Life has been on the trickier side these past few weeks, and frankly, I’ve had some pretty crappy moments and news to deal with. But I am a very fortunate and lucky person, because even while in the thick of it all, my sweetheart pulled together a little getaway to basically end all getaways, even though we were headed into Chicago on the tail of some massive stress. (It also helped that it had been months since we’d been out for a date night — we work opposite schedules — so we had a little pile of cash hoarded up.)
With a little kismet, we managed to make lemonade out of lemons — and got tickets to see ‘Hamilton‘ in Chicago and then eat at Next Restaurant, one of culinary genius Grant Achatz’s restaurants. So yes, lemonade — like lavender and honey-infused lemonade whipped into a magical cloud and served floating in a mini-lake of rosewater!
+ Do I really have to explain anything about ‘Hamilton’? It’s such a cultural phenomenon in so many ways, which is remarkable for a Broadway musical whose performances are basically limited to two major American cities at the moment. We have the soundtrack at home — at first as a kind of a curiosity (“Hey, honey, I read about this musical that just opened at the Public that’s like hip-hop play about a Founding Father…let’s check this record out?”) But once I got over the fact that it was Broadway — jazz hands! — you really see what an achievement of a theatrical spectacle it is — erudite, smart, fun, emotionally compelling. Happily, ‘Hamilton’ opened in Chicago last year, though it immediately sold out for, like, a year. But we managed to snag tickets (kismet!) and went.
And what can I say? Seeing it live was thrilling and electrifying, and I don’t use those words lightly. I knew the music, the story and history, but live, the staging, lighting and dance just add so much to it as an experience — it was all so inventive and intricate. Seeing it live, everything is just heightened — the comedic touches just zing, and the tragic parts hit even harder. (During ‘It’s Quiet Uptown,’ everyone around me was sniffling and sobbing.) And it felt great to cheer out loud with an audience at the political bits, like the line about inserting women into the narrative of history during ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ or the famous flagship line, “Immigrants…we get the job done!” (Something so incredibly relevant during this age of 45…and yes, I still refuse to write out the president’s name.)
What more can I say? If you ever get the chance to see ‘Hamilton’ live, it’s worth the price of the admittedly spendy ticket. (Hopefully the price goes to subsidize performances for lower-income and high school folks who otherwise couldn’t afford it!) You won’t regret it, though — it was a genuinely exuberant, joyous experience that makes you believe in the American experiment again, even with our terrible president and Congressional politicians. And on a simple visceral level, it really just rocks.
+ There was joy of a different sort when we had dinner at Next. For those not familiar with the wilder environs of fine dining or the more specific discipline of molecular gastronomy, Next is one of the restaurants started by Grant Achatz, who takes familiar tastes and transforms them into new expressions — taking the flavors of cinnamon or honey and putting them into foam, for example. He’s a breed of chef that takes fine dining and turns it into an experience of high art. “High art” in the sense that the dishes he creates are beautifully presented and taste unexpected and even magical — and “experience” in the sense that it can’t be commodified, but can only happen once in a specific time and place, and then becomes a memory.
Now, I don’t consider myself a traditional foodie — I like food, of course, but I’m really just as happy eating a Chicago hot dog off the street as I am in a nice restaurant. I can’t compare Next to Alinea, or hold forth on Adrian Ferran’s influence on anything or whatever. I’ve eaten at very fine restaurants when I lived in NYC, but they were either intimidatingly fancy, with a million forks and chandeliers and waiters hovering over you like a sentinel of judges — or like a fashion show in terms of chic and formality. I never felt comfortable or at ease, and that detracted away from the pleasure of the experience.
But my love really wanted to experience Next — and I had been told by sophisticated foodies I trust that Chicago in general was a world-class foodie city but often without the stuffy pretension. So I was game for Next…and I was so glad I went.
Next’s menu and concept changes completely every season, and we had a reservation for the ‘Ancient Rome’ menu, which was inspired by an old Roman cookery book attributed to Apicius. I had no idea what to expect, but what we experienced was so full of surprise, wonder, delight and sheer marvel. It started with a cocktail with apple, honey and cabbage juice that changed colors with the addition of other ingredients — and tasted perfectly balanced between tangy and sweet. You can read more specifically about the meal itself elsewhere — I’m no food writer — but my rather cloudy and vague expectations were constantly being upended.
I didn’t expect to like an oxtail stew, for instance, but it ended up being so tender, savory and yet lifted by hints of spice and sweetness that it was my favorite of the meat courses. There was a black truffle wrapped with chicken skin that was so unbelievably delectable that it just melted into perfection as you ate it. Wonderful things were done with leeks, hibiscus, edible flowers, lavender and aromatic salts. I also adored hazelnuts covered in a sweet lavender glaze at the end. There was a marvelous amuse-bouche type of bite that transitioned from a few different flavors as we chewed. (At some point, I said, “Oh my god, there’s magic happening in my mouth!”) To call it dinner is almost too quotidian, although we were quite full at the end. Instead, the whole meal was a testament to creativity, innovation and wit. There are very few experiences that I can say were sublime and magical in my life — but this was one of them.
+ Of course, I have to remember what I wore during this unexpectedly pleasurable, magical wonderful set of days in Chicago. I once had the gift of packing very quickly, even for the unexpected trips — I traveled a lot when I worked in the film industry and was accustomed to basically “Hey, I’m off to L.A./San Francisco/New York for a few weeks…here we go!”
But I’m out of practice, and didn’t have a lot of time to plan outfits — plus I had to consider the other things i was in Chicago for. So I defaulted to basic black and garments I loved and felt comfortable in. (Because of physical things going on with me, I couldn’t wear anything very tight or binding.) I wish I had worn something even more special, especially to Next — but in truth, Next is a surprisingly casual, simple setting for such sophisticated food, so going all out in terms of fancy dress would’ve been slightly ludicrous.
I wore a Fabletics dress one night, and then a black silkish top with ruffles and silky track pants with braid detailing at the ankle (also from Fabletics…I told you fancy sweatpants work on all occasions!) The last outfit in particular felt a little Tina Chow-ish to me, especially topped by a simple grey wool carcoat — it felt casual and elegant and artful in a way that she could only do (and I could only vaguely approximate in a pale way.) But I felt at ease and comfortable in both outfits, which let me be completely present for both bucket-list experiences — which is all I can ask for, really.