The Week That Was: January 23, 2015

It’s my last Friday in Chicago and this song keeps playing in my head. (You’re welcome.) I’m sad at the thought of leaving, yet I don’t feel sad. This isn’t my first rodeo — in fact, it’s my seventh time moving cities as an adult. So I think the familiarity of it all has me feeling apathetic. Of course, I know once I get there I’ll miss my friends terribly, and I’ll certainly miss Chicago. But as my friend Melissa recently reminded me, it’s going to be a great adventure (there, now you can spend your Friday with a much cooler song in your head).

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Every January, TripAdvisor announces its Travelers’ Choice award winners. Besides being interested in seeing who made the cut, I hold this campaign near and dear to my heart because it’s something I worked on back in my TripAdvisor days.

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Ten pieces of clothing for a week? I need to up my packing game.

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I’m eating salad like it’s going out of style these days (gotta shed those holiday lbs.), but I haven’t bought salad dressing in ages. I prefer to make my own. Here, a blueprint on vinaigrettes.

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Daisy’s been gone six months and I’m so ready to adopt another. Just look at how happy these dogs are after they find their furever homes!

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If you’re lucky enough to be traveling to Europe this year (jealous!), check out these great resources for planning and accommodations.

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Some of these parenting tips seem so simple, yet they’re so genius.

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Have a lovely weekend!

Dinner at Grace Restaurant in Chicago

Grace Restaurant
Grace Restaurant

It’s pretty incredible the number of “last” meals we’ve had in Chicago so far, considering we’re still here for another week and have four more “lasts” planned. I’ve gotten good at qualifying the various “lasts.” For example, I had my last moms’ dinner at Piccolo Sogno last week. We had our last Chicago-style pizza night at the neighbor’s over the weekend. We’ll have our last sushi night and last dinner at our favorite neighborhood spot, Monkey’s Paw, this weekend. And a few more lasts on the docket next week. Clearly we won’t be doing much cooking our final days in Chicago.

Last Friday was KP’s last day at his old job, so it felt appropriate that we have our final fancy meal that night. Ever since we went to Grace for the first time last January, I’ve been plotting a reason to go back. As much as I’d love for it to be, Grace just isn’t in our regular rotation since it’s, shall we say, a bit cost prohibitive. (Nora’s pesky college savings account always gets in the way…) But it is truly a treat, and what better way to bid adieu to this fine city?

We’ve been to a small handful of fine dining restaurants that have been awarded Michelin stars, but Grace is without a doubt the very best, in my humble opinion. Dare I say it’s my favorite restaurant ever? It’s simple; they just get everything right. The service, the décor and most importantly the food — it’s all just phenomenal. From the moment you walk in the door, you feel genuinely welcomed, like they are truly grateful that you’re there. It seems to be the other way around with so many high-end restaurants, the ones that give me the feeling of, “you’re lucky to be dining in this exclusive restaurant.”

While elegant and modern, Grace’s dining room is simply styled, keeping the focus on the food. After all, each dish is a piece of incredible artwork. I like how everything in the dining room has its place and there is clearly a purpose in its design. Next to or behind each table (depending on the table), there’s a small, unassuming shelf where they place the wine decanter and/or other accoutrements for your meal. It’s free of clutter, just like my house (ha!). By the way, Grace utilizes some of the most unique wine decanters I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but ask the incredibly charming sommelier if the wine dictates the type of decanter that will be used. The short answer is yes.

Alaskan King Crab kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON MINT
Alaskan King Crab
kalamansi, cucumber, LEMON MINT
Image Source

Grace serves a nine-course fixed price menu, and you can select either the Flora or Fauna menu. Both times I dined at Grace I chose Fauna. There are just too many mouth-watering meat courses to tempt me.

Grace menu

There simply isn’t a better restaurant in Chicago (anywhere?) to spend KP’s hard earned money. We enjoyed a delicious meal and lovely service. As a noun, grace is defined as, “elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action.” I can’t think of a more fitting name for this memorable, splurge-worthy restaurant.

Chicago Travel & Adventure Show

Despite a few warm-ups here and there (read: 40-degree temps), it’s still been relatively cold and gray here in Chicago. And that can lead to the dreaded feeling of cabin fever, which is exacerbated when you have a toddler. It’s bad enough that I want to climb the walls some days, but I know Nora feels the same! So we have to get creative and find things to do to get us out of the house during these cold winter months.

This past weekend we decided to trek out to Rosemont to check out the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show. I saw a billboard for the show on our way home from O’Hare a few weeks back, and I read a bit about it online. I wanted to go, but didn’t think it was something that would hold Nora’s interest for too long. Then I read Kirsten’s post about it over on Kids Are a Trip and changed my mind. Though Nora’s too little for some of the attractions (no camel rides yet, I’m afraid), there were enough things to hold her interest for a bit — and to get us out of the house for the day!

I think Nora’s favorite part of the show (aside from the Elmo balloon the folks from SeaWorld gave her) was watching the Hawaiian dancers on the Global Beats stage. They were so talented and cute! I was bummed that we weren’t there long enough to see the Irish dancers, which I love to watch, and I think Nora would’ve gotten a kick out of, too.

Global Beats Stage
Dancing to tunes from “Lilo and Stitch”

A team from Minnesota was also at the show with their Alaskan sled dogs, and Nora got to pet one gentle old soul (who was heading into retirement). I think she enjoyed that a bit more than seeing the animals from SeaWorld, particularly as the frog who was there kept trying to escape. Every time it happened, her little legs clenched around me!

SeaWorld animals

There were quite a few exhibitors at the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show, and KP and I perused some of the booths looking for inspiration for our anniversary trip later this year. I think I have my sights set on Hawaii…

We only spent and hour or so at the show (toddlers have their limits), but it was definitely an outing that the whole family enjoyed. We’ll have to plan a return visit when Nora’s a little older and can go for a camel ride!

The Week That Was: January 16, 2015

Chicago snow

With less than two weeks left in Chicago, I think I can deal with this snow — but only because I know there’s an end in sight! And the end might actually come this weekend as the temps are supposed to warm up just enough that some of it may melt. A girl can dream…

We’re in the period of “lasts” at this point, which makes me kind of sad. I think the fact that there’s so much to do with a move, though, helps to keep my mind from getting too carried away thinking about all the things — and more importantly, people — that I’m going to miss. Tonight KP and I are having date night, our last fancy dinner here. I picked Grace, which we went to about a year ago at this time and I was so wowed. I knew I wanted to go back at some point but that it would have to be a special occasion since it’s on the spendy side. I think leaving Chicago warrants a special occasion dinner.

The rest of our weekend is filled with more “lasts.” One of my best friends from college is coming over for brunch and we have a dinner/play date planned with the neighbors. And, more of the same in the coming weeks. We might check out the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show, too.

Whatever is on tap for your weekend, have fun!

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The New York Times list of the 52 places to go in 2015 has some good ones — and surprising ones — on it, and it’s given me some 5th anniversary trip ideas.

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I have yet to read or see Wild, but Cheryl Strayed (who’s speaking at the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show this weekend) has some good words of wisdom on travel.

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My love of wine is no secret, so naturally I found these hot wine trends of 2015 worth a read. Pilkey had me at “wine in cocktails.” Hm.

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Who doesn’t say they’re going to eat healthier at the beginning of the new year? Food Network offers up some healthified recipes for comfort food, but they forgot to include my favorite, Ellie Krieger’s macaroni and four cheeses.

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I’ve already (slightly) cut down on my iPhone usage this year, between quitting Facebook and no longer using my phone in bed. But I better find other ways to minimize my usage so I don’t find myself battling — gasp! — tech-neck.

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The photos in Nadia Sablin’s “Aunties” series are beautiful, and remind me of my grandmas.

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Happy weekend!

Review: Cosco Scenera Convertible Car Seat

It goes without saying, there is so much “stuff” to think about and secure when traveling with an infant. With a few flights with Nora under our belt, we’ve more or less gotten the hang of things, but of course something is always forgotten — like, how I forgot to include an extra change of clothing for her on our last trip to Texas. Upon arrival, Nora’s shirt and pants were sufficiently soiled in dried, caked-on applesauce. Oops.

And just when we have the hang of things, something changes and throws a wrench into our otherwise well-planned travel routine. The latest wrench — a new car seat. Now that Nora rides in a big girl car seat, we were in search of a new car seat for her solely for travel purposes — both in an airplane as well as a car at our destination. The Britax car seat that we use on a daily basis is way too heavy to lug around an airport, and I’m not even certain if it would fit in an airplane (or if it’s approved for air travel).

I did some light research for a new car seat on Consumer Reports and Amazon. The Cosco Scenera car seat got high ratings from both. It weighs just nine pounds and cost less than $50 on Amazon. Search over. I figured, if we hated it at least it wasn’t too expensive.

Cosco Scenera car seat

Good thing, because we hate it.

Okay, “hate” is a strong word. And there are some things about it that aren’t bad. I already mentioned how lightweight it is and the reasonable price. It was easy to install in the airplane seat, and for that portion of the trip, it worked just fine. Nora seemed comfortable and the car seat felt secure in the airplane seat.

It’s when we used the Scenera for what it is — a car seat — that it left a lot to be desired. A lot. When we first installed the seat in the car, it seemed okay. But then we put Nora in the car seat and it was impossible to tighten the harness sufficiently. No matter how hard we pulled, we simply couldn’t get a snug fit. And then we started driving and the car seat was so wobbly. I couldn’t get over how much it moved around compared to the Britax that we use at home. I insisted on sitting in the back seat next to her, as if I could do something if we were to — god forbid — get in an accident.

We tried the Scenera in two different vehicles but it didn’t make a difference. The harness didn’t fit snugly and the seat itself did not seem securely installed. We have friends who have the exact same seat and had better luck than us, and they use a rolled up towel to help the seat fit properly. Interestingly, Consumer Reports also states, “may require a rolled towel for installation at a proper recline angle.” We tried using a towel to no avail.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a Consumer Reports devotee; before we had Nora, I scoured the site for every possible item we were going to buy for her and if they didn’t rate it or if it didn’t get a good rating, then we didn’t buy it. So I’m completely shocked that they give this cheap piece of garbage a score of 62 (by the way, the highest rated car seat got a 65).

I’m not sure when this would ever be the case, but if we were to ever travel via air without the need for a car seat after we arrived at our destination, then I’d use the Cosco Scenera again. But there’s no way I’d use it as a car seat again. I may as well let Nora fly around the backseat, unrestrained, like I did as a kid and she’d be safer!

So now we’re back to the drawing board for a travel car seat. Luckily, Nora’s getting a little older and I think there may be some other options for her instead of a car seat on an airplane. I’ve heard about the CARES Airplane Safety Harness, but it was never an option before because Nora was too little. It just might be one to check out the next time we fly the friendly skies.

The Week That Was: January 9, 2015

Texas: the land of pickup trucks
Texas: the land of pickup trucks

Happy New Year! I hope 2015 is off to a smashing start for you — or at the very least a healthy and happy one. We rang in the new year in Texas, as we had some things to take care of in preparation for our move to Austin in a few weeks (!). And how quickly I was reminded… Texas is the land of pickup trucks.

We had a productive trip. We have temporary housing lined up and have some solid ideas on where we’ll live long-term. Now that we’re back home in Chicago, we’re concentrating on our closing (January 30 cannot come fast enough!), thinking about pitching and/or donating things that don’t need to make the move (“thinking” being the key word) and trying to stay warm because it is f*cking cold! Some people act like it’s no biggie and it’s something we, as Chicagoans, should be used to. I guess that’s why we’re moving to Austin. I have a better chance, as an Austinite, of getting “used to” stifling heat in the summertime. There’s frost inside my house right now, for crying out loud.

This is the first weekend we’ve been home in two weeks, so we’re keeping it low-key with not a whole lot planned, save for brunch with friends at where else… Monkey’s Paw. Enjoy your weekend.

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I didn’t make many resolutions this year, but I did stop using my phone in bed, particularly before going to sleep, partly due to this study. (I also quit Facebook. Five days and counting…)

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Finally. I’ve been looking for comfy clothes to wear when I take Nora to the park.

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Be polite when traveling abroad. Learn how and when to say “thank you.

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Luckily Nora won’t need a car seat on an airplane much longer, but here are some recommendations if you’re in the market. Steer clear of the Cosco Scenera, though — more on that in an upcoming post!

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If you’re like me, you are a light sleeper and any bit of light or noise is disruptive. I like these tips for catching my zzz’s while traveling — or any time — and I’m totally going to check out those “bug” eye shades!

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Some of these travel reads are going on my to-read list.

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Happy weekend!

Austin Eats

Traditional and Modern Mexican Fare in Austin, Texas

KP and I spent New Year’s Eve eve in Austin, preparing for our move there later this month. I was excited to get there and explore the city a little bit, see some neighborhoods and get a sense of where we might want to live. But let’s be honest, I was also excited to check out the food scene. I was wowed by Odd Duck on my last visit and promptly did my research for where we could enjoy dinner on our baby-free night in our soon-to-be new home. La Condesa won for dinner and for lunch we decided to wing it and ended up at Serranos Especial.

Serranos Especial

Austin didn’t exactly welcome us with the weather we were looking for, having come from cold, gray Chicago. It was equally cold (maybe not equally, but still cold) and gray in Austin, too. And drizzly. Soup weather. When in Texas, there’s only one kind of soup to eat — in my opinion — tortilla soup.

We were slightly strapped for time for lunch, as we had a date with our realtor that afternoon. So I scoured Yelp for the closest acceptable Mexican spot near our hotel. Serranos Especial seemed decent (three stars from Yelp, which I take with a grain of salt) but more importantly, it was really close to our hotel. Sold.

Since KP and I already knew we wanted tortilla soup, there was no lingering over the menu. We foolishly ordered “large” soups, thinking, “it’s just soup.” Well, it was “just soup” for a family of… four? This pic doesn’t do it justice, but the bowl was huge. I liken it to one of the serving bowls we use for dinner at home.

Tortilla soup at Serranos Especial, Austin

The soup was loaded with carrots, celery, tortilla strips, shredded chicken, what seemed like a whole avocado (not complaining) and a hunk of an ear of corn. It was loaded. It was hot. And it was delicious. So maybe ordering a large wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The interior of Serranos Especial feels like a traditional Mexican restaurant, and there’s a huge patio which I’m sure is just lovely in the spring. Although, I’d have to be super careful if I were to return and sit outside to enjoy a margarita (or three) — the patio is made of uneven slabs of stone. Tricky for klutzes like me.

La Condesa

We finished with our realtor earlier than expected, and our dinner reservation at La Condesa wasn’t until 8:00. So we did what you do when you visit Austin. We went to Sixth Street and bellied up to the bar at Darwin’s Pub. I really like that place. It was so casual and comfortable and the staff was really friendly. Although, as I quickly learned, that’s how most people in Austin are. I don’t think I’m a Sixth Street kind of gal, but I’d go back to Darwin’s.

Onto dinner… I anticipated a delicious dinner even more so after telling a few people where we were going and getting lots of, “oh I love that place” in response. We arrived much earlier than our reservation but it was full, so we went to the bar upstairs and enjoyed a Margarita La Condesa — cazadores blanco, damiana, pineapple juice, agave nectar, lime juice, cactus-lemongrass salt rim. I think I’m going to become a margarita drinker if they’re all that good. While we were upstairs in the open bar area, we had a chance to scope out the cool decor throughout the restaurant, especially the interesting lighting. It was unique in each room and each piece was cooler than the next.

La Condesa lights

La Condesa is more than just a trendy scene with neat lights. The food — shared plates — is solid. Our server steered us in the right direction in terms of how much food to order for two people. Would you believe it if I said the ejotes (grilled Texas green beans, garlic, epazote) was my favorite dish? Green beans. But they were so good. I’ve since tried to recreate at home, to no avail. The other standout was dessert. I hardly ever order dessert but it was a special occasion — New Year’s Eve eve, baby-free and our first dinner in what will soon be our new home. So we splurged and shared the dulce de leche cake and as I said to our server, it was without a doubt the best dessert I’ve ever had in my life. Cream cheese ice-cream. Need I say more?

Once we arrive in Austin, finding a gym will be a priority if we’re going to be eating like this!