Wicker Park, Mindy’s HotChocolate, the Flat Iron Project and Ukranians

It’s always a challenge to come back to a city where I used to live and try to see it differently. I lived in or near Chicago for almost 7 years and have great memories of my old neighborhoods. I frequently revisit my favorite places in Wrigleyville, Boy’s Town and Lincoln Park because I love them, but today I wanted to see a different neighborhood so I went to:

Back in the early 90’s, Wicker Park was an under-the-radar cool place to live. Artists and musicians gravitated there, the rent was cheap, the music venues were plentiful and hosted great local bands and everything was a little scroungy and “underground.” You know, where the cool kids can be coolest because no one knows how cool it is, except them. And then some local musicians achieved national prominence (Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins, for instance) and then it got used as a location to shoot High Fidelity and suddenly you couldn’t get into shows at the Double Door and then American Apparel moved in.

Isn’t that always the way it goes? If I go to a cool neighborhood with great coffee shops and tattoo parlors and music venues (see also, Queen Street West in Toronto), I know gentrification is happening when American Apparel and Urban Outfitters show up. They’re the vanguard of the encroaching mainstream.

I picked Wicker Park today primarily because I wanted to eat at Mindy’s HotChocolate:

I know it’s hard to believe that I would pick a neighborhood strictly for a restaurant, but it’s true. The pastry chef, Mindy Segal, got a James Beard nomination in 2007 and I read about her restaurant in Travel and Leisure a year or so ago so this place has been on my radar for a while. I dragged my friend, T, with me and we had the greatest lunch.

That’s Lamb Krema Casa, lamb sausage, krema casa cheese and arugula wrapped in grilled sourdough flatbread and served with grainy mustard and pickled beets. In.cred.i.ble. Filling and hearty on a grey day (Overcast! Foggy! Raining! Again!!), any heaviness perfectly offset with the vinegary accoutrements. Is that all? Of course not! It’s Mindy’s HOT CHOCOLATE and I would be remiss not to try dessert. So I picked the Mexican hot chocolate:

Dense rich liquid chocolate with a kick of cinnamon, poured into a cup and then into my mouth, accompanied by a fluffy homemade marshmallow and further accompanied by “warm brioche donuts and hot fudge sauce.”

Also caramel corn, because you can’t have too much sweet/salty deliciousness on one plate. Seriously, so much sugar. Delectable luscious chocolatey sugar, but still. I could have stopped at the hot chocolate. Almost too much. Overall the food was fantastic and the service was only ok – non-smiling reluctant waitstaff are no fun, but the food made up for their lack of enthusiasm.

We spent the afternoon walking it off.

T recommended the art studios from the Flat Iron Project so we started there. SUCH a cool building. 3 floors of art galleries and studios, all different mediums:

each room a different artist with the art spilling out onto the hallway walls and floors:

Chicago based artists rent these studios to work and display their art. On the first Friday night of the month, as well as the weekends, every gallery is open, artists are there and you can wander, chat, buy and hang out. Prices range from cheap to expensive and artists range from beginners just out of school to well established career artists with thriving businesses. Today the building was open but the galleries were largely closed so we just poked around and looked through windows. I found a couple pieces I really liked and might go back on Saturday to purchase if I’m still thinking about them.

From there we walked down Milwaukee wandered in and out of shops, got a photo strip taken at the old school photo booth in Reckless Records, bought a pair of retro sunglasses

Took lots of pictures of street art:

And finally made our way to the Ukranian Village. I wanted to see their Modern Art museum and round out the day with something more structured and curated. Two Ukranian students from the Art Institute of Chicago opened the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art in the early 70’s with other older Ukranian artists who immigrated to Chicago to escape oppression during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The  art collection is small but beautiful. I loved this stained glass piece called Baden

And this one called Traffic

We then walked around the Ukranian Village and T, who is German, was especially ecstatic to find his favorite sausages at this European deli.

The bakery smelled so deliciously of bread and meat that I wanted to eat something right then but I was still full from lunch (hard to believe, I know) and I had yoga. So, I passed it up. See, it happens!! I finished the afternoon with yoga at the Wicker Park studio, a sister studio to the Lincoln Park studio I visited yesterday.

Between the two, I’d choose the LP studio because the facilities are bigger and more complete, inclusive of actual locker rooms and a shower. However, the Wicker Park studio has a great neighborhood feel in a third floor walk up building with a vast open loft around the enclosed studio and plenty of space to hang out and cool down after class.

I took class with Kathryn, who, like Mike, said something at the very beginning of class that stuck with me the whole class:

Bikram thought of the day: There are no shortcuts.

I think this is the hardest lesson in life, especially in American life. We want shortcuts. We think we can find a way to do anything faster and better and still get the results without doing all the work. In Bikram, and in many other things, you have to do the work. You only get there by doing the work. It reminds me of an old Bally’s commercial: “If a better body came in a can or a book or a pill, you’d already have it.” It can be a grind, but you have to keep showing up, sweating buckets, pushing yourself beyond your flexibility and then going back (WAY back) and doing it all again.

In other words (a 1000 words, or so they say), there are no shortcuts to get here:

But that’s good. If there were shortcuts, everyone could do it and what’s the fun of that?

Tomorrow: more of this. But different. And equally as cool. So come back.

See you then.

The Runcible Spoon and Driving, Driving, Driving

How was my day? Thanks for asking! It started wonderfully with breakfast at a charming place in Bloomington, IN called:

Remember the poem about the Owl and the Pussycat? Well, their progeny have opened a café in Indiana. Who knew?? They serve colossal omelettes:

And grind their own coffee so no one needs to worry about them. They’re doing great and their decorating sense is quirky but beguiling. You can’t tell under the ginormous omelette, but my table is covered with burlap coffee sacks covered by a glass top, plus there are seating options outside on the back porch and the front patio for good weather. And when you’ve eaten as much of that omelette as you can handle (I ate it all but I’m a professional breakfast eater. I would recommend you pace yourself.), go next door and browse for hours at:

So many of my favorite words begin with B, but Books and Breakfast are the Best. I could have spent hours between those two places but as it was I spent too long and left too late and had too far to go, which left me very little time to do much besides drive.

What did the scenery look like? You read my mind! Here are a couple of shots. It started like this:

And moved into this:

Which is scenic in a very spare “I’ll use this for my production studio logo when I get into the movies” sort of way. But then it evolved into a lot of this:

For about 6 hours. Welcome to the Midwest in early spring before anything starts to grow.

I’d have liked to stop and partake of the Amish buffet or buy local honey or find out why people would buy dead flat screen TVs or ask if I’m the independent thinker needed by a local school board (so many fascinating signs along these highways) but I couldn’t because I had to get to Chicago and take a yoga class. Welcome back to my driving life.

I managed to make it into the Chicago in time for my yoga class, despite bumper to bumper traffic on Lake Shore Drive during which I checked my email and updated my facebook status. (My “smartphone” might get me killed during this trip. Just sayin’) I decided to do Bikram in Lincoln Park and loved both the studio and the teacher, Mike. He says they give discounts to actors/theater people, so check them out if you are in Chicago. They have a number of class times and locations in Wicker Park and the Loop so you have your pick of studios plus the facilities are beautiful. The class was HOT, hotter than anything I’ve experienced since Falls Church, VA, but awesome despite/because of that.

My yoga meditation of the day came from one of the first things Mike said during class: Listen like it’s your first class.

I love that because it’s so easy to go into Bikram (or anything) thinking you know what to expect and neglecting to pay attention to what actually happens.

Listen like it’s your first class. Pretend you don’t know anything. Listen like you want to learn, like you need to learn, like the class and the teacher have something to offer you. Listen to absorb. Listen to change. Listen.

I have 3 days here in my favorite Second City with some of my favorite people. I’ve already had a great time tonight with my friend T, drinking wine and talking about the changes we’re implementing in our lives. Apparently this is the year of transition. Did you know that? A girl at my yoga class said that and I think it’s true. If you have changes you want to make, deep life-changing alterations to your existence, this year is the time.

And now you know.

Tomorrow: Chicago stuff. I don’t know what, but you’ll love it. Promise.

See you then.