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  By: Richard C. Ross

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Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago





Sometimes, there is nothing that can quite compare with the sheer joy of a little spontaneity. Such was the case just this past week when my wife, knowing that a significant birthday was pending in the next two days, asked whether or not I still wanted to go out for dinner to celebrate the occasion. With our own abode in a shambles due to some unexpected remodeling and an incredible run of nice weather upon us, I surprised her and upped the ante when I suggested we not only proceed with dinner, but also book a room at a nice hotel in the city. After a short stint at the computer keyboard, we were confirmed for Friday night after locking in a reasonable hotel rate.

Hampton Inn & Suites Chicago-DowntownFriday dawned chilly, but the sun was bright and the air was warming quickly. Metra was the way to really fly and we arrived at the Geneva train station with about twenty-five minutes to kill before the 10:42 am inbound ride. By the time the crossing gates started to descend, there were over two hundred eager passengers crowding the platform... almost every one of the first half-dozen or so stops was the same!  We arrived in the city about 15 minutes late, but I didn't care; it was warm, the Windy City was living up to its name and throngs of happy and skimpily-attired citizens were headed to points unknown. 

We, on the other hand, were headed to the Hampton Inn & Suites Chicago-Downtown, located at 33 West Illinois street -- about a block and a half from our dinner venue: Topolobampo (or "Topolo" as most refer to it).  Eschewing a cab ride, we decided to hoof it instead, exiting the Olgilvie Transportation Center and starting east on Madison, crossing the river and following LaSalle Street north until we found the small LaVazza storefront.  A cup of their coffee beats -- hands down -- any of their would-be competition.  Sipping the soothing hot beverage -- it was tasty and enjoyable, even with the temperature approaching 80 degrees -- we continued north to Wacker and crossed the river again there, stopping to take a few pictures before proceeding to Illinois Street and the hotel.  The walk took a half-hour at most and was, except for the crowds to which I am unaccustomed, almost relaxing.  The sun on my face and warm wind gusting around building corners was marvelous therapy.  After checking in and parking our bags in the room, we headed out again, becoming lost in a sea of frenzied humanity, buzzing on the adrenaline of a rare and very warm spring day.

Spring was in the air but fashion was not; clothing choices swept the entire spectrum from exquisite to egregious.  No one seemed to mind and I was likely one of the only people watchers as Yvonne and I checked out the Shops at North Bridge, the Conrad Chicago, Michigan Avenue and several other popular destinations in the River North area.  All of them were hopping today.  While the burgers that I saw coming out of the kitchen caused my salivary glands to start working, a cold beer for me and a Long Island Island for Yvonne, along with some onion rings at Weber Grill hit the spot and took the edge of our appetites... at least temporarily.  With so many great restaurants in the immediate area (e.g., PF Chang's, Billy Goat Tavern, Pizzeria Uno, Due, Purple Pig, Shaw's Crab House -- to name but a few...) and shopping spots, too, we could have spent an entire day here.  There is no shortage of great spots to try.  But we had an early dinner reservation at Topolo (reservations usually need to be made months in advance), so we headed back to the hotel for some time in the spa before dressing for dinner.

 It's funny.  When I recall the very first time I had a chance to eat Mexican food -- and Rick Bayless puts a whole new twist and definition on the words "Mexican food" -- I turned up my nose at it and had a burger instead.  Now I embrace even the thought of it; it has become one of my all-time favorites.  We walked the short distance to the restaurant on Clark Street and could begin to smell the splendid aromas even before we turned the corner.  It was only 5:30 and at Frontera Grill (the "sister" restaurant to Topolo, right next door) there already was a two-and-a-half hour wait for dinner! I've yet to try Frontera, but the wait-time tells me that it's every bit as good as Topolo.

The Maitre d' led us into the dining room and to a table for two topped with a starched white cloth and silverware, white cloth napkins, a candle and copper chargers beneath heavy glass plates.  He handed us menus and explained a few things about them, smiled and left us to our thoughts about the fiesta to come.  What happened from that point forward can only be described as heaven on earth.

It was a perfect day... followed by a perfect dinner at Topolo, starting with the best margaritas ever made; hand-shaken and served tableside.  Yvonne's choice was a Blue Agave 'rita and I went for the Topolo special.  Icy-cold and served with a fresh slice of lime hugging the rim, these were just plain awsome.  Then, Trio, Trio, Trio: (a sampling of Ceviche Fronterizo, Ceviche Yucateco and Ceviche de Atun "Chamoy"); Pescado Crudo "al Pastor": (Sashimi-grade Hawaiian day-boat catch with La Quercia prosciutto crust, lime pudding, three-chile salsa, grilled pineapple, red chile cracker); Pescado con Dos Chiles y Uchepos: (Smoky Walleye capped with roasty arbol chile-peanut salsa. Uchepo crumble, roasted tomato-guajillo sauce, Nichols Farm beets, wood-griled knob onions) and Morillas en Pipian de Pistache: (butter-braised wild morel and cultivated brown beach mushrooms with savory green pistachio pipian. Crispy tortas de arroz with goat cheese filling).  A bit of heat edged all of the selections, but the flavors were delicate nonetheless and the plate presentations were perfect.
Completely sated, I was ready to push myself from the table when the server suggested a dessert: "Cafe con Leche y Chocolate": Very chocolaty chocolate ganache cake with espresso pudding, bittersweet chocolate swirl ice cream, cookie crunch...  How could two chocoholics refuse?  (We couldn't.)  The walk back to the hotel took us past Ballo Italian Restaurant (actually a part of the hotel) and an outside table was a siren that called out to us to stop for a nightcap.  Sipping a shared glass of chardonnay in the soft summer-like breeze was the exclamation point on the night out -- couldn't have had a better day, thanks to my sweetheart wife!  Back in our room, sleep came quickly and easily, broken only by sirens of a different sort: those of an occasional ambulance or fire truck.

The next morning we awoke early and, checking the weather channel, discovered that rain showers weren't too far away.  Skipping a few of the intended Saturday stops, we took a last look at the new Trump tower and started a leisurely stroll down the almost-deserted streets of early Saturday morning Chicago on the way back to the train station, stopping only to snap a few more pictures; got a stiff neck from oggling the incredibly beautiful architecture and skyscrapers!  The first drops of rain hit me in the face as we approached the Olgilvie Transportation Center...  The train home was almost deserted when compared to the ride in, but the relative lack of loud conversation was a welcome one.  It's a short excursion to a nearby destination that, whether planned in advance or taken as an impromptu hiatus, can be a really fun respite; I'd do it again in a heartbeat!      




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