Fine Summer Dining in Chicago’s Loop

On my first trip to France, I spent a week in the Loire Valley based at a chateau hotel whose restaurant had a Michelin star. Everything was impeccable and the first night, when the owner asked how I liked my meal, I surprised myself by responding “J’ai tombé en extase” (I’m in ecstasy). It’s a line I must have read in one of my many French classes over the years and suddenly remembered.

Well, I felt like that this past weekend dining out on Catalan tapas at Mercat a la Planxa on South Michigan Avenue, a few blocks down from the Art Institute, on the second floor of the Blackstone Hotel. The setting couldn’t be more different: it’s a large, high-ceilinged crescent-shaped room with mosaic tiles on the wall above the kitchen which match the room’s decor of browns and orange.  You step down into the dining area and feel that you’re both cozy and on stage. The food was appropriately theatrical in presentation and dramatic in taste.

I sampled figs wrapped in bacon; cannelloni filled with short ribs, foie gras, and truffle béchamel; potatoes with salsa and chili oil; and several more. All of them were mouth-wateringly delicious, and my server wisely suggested I go with an Albariño, a sturdy, dry white wine I’d had once before at a local tasting dinner in Michigan. My dessert was an outrageous crème brullée topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream and there were Marcona almonds in the mix. It was chewy, sweet, and salty.

I was on a mini-vacation after having written three chapters of a new mystery faster than I expected, and this felt like a fitting reward for hard work, and inspiration to keep going.

There was more fine dining ahead. The next afternoon I had lunch with old friends at Terzo Piano at the top of the new wing of the Art Institute. It’s a cool, clean space of white and grey which in a way matches the elaborate stonework of the Gilded Age buildings you can see on Michigan Avenue. It’s like an aerie.

The menu was small and select and while waiting for my friends I feasted on goat cheese fritters which were so good I made sure to save some for them–though the temptation not to was strong. When my friends arrived, two of us ordered crispy eggplant with a cashew dressing. It was very subtle, the presentation and service lovely, eye-catching.   I had just seen the Institute’s sublime Manet exhibition of late portraits and still lifes and felt that I had entered a painting myself, perhaps a David Hockney.

The restaurants were unique in style and cuisine, and each offered a celebration of fine food beautifully and lovingly prepared.

Lev Raphael loves to travel and he’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Is Ghent a Better Travel Destination than Bruges?

Bruges and Ghent were never on my radar until my first trip to Paris when I came across a travel magazine with a big section on Bruges and the amazing canals had me spellbound. I didn’t get there as soon as I hoped (author book tours in Germany sidetracked me), but when I did, it outshone my fantasies. My timing made it possible to see the famous Holy Blood Procession that had been going on there since medieval times.

In Bruges, my wonderful B&B host and I discussed other cities in Flanders and she dismissed Ghent as not up to the standard of Bruges. She thought that it was worth—at the very most—a day trip. That was also apparently what her other guests told her after visiting Ghent.

Having  spent a week there myself, I don’t agree. Bruges is magnificent, thanks to its death in the 14th century as a port city and to being relatively untouched by war through the centuries. The core of the city is beautifully preserved, and the further you get from the crowds, the more tranquil you find it. But it’s definitely “preserved” and in many ways feels like a giant museum.

Ghent on the other hand is a very dynamic city. It has its fair share of canals and gorgeous buildings, as well as ancient churches and beautiful art. Bruges has the Michelangelo Madonna and Child, Ghent has the Van Eyck altarpiece. I think it’s a draw there, and the same goes for the food. I ate just as well in each city, savoring Flemish/Belgian specialties like waterzooi, carbonnade, vol-au-vent, moules-frites, stoemp, and of course made only a tiny dent in the amazing variety of amazing beers (there are apparently over 1,000).

Where Ghent outweighs Bruges for me is the fact that it’s a university town that’s friendly, entertaining, and alive. Ghentians call their home “The City of Trust and Love” and I found that attitude in people of all ages.

There’s a reason Belgian novelist Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (Dead Bruges). Bruges might be more picturesque, but Ghent is livelier and, perhaps best of all, attracts fewer tourists. Not surprisingly, it’s widely called one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, and is currently working on a novel set in Ghent.