12, 2013. And you can see photos here.)

In Vienna, I ate Wiener Schnitzel at a restaurant called Plachutta, which was across the street from my hotel. Next to the restaurant was another called Vapiano, an Italian eatery with locations in many worldwide cities.

Recently, in Chicago I ate Wiener Schnitzel at a restaurant called Cafe Vienna, which is just a few doors from a Vapiano.

As the great Yogi Berra famously said, it was "like déjà vu all over again."

Although there are seemingly other Austrian restaurants in and around Chicago, most appear to be just as much German in their menu offerings. This cultural cuisine crossover is entirely understandable, but as I would soon be venturing to a specifically German place (Laschet's Inn, next up to be spotlighted here), I wanted to find somewhere that might seem more authentically Austrian.

Though from its name Cafe Vienna seemed like a good pick, in mentioning it to two friends who live nearby, they were unfamiliar with it, at least by that moniker.

My friend Paolo said he goes there frequently, but referred to it as the Austrian Bakery (its true former name) and said he'd never seen anyone eating a meal there, despite me noting Wiener Schnitzel and other entrees on an online menu.

On a Saturday evening, my friend Dave met me at Cafe Vienna, a short walk from his home and, for me, a bit longer walk—on a bitter cold night—to a play I was seeing at TimeLine Theatre.

Dave was only looking for dessert (he wound up having a fruit bowl) but I was there for dinner...and, of course, something to write about.

Especially given the chill in my bones, I started with Frittaten Soup = Traditional Austrian soup made with savory beef vegetable broth; topped with sliced crepes. This wasn't something I recall noting while in Vienna, but it was really tasty and the sliced crepes added a nice touch.

For a beverage, I opted for hot tea. And while tea connoisseurs may deem it heresy to have a sweet tea with an entree, given the venue Apple Streudel Tea sounded not only good, but rather appropriate.

I believe this was just the second time in my life I had eaten Wiener Schnitzel, albeit just about 5 months since the last time.

With “Wiener” being German for “Viennese,” the menu selection at Cafe Vienna is described as Pan-fried, breaded veal served with lingonberry sauce and your choice of side.

I chose Roasted Parsley Potatoes as my side, and should note that the soup was included in the entree price.

Wiener Schnitzel isn't something I would eat every week, which is undoubtedly a good thing for my cholesterol.

The version at Cafe Vienna didn't seem any lesser than what I had at Plachutta, with the lingonberry sauce being a welcome accompaniment. (I've only had it previously with Swedish meatballs, at Ikea and in Stockholm.) Though I really didn't see any sign of parsley, the roasted potatoes were very good as well.

Although the meat in Wiener Schnitzel is veal, the consistency with the breading isn't so unlike that of a Breaded Steak Sandwich at Ricobene's, a Chicago institution on 26th St.

I was sufficiently filled to not really need dessert, and don't think I could have handled a Sacher Torte (chocolate cake, which I had in Vienna
at both Hotel Sacher and Cafe Demel, who each claim to have invented it). Although it is on the menu at Cafe Vienna, they were out of it by the time of my dinner around 6:30pm.

So I went with a Cherry Cheese Streudel, which was a good bit lighter yet still rather enjoyable. It wasn't as good as the Apple Streudel I had at the Kunsthistorisches (Art) Museum in Vienna—although Paolo raves about Cafe Vienna's apple streudel—but, along with the rest of the meal, it helped stir sweet memories of traipsing around Vienna.

All those many, uh, weeks ago.