Monday, August 30, 2010

Chicago Triathlon

Last Sunday was the Chicago Triathlon. The Chicago Triathlon is the biggest triathlon in the world in terms of numbers of participants- over 6,000 athletes compete in this work-out extravaganza. To the right is a picture of a small portion of the "transition area". This is where the triathletes change out of their wetsuits onto their bikes, and then off their bikes and into their running gear. It is HUGE!

There are two distance options: Sprint and International.

Sprint Distance:

0.75K swim
22K bike
5K run

International (aka Olympic) Distance:

1.5K swim
40K bike
10K run

All 3 parts of the race start right outside our window. In past years I've watched a bit w/ my high-powered, motion-control binoculars before leaving for work, but this time since I was on nightfloat (working 7pm to 7am), I was able to drag my bleary eyed self down there to see some of the race in person. The picture to the right shows the the beginning of the run- our building is the skinny one in the middle.

It was really important to me to watch the race in person this year because Adam and I are hoping to do the International length race together next year. (Well, probably not exactly together, because he will swimming briskly while I'll be doing a combo of doggie-paddling, back-stroking, and praying to the swimming gods that I don't drown, but still, we'll be together in spirit.)

There are a few reasons why I want to start doing triathlons:

1) I'm worried that Adam's joints won't put up with distance running forever, so we need other exercise options.

2) The idea of swimming a long way terrifies me and I know, beyond a doubt, that there is no way I could swim 1.5K today. So, completing the swimming portion of a triathlon would be an accomplishment I would be very, very proud of. Probably on the level of completing my first marathon, though to be honest, I think I have way more fear of swimming than I ever did of running 26.2 miles. Just looking at the picture to the left of the swim start raises my blood pressure a little!

3) I think triathletes and soccer players are the most all-around in-shape athletes. I'd like to be all-around in-shape. (The camera man to the right is trying to get a close-up of that guy's pecs.)

4) I've pretty much decided that any race that starts within a 5 minute walk of my front door, I should probably participate in, otherwise I just seem lazy. To the left is a picture of my building at the swim start. See all the white swim caps clumped together? Those are triathletes waiting for the gun to start the swim.

5) Let's face it, I want to do an Ironman someday. I hear when you cross the finish line after this 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 marathon (yes, the only thing harder than running a marathon, is running a marathon AFTER a swim and a bike), they declare you an Ironman and I think it would be way cool to hear them announce "Val Nelson, you are an Ironman!" I would walk around feeling pretty tough for a while after that. Okay, probably I'd be limping around feeling like crap for a while after that but on the inside I'd feel tough;)

So, the triathlon. I'll be relying pretty heavily on the kindness of my husband, aka my new swim coach, to get me ready for the swim portion. Currently I can get from one side of the pool to the other, I can tread water, I can float on my back as long as I need to to avoid drowning, but I can't put my head under water and do the side breathing thing which is what I'll need to learn. Oh, boy, I have a lot to learn before next August!

Watching the triathlon today was super motivational. Thinking about all the work these triathletes have put into training, seeing how in shape many of them are (a testament to the ridiculous diet of most Americans is that fact that the majority of the folks I saw still had an extra 10 + lbs on board!), thinking about when many of these people made the exact decision I made today--> to commit to participating in their first triathlon.

And the spectators! I think I've proclaimed my absolute love of spectators (and especially my spectators!) before. The Chicago Triathlon is both spectator friendly and a huge spectator challenge all at once. For example, you can literally walk next to your triathlete as they swim along Monroe Harbor- great chance to spectate!......if you can find them amongst all the matching swim caps (you can a feel for the 'Where's Waldo' swimmer situation in the pic to the right)......You can easily watch your triathlete come out of the water after the swim and cheer them on along the transition- great chance to spectate!......but then you yourself have to sprint past the transition to the bike start if you want to see them off.....You can easily watch your triathlete during the run- great chance to spectate!......but then you will probably need to do some light jogging to beat your triathlete to the finish line. To the right you can see some random spectators jogging to see their favorite triathlete!

Any takers?

Just 364 days and I will (hopefully!) be that triathlete......

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lombardino's in the Mad City

Last weekend, Sara and I needed to do some Madison based carbo-loading before the Madison Mini-Marathon. I did some Internet searching for "best Italian in Madison" and came across Lombardino's. Their website advertised: "quality and comfort from pizza and pasta". Sounded like a winner!

The food menu is actually really small with only 5 pasta and 5 meat entrees. The menu changes every three months to take advantage of seasonal ingredients, so there is still plenty of variety for locals who come back again and again. I was very grateful for the minimal choices- I get easily overwhelmed by huge menus, so I appreciate when a restaurant decides to only do a few things but to do those things really well. Here's what we ordered (after our glasses of wine, of course!)

Me: Spaghetti alla Bolognese- "The slow-simmered meat sauce of Bologna- locally raised Cates Family Farm beef cooked with Jordandal Farm ground pork, pancetta, tomatoes and white wine, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano". (For those who live near Madison, you can actually order Cates all natural, free range beef to be delivered to your home! Check it out here. Same w/ Jordandal farms.)

Sara: Eggplant Napoletana- "Crisp rounds of eggplant stacked with caramelized onions, basil and mozzarella, set on spaghetti with roasted eggplant, golden raisins and tomato marinara". Yum!

My food was absolutely amazing. Loved every bite of it! I'm hoping I can go there and order the same thing before next year's Mini-Marathon!

The place was very comfortable, if a little kitschy (okay, a LOT kitschy). It reminded me a bit of Lino's but the food was a bit more upscale (fellow Rockfordians- I do NOT mean that as an insult to Lino's, I love that place just the way it is!). The sign on the side of the building (right) says "come as you are" and they really mean it- it's a place where you would be equally comfortable in a logoed tee shirt or a dress. The sign also says "tourists' favorite dining spot" which is sometimes a bad sign, but in this case the restaurant has also won "Best Italian Restaurant" by Madison Magazine multiple years so I think it's agreed upon by tourists and locals alike that it is great! Next time you are in Madison, check it out!

Friday, August 27, 2010

iPad: Fun for the Old(er) and the Young

My grandparents always impress me with their active lives, their knowledge of current events (my Grandma Monson knows way more about the goings-ons in Chicago than I do), and their willingness to keep up to date with technology. They have been using the Internet for a few years with a system called WebTV. Last week they the iPad! At my Mom and Aunt's b-day party last weekend my (>90 yr old) Grandpa was showing off what he's learned thus far and picking up a few new tricks from my Uncle Steve. Ironically, the other party-goer most interested in the iPad was my 2 year old cousin, Braden. I guess he knows how to play games on it! Apple really knows how to launch a product with mass (ages 2-90) appeal!

My Grandma and my cousin, enjoying the backyard BBQ.

Happy Birthday to my Mom and Aunt Donna! My Mom is holding a goose dressed in a tennis outfit, racket and all. Her and my cousin, Anna-Lisa, trade the goose back and forth for various holidays, always in different apparel. We are, indeed, a family of crazy people;)

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Last weekend, Adam and I did something we very rarely do- we went to brunch! Usually weekend mornings are spent working, running, or visiting family and friends but since we didn't need to do any of those 3 things, we instead decided to do what most yuppies in Chicago do best, which is eat.

While almost every restaurant in Chicago offers weekend brunch, there are only 10 or so that are worth the caloric splurge. And I think Wishbone is one of the them. Wishbone describes itself as "Southern Reconstruction Cooking". I'm not really sure what that means so I'll quote their website:

"To some this may suggest yankee carpetbaggers preaching hominy....but to us it was a way of presenting the cooking we grew up with- without the 'Bubba' kitsch or the trappings of lard, sugar, and overcooked vegetables. Our intention was simple: to go back to the basics of preparing sophisticated fresh food at popular prices."

I don't know. The food didn't seem "sophisticated" to me. It seemed like very well made, traditional Southern cooking- I agree with 'back to the basics'. No need to get all fancy in the description.

In the spirit of the restaurant (I mean why go there if you aren't going to go Southern?) Adam had North Carolina crab cakes and I had shrimp and grits. I think I've only ever had shrimp and grits once and that was back in high school. I've carried fond memories of those shrimp and grits with me over the years and was super excited for a fatty, tasty reunion. Wishbone certainly did not disappoint! Their version of shrimp and grits involved mushrooms, scallions and bacon in addition to the creamy grits and, of course, shrimp. Despite my best efforts, I only finished about 1/4 of the serving, but I think my coronary arteries will thank me for that!

Adam enjoyed his food as well. He's actually been there a few times and has had good things to say each time. Another plus of this restaurant is the HUGE drink selection. Tons of alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, including a wide array of fruit drinks. If you are not careful, you could easily drink your daily caloric intake in one sitting!

Wishbone has 2 locations in the City: the West Loop on Washington and up north on Lincoln. My recommendation only extends to brunch- I can't vouch for anything else- but I would say Wishbone is worth integrating into your Chicago brunch cycle!


Yesterday, we had a much deserved girl's night out for dinner. It was so great to relax and see everyone happy and smiling! We ate at a place on North Avenue (near Piece) called Lucia's. It's a BYOB (bring your own beverage) family owned Italian restaurant. I've driven by it a million times but, let's face it, if I'm within half a mile of Piece, I'm going to eat there, so it's hard for neighboring restaurants to compete! But Laura, Wendy, Sara and I decided to give it a whirl.

The restaurant has pros and cons. Overall, I'd say it didn't live up to the hype, but it is a perfectly fine place to have Italian food if you are in the neighborhood (and, again, are able to resist the magnetism towards Piece). The place is very small and cozy with a cute backyard terrace, which is where we sat. The weather was AMAZING, really enjoyed sitting outside. The service was spotty. It was slow, which I don't mind because I like to linger over drinks, food, company, but they seemed kind of put out when we told them we didn't have a reservation, which I find to be a turn off.

The food was fine. Just fine. Before dinner bread was plus/minus. I had meat lasagna. It was good, but nothing special and my husband can make better. We were so busy catching up that we never even talked about the food, so I'm not sure how my friends' food was. Looked good, and I heard no complaints. But given the mediocrity of my food anyway, the prices seemed ridiculous. My lasagna was $17 and that was one of the cheapest items on the menu. I've heard part of the reason the prices are inflated is because since the restaurant is BYOB they don't make money off booze. That may be, but still, the food was overpriced.

Despite the mediocrity of the food and the restaurant, the company was excellent and that's really the most important part, anyway:) Had a great time with the girls. But probably next time we'll have a great time somewhere else;)

I'd say skip Lucia's. If you want good, traditional Italian, make the hike to Dave's Italian Kitchen in Evanston. That remains the best pasta based, American-Italian restaurant I have ever been to and my favorite spaghetti and meatball dish is only $7. And the wine is $5 for a large glass, so almost as cheap as BYOB.

Since I totally forgot to take our picture last night, I thought I'd use a substitute. This picture is of Sara, Wendy, me and Laura at Wendy and Bart's wedding last year. Their 1 year anniversary is this weekend. Happy Anniversary, guys!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My Quest for 50 in 50

That's 50 marathons in 50 states. There's something very appealing about making lists and checking things off of them and this is no exception. Plus once you've run a marathon, what's next? Well for some, it's ultramarathons (any race greater than 26.2 miles, usually 50 or 100 miles) which I will probably eventually do, or triathlons (races w/ swimming, biking, and running components) which Adam and I hope to participate in next year, but in the meantime, I want to start on my 50-in-50 goal. So far, I have 3 states knocked off the list: Illinois (Chicago Marathon), Pennsylvania (Philadephia Marathon) and Washington (Whidbey Island Marathon). So, only 47 to go! And DC. Here are some of the marathons I'm looking forward to doing over the next decade or so;)

This looks like a fun one. The course starts in Bar Harbor, Maine, a quaint tourist town that serves as the gateway to Acadia National Park. The route then travels back and forth from coast to coast on Mount Desert Island "along ocean vistas, pristine lakes, and the mountains of Acadia National Park", according to the website. The course was voted 'Most Scenic' and runner up for 'Best Overall Marathon' in the Runner's World magazine in 2010, out of 435 races! I tried to sign up for the race this year, but it was already full, so I guess I'll use it as an excuse to visit Acadia in the future!

California: Big Sur International Marathon: Running on the Edge of the Western World

This is one of the 'big 10' marathons on most marathoners' life lists. This amazingly beautiful, amazingly hilly thus amazingly TOUGH course follows Highway One along the California coast from Big Sur to Carmel. Highway One is the nation's first nationally designated Scenic Highway. And for good reason. Adam and I traveled in this area on our honeymoon and the view from our convertible of the rocky cliffs w/ ocean waves crashing below was beautiful. I'll bet running it will be just as beautiful, plus I'll be "earning" every view by getting there w/ my own feet! My running buddy, Sara, will be moving to San Francisco next year so this will be a great excuse to make this race happen!

Michigan: Beaver Island Marathon

Beaver Island is a wonderful island in Lake Michigan, usually accessed by ferry from Charlevoix, MI. Many of the islands' residents are relatives of our friend Jay, so his family has vacationed there yearly for most of his life. Adam has tagged along a few times, and actually had his Bachelor's party there. I've been there 2 times now, which is enough to appreciate the charms of a remote island that just got its first paved road in the 1990s. They had their inaugural marathon in 2009. Hopefully, it will be a yearly tradition at least until I can get there to run it!

Ah, yes, the holy grail of marathons. One day, I hope to qualify for this elite race. In my current age group, to qualify for Boston, I would need to run a marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes, which is 8:26/mile pace. My current best for a marathon is nowhere near that. My goal for Chicago on 10/10/10 is 4:15 which is a 9:44/mile pace. So I have a llloooonnnnggg way to go to to improve enough to qualify for Boston. I've been very encouraged by the improvements I've made over the past year. I haven't been trying to get faster per se, just more fit, but I've definitely improved in speed and endurance, surprising myself with a 2:00:19 (9:07/mile) half marathon in May. I think I'm going to try to get Boston ready while my friend Tsoni (from the Purple Pig blog) still lives in Boston, which is just 3 more years. It's always good to have local supporters who can spectate. We'll see!

So I guess technically, when all is said and done, I will have to run 51 in 51 but that doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? So DC will be 51, but it can't be skipped! Good thing there is such a popular, much-loved marathon in the District of Columbia! I've heard wonderful things about this race- the Marine volunteers are great, the scenery is incredible (worth bringing a camera on the run), and the spectators rival Chicago (not sure I believe that one). Since my brother is a Marine, this seems like the perfect DC marathon for me!

Rhode Island is one of those states (like North Dakota and Nebraska) that is often overlooked. But I hear it's beautiful. It ranked #4 on Runner's Worlds Best Marathons of 2010 list. I did the whole google earth thing on the course map and it does look pretty incredible. Almost all of the course is along the coast line. Count me in! I may even be able to swing it this year if we head out that way for vacation in October......

Gotta do New York. It's a must. Probably won't do it for a few years because I imagine it's going to be one heck of an expensive trip, but I'll get to it sooner or later! It's one of the 5 "World Marathon Majors". The World Marathon Majors was started in 2006. Basically, it is a series of marathons (Chicago, New York, Boston, London and Berlin) that offers $1 million prize money to be split equally b/t the top male and female marathoners in the world. What that means for the layrunner like myself is that they are super big, super well run, and super well funded races that attract a very elite filed of runners and thus masses of spectators. Sounds good to me!

Obviousely, there are many more races to be run in addition to the above. And there will be some very boring states (Kansas comes to mind) that have to be dealt with. So keep in mind which states you'd like to visit and maybe you can use spectating for me as an excuse to travel;)

And when this is done, I can start working on the 7 continents.....(yes, there is a marathon in Antarctica).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Madison Mini-Marathon Race Report

This weekend my friend Sara and I took a road trip to Madison, Wisconsin to run the Madison Mini-Marathon (13.1 miles). Our intentions in signing up for this race were threefold: 1) to provide a little motivation to keep up our running during 4 very hard work months (me in the MICU, Sara at the VA hospital-some day I’ll write a post discussing the craziness of the Veterans Administration healthcare system!), 2) to celebrate our freedom from our tough work months and 3) to remind us how out of shape we are to kick start the rest of our marathon training. I think I speak for both us of in saying that the race served its purpose (particularly #3!).

We weren't able to le
ave Chi-town until around 4:30 pm so we got stuck in terrible, terrible traffic leaving Chicago. But we rocked out to some Prince, watched the sunset and drove as fast as possible once the traffic cleared to make it to Madison in time to pick up our race packets. One of the most fun parts of doing races is getting the T-shirt and the goody bag. Great t-shirt; so-so goodies- an odd collection of sunscreen, Wheaties, and a book with 'buy-one-get-one-free' drink coupons. So they want us to avoid skin cancer, eat like champions, then go get drunk?? Well, it is Wisconsin after all;)

We barely made it to the race on time, because traffic was CRAZY. Who knew such a small town could have so much traffic. But we made it, and crossed the start line with our pace group (i.e. the slowy-McSlows). The course first went through downtown, by the Capitol building and past the farmers' market. The smells of fresh produce, bread, and coffee were TORTURE!! But they also served as a reminder of all the tasty stuff there is in the world, which is why we need to run to burn off calories, to make room for more tasty stuff!

I was suffering for the first few miles. I never really get "in the zone" so to speak until after 4 to 6 miles. So the first few miles of the race usually suck about as much as the last few. Right before mile 3 when I was really hating life, we came across our fan club! Perfect timing! My Mom, Aunt Donna, Uncle Steve and Cousin Anna-Lisa were kind enough to donate their Saturday morning to cheering us on! And, thanks to my cousin's superb navigation skills, they spectated at a record 7 different sites! My Uncle Steve took some great pics (including the one of me to the right and the one of Sara and I at the end of the blog), which I am so grateful for. It's funny, there are pictures before we spot them and we look like crap- so tired, our faces are sagging, we look like our childhood dog just died- but then we see my fam and our faces light up. Seeing spectators truly gives me energy for at least 2 miles. Thanks again, guys. You really made my race!

The course was beautiful. Most of it was in the woods (the Arboretum) or on lake shores (both Wingra and Monona) or by marshes. So picturesque. I'll definitely come back again. The race was very well organized with plenty of water and misters. Good post race grub. Really, I have no complaints about this race and would recommend it to anyone- first timers or veterans.

Most importantly, Sara and I trudged to the finish and completed a 1/2 marathon after no sleep, bad food, and constant stress for the previous 28 days. We rock. We then partook in an excellent lunch at my aunt's house, and drove with the top down in Elly back to Chicago. A perfect way to spend our first 24 hours of freedom!

Green Pork Chili with Cilantro Lime Rice

As most of you know, Adam is an excellent cook. I am very lucky to be able to eat such flavorful food on a regular basis. I suppose part of the reason I became a runner is to burn off the calories of deliciousness that come out of our kitchen on a weekly basis. The picture above does not do justice to this yummy meal- I guess you'll have to take my word for it! Here's what we had last week:

Green Pork Chili (recipe courtesy of Bobby Flay)

2 red onions, chopped
1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved
3 jalapenos, stemmed, seeded, and halved
2 garlic gloves
4 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch cubes
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F

In a large bowl, toss the onions, tomatillos, jalapenos, and garlic with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and spread in a 9x12 cake pan. Roast until soft and starting to brown, about 20-30 minutes, stirring twice during roasting.

Meanwhile, in a large stock pot over medium-heat, add the oil. Brown the pork, in batches, until well-browned. When browned, add all of the pork back to the pan and cover with chicken stock. Add the roasted vegetables, cover the pan and simmer of low heat. Cook until the pork is very tender, about 1.5 hours (oven dependent).

When the pork is done cooking, use a slotted spoon to remove it from the rest of the chili. Place the cilantro in a food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of water and puree. Add the chili vegetables and liquid to the mix and puree as well. Add the pork back to the cilantro-vegetable puree. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper and squeeze in the juice of 2 limes.

Serve over cilantro lime rice.

Cilantro lime rice:

2 cups long grain white rice (Adam emphasizes: NOT minute rice). In a medium stock pan add 3 cups water or broth, add 2 tablespoons butter or margarine. Bring to a boil. Stir it once, cover with lid. Reduce heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Let sit for 10 minutes. Then, in large bowl, take 1/2 cup of freshly cut cilantro, the juice of 3 limes, and 2 tablespoons of salt and mix rice with them all. Put in bowl. Serve chili over rice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everything comes in a box

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is currently performing lots of renovations. I'm not sure what all they are working on but there are lots of hallways closed. Particularly inconvenient was the blockade on our way to the cafeteria from the MICU:(. Another side effect of the renovations is that there are boxes everywhere. Usually Northwestern is spic and span but lately there seem to boxes all over! On my way up to the MICU last week, someone got off on the Cardiology Critical Care Unit, and I saw a Tandem Heart box. Looking at that box, it really struck me that virtually everything comes in a box. Being married to a designer, I tend to pay a little extra attention to logos, fonts, and packaging. But it still blew me away a little that a Tandem Heart comes in a cardboard box like everything else!

A Tandem Heart is a "cardiac assist" device that basically does the work of pumping blood through the heart when the heart is too weak pump itself. The system is very complex but basically there is a centrifugal pump placed on the right thigh that is connected to the femoral artery and vein and serves to pull oxygenated blood from the left atrium to the aorta so that the left ventricle doesn't have to do any work (the most common type of heart failure is left ventricular failure). It can be used when people have massive heart attacks or when people with end-stage heart failure whose hearts are working at only 5-10% capacity need an interim solution while they wait for heart transplants. For those who follow Grey's Anatomy, the Tandem Heart is a similar device to that Izzie's boyfriend, Dennie, had before he died. Though the papers tried to be coy and evasive about former vice president Dick Cheney's recent hospitalization, I think he is pretty close to needing a device like a Tandem Heart.

So, a Tandem Heart is probably one of our most advanced pieces of medical technology, essentially a mechanical heart, and it still comes in a nice cardboard box with a "Tandem Heart" logo. Give it a few years and we'll be able to buy them with free shipping on!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Air and Water Show

Last weekend was the 52nd annual Chicago Air and Water Show. The CAWS is the largest and oldest free admission air show in the world. I've always enjoyed the air show, but even more so now that my brother is a fighter pilot (see picture to the right). You can imagine the street cred I get during the air show when I bring that up. Since we moved from Hyde Park to Lakeshore East (our current neighborhood), we've been able to watch the Air part of the show from our apartment which is awesome! Last year, however we walked down to see the show close up and when the super loud, super fast F-16 started tooling around the city, I was sure to mention to strangers, "You know my brother is a Marine Fighter Pilot". I'm pretty sure if I was single this would work as a pick-up line. Sorta the female equivalent of males having cute puppies. Kind of a "love my dog, love me" or, in my case it would be "love my brother, love me" phenomenon.

Another highlight of the show is the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels are a Navy flight demonstration team, created in the 1940s to keep up public interest in Naval Aviation. They fly in formations, do stunts, and generally please the land based crowd. They currently fly Hornets (the type of plane changes over time). The Blue Angels do all kinds of fly bys directly past our building which is very cool, and downright convenient on a hot day like yesterday:)

My brother, Garrett, flies Prowlers. One of the many things Prowlers specialize is is "jamming" electronic signals in enemy territory. For example, Prowlers can jam remote detonation devices, preventing bombs, etc from going off.

A couple years ago, Garrett took me up in one of his training planes. It was so fun! He went pretty easy on me- I'm pretty sure he could have easily made me very sick if he wanted to!

Garrett taking me for a ride over Whidbey Island.

Garrett with Mom and Dad at his winging in Meridian, Mississippi.

Me in the co-pilot seat, flying over Whidbey Island.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

7th Wedding Anniversary Weekend, Part 2: Away (L2O)

For our big anniversary dinner, Adam and I went to a Chicago restaurant called L20. This is a restaurant that had been recommended to Adam by some of his super-foodie colleagues, like Greg Hall, the brewmaster at Goose Island. It also happened to be on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show.

L20 is in Lincoln Park inside the Beldon Stratford, a boutique hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Places. We had never heard of the hotel, but the lobby was very cute (see Adam to the left). I imagine the rooms are cute as well.

Overall, L20 was absolutely amazing. It's the kind of place that deserves to be called more than a restaurant, it would be more fair to call it a dining experience. From the moment we opened the big wooden restaurant entry door (to the right), to the moment our server walked us out of the restaurant and hailed us a cab after dinner, every detail of our experience was perfectly executed.

We opened the door to a hostess and a few servers waiting for us. They all said "Happy Anniversary" right away and we were guided to our table. The best way I can describe the ambiance of this place is "modern Zen". The music, the fixtures, the tables and chairs--> it felt like a spa. There is no way to be stressed in this restaurant- every detail whispers "relax, relax". I can't possibly do justice to the beautiful simplicity of this restaurant. I strongly recommend that you take a second to go to their website. Check out the different pages to get a feel for the place. Even if you never intend to go here, the website is still a fun experience within itself. Be sure your computer's sound is on.

L20 is one of those high end restaurants where every single detail is attended to, every water glass is always filled, every course is perfectly plated, every move of the servers is perfectly choreographed. For example, I noticed the server to table ratio is 1:2 and on the rare instances where a party's server is occupied, any other server will swoop in to take their place. When courses are served they are given to both members of each party at exactly the same time- actually, they are even more particular than that- they served me about 2 seconds before Adam, ladies first and all that. After we finished each course, our plates were immediately bussed, any stray crumbs or drops of water were immediately wiped from the table, and cutlery for the next course was laid out.
Ah, perfection.

One of the many details I enjoyed was the blue tint on the bottom of the glasses. I thought this was really cool. Maybe I'm easily amused but that splash of color really added to the look of our table.

On to the food....Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures of the food because it just didn't seem like the kind of place to get out a camera. Hopefully, my descriptions can do the food some kind of justice! (I did borrow some photos from other L20 customers that I found on-line.) Even touching and opening the (personalized) menu was an experience. The paper was this wonderfully strange texture- kind of like fuzzy rubber. Adam said it's called "curious wet", which is a pretty good description. Adam had already decided that we were going to go all out and partake of the Luxury Tasting Menu. I initially balked at the price and wanted to go for the Seasonal Tasting Menu which I'm sure is amazing as well, but I'm glad he talked me into the luxury version- I had some foods that I've never had before. I've been lucky enough to have so many great meals that it takes a special place to offer something new to me- but this place sure did! If I had to be pinned down as to the food type offered at L20, I would say Japanese/French fusion with a focus on seafood. The chef, Laurent Gras, is certainly French.

Here's a quick description of the food from their webpage:

"Collaborating with small artisanal purveyors around the globe, Gras is able to serve unique selections of top-quality ingredients such as hirame from the Hokkaido and Kinki prefectures in Japan, Spanish octopus from the Galicia region of Spain and codfish from Maine. Gras’ fierce attention to detail is felt throughout, as even the bread, naturally leavened, is made in-house as are staples like butter, yogurt and crème fraîche."

Here's a run down of our courses:

Amuse bouche


Kindai Toro, Ossetra Caviar

Geoduck Ceviche, Citrus

Foie Gras, Watermelon, Pasilla

Cappeli, Ricotta, Ramp

Wild Japanese Hamo Robatayki

Lobster, Hibiscus Mole

Nameki, Sake

Rangers Valley Wagyu, Truffle Emulsion

Bing Cherry, Rainer Cherry

Chocolate Surprise

Every course was amazing. Perfectly prepared, absolutely beautiful plating, a truly luxurious array of unique flavors and textures. Here, I'll point out some of the highlights.

Course 2: Kindai Toro, Ossetra Caviar
This was my favorite for many reasons. It was also Adam's favorite, so it must have been the best! I have never had it before (you'll see why when you read the story of the fish), it was so delicious, and the story is so cool! So Kindai is a type of blue fin tuna that the L20 blog describes as "the ultimate combination of sustainability and exquisite taste". It is produced by the Kinki University Fisheries Culture and Nursery Center in Japan. The tuna are born in university labs which means their environment is impeccably maintained (no pollution) and they are not taken from the ocean (no risk of depopulation). The university uses a low population-density farming method giving the fish plenty of room to exercise. They are not only organically raised but they actually have a record of everything each fish has ever eaten since birth. Each fish comes to the States with its own certificate of authenticity. The goal of the Kinki university is to "bring to market the most pristine product ever cultivated". These fish are so special and so rare that only 2-3 pieces of Kindai are imported into the US every week. Seriously, this is some special fish.

And if this story isn't enough to make you salivate, we got to have 'toro' which is the belly of the blue fin tuna, which is the best part. After the server told us the story of the Kindai, I wondered if any food could live up to such hype. Well, it did. The fish melted in my mouth. It tasted like good, clean protein, with just a hint of sweet fishy taste. The caviar was incredible. It had the texture of bone marrow (soft, buttery) but with it's own wonderful salty flavor. Like little flavor packed bites of joy. I've never had really high-end caviar before. I now understand why people spend so much money on the stuff!

Course 3: Geoduck Ceviche, Citrus: This was another item I had never tried. The geoduck clam is the largest burrowing clam in the world, averaging 3 lbs (but can be up to 15 lbs and 2 meters long). They are native to the Pacific coast of US and Canada and have a life expectancy of 146 years! Geoduck is a delicacy mostly enjoyed in the US, Japan and China. Because of its large size, geoduck can be very hard to cook. It was very thick, but somehow still pleasing. I could easily imagine that it would be chewy, however, if prepared imperfectly. The citrus added a nice lightness in contrast to the density of the meat itself.

Course 4: Foie Gras, Watermelon (rehydrated), Pasilla
Alright guys and gals. I know all the controversy about Foie Gras in Chicago. On some level I agree w/ PETA and friends that it is totally not cool to force feed poor innocent ducks to make a fatty, delicious treat for humans to consume. Heck, I don't even eat veal because I feel so bad about the baby cows being confined. But this foie gras was beyond delicious. It was like a duck meat marshmallow. Fluffy and meat are not two words that I would usually put together, but in this case I would. And the rehydrated watermelon was a perfect accompaniment- added a nice, sweet, crunch. (Rehydrating food is when it is dehydrated, then some water is added back to create a denser, more flavor concentrated version of the food.)

Course 6: Wild Japanese Hamo Robatayki
When Adam tried this course, he said, "wow this tastes like eel!". And he was correct. Hamo is the japanese word for pike eel. This particular species is known as the "fish of a thousand bones" because it has so many bones that requires due diligence on the part of the chef to remove. According to L20 the chef must "mince the flesh widthwise every 1/16th of an inch to cut and break down all the tiny bones". They must do this with a special "hamokiri" knife. It requires lots of practice to cut the bones without cutting the skin and loin. I don't think we'll be making this ourselves at home anytime soon! The Hamo is a seasonal summer delicacy in parts of Japan. This was Adam's 2nd favorite course.

Course 9: Rangers Valley Wagyu, Truffle Emulsion
I was initially introduced to wagyu beef by my brother who is an excellent cook and is a foodie in his own right. He has the sometimes difficult task of being a small town foodie- he has most recently lived in Meridian, Mississippi (actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure he ever found any gourmet destinations there), then Whidbey Island, Washington (there is some good food to be had there) and now lives in Cherry Point, North Carolina. But he appreciates a good meal and seeks them out. For one of my birthdays, he sent me some Wagyu beef. Wagyu refers to a breed (or group of breeds) of cattle that produce particularly well marbelled, tender and juicy cuts of meat.

The Wagyu at L20 was definitely up to snuff and the truffle emulsion really added to the deliciousness. I've had Wagyu multiple times now. What set this piece of meat apart from others I've had was the texture- so smooth, so soft. Wish I had some right now to go with the merlot (Chateau Grand Traverse, Old Mission Peninsula, 2005) that I'm drinking as I write this!!

Course 11: Chocolate Surprise and Friends:
This course consisted of the Chocolate Surprise which was a rectangular chocolate shell w/ chocolate, caramel and peanut butter inside (yum!), as well as a wonderful chocolate coated egg w/ liquid caramel inside (we were instructed to eat it in 1 bite, thank goodness for the warning or there would have been liquid caramel everywhere!), a housemade biscuit (cookie), and a housemade Macaroon (delicious!). After 11 amazing courses I was stuffed. I haven't been that full since I ate 16 Little Ceasar's pizzas on a dare in high school. Seriously.

If you can believe it, I think there are actually a couple courses missing from the above menu. We had a great morel mushroom course at some point. Most of the time, when you order a tasting menu, there are a couple of extras thrown in for good measure. I wish I had planned for that and eaten a bit less bread! By the time we left I was truly concerned that I might pop if the cabbie took a corner too tightly!

At the end of the meal, our server presented us with our menus and walked us out to get us a cab. The food, the ambiance, the service, the company, the occasion....this was the 2nd best dining experience I've had in my 32 years on this Earth. The only reason I say 2nd is because I think the quirky humor in my Moto meal made it #1 (this is where Adam and I went for my birthday last January). I really need to do a blog post about that one!

I highly recommend L20. You really can't go wrong here. Worth every dollar. (Thank goodness, because we sure spent a lot of dollars!). Here's to another great meal in celebration of another great year of marriage! I love you, Adam;)