January 24, 2011

The Music Idea: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (or, a letter to Mr. West)

Oh Kanye, I'm so glad that you take the time to make music when you're not making a d-bag of yourself in the public scene. Your music (like your ego), is polarizing (I know for a fact that Clara really doesn't like your stuff), but even though I've never thought too highly of you in the past, I've decided to accept you for who you are because of your latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Now, normally I like to think of myself as a nice person who condones nice person things and nice people who follow nice person goals, but your latest album has made me appreciate your abrasive ways with (almost) every song. With this album, you have surrounded the quintessence of Kanye with a chrysalis and given it time to mature, utilizing your media stunts of the past few years as silk. Like a fine wine, your douchebaggery has aged from a pungent, unappreciable state to a refined elixir that bathes every piece of your work in an eccentric, pseudo-satire, forcing a constant “Oh Kanye, you so crazy.”

I can't tell if this is intentional. Maybe you're a genius (for all I know, everything you've said so far could have been for this album), or maybe you're just an eccentric musician with too much time on his hands. Is POWER nothing but a constant stream of braggadocio, or is it a commentary on the socioeconomic status of the United States (and the world for that matter)? Is it both? I have no idea, and I'm fine with that. What I do know, though, is that your latest album has (almost exclusively) been playing on my iPod since its release. While I'm not sure whether I should think of your work as that of a power-crazed madman or spawned of a brilliant manipulator of the public eye, I see its merit nonetheless, and hope that my readers will take my suggestion and give your album a chance.

Keep doing what you're doing- whatever it may be.



January 23, 2011

The Food + Travel Idea: Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate. These two words in unison invoke thoughts of cozy, wintry nights spent huddled around the fireplace- a traditional scene. Chicago's chic, new-age inspired Hot Chocolate takes this old, family-centric image, covers it in underground art, gives it a cow-skull hat, and a single strong spank. Based on a high Yelp score and the desire to find out how remix-ready a staple of my winter diet is, we spent an hour or so at Hot Chocolate.

Clara and I met up with her brother and his wife, both of who live in Chicago, and got a large shared table in the back of the restaurant. If you're one who relies heavily on first impressions,

1) Let me know so I can prepare if we ever meet, and

2) You'll agree with everything I've said so far upon setting foot in Hot Chocolate.

The walls of the small, dimly-lit restaurant are covered with odd, progressive artwork and surround an environment fueled by loud, pulsating ambient music and the constant chatter of the hipster elite.

In order to better understand the restaurant's allure, the four of us ordered the following:

-Two hot chocolates (Mexican and Affogato)

-Warm Brioche Doughnuts

-Chocolate #1

-a banana-themed dessert (I don't remember its exact name, but it was good)

Our initial reaction was that all of it was extremely rich, and that the amount we ordered was perfect for four people to share. The hot chocolate was (appropriately) excellent, and even though the anti-cinnamon activists at my table rejected my Mexican Hot Chocolate, that just meant that there was more for me. The accessory elements in each dish were there for a purpose: the super-salted thin pretzels with the Chocolate #1 complemented the semi-sweetened chocolate-lava that filled the souffle, and the Warm Brioche Doughnuts' chocolate dipping sauce made a soft, warm delicacy even warmer and more gooey.

Oh, and I almost forgot- they do brunch, lunch, and dinner as well (but I have no experience with any of these things, so look elsewhere for info!).

If you ever feel like releasing your inner hipster but just can't shake the hot chocolate blues that come with the bite of midwestern winters, I heartily suggest Hot Chocolate for relief.

The Food + Travel Idea: Piccolo Sogno

Piccolo Sogno, originally Italian, when translated to English means “little dream-” the perfect descriptor for this marine blue star of a restaurant. I made reservations for the two of us here for our night out on the Windy City, and would jump at the chance to eat here again. This restaurant sets itself apart from the mafia meeting-place, family-run Italian restaurants generally associated with Chicago in a few big ways.

From simply browsing the website, you can safely assume that the restaurant is fairly invested in its own style and outward appearances (it's got a really refined, web 2.0 kind of setup- kudos to whoever designed it). This assumption holds true on-site as well, as all the design aspects contribute to a cozy, comfortable vibe that's perfect for romantic outings and dinners with family.

How about the food? Well, if you like seafood, you're in luck (I feel like all I've written about is fish). Piccolo Sogno specializes in food from Southern Italy, serving up a fishing village's worth of the sea's fruits. Clara ordered the black (squid-ink) spaghetti Frutti del Mare, and I got a similar dish with more seafood and no pasta- their seafood stew. Both dishes were delicious, and I can only assume that most other seafood-inspired dishes on their menu are of similar quality.

Our waiter was helpful, if not a bit passive in helping us decide which entree to order. At first we thought he had a fake Italian accent, but it wasn't until we took our time and listened to the wait staff's conversations with one another that we realized it was probably just an over-eccentric Spanish accent. Nonetheless, he helped make the dinner successful, and for that he gets my stamp of approval.

For more information, or if you simply want to see the website's cool, refined design, check out Piccolo Sogno online at piccolosognorestaurant.com.

The Movie Ideas: No Strings Attached & The King's Speech

Yesterday, my friend Mary, Max, and I went to see No Strings Attached in theaters. It stars Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman as two bests friends who use each other for sex. The question is: can two friends be sex friends? Although this movie was rated 49% by rotten tomatoes, I thought it was a very witty and funny feel-good movie. I would suggest this movie if you need a pick-me-up.

Afterwards, Max and I stayed for the King's Speech. One word: brilliant. I couldn't imagine a better cast and Colin Firth's acting was superb (he won best actor in the Golden Globes). Geoffrey Rush, the actor who plays the king's speech therapist, was also remarkable (I believed he should win best supporting actor). For those of you who are unfamiliar, this movie chronicles the life of King George VI and his stutter. He decides to hire a therapist who eventually becomes his best friend. This movie was beautifully written, touching, and awe-inspiring. And the soundtrack, composed by Alexandre Desplat, was marvelous. I can only say good things about this movie - definitely one of the best movies of the year. I highly recommend that you see it; it's worth every penny. (P.S. Max agrees).

The Cooking Idea: Pasta Carbonara

A couple of days ago, Max decided to surprise me with ingredients for pasta carbonara! The recipe we used (with a few minor modifications) can be found in epicurious: Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

We cooked it together in our dorm kitchen. Some highlights of our fun time cooking:

- we were pestered by a few friends from our floor to cook them bacon, so I reluctantly obliged (my friend Rajan said that he wouldn't stop making chinese jokes unless I made him some...)
- Max couldn't stop crying (he blamed it on the onion)
- we didn't have a sharp knife (imagine cutting raw bacon...)

The final result was very delicious! It looks tasty, doesn't it? I suggest you try this recipe yourself.

January 11, 2011

The Sightseeing Idea: Navy Pier

If you've never seen the Chicago skyline, the Navy Pier is definitely one place to do it. Although we went in the winter, I would suggest visiting in the summer, when the temperature outside isn't unbearably cold and when everything outside is open (including the outdoor shops and the theme park). Max and I walked in the mall for a while, toured the arboretum, looked at the stained glass gallery, and took a very (VERY) short walk outside. We happened to stumble by a nice couple outside who took a beautiful picture for us (see above).

By coincidence, there was a cheer and dance championship (!) happening in the mall at the same time, and seeing kids younger than 10 in short shorts with belly buttons showing and heavy make-up was a very unsettling sight. What has our world come to? I swear, I would never let my kids wear such a skimpy outfit when the weather outside is below freezing (actually, I wouldn't let them wear something like that at all).

Anywayyy, the stained glass gallery was nice. There were a few Tiffany pieces on display and I even took a picture of my favorite one:

I guess my only complaint is how expensive parking was ($18!). Although it's to be expected in a big city, I can't say that our 2 hours there was truly worth it. I'm sure it's much better in the summer. I would say that the Navy Pier is one of those places that you visit once every 10 years (or more).

The Food Idea: The Grand Lux Cafe

If you've ever been to the Cheesecake Factory, the Grand Lux Cafe shouldn't be too much of a surprise for your palate. Being a part of my family easily qualifies you as a seasoned veteran of all things Cheesecake Factory. It's not uncommon to see the Alexander clan, five deep, sitting nicely at a table within The Factory's hallowed walls. We put our aggressions aside and replace them with the worldly (but still Americanized) dishes of the Cheesecake Factory's menu.

Conceptually, the Grand Lux Cafe is nothing more than a Cheesecake Factory with a sprig of parsley perched atop its faux-Venetian exterior, but it's that extra sprig of parsley that makes the entire experience feel all the classier. While the Grand Lux's added class is nice, though (and I still enjoyed my time there), it doesn't completely annul the problems that the restaurant faces.

Upon entering the Grand Lux Cafe, you are enveloped by a whirlwind of orange, yellow, and dark red that gives a casual (yet still somewhat refined) sensibility to the entire restaurant. It's not entirely convincing, but hey- I'm willing to put aside my critiques if it means I can enjoy a good, solid meal. Clara and I were seated in a circular room overlooking Michigan Avenue, lined with artwork of a decidedly modest style. The view was nice, the ambiance was welcoming, and our waitress was eager to help.

As I'm familiar with both the Grand Lux and Cheesecake Factory menus, I decided to order one of my favorite standbys: chicken enchiladas (boring, I know, but hey- they're good). Clara, more adventurously, ordered the restaurant's DeLux Breakfast Sandwich, which promised all the protein-rich fixings of a home-style breakfast (and then some) sandwiched between two slices of brioche. Both dishes were, as expected, above average, and were perfect fuel for the day ahead.

Don't get me wrong, I love this restaurant, it does what is advertised. The Grand Lux Cafe is a consistently adequate, fairly classy restaurant. Like a workhorse in a tuxedo, it gets the job done while still maintaining a refined sensibility, accessible to even the most unexperienced of tenderfoots in the world of fine dining.

The Travel Idea: Chicago (Revisited)

A few days ago I posted about our plans to take a day trip in Chicago, which has come and gone. Because the whole point of this blog is to keep you, the reader, posted on our thoughts regarding the things that we experience, here's a general list of the events of our Chicago day-trip:

1. Lunch (Grand Lux Cafe)

2. Sightseeing (Navy Pier)

3. Shopping (Michigan Avenue)

4. Dinner (Piccolo Sogno) (spoiler: yum)

5. Concert (Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

6. Dessert (Hot Chocolate)

7. Brunch (Tweet)

In the following days we'll bring detailed coverage of our time and our thoughts on how The Windy City treated us!

January 7, 2011

The Book Idea: Water for Elephants

I just finished Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants today. It was an amazing read, worthy of the 6 hours I spent on it. The book is about a 90- (or 93-) year-old man who reminisces about his time working as a vet for the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Sara Gruen's writing style is spectacular and gripping, employing numerous words foreign to me (such as bowdlerize, which means to remove material that is considered improper or offensive).

Max's and my original plan was to read this book at the same time, but nothing ever goes according to plan, right? Anyway, I told him he would love this book (there are, after all, three sex scenes in it...)

I would also strongly advise everyone out there to read this book as well. It's superb. The average 4.5 star rating from 2,121 users of Amazon agree. And they're making a new movie as well (even though they're starring Robert Pattinson as the main character). Take a little time out of your hectic life and read this now before there are over 200 hold requests at the library.

The Travel Idea: Chicago

We're going to Chicago tomorrow. Why? Well, why else? To eat, shop, walk around, see the city, and do all sorts of big city things in a very big city way. We'll keep the internet (and all our followers, if we have any by the time this post goes up) updated as to where we go, what we eat, and the photos we take. It'll be as if The Ideogram is coming with us on our day trip. So, readers (if you're there), I ask of you this: suggestions for Chicago? Suggestions for other cities? Are there any 'must-go, must-see' places in this (or any) big city that we should check out?

Leave thoughts in a comment below and we'll make sure to check it out.

Stay tuned tomorrow to see how our trip goes!

The Food Idea: Bella Vita Italian Grille & Pizzeria

A few of my girlfriends and I decided to go out to lunch today. We decided to go to Bella Vita, a new restaurant on the west side of Madison, WI. In a building that previously housed the Tilted Kilt, this new restaurant has surely undergone a serious renovation. The interior has a warm, cozy, and family-friendly feel.

The lunch menu had a variety of appetizers, salads, wraps, sandwiches, and pastas. I ordered the Smoked Salmon and Cream Sauce pasta, a spinach fettucini topped with smoked salmon and capers, which I thought was a good deal priced at $11.99. Although the restaurant wasn't too full, the food took much longer than anticipated. (It was good thing we had things to talk about.) When our food arrived, the wraps my friends ordered looked much tastier than my salmon, which was undercooked and practically raw in the center.

On the way out, one of my friends pointed out that there were many pictures on the walls and commented, "I wonder if they are real people?" I thought it was hilarious at the time, but she merely wondered if they had names behind their faces.

I will probably go to the restaurant again in the not-so-near future, but most likely order a wrap (they come with sweet potato tots, yum!). I've also heard that their pizzas were to die for...

January 5, 2011

The Food Idea: Maxie's Southern Comfort

If you happen to:

1) Find yourself in Milwaukee, WI
2) Enjoy seafood
3) Have a comfort food craving

I suggest you take the time to visit my new favorite southern-inspired culinary retreat: Maxie's Southern Comfort. The restaurant opened in 2007 and has consistently been rated among Milwaukee's best since.

My meal at Maxie's orbited around an entrée recommended by a friend: the simply titled Shrimp and Grits. Below a buttery helping of perfectly cooked grits rest a school of shrimp, seasoned to invoke feelings of Creole incarnate with each bite. I also managed to sample the Blackened Catfish Creole, which sustained the restaurant's propensity for quality.

Maxie's atmosphere went hand-in-hand with its food, delivering a classic, comfortable setting conducive to conversation and friendly get-togethers. I would definitely suggest Maxie's for anyone looking for a good date restaurant- it's casual, trendy, the food seems to be consistent throughout, and it's not overly expensive (I paid about $15 for my meal).

For more information, visit Maxie's Southern Comfort's website at www.maxies.com

Welcome! (The Blog Idea)

Hello everyone, and welcome to our blog! Max and I (Clara) have decided to start chronicling our experiences, adventures, and thoughts. Among other things, we plan to bring you news of the books we read, the movies we see, and the food we eat. We hope to paint a picture - an ideogram if you will - of the lives of two college students. We would appreciate any comments or suggestions! Keep checking in for new posts.