Monthly Archives: September 2012

You-niform.

It was a textbook case of serendipity in SoHo. I was seated in a South African-Israeli-Jewish-grandma fusion diner enjoying some bloody Mary moules frites with the ladies on a Monday night – you know, like you do – when my friend leaned in and uttered the fateful words:

“Emma. The Man Repeller is here.”

The Man Repeller is a fashion blogger who has parlayed her zany style and knack for coining vaguely dirty catchphrases into a career. A few years ago, I wrote a revelatory opus on my relationship with man repelling—essentially, my penchant for wearing over-the-top ensembles just to prove I could pull them off. I’m still a sucker for anything featuring cutouts, sequins, leather or mesh, but I tend to reserve the peacocking for special occasions. There are few places a striped shirt and gender-ambiguous shoes won’t take you, and if left to my own devices, I typically prefer to dress like a cracked out French toddler.

When I met the Man Repeller, I wasn’t wearing my backless blouse, my sequined culottes, or even my usual topknot. I was looking decidedly non-repellent in a striped shirt and gender-ambiguous shoes. I couldn’t pass up a chance to rub feathers with the queen of peacocking herself, though, so I made a brief fangirl assault on my way out. She couldn’t have been more gracious. After introducing me to the rest of her table, the Man Repeller – she of harem pants and bow ties, looking uncharacteristically subtle in a breezy pastel shift – waved a finger at my ensemble and offered an unprovoked and probably undeserved, “By the way, love this. Would have worn it myself.”

It was sweet. It made me feel cool for five minutes (okay, forty-five). But even beyond the confines of that South African-Israeli-Jewish-grandma fusion diner, it reminded me that a uniform doesn’t have to be a copout. In fact, it takes skill to make a basic outfit look unique. Formulaic dressing allows us to play with color, cut, and accessories without sacrificing comfort or personal identity.

I put together two riffs on my usual – one ladylike, one prepster galactic – to show that self-expression needn’t come with a peplum attached. Punchy hues, mixed metals, and out-there accessories make for an outfit this tomboy peacock would happily wear out for moules frites any night of the week.

You-niform.

Do you have a uniform? How do you spice it up?

Empire State of Self.

Being happy in New York City is the best thing ever. The old cliché about stepping out into infinite possibility is true. You wake up on a Tuesday and put on, oh, I don’t know, a hot pink cropped blouse with four tiers of neck ruffles that makes you look like Flamenco Barbie. You contemplate fixing your usual coffee and oats, then decide to throw caution and financial solvency to the wind and head to your favorite espresso bar instead.

When you arrive, you see a new offering on the menu: iced blueberry lemon loaf. It looks mouthwatering. You see someone eating it, so you ask if it’s worth choosing over the famous olive oil cake. Before you know it, you’re clinking espressos and splitting olive oil cake and blueberry lemon loaf with a fellow patron, debating the relative merits of each.

You become so enthralled by good food and the kindness of strangers that you have to sprint to catch the bus, leading its goateed driver to ask if he saw you in the Olympics. “Actually, yes. I’m cross-training right now,” you reply. You beam at your fellow commuters, leading them to instinctively smile back in surprise and mild alarm. Hot damn, everyone loves me, you think to yourself. I am so good at New York!  You gaze out at the hulking skyline that has inspired so many movie montages, Jay-Z’s skittish chuckle echoing in your ears. As you hop off the bus, ruffles flapping in your wake, the driver yells, “Keep running, girl!” This is all before you start your workday at 9am.

Being depressed in New York City is the worst thing ever. If you’re sad or self-conscious or otherwise down on your luck, this city is a great place to circle the drain. You wake up on a Tuesday and find that nothing fits because you fell asleep eating your feelings again, so you put on a forgiving sundress that does little to hide your swollen eyes or greasy hair. You feel unattractive. Insufficient. Stuck. You hate everything, but you hate your wimpy attitude most of all. You decide that you’ll take a step back from the world to right yourself, just until you can be the person you want to be again—the person who deserves to live in New York City. Maybe you spend a month burying yourself in work or workouts or the covers of your queen-sized bed.

The first half of this summer was tough for me. I alluded a few times to the fact that I was struggling, but I largely tried to keep my emotions under wraps. I didn’t think I could write with enough distance to produce something that was more than just whiney, and furthermore, I didn’t really understand what was going on. On a surface level, nothing was wrong. I had a job, an apartment, friends and family who were as baffled and frustrated by my unhappiness as I was. It wasn’t that I had unrealistic expectations of what living in New York would look like—I’ve long made peace with my logistical constraints. But even within those, I felt like I was failing at being young and broke. I wasn’t having enough fun to justify the fact that I was barely scraping by.

In retrospect, I can see that my big mistake was trying to build an exact replica of my Chicago life in NYC. Since I graduated nine months late, most of my friends were in different places during my final year – geographically, metaphorically, or both – so I had social opportunity but little social obligation. I knew exactly which temptations were and weren’t “worth it,” and my heavy courseload was more than enough to occupy any remaining mental space. I graduated with a reasonable but rigid balance in effect.

When everything from the structure of my day to the nature of my friendships changed, the same habits that had kept me afloat in college began to drag me down. I felt like I was constantly falling short of my own high expectations, and I found myself resenting the experiences and relationships that stood in my way. I struggled to maintain balance in the only way I knew how: by devoting a questionable amount of mental energy to “health.”

New York City, with its raging nightlife and general domestic apathy, was an easy scapegoat. Most people here spend the occasional night in, and some even know how to cook, but neither activity is particularly New York. If you want to be a homebody, you can do it far more comfortably elsewhere—so where did that leave me? Suddenly, even the frenetic speed upon which the city’s reputation is built – the blind ambition, the conspicuous consumption, the tendency toward stimulation over self-reflection – seemed at odds with a post-recovery me. I understood my needs and my triggers well enough to know that my systems were non-negotiable, and changing myself for a city seemed as irrational as changing myself for a man. Maybe we need to spend some time apart, I thought. I love New York, but I think I hate living there.

It was a freeing revelation, but a frightening one. Losing New York felt like losing part of my central identity. Having planned for aspirations in theatre and journalism, it had literally never occurred to me that I could live anywhere else. I became briefly enamored with the idea of nannying abroad, then announced that I was moving to Portland—a city, but a smaller one, with a gentler pace and a more health-conscious culture. Having never so much as set foot in the state of Oregon, I became convinced that the West Coast held the answers, scouting Craigslist for apartments and plotting the purchases I would make with my new, roomier budget. I was so busy fantasizing about my nonexistent life in Portland that I neglected the more important issue: fixing my real life in NYC.

Fortunately, a combination of old and new faces helped jog me out of my mind vice. People will save us, man. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this. I realized that even if I did eventually decide to relocate, I had to figure out how to exist in the interim, and I had to accept that what I was doing simply was not working. It was time to let some of my trusty systems go. Balance could still be a priority – it would have to be – but it would have to look different, and I would base this new version on what made me feel good rather than what I believed to be “right.” In short, I had to find my Empire State of Self.

And I have. Well, I am. I’m inching ever closer. I consider myself to be happy, but even on days when I can’t quite get there, I can almost always bring myself to be grateful. I have a job and a lease and a life here. I have a strong, active body and a mind that’s the quietest it’s been in quite some time. Now is not the time for heady self-reflection—not this week, anyway. Now is the time for dicking around and seeing what sticks. For me, maybe “health” means more drinks and less sleep; more leaning and less planning. Moderation is a broad spectrum, after all, and the stakes of exploring it are fairly low. Existing in the gray area is harder, but more rewarding than either black or white.

Today is September 11, 2012, and I am a proud resident of New York City—eleven years out of a tragedy and just shy of six months into my latest chapter. Portland isn’t off the table, but neither is New York. Let’s face it: I was never going to go anywhere else until I came here. And for worse or for better, I’m lucky to have had the chance.

Would you change yourself for a city?

BITE’s Bites: Chicago’s Big Ten.

One of the most disorienting parts of moving is building a new shortlist—a rotation of pet establishments with a knowledge of what to order at each. NYC is full of world-class food and drink, but with so many options, I rarely go anywhere enough times to count myself a true groupie. Against all odds, such a list is writing itself in time, as repeat offenders – pizza from Motorino, sandwiches from Defonte’s, ice cream sundaes from Chikalicious – form a roster to suit frequent cravings and moods. Having spent a combined five years in Evanston and Chicago, however, that’s a list I feel far more qualified to share.

Eating all of the things on a food tour with a visiting friend. We hit Doughnut Vault, Garrett’s, Giordano’s, and Big Star in 24 hours. Varsity digestion.

This week marks five months since my big cross-country move. While less than half a year is hardly sufficient time to “know” a city like New York, it has certainly been enough time to illuminate what I miss most about Chicago—much of which, unsurprisingly, is edible.

BITE’s Bites: Chicago’s Big Ten

This isn’t a comprehensive “best of” list – I would never claim expertise on such matters, and I was far less immersed in Chicago’s food scene than I am in NYC’s – so much as a few of my favorite places to eat, drink, and be merry. Whether you’re still residing on the North Shore or merely blowing through the Windy City, I hope you love them as much as I do.

Best highbrow cocktails: The WhistlerWhen it comes to hipster speakeasies, The Violet Hour gets all the glory, but I prefer The Whistler’s gin-heavy menu and slightly less pompous vibe. I spent many a night perched at the venue’s rear end, often to a backdrop of live jazz or ominous “ambient music.” I recommend any cocktail that combines bourbon, citrus, and bitters (the name of which changes seasonally), but a hot cider goes down just as easily on a snowy evening. If you stick around long enough, you may catch a visit from the infamous Tamale Guy—a definite trade-up from late night BK.

Best chill night out: Simone’s. What do you get when you combine $5 nachos, raspberry ale on tap, and an eclectic yet strangely competitive crowd? Trivia Tuesday at Simone’s. Come with a small group of cerebral companions (be sure to arrive before 8pm if you want to play), and come hungry—nacho special notwithstanding, the rest of Simone’s creative pub grub is not to be overlooked. I’m partial to a pizza topped with quinoa, avocado, and caramelized onions (don’t knock it till ya try it!), but even straightforward options like custom burgers and sweet potato fries are satisfying across the board. Pilsen is a hike from most parts of town, but if you have a car (or a friend with a car), it’s worth the trip.

Best all-purpose haunt: Bat 17Here’s something I wish I’d known sooner: The coffee at Bat 17 is free. Like, 100% free. As in, you can literally pop in on your way to class, pour yourself a cardboard cup to go, and leave with nary a dirty look in your direction. That being said, “the Bat” (which stands for Benson Avenue Tavern) is also one of my favorite Evanston restaurants for its fresh ingredients, generous portions, and scrumptious baked goods. The chopped salads are filling and well-distributed, the sandwiches (which are served on Bennison’s bread) are good for at least 1.5 meals, and the weekend brunch options (think Cinnamon Roll french toast made with actual battered, pan-fried cinnamon rolls) belong on a Food Network special. Whatever your order, tack on a side of gorgonzola slaw—and since you’ll likely be too full for dessert, take a palm-sized iced cherry oatmeal cookie to go. Factor in beer towers and half-price martinis on Saturday (!) nights, and you’ve got a college student’s wet dream. Man, I miss this place.

Best artisanal sandwiches: Al’s DeliIf Bat 17 is a study in excess, Al’s is its foil in restraint. Thoughtful sammies constructed from quality ingredients are the name of the game at this French delicatessen on Noyes. The sandwiches, which could easily fetch upward of $12 in NYC, are a bargain at under $10 – my favorites being the sharp dill havarti and the rich smoked salmon and brie – and pair well with a soup menu that features exemplary pesto and white bean options. Chase with an old-fashioned bottle of Dr. Brown’s cream soda, and don’t leave without one of Al’s famous iced butter cookies (though the iced Belgian and chocolate chip varieties are exceptional as well).

Best casual dinner: Big Star. What’s better than tacos, guac, and margaritas? Tacos, guac, and margaritas eaten in a glorified parking lot outside a mechanic’s-garage-turned-watering-hole in the heart of Wicker Park. Seriously, if you only have one meal in Chicago, go here. It’s cheap, it’s rowdy, and it’s damn delicious. Get the corn tacos with roasted mushrooms, pea shoots, picked onion and cotija cheese. Dress with guacamole. You’re welcome.

Best BYOB: Olive MountainProbably the most controversial restaurant on this list – I know many people think Olive Mountain is just so-so – but as a lover of Middle Eastern food, this was always my top choice for celebratory dinners. No, it’s nothing life-changing or gourmet, but it is all-around solid, relatively authentic fare with a chill ambiance and no corking fee. I’m a fan of the lentil soup (hearty enough for a meal, especially with a side of fresh pita and baba ghanoush), the spicy stewed okra, and the mujaddara (a cumin-spiced pilaf served with cucumber yogurt salad). Tell them it’s your birthday and you’ll likely make out with a free slice of baklava, which is best enjoyed with a sobering cup of post-dinner coffee. You’re an adult, after all.

Best health-conscious alternative: Blind Faith CaféNot everyone shares my freaky plant-lovin’ taste buds, but good food is good food, and that’s just what vegetarian Blind Faith serves. It’s a well-executed model of my favorite type of cuisine: Pretentious Locavore, aka elevated renditions of the stuff I cook for myself at home. If you go weak in the knees for quinoa-stuffed avocados, kale salads, and macro bowls, you’ll love this place. If not, you’ll be equally satisfied by kung pao seitan and vegan peanut butter chocolate mousse cake. Swearzies.

Best place to give yourself a heart attack: Edzo’s. Here are my thoughts on Edzo’s: ahsgdfajhgshgds vgkrjeghkrjhsfkjsgdv jkshgkjsehrkhwkjthw. That’s about as articulate as I can be about fast food (food, fast?) this good. Forget the burgers—you’re here for the sides, like butter-soaked garlic fries and a Nutella milkshake so thick you can barely slurp it through a straw. If you want to feel trendy, order the truffle fries, which come with a dusting of parmesan cheese and a hint of ‘shroomy flavor. And speaking of mushrooms, if you insist on getting a sandwich, the portobello “burger” is more than just a consolation prize for non-carnivores. Ed, way to cover all your bases. Two greasy thumbs up.

Best laptop haven: Brothers K/The Daily Cup/The Common CupYep, I’m cheating, because I was the ultimate café rat in college and I’m pretty sure I’ve visited every Wi-Fi hotspot within 12 miles of Northwestern. My top three picks serve three distinct purposes. Bro K (also spelled “Broqué” if you’re cool like me) is a 25-minute walk from campus, just far enough for Evanston residents to escape the “scene” of Norris and Unicorn without boarding a bus or train. Broqué’s homey neighborhood vibe, expertly pulled espresso, and free books and board games make it the perfect destination for a late afternoon latte and a change of scenery. Weekend work sessions belong to The Daily Cup, a somewhat precious atelier of crimson couches, frilly signature drinks, and the best roasted almond tea (read more about my love for the Daily Cup here). My sources (Google) tell me that the Edgewater café has closed, but intends to reopen shortly in a new location. Finally, summer evenings and early mornings year-round befit a visit to The Common Cup, where you’ll find a mean Americano (Ruth, the owner, will almost always offer you an extra shot for free) but also some truly spectacular frozen yogurt. A handwritten chalkboard lists every mix-in you could possibly desire…except Nutella, which I have been known to BYOJar without shame. There is no room for shame in frozen yogurt.

Best place to indulge your sweet tooth: FraîcheMy ode to Fraîche’s triple-layer carrot cake can be found here, but the s’mores bars and rum spice whoopee pies have also earned real estate in my Sweet Treats Pantheon. While I’ve found the cupcakes to be dry and ill-proportioned (certainly as compared to the layer cake), everything else – from savory scones to sticky bread pudding – has left a positive impression. I dare you to visit the bakery counter and leave with just one item. Personally, I’ve been known to drop $20 in a single trip and ration the wares over several subsequent days.

There you have it—my (by no means exhaustive) top ten. Have you visited any of the places on this list? What are your favorite spots to eat and drink in the Chicago area?