Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dedicated to Organic & Sustainable: Chalkboard Restaurant

Even though we enjoyed dinner at Chalkboard Restaurant in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago last night at 5:00 p.m., my husband and I aren't senior citizens. We were having a celebratory dinner with our son before heading off to an early poetry reading on the westside.

As we entered, a gaggle of 20-something women were getting ready to leave after holding a bridal shower at the restaurant during its afternoon tea session. We were the first to arrive for the dinner seating and had the whole place to ourselves for awhile.

Chalkboard, a long, cozy room of simple, yet highly tasteful elegance, reminded my husband and I of the Fritz & Frites bistro we had fallen in love with during a recent weekend in Galena, Ill. Chalkboard is what it says, its menu a huge chalkboard wall, divided into appetizers and entrees, changing daily and actually before our eyes. The changeability of the menu reflects dishes prepared "as much as possible" from organic and sustainable foods in season or of particular availability from local suppliers.

Selections vary from emphasis on nouvelle cuisine to southern comfort. The chef, Gilbert, received some of his culinary indoctrination in the south, and offers an utterly delicious southern fried chicken and gouda mac and cheese as regular standbys. The chicken reminded me of the fabulous "Chicken in the Rough" recipe I cherished as a child, which originated in Oklahoma City. Actually, Chalkboard's is much better, making theirs using free-range chicken, teamed with collard greens and heaped mashed potatoes with sausage gravy to die for.

Two of us noshed on the house salad, made mainly of baby argula and garnished with a simple olive oil, lemon and parmesan dressing, of which its tastes together excelled its parts. Entree-wise, my son opted for the organic pork tenderloin with creamed corn dotted with red peppercorns and sprinkled with arugula. The expression of bliss remained on his face throughout his meal. My husband enjoyed the vegetable pot pie, served in a sizeable black bucket, using chunky pieces and/or whole organic beans, carrots, brussel sprouts and cauliflower.

A "dessert" of foie gras in caramel sauce was recommended. Amusingly, it arrived at the table with upright squares of toast and foie gras balanced atop looking like a small Stonehenge. Upon eating, it really didn't do it for me, but my son thought it was spectacular.

Service was top-notch from our server, Nick, who in a friendly, easy fashion explained dinner details that appeared on the chalkboard and made wine recommendations when asked. We really liked the place and look forward to bringing friends along for our next visit. 4343 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Remembering Effie Mihopoulos

Chicago poet and arts critic Effie Mihopoulos, who published and promoted her fellow poets for decades, and took an active role in the Chicago dance and theater scene, passed away from breast cancer on Thursday, January 14, 2010.

When I first met Effie Mihopoulos, she struck me as fun, friendly, eccentric and bigger than life. And that's exactly who she was. I was a graduate student at Northeastern Illinois University, studying English literature at night, working in Marshall Field's hardcover book department as a management/buyer trainee by day. One evening, I found out that Northeastern was holding its semi-monthly Apocalypse poetry reading series in the very room in which I just had taken a class.

I had been feverishly writing poetry for the past year, taking up the pen in a more serious fashion after being part of an undergraduate workshop at University of Illinois at Chicago with poet Michael Anania. I decided to attend the Apocalypse reading. Effie spotted me as a new face and introduced herself. Wearing flashy gypsy earrings and funky little slogan buttons on her jacket, she took me around the room to acquaint me with some of the "regulars" who frequented the series, such as Art Lange, Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Terry Jacobus, Barbara Barg, Peter Kostakis, Arnie April, Rose Lesniak, and even Bob Holman, who used to live in Chicago. Richard Friedman and Darlene Pearlstein were on hand, ones who also ran the ongoing Yellow Press Series at the Body Politic Theater every Monday night.

After I read at the Apocalypse open mike a few times, Effie asked that I submit pieces to her poetry magazine, Mati, which she subsequently published. Effie lived nearby the Northeastern campus. I stopped by every so often and got to know her and her darling mother better. Even though Mrs. Mihopoulos didn't speak a word of English, I grew close to her thanks to Effie's rapid-fire translation skills between my English and her Greek. I yearned to learn more about the poetry publishing process, and Effie agreed to take me under her wing, making me an intern of sorts and eventually "managing editor" of both "Mati" and "Salome: A Literary Dance Magazine," another of her publications under the Ommation Press imprint.

Effie and I hung out quite a bit in those days, meeting up at Body Politic poetry readings and at universities, attending dance performances together at MoMing and Auditorium Theater, and even party hopping one New Year's Eve, making appearances at five different get-togethers.

On a non-literary note, Effie and I shared an interest in Japanese culture, rubber stamp madness and a passion for Steve McQueen. We watched short documentaries about Japanese tea ceremonies and cloth dying. We created haikus on handmade paper embellished with rubber stamps on her dining room table. Effie had a huge poster in her dining room of Steve McQueen on a motorcycle from "The Great Escape."

In fact, Effie loved blond men in general, shunning her Greek counterparts who she called male chauvinist pigs. But in all the years I knew Effie, I never saw her with a boyfriend, though she had many male friends. One day, she came to my office downtown with a handful of photos of her arm-in-arm with some righteous blond beefcake, who she evidently met in Florida during spring break. I was happy for her temporary bliss, but sad as well because she never had a long-term partner or close family after her mother died. But that was her calling.

Effie saw her own work reach book form in The Moon Cycle and Languid Love Lyrics. However, one of Effie's greatest literary triumphs was publishing Cornelius Eady's Victims of the Latest Dance Craze poetry collection via Ommation Press. Effie was vacationing in Greece when word reached her that the Academy of American Poets in New York had given the book the Lamont Prize in 1985. The Lamont was awarded for the best second poetry volume of a poet published that year. Never had an award of this caliber been given to a work published by a press so small and independent.

Effie Mihopoulos, over the decades, helped carve a pathway to the lively, active poetry scene that Chicago enjoys today. She will be missed and remembered by all who knew her. A memorial service is planned for Friday, March 5, 2010 5-7 p.m. at Northeastern Illinois University in Alumni Hall, as well as on Saturday, March 6, from 1-3 p.m. at the Newberry Library where poets and friends are invited to read something in Effie's honor, pay last respects and offer fond remembrances of Effie.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Paradise found: for the scrub of many lifetimes

I must be still ringing in the New Year, because I finally got around to my semi-annual treat of a body scrub at Paradise Sauna in Chicago (on Montrose near California) on my day off. Yeah, people tell me about the great salt scrub they had at a special resort, or an energizing sugar scrub they received at some other chic spa. Believe me, as humble as the place is, there's no where else on earth where you will experience a cleansing body scrub of the caliber that Paradise offers. This Korean-run enterprise, which is to me one of Chicago's hidden gems, has the hottest, strongest jet spa tub I've ever hopped into, a dry sauna, a cold plunge pool and quite excellent steam room, as well as body scrubs and massages at an additional charge. Men and women have their own complete, separate facilities.

My exfoliator, Catty (emphasis on first syllable), was a little grumpy and bossy early on a Friday morning (if you can be bossy using hand signals and grunts, since she speaks only Korean). However, she delivered a dynamite, if somewhat brutal, body scrub using special mitts that must be a Korean secret or something, because I've never seen them anywhere else.

It reminded me of the rough treatment Tony Bourdain once received in a Turkish hammam on a "No Reservations" episode. The Chicago Tribune calls the Paradise experience "a once-in-a-lifetime scrub." I wager I've had many lifetimes scrubbed away at Paradise, and for some reason, I keep returning.

I've dragged numerous skeptical friends to Paradise who claim they scrub thoroughly every day in the shower with a loofah. Ultimately, they are shocked by the amount of dead skin one of these samari ladies at Paradise roll off their hides. Admission to the general spa room is $18; a half-hour body scrub is another $30.

When Catty finally slid me off the scrub table as if she were pulling a slick martial arts move, it was a good thing I landed on my feet. It was all over and, only then, she cracked a sly smile. Was this her repayment for the war or something? Wait a minute. She's Korean, not Japanese. My father-in-law fought in her country for their freedom. Maybe she's just bored, or awfully mad I got her out of bed so early for the appt.

As I drove off with newly smooth, silky skin, I felt more rested and glowing than ever. Strange how such an intense experience of relentless due diligence could leave me feeling so light. Then, I turned a corner and suddenly found myself in front of Rod Blagojevich's house on Sunnyside and Richmond. Not wanting to spoil my good mood, I hit the accelerator. Ah, only a block away from Paradise, but for Blago, it might as well be 10,000 miles. ◦