Although the majestic beauty of world heritage sites in Sri Lanka made my trip here worth it, the choice in tour service almost cancelled out its allure due to an antagonizing and unprofessional car hire. After shopping around for a driver at the B&B, the beach, and even by way of a tuk tuk driver, my guy and I decided to go with a man named Niron to complete the second half of vacationing in Sri Lanka. I primarily based this decision on finances, which later proved to be a disadvantage. The driver seemed reluctant to show us some sites, which I suspect was due to his self-assigned low wage. To close in on the bidding war between him and other contenders, he insisted on matching the price of the lowest price given including “all the entrance fees, room and board, and all meals.” The day we were picked up at the hotel, he wanted to kick off the 4 days and 5 nights at 7am. I compromised and said 8am, which ended up being more around 9am after paying and starting off down the road. What I didn’t know, however, was that a lack of paved roads in Sri Lanka makes it difficult and time consuming to travel around the island. Although a recently constructed highway cuts the driving time from Colombo airport to the beach in half by two hours, going back North for Sri Lanka’s heritage sites takes a lot longer due to the only route being by way of unpaved roads.
Looking back at the 8 days spent in Sri Lanka (4 on the beach and 4 on the road), I recommend starting the trip with the Northern part and making your way down to the beach afterward. Also, after much research, I wish somebody had mentioned on their review of Sri Lanka how long tour trips should take. Before booking 5 days and 4 nights with the driver, I loosely planned seeing the elephant farm on the way to Kandy, Sigiriya (staying two nights in Dambulla), and the heritage sites in Polonnaruwa, but I soon realized Niron had other plans. On the second day after skipping the tooth temple in Kandy, driving instead to an herb garden, which was not what I expected, then straight to the hotel in Dambulla, Niron asked if we could be dropped off a day early in Colombo. This was after the money for the tour had been paid ahead of time and the itinerary left in his hands. Not only did his demeanor make me very uncomfortable, but it also dampened the mood for the duration of the tour. What I think occurred is after realizing that he had to pay the temple and site entrances to each location, at $30 each, the cost of the trip was becoming more a burden than a profitable business for Niron. He also insisted on speeding the entire time and sure enough, was pulled over and issued a speeding ticket at one point. Further, he stopped planning the day and left the responsibility of seeking the sites to us, being very uncooperative about telling us the “must-do’s” of the area, and letting us figure it out for ourselves. What I learned from this experience is to ALWAYS plan ahead, and do research if working with limited time and resources, especially in a very undeveloped area, that hasn’t been tapped yet by the tour powers that be. What should have occurred in a more professional exchange is to gather a rather basic idea of the sites in mind, outline and plan those on a day-to-day basis with a chosen driver, and then approach people asking for quotes. Besides the terrible situation with the driver, what sights I did see in Sri Lanka drove the magnificence and beauty of ancient Sri Lanka home. The itinerary completed on these 5 days, can easily be done in 3 days and 2 nights and should ideally be planned and prepped with the tour provider up front in order to maximize the benefit of private car hire in that time. My travel itinerary is as follows and amended to fit a smaller time frame:
Day 1: Elephant orphanage in Pinnawala; Tooth temple in Kandy; Some notable architecture in Kandy with Portuguese influences in the downtown area; Drive to Dambulla for accommodation.
Day 2: Rock temple in Dambulla, Golden Buddha temple (same location), Sigiriya (a huge ancient rock structure that can be scaled to the top).
Other things to note are that all these sites include a lot of walking and hiking. It’s a nice place to travel for young couples, or energetic friends, but with children not big enough to hike for hours at a time, it may be more difficult to manage Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Keeping this is mind, make sure to always plan ahead with any tour operators to clearly outline plans. If you have limited time, a 2 day tour can give you my personal must-do’s: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.
The Social Commune’s clever drink names and understated décor make for a nice intimate night out with friends, with, as always, those caveats that remind you that after all this is still a restaurant located in China. What I didn’t know before, however, is that this place forms the most recent venture by Jason Atherton, a British celeb chef with similar upscale, yet casual tapas concepts Esquina in Singapore and 22 Ships in Hong Kong. Like the two former, The Social Commune’s menu is designed to share and hence allow for a big group to taste a number of dishes on the menu. The two biggest issues I take with TSC are their no reservations policy, and their less than stellar service. The food, a delicious, creative, and quite varied blend of European, Latin American, and Asian flavors, almost made up for the two former drawbacks, but not quite. I came in on a Wednesday, the usual ladies night with 3 other girlfriends, and we sat at the bar to giggle over cute musings like “Au Pear,” and “Bet on Black;” play-on-words for drink names. The nerd inside always gets the best of me. And we waited 2 hours… I had the paranoid feeling that perhaps people waiting at the lower floor bar were seated first. Surely no one takes over two hours to eat right? And on a Wednesday? Either way, when finally showed our table (which must have been for two people since our plating, food, and drinks didn’t all fit) the ambiance shifted in the open air space, with varied conversations and my favorite chicks settling on some wine and a few dishes. The DIY tuna tartar claimed the spot of my favored dish with some oil, vinegar, and garnishes like chives and sesame to top off some creative fun. The menu did consist of impressive sourcing like bone marrow with onion jam, sourdough, gentleman’s relish butter, and scallop ceviche, yuzu dip, soy, cucumber, apple.
But again when I went up to use the bathroom a huge stack of dirty plating offended my vision and sat right outside the bathroom window. Throughout the whole time I watched it, and even on the way out when I went to check if the wait staff had tended to it, got annoyed when it still sat there. All in all, the place is chic, delicious and trendy. People will go here to see and be seen, but the kitchen and managers should really rethink the no reservations policy. Do you really want pissy people to sit around and wait to taste your food? Not strategic marketing if you ask me. And secondly, train your staff. Seriously, dirty plating has no room to sit around at a restaurant that otherwise does very well in décor and the type of clientele it attracts. Final diagnostic? Kudos to Rashid Ghuloom with the drink menu (the bar being the best part of my night)! Not only are the cocktails delish creations, but the creative nomenclatures forms an indispensable detail I continue to tell people about when mentioning The Social Commune.
You know you got a good thing going when someone asks you to work on a Sunday at 9am and you exclaim, “Yes!” I’ve recently scored an awesome internship at the biggest mainland China based modeling company, where to put it politely, they don’t pay me diddly squat. Okay maybe diddly, but for sure not squat. And yet, coming in and being bossed around by booking agents, working in sometimes less than ideal, and bordering on the chaotic (often downright cray cray) circumstances, I still beam like the sun when someone applauds me for my work. Sure, I’ll admit, it’s not as impressive or humbling as inoculating orphans in Somalia, or discovering a cure for cancer, BUT.I.LOVE.IT! It’s not permanent or anything, and sho’ nuff, I’ll be growing in different directions, but I’m learning so damn much, and not just about managing foreign models in mainland China either. I mean I have front row center seats to the ins and outs of a newly thriving fashion world, only recently discovered. And the work your willing to do for near to nothing, just because you enjoy it, well I’d say that’s a calling.
This weekend recently tested my strengths on levels I didn’t even know existed. I began my day at 8:45 am on a Saturday at my first fashion show, a foreign client peddling Paris designs in Shanghai. The show– immaculate, professional, and above all things beautiful–provided a pretty misleading backdrop for how the rest of the weekend would proceed.
I would not make it home until 11pm Sunday, the next day after rehearsal and another show in Changshu. Even if my function was not entirely clear, from helping the models in their preparations, to watching the rehearsal and the models get made up, I enjoyed every minute of it. Last week I assisted in a catalog photo shoot for Hermes. Nothing major, just some shots for a look book or online shopping, but being around the process of creation inspires me. And I definitely love feeling inspired. My day to day tasks aren’t exciting, what with creating presentations for clients, organizing model information, and scheduling and executing castings, but being constantly in the vicinity of industry professionals and beautiful people has its perks.
For one I am meeting a lot of interesting people in the Shanghai fashion world. These people are artists. They think, eat, breath creation and even in its most frivolous form, it’s a refreshing break from academia with the whole “holy is me” attitude and outlook on pretty much the rest of the world. Walking in like soldiers on a do-or-die mission, make-up artists, photographers, and creative directors run the show, take themselves VERY seriously, and can often be very difficult to work with, which brings me back to this past weekend. Before the show even began in the morning part of my Saturday workday, I had to rush over to a meeting point to take a bus full of models out of town for evening rehearsal for another fashion show the very next day. On more than several occasions I seriously considered packing all my things and getting the hell out of China-STAT! But let me skip to what I learned so as to not dull you with the dirty details. I can do a quick superficial snapshot by telling you that I now seriously understand Micky D’s will always be part of my diet, sleeping is for lazy people, and even if it’s not true, the client is always right (I do mean ALWAYS)…Working with people you sometimes can’t stand isn’t all bad. After all, pushing your limits is uncomfortable because discomfort indicates stretching your threshold in tolerance. And pushing your threshold to its limits, and then past means growing stronger and learning about what you can withstand in the process. That is exactly what learning is; discomfort and growing through that discomfort into a more experienced and resilient individual. The fiber of my whole being was definitely pushed to parameters of myself I didn’t even know were alive and kicking. Being on the outside, that is not Chinese like the other booking agents, so Western, but not the service provider like the Western models, gave me quite the vantage point. As Fitzgerald famously quotes, “I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Being on the edge of the edge makes you not just see all sides at once, but simultaneously embody its demands. Trippy experience, don’t I know it, but invaluable in this line of work. See, sometimes perspective is all you need to in order to understand a situation very differently. And my ever-constant shifting perspective, not to mention my natural tendency to want to please everybody, guided me in extremely difficult situations. Yes, sometimes I will work with clients who rub me the wrong way, or whose methods I don’t agree with, but after all, they are the client, and professionalism demands I try to please them without too much condescension.
Further, models love to get a kick out of you. I mean not on purpose, but just because sometimes they simply can’t help themselves (and I’m speaking generalities of course). I, on more than one occasion, had to dodge very shameless flirt tactics in order to stay on this side of what I was doing. I do not work for the model 100%, but 50% and so had to keep my eye on that number. After all, how easy is it to want to answer to the demands of some charming individuals who’ve internalized the notion that their most valuable operational asset is what they can do with their looks? And so it went this weekend, straddling the line of trying to stay objective to two distinct parties, one who I genuinely enjoyed working with, the other who I could really care less to please, but had to, even if I believed their demands to be incredibly outrageous. This is work, what it means: to do what you sometimes don’t want to do because it’s what the task demands. And to do it well, without losing sight of your function as facilitator, that takes patience, emotional energy, and a lot of teeth clenching to boot. So let’s just say that even through all this fog of work, I emerged a stronger more enlightened individual, and hopefully one that on the second go can better deal with the diva demands of some unbelievably imperceptive clients and some hard-to-say-no-to (or counteract) oober attractive personalities.
Part escapism, part aspiration-ism(patent-pending on this –ism), part full on glory of transformation with a single article of material existence, I’d call myself a fashion aficionado. Freud once said, “All women are clothes fetishes,” and although this determinist view might not apply to everyone, it surely applies to me. On this recent trip back home, (having been back only 1 day) I took advantage of my location stateside, with its smiling sales people and approachable price points, to hit up some of my favorite clothes shops in Chicago. Much to my surprise, upon walking down Wabash near Erie, I realized one of my favorite boutiques had recently closed due to flooding! A sign on the door indicated an email to contact for a temporary location and styling appointment. Keen on snagging a comfy pair of “all purpose” summer wedges, I contacted Sarca’s owner via the email noted, who impressively remembered a shoe I mentioned and bought there last summer!
At this point you might be tempted to think, this Addie chick might have a slight shopping problem for the shopkeeper to remember such an intricate detail, and maybe, yes that’s half the truth. But in all fairness, I pick and very carefully choose (laboriously so) what I purchase. In fact, it was probably this fussy shopping approach that Sarca’s staff remembered more. And even though the days of conspicuous consumption are passé in a post- Occupy Wall Street era of limited job opportunity and strained economy, there are still some things that never go out of style. Like what, you ask? Well, like excellent customer care, and this is exactly where Sarca Chicago happens to excel. The emails back and forth ended in a client appointment in the owner’s storeroom, which she currently runs out of her own home. I even invited an old friend to join me, do some shopping, and catch up.
The owner and stylist Alexis and another stylist named Katelyn accommodated our every shopping whim and offered excellent suggestions and advice. Graciously, they selected jewelry and shoes they thought would fit my needs, and worked patiently with my difficult and indecisive demands. An afternoon of trying on clothes, jewelry, and shoes, with suggestions from both stylists, resulted in my newfound love for local jewelry designer Damen and Division.
As I tried on neck-piece after neck-piece, I looked out the window past Lakeshore drive to all the sparkly white boats waiting afloat Lake Michigan for the summer months to indulge in a true Chicago pastime, and I savored that tiny moment. Gorgeous statement pieces completed my seasonal wardrobe, and I walked into the sunny sidewalk on Lakeshore drive reveling in that fact that I was able to take a piece of Chicago back to Shanghai with me. Man-oh-man was I going to miss summer in this city that I call home…What I appreciate most of Sarca Chicago is that you can find hard to track and even only faintly known designers and pieces by sourcing directly with those creative up-and-comers. For the trendsetter fashionista out there, you can bank on pinpointing the next new wave or incredibly unique patterns from Austrailia, Japan, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Unheard of these days, especially at this price point (on average, an item around $150), Sarca Chicago provides a shopping experience like no other, which makes me excited to say that I had the chance to shop here this time around whilst back home. As soon as they set up shop in their new location, they’ll hit the ground running, as these très chic ladies truly understand how to take the shopping experience to the next level. All class and no sass at Sarca Chicago makes it one of my favorite city shopping venues. This place and its cool and incredibly knowledgeable stylists poignantly demonstrate those ‘Midwest values’ Chi-town is so accurately known for.
Most anyone (even locals) can agree that it feels good to get out of Shanghai. Admittedly, I don’t do it often enough. Having just come back from Chicago, I can’t really complain, but before I left, well uuuggghh. Especially at that moment with work, play, and the impending deadline of defending my masters dissertation in front of an academic board looming over my head, the nightlights seemed to have been suffocating me in a claustrophobic cloud. A bit back, on the off chance of a sunny day, I had the chance to visit the water town of Zhujiajiao, only 45 minutes and 14 RMB(~$2) away on a direct bus near people’s square. It makes a perfect day trip if you just need to get away from the hustle and bustle of those god awful honks and horns of our lovely city. It’s a quaint town with small shops and artsy finds. I bought a red plastic rose ring for 5RMB, discounted on account that the shopkeeper found me to be “hen piaoliang.” Yes, this detail must be mentioned, mostly for self-affirmation…
What you’ll find here is a nice break to collect your thoughts and breath fresher air for the day. Take advantage of going here with a group of fresh new faces to meet some different and interesting people, hopefully even have an extraordinary conversation. I went with a group of friends, researchers at Fudan University, and the mix was a good one. We talked politics, religion, science, art, photography, etc. With the scenery of a bright day, it made the whole trip worth it, and upon crossing a bridge even lucky. Women selling goldfish said that throwing them back into the water from the height of the bridge would bring good fortune. I just couldn’t believe my luck! As superstitious as I tend to be, as soon as someone offered, I quickly grabbed a bag and tossed some in. You can also take a short 10-minute boat ride and see the city from a different angle. Not anything out of this world at the water town, but that’s the point. It’s a relaxed divorced state from your day-to-day life in Shanghai, and sometimes, that’s just exactly what the doctor ordered.
In part, I’ve learned to like Shanghai for its contradictions. On the one hand you can witness the hyper elite business obsessed masses like in any other metropolis, but on the other hand, an untamed counterculture of art types and transients plague the scene. You can easily see huge concrete structures at every turn, and in progress, right next to old land houses, surely due to be plowed somewhere in the near future. In the chaos of the big city, I’ve found a sanctuary in the small boutique shops of the French concession that equally embody this contradiction. Scaled down to size, the confusing yet intriguing inherent paradoxes seem more manageable when applied to play (and in the day). Around line 1’s Shaanxi Nan Lu stop, you can hop off and just waste a Saturday window-shopping, imagining, and clearing your mind of the hectic week. Anything from an extremely indiscernible knock-off Hervé Leger dress (at a steep price of 980RMB no less), probably only suitable for a playboy mansion party, to quirky one-of-a-kind finds, you can discover here. Prices range from the oober cheap, to the out-of-anyone’s-price-point. Playing dress-up can be a relaxing and fun way to get away, without having to leave the city in this hip cool area. Pieces vary from something Madonna might have worn in the 80’s, to the recently trending massive metallic bangles and necklaces. An afternoon in Shanghai’s French concession can also serve to practice your Chinese speaking and listening skills, or feed your ego by way of shopkeepers complementing your looks or language level. Ah yes, boutique window shopping here will be sure to get you out of your lonesome Shanghai funk, and put a little more pep in your step for the new week to come. And who knows? You may just find something you actually want to take home!
Sigirya in Sri Lanka showcases the grandiose ancient civilization built by King Kashyapa around 400 CE. A skyscraper like boulder in the middle of the island, puts modern architects to shame. Elaborate remnants of the royal palace, gardens, pool, baths and structural buildings stand the test of time on top of this towering structure in the middle of the island. Like many past rulers, this monarch demonstrated his magnificence through impressive sophisticated building prowess. After his death, the grounds were used as monasteries for ascetic monks. Sigiriya now echoes the elation of past glories, though its beauty not withered by time passed. The enormous rock structure still demands full attention, energy, and admiration upon its encounter. The entry to this protected site, as well as most of Sri Lanka’s heritage marvels, costs a steep $30 for foreign visitors, but often times can be embedded in the price with a few days tour and driver around various sites in Central Sri Lanka (including room and partial board).
Regular opening times begin at 7am and end officially at 5:30, following standard Sri Lankan custom of rising with the sun and ending the work day promptly around sun down. As I first cast eyes at the rock formation from afar, I had to wonder, how did people of the past climb these mega heights? Beginning my journey toward the skies, I realized that a lot of sweat, blood, and tears went into building and reaching the peaks of the Sigiriya stone. You begin your journey toward the mount and gradually hike up stone steps engulfed in green moss, catching the occasional monk dwelling in the many cave crevices leading up the rock formation. The total visiting time depends on your individual pace and patience. I took 4 total hours to reach the top and climb back down again, taking plenty of time to document the journey via my curious camera lens. To scale up, you climb hundreds of stone steps, a metal spiral staircase attached to the stony cliff, walk around the side you first set your eyes on, and finally climb extremely steep metal stairs upward and over.
Don’t let this deter you from hiking up, though, because on the way you enjoy momentary pauses of varying activities. You pause to admire frescos on protected cave walls aged thousands of years old. You break to be entertained by playful monkey friends. And you slow down to gaze at the carving of a lion in a sitting pose called ‘Lion’s Gate,’ right before taking the last set of staircase to the top. Do however, mentally prepare yourself for a physically exerting feat, and use the bathroom and buy water before embarking on this venture, as no vendors sell water inside the ancient city gates, and there are no bathrooms anywhere to be found. Once you reach the top you can finally stop to take it all in, and beem proud of the hike you undertook. Then realize from afar that where you just came from sits the “Sigiriya gardens,” the oldest gardens known to this planet! The climb back down poses a different set of challenges, especially with those afraid of heights. The unbelievably narrow stairs are no easier going down as it feels like backward lunging (eek!). On this trip to Sri Lanka, Sigiriya takes the number one spot of “must-do” in Sri Lanka. All the dangerous drawbacks concerning the climb are nothing compared to the breathtaking beauty that is this ancient wonder. Even if you don’t like history or museums, any fellow adventurer can appreciate the natural and lush beauty of Sigirya, with the added bonus of a full body workout to the top. Don’t believe me? They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.
Sri Lanka, like all touristically untapped destinations begs a lot of patience and planning in order to squeeze the most out of what it has to offer. It’s snuggled just below the Southeast coast of India and slightly Northeast of the famed paradise cove known as the Maldives. I visited Sri Lanka just after NYE this past year leaving from Bangalore, India. Landing at the Colombo airport the first week in January, I had 8 days to distribute this island’s wonders. I decided to do 4 days on the beach on the Southern Coast near Galle, and 4 days in the central part by car. I wanted to see Pinnawala elephant orphanage, the city of Kandy, Sigiriya, and the protected ancient city of Polonarruwa. The plan would be to unwind on the beach a few days while shopping around for a car that specialized in private tours. Landing at the Colombo airport at about 9pm, a man quickly greeted me and arranged a taxi at a reasonable price of $75 for 150 kilometers on the expressway from the airport to Unawatuna (the beach town where many quaint B&B’s dot the shore).
The former 4 -hour drive by narrow windy road inland now takes about an hour and a half to reach via a newly built highway that recently opened at the end of last year (2012). A pretty frightening occurrence (though I had to chuckle after the fact) is that the driver who drove to Unawatuna on the first night of landing in Sri Lanka started falling asleep on the road. At first I didn’t notice, but the boy brought it to my attention, when after a pit stop he really thought up some strange theories on said behavior. In one scenario the man planned to run off with our suitcases and leave us passport/clothes-less, a thief in taxi driver’s clothing. In another, he was a black market organ’s dealer and wanted to sell us for parts. What I gathered (after letting him fill my head with paranoia and wild ideas) is that the driver was simply exhausted and falling asleep. I panicked and squeezed his arm when I noticed several times the vehicle swerving off path and shrieked, “Are you FALLING asleep?!” Embarrassed and probably scared, he laughed, “No, no, no.” But he was, and he continued to swerve off his lane. My heart leaped! I frantically looked for a seat belt. There wasn’t one. I anxiously thought, “No way- No seat belt- we’ll fly out the window- ” when brilliantly, the boy started asking questions and kept a steady conversation going to keep the driver awake. Although a close call, the more frightening part is that this happened twice again, later on this same trip, and with a tuk tuk driver on the way to the airport concluding the trip. At least with a tuk tuk, it stops or stalls and so you just slow down if the driver stops revving the vehicle. With this car, the scenario had the potential to start off this holiday on a very wrong, maybe dislocated, even amputated foot.
A woman and her family ran the bed and breakfast I stayed at, which was not on the main beach. It had a quaint allure with a private beach in the back. From here, at night you can hear the powerful waves crashing against the hotel wall. Having breakfast every morning with the ocean sounds really made me fall in love with Unawatuna. This small beach town services backpackers, families, lone travelers, couples, and anyone who enjoys snoozing on the beach to the soothing sounds of the rhythmic waves washing ashore. According to some sources, it also has some of the best diving in Sri Lanka, and so checked these claims out myself. Besides a day of diving, which included a wreck site, I also spent a day out on a lake surrounded by mangroves. Hiding in this palm paradise was a cinnamon island and monk island off the main shore. For $ 10 a small boat operator will take you on a short ride to the islands and show you how cinnamon is carved and produced from cinna-trees as well as let you explore a small temple on an island where monks live in seclusion. There’s also a cricket stadium, which hosts international matches between Sri Lanka and the likes of India, Pakistan, and Australia. Unfortunately no team was playing during my short visit.
Every night at around 10pm, one bar, restaurant, or B&B hosts the nightly party on the beach with some nice tunes, the local brew (Arrak- an acquired taste for sure), with locals and visitors swinging and chatting side-by-side. The scene provides a very laidback ambience, giving Unawatuna a tiny beach town feel. You can mingle by night, sunbathe all day, and listen to the world go by in a lazy haze of beach bum bliss. For anyone who is a tropical paradise lover, and decides to take Sri Lanka on as an adventure, I definitely recommend staying in Unawatuna at one of the many reasonably priced places lining the beach. The gorgeous sun set beautifully behind sprawling palm trees every night, a fisherman fetched his daily catch every morning, while I ate my breakfast off the balcony at the quaint B&B. And as usual, I, not satisfied merely with absorbing the moment, but instead freezing it in time with my lens, captured many of these sunny moments to share. Unawatuna beach in Sri Lanka gives you a taste of a still and calm little piece of heaven on earth.
I first went to Alinea in Chicago for my birthday in 2009, and I loved the experience. From each course served to the service and wine selection, although I cannot remember exact details, I do remember being thoroughly impressed with the caliber of food and service. It certainly felt and tasted like what would become the 3-star Michelin gem, when the famed guide finally made its way to Chicago two years later. This last visit however, (meh) maybe not so much. The only reason perhaps to notice a difference is because I had visited Grant Achatz gig many years back, before all the hype and media attention came into play. Since then, those with an attention to detail and high expectations can admit, Alinea seems to be losing a lot of its charm. To begin, you can no longer call in advance to make a reservation. You have to wait around for a lottery of tickets to be released, of which you have no information on the date regarding their release. I originally wanted to come here for my birthday, or Valentine’s Day two days later, but that didn’t happen since, while I was waiting around for tickets to be released, I was travelling the internet-deprived center of Sri Lanka. I didn’t have the time or resources to wait around in front of a computer monitoring the possible release of these tickets. It also infuriated me that when I called to explain the situation, they conveniently suggest I like their Facebook page, and follow them on twitter, since they hold a certain amount of tickets for all days and announce them through these social media a couple of days before a date. Not only is this a ploy to sneakily trap you into offering support and a following for their restaurant, but it also undermines the value of your time versus the kitchen and chef’s time. Um, okay, whatever.
Being the blatant consumer that I am, and keen on going back to see what all the fuss was about, I obliged, and finally fit it in one Saturday that I’d be back home in Chicago at 9:30 in the evening on a Saturday. So ticket situation a huge pain in my ass, and the experience that followed further expanded on these mixed feelings. The food, again, blew me away with the innovative presentation, and excellent flavor profiles, not to mention their AMAZING selection of wine pairings. Truly remarkable taste in wines, I must admit. But low and behold caveat number 2. Did I mention that when you book the tickets, you also pay a compulsory 20% service charge? As in, you have no choice in the matter. You pay for the quality of service ahead of time. Okay, now we all remember that guy named Adam Smith whose talk of the invisible hand driving the market in a more or less ‘just’ fashion by virtue of people pursuing their own self interests? Well that doesn’t exist at Alinea. How can you guarantee the quality of service when it’s not incentivized for the servers? Don’t get me wrong, the service was not terrible, but it wasn’t exceptional either. And for a $1,000 meal between two people, it needs to be. The servers were adequate, but at times, not forthcoming about the information on how to eat the food. Also at the end with the dessert, no one came over to explain what we were eating! This beyond annoyed me, as I find it unacceptable that such a big detail should go unnoticed. These two big inconveniences, the ticket situation, and feeling of less than excellent service brings the future of Alinea, in my mind, to question. Will this continue to be one of the best places to eat on planet earth? Weeelllllll- I wouldn’t count on it. It seems to me like the potential is there, but after so much media frenzy and praise, this place may just be resting on its laurels. Sure go to Alinea if you don’t mind playing Russian roulette with your mullah, but be aware of all the work you’ll be putting in on your end. Almost takes a lot of the charm away with the gimmicky ticket situation and forced service charge, a counterfactual for a restaurant at this price point for sure. Last time I checked, you expend that amount of money not just for the quality of a product, but also for the experience as a whole. This experience left a lot to be desired, and almost made it hurt to spend that amount of cash. Some of my personal favorites in Chicago could fair much better, and not leave you wondering if it was all worth it in the end. If you’d like to know what those are, just ask!
It pays to have friends in high places. And in the restaurant industry, even more so. For my birthday (February 12) this year I wanted to savor the adventurous inklings of none other than Curtis Duffy in his new venture Grace. This culinary inspiration is nestled in the very hip up-and-coming West Loop neighborhood around some of my personal favorites like Blackbird and Sepia. I knew I liked his style when I tasted his edible marvels at Avenues at the Peninsula in the Gold Coast. And after learning that a friend of mine, whom I incidentally wanted to catch up with was now adding his talent to the team, I needed to go. On my actually birthday this year I took my boyfriend and headed over to Grace. More actually, he took me. What I encountered was far beyond what I expected. The menu did not come “as is” from either the flora or fauna option, but from highlights of both thanks to my friend’s exceptional service. Every dish had a sensational and creative way of making everyday flavors (like a medley of carrots) taste extraordinary, not neglecting the whole point of high-end food: enjoyment.
It started with a well thought out amuse bouche course on a sliver of a whiskey oak barrel. A beautiful pendulum that would make anyone look twice introduced the meal, and each course tasted better than the one before. My favorite dish had to be the Grilled Matsusaka Wagyu beef that came with a side of broth juice, or ‘dashi’. Finally somebody had elevated my gluttonous habit of ordering a side of juice with roast beef. The succulent meat juices enhance the impeccable texture of the protein, and at last a keen chef had declared this acceptable, or rather imperative to enjoying the full flavor spectrum of that slowly braised meat. Another standout dish consisted of nairagi, golden trout roe, pomelo, and thai basil in a frozen herb laced cup where you crush all the flavors together and the tempered combination of ingredients makes for an interesting fresh tasting deconstructed salad.
I noticed that L2O inspired much of the décor and ambience at Grace Chicago, and I’m not faulting them for this. I applaud it. After all, what’s the point of great ideas if you can’t borrow, share, and make them your own? An original addition had to be the four seasons themed lavatories, as in one exemplifying each season. I entered the winter one and the sink looked like an ice glacier. What a pleasant surprise, I thought, and an outlying attitude to look at even the tiniest of details. The service came together impeccably, with refined, and extremely comforting gestures throughout the night. The environment was not stuffy; the staff not pushy, or snobby, as some places serving food at this price point can easily be. I can always appreciate when the plating is placed directly in front of you in a synchronized manner all around the table. It’s this immaculate attention to detail that I believe will take Grace very far in the Chicago fine dining scene. Only a very few restaurants get this, and this place definitely does. Go to Grace in Chicago if you want to be wowed on a special day. And if you see my friend Tyrone around, tell him Addie sent you. He’ll take care of you, like only some people who essentially get “it” can do. And as my good friend might say (*cue Julia Child pitch *) “Bon Apetit!”