Monday, February 17, 2014

A & V's Adventures in Michigan

A full growler, three bombers, 16 tall cans, six beer glasses, a variety six pack of Michigan brews. All sitting in the back of my car. These are the mementos from my trip to Michigan with my roommate, Amanda. Our journey to Holland and Grand Rapids provided us with access to some of the best craft and micro breweries in the country, and we happily indulged.

Not to give the wrong impression or anything, we did more than enjoy some wonderful beer. In fact, we got to see a lot in Western Michigan, and, despite the cold and piles of snow, I definitely intend to return.

We left Chicago early in the morning to avoid traffic, and made the three hour drive to Holland, Michigan, just on the other side of Lake Michigan. You immediately feel the quaintness of this small city, with its historic downtown and strong Dutch influence, a complete contrast from Chicago. We both needed some caffeine, so we found a parking spot (quite easily) on 8th street, the main stretch in downtown, and stopped in at Lemonjello's Coffee.

After relaxing in the coffee shop for a little while, we made our way over to the Holland Visitors Bureau to meet with some representatives there to get more information on the city and all the things visitors can do here. We munched on a delicious lunch at  84 East Foods & Spirits, while chatting about everything Holland has to offer. February isn't the best time to visit, only because many of the major attractions are closed until spring. However, there are many things to experience in the winter, as well as the warmer summer months. It took an hour lunch to go through it all with us, so I'll give you the cliff notes version.

In fall/winter:

  • Shopping on 8th street. The sidewalks and streets are heated for snow-free walking, and there are a number of locally owned businesses where you can find one-of-a-kind Holland artifacts and food. Stop into the famous Peanut Store, opened in 1902, and savor candies, roasted nuts and Fabiano's famous nutty paddle pops.
  • Visit the city's two distilleries: New Holland (also great beers!) and Coppercraft.
  • A wide variety of winter festivals and events, including Holiday Open House, Santa's Shoppe, Parade of Lights and Shopping Jam. And don't miss Sinterklaas Eve, the Dutch folk celebration centered around Sinterklaas or St. Nicholas.
  • Painting and candle making at places like Candle-ology and Carolyn Stich Studio.
In spring/summer:
  • Tulip Time, the kickoff to the summer season and one of the most popular events in the city.
  • Dutch Village, a theme park modeled after the towns of The Netherlands. Pick up a pair of personalized wooden shoes, traditional Dutch delftware and a bag of just-can't-stop-eating-them kruidnootjes (tiny gingerbread cookies covered in chocolate). Opens April 26, 2014.
  • Windmill Island Gardens, home of the DeZwaan Windmill, the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the U.S.
  • Boat cruises on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa.
  • Dune riding in nearby Saugatauk.
  • Thursday night street performer series all summer long.
  • The low-rider show, a vintage cruise along 8th street and the all-European "Euro Hangar" show at Park Township Airport.
  • Holland State Park and Big Red, the most photographed lighthouse in Michigan
Honestly, I could go on. There's so much to do in Holland. I know that's very broad, but the list will continue for a while if I keep going.

After lunch, we checked into our hotel, Haworth Inn, which is right on the campus of Hope College. I had a couple meetings with representatives from Tulip Time and Dutch Village, to discuss the events and attractions for my freelance article. These folks definitely made me want to come back to Holland once the snow melts, so I can experience these sites in all their glory. 

A quick stop back at the hotel to grab Amanda, and then we walked over to Warner Vineyards, a wine shop featuring local vinos to sample. For $5, you get five tastings, but we got two extras, cause we're so pretty (according to guy working there). We liked pretty much everything we tried, and I ended up buying a bottle. Then we headed over to New Holland Brewing, where we had a delicious cheese board and three different beers, each. We picked the one we liked the most and bought a growler of it (first souvenir). 

The next morning, we woke up early and checked out the college fitness center, because we're crazy like that. After our workout, I had one more meeting at Windmill Island. The windmill is incredible, even covered in snow. The woman I met with showed me a promotional video for the attraction, and it would be absolutely gorgeous to see in the summer, especially with the rainbow of tulips growing in the open field next to it. I'm also curious to see it work, as when it operates, it creates flour that is distributed to the whole city.

We checked out of the hotel, and made the quick 30-minute drive to Grand Rapids, where we met a representative from the CVB at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. This is a leading cultural destination in the Midwest, and features 132 acres of indoor and outdoor gardens, a significant sculpture collections and annual horticulture exhibitions. We ate lunch in the Taste of the Gardens Cafe, which has a lovely barley and berry salad and a warming tomato and artichoke soup. We chatted briefly about all the great attractions in Grand Rapids, and once again, the list goes on and on:
The Beer Trail was what interested Amanda and I the most. As lovers of craft beer, we were eager to try a few of the best local brewers. After lunch, we walked around the indoor gardens, since the outdoor sites were tough to experience in all the snow. We then made our way to the hotel and unloaded all our luggage and relaxed for a little while. By 3pm, we were jonesing for some beer.

Founders Brewery was the first stop on our trail. I ordered the Party Pils and Amanda got the Smoked Porter. We had a nice conversation with the bartenders to learn more about what we should see in Grand Rapids. Obviously, they suggested everything beer related, but it was definitely insightful and we already have a beer fest in April that we plan to go back for. Then, we headed to HopCat, voted the best brewpub in Grand Rapids. I ordered one of the house brews and Amanda picked another Michigan beer, and we had to have an order of "crack fries," which are as addicting as they sound. Again, we chatted with locals about what makes Grand Rapids so great, and once again, the beer was mentioned on many occasions. We started to sense a trend. 

Brewery Vivant was the next stop, and it was by far our favorite. Built in an old chapel and funeral home, Vivant had a quality about it that was so different from any place I'd been before. It was extremely welcoming, had delicious food and some of the best beers I've tried in a while. We met some fun and friendly individuals who were happy to boast about their city. After a quick drive to the train station to drop off one of our new-found friends, we headed to Harmony Brewing for our final round. This was probably our least favorite, despite great beer and a scrumptious caramel-covered pretzel. It was more like a restaurant and since it was Valentine's Day, there were a number of couples all around us, a less than desirable scenario.

When we got back to the hotel, we found a six pack of different Michigan beers and a couple boxes of candy from a local store. It was a gift from the hotel manager. Such a nice gesture, and one that definitely makes me want to come back to Grand Rapids, on top of everything else I experienced there.

On the last day of the trip, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel before checking out. We headed back to Brewery Vivant to pick up some beers to take back to Chicago, as well as some new beer glasses. We then went to the Downtown Market for lunch. There were a number of different vendors and cuisines, and it was difficult deciding which one to go for. We decided on a healthy Thai option, which was very good. Then we hit the road yet again and headed home.

This was my first trip to Michigan, and I am happy to report that it will not be the last. Amanda and I had a blast, and I will definitely be planning another getaway with her sometime soon. Even though our adventure had a heavy beer theme, trust me when I say that this area of Michigan appeals to more than just the beer fans and winos of the world. It caters to nature lovers, gardeners, history buffs, families, art lovers and recreational enthusiasts. I highly recommend a trip here, even just for a weekend. I already have two more trips in mind for warmer months, and I look forward to the adventures that await.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Touring Eataly

The scent of freshly baked bread hits my nose the moment I walk through the doors. A wooden cart of bright, colorful produce greets me at the entrance. After I shiver away the cold from outside, store my hat and gloves in my bag, the enormity of what's in front of me really sets in. This is Eataly.

For those of you who haven't heard of Eataly, it's basically heaven--squeezed into 63,000 square feet on two levels of a large structure in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. But before this Eataly graced out fair city, it first popped up in Italy (go figure) back in 2007, and the emporium has been spreading like wild fire ever since.

A little background. Eataly was founded by Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first location in Turin, Italy. His goal was to make high quality Italian food available to the masses in a welcoming environment where you can taste, learn, shop and dine--all at the same time! Now, there are 26 stores around the world, 10 in Italy, 13 in Japan, one in New York, one in Dubai, one in Turkey and one in Chicago.

The Chicago location opened recently in October 2013, and boasts 23 eateries on two floors, including customer favorite La Pizza & La Pasta and the ever popular Nutella Bar (yes, you heard me right, a bar dedicated to this glorious hazelnut spread). Locals and visitors are flocking here every day--especially on the weekends--and lines are stretching around corners and out the doors to get a taste of Eataly's delicious food. And after visiting today, I can see why.

I had the opportunity to take one of the public tours of the facility (available every Wed., $35). These tours last an hour and a half, and take you through nearly every culinary section, and even give you a glimpse of some of the action behind the scenes. It's incredibly informative and interesting, and really gives you a sense of what Eataly is all about: Good food and eating well.

We started at the information desk on the first floor where our guide gave us a little background on Eataly, and then took us through the fresh produce section. We spoke with the "vegetable butcher," whose main job is to chop the produce you want to purchase to your desired specifications. He'll even give you some tips on how to cook things and what to cook them with, so you can go home and create your own delectable dishes.

We then headed upstairs, where most of the eateries are located. Our first Yes, Eataly has an in-house brewing system, where they craft a couple of their own beers. Definitely wanted to try some, but it was only 10:30 in the morning, so I'll have to return for a taste at a later date.

Next, we hit the cheese counter. The glorious wheels of rich, sharp goodness were displayed proudly in front of us, and it was tough not to ask for a piece of every single one. We were given small samples of prosciutto and salami, along with a couple cheeses. Ask me what they were and I couldn't tell you, I was too preoccupied with eating.

Then, we wandered over to the fresh mozzarella station, where my new best friend Patrick was hand-making fresh, soft balls of cheese. There was a lovely plate of mozzarella drizzled in olive oil waiting for us, and we happily obliged. The flavor was still fresh on my tongue when we reached the meat section, where there was a display case of all kinds of responsibly raised cuts of beef, pork, chicken and veal, as well as Eataly's wide selection of handmade sausages. Unfortunately no samples here, and none at the Pesce (fish) counter, either. Although some lucky people were given slices of octopus--who doesn't love a rubbery tentacle? I'll pass.

It was then on to the pasta section, one of my all time favorite Italian foods. The pasta is made fresh everyday and is available for purchase, guaranteeing you the best dinner possible. We tried the agnolotti (house made meat-filled pasta with butter sauce)--amazing! I had to force myself to only have one. We made our way through the preservatives and canned goods section. (If you're looking for truffles in any form, you'll find it here, with the exception of truffle oil.)

We reached the most popular spot in Eataly: La Pizza. We watched as two trained rossopomodoro pizzaioli (pizza makers) created a fresh Neopolitan-style pizza right in front of us. We all salivated as the pizza was placed in front of us, and we happily took a slice each. I haven't had pizza like that since I was in Naples back in 2006. To. Die. For. (Seriously wishing I was eating that right now instead of my left over vegan thai food...this is just not cutting it.)

We moved on to the bakery section. I love bread, and the baguettes were just amazing. It was here that we got to go behind the bakery and see where the bread is baked, in a large wood-burning oven. The smell is enough to make you want to eat a whole loaf by yourself, but we sufficed with a small slice of their classic stuff.

From there we sampled olive oil from their extensive collection of fine Italian oils, and then made our way over to the wine section. Unfortunately the bar wasn't open, so we couldn't taste any of the Vino Libero (literally means free wine), which is meant to be wine that is free of preservatives and such. Definitely interested in trying some wines when I return.

We headed back downstairs to the pride of Eataly: The Nutella Bar. We munched on Eataly's homemade bread smothered in hazelnutty, chocolately Nutella. I was immediately transported back to my childhood days, slathering the sweet spread on a piece--or two--of toast and quickly gobbling it down. How not everyone had this sweet treat growing up, I'll never know, but it's great to see that it's getting some much deserved recognition now.

Our last stop was the gelato bar, complete with traditional and Lait (light) Gelato, which is more like soft serve--something I've never seen before. We each got a small cup of a flavor of our choice. But since I'd just had a filling slice of Nutella bread, I opted for small tastes of a few--I recommend...well...all of them!

Needless to say, I will be back to Eataly. There's so much I didn't get to try, and I would love to take some extra time to shop around for some fresh ingredients--and pick up some items that I haven't had since I lived in Italy. And I will definitely bring some of my friends with me, as I know many of them would appreciate the glory that is Eataly. The pizza. The bread. The cheese. The wine. The Nutella. I mean, it's my dream come to life! And it's only a short train ride away!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Have Polar Vortex, Will Travel

I woke up to another pile of snow outside, and it hasn't stopped coming down all day. On the news this morning, they said Chicago has received more than 50 inches of snow this winter alone. 50! That's at least 20 inches more than the average for this time of year, and at least 45 inches more than what we got last year (I think it was about 8 inches--what I wouldn't give for that kind of mild weather right now).

Then I saw this article asking if a Polar Vortex prompts travel. Bottom line. Yes, it does.

Thankfully, in two weeks I will be leaving this frigid cold and endless snowstorm for the warm, sunny beaches of Belize! And that day cannot come quick enough. I was hoping to get a small break from it all this weekend with an impromptu trip to Alabama to see my boyfriend (he's there for 2 1/2 weeks for work), but everyone seems to have the same desire, so flight prices are super high. Alas, no semi-warm weather for me just yet.

Next week, I will be heading to a place that is probably colder and potentially has more snow than Chicago: Grand Rapids (and Holland), Michigan. Despite the fact that it will still be winter there, I'm really looking forward to it. I've never been to Michigan, believe it or not, and I've heard great things about the western part of the state. I have a friend who went to college in Holland, and told me all the things I should check out--of course half of them are only open during the warmer months, but that's okay. I'm excited to check out some of the attractions that are open, and taste some of the local brews! New Holland Brewery is one of my favorites, so excited to check out their tasting room, along with some of the other local craft brewers in the area.

While that will be a nice change from the scene here in Chicago, what's really keeping me motivated is that tropical paradise that awaits me in a few weeks. I cannot wait to pull on some shorts and a tank top and go exploring the caves of the Cayo District, wandering through the humid forests and taking a dip in the jungle rivers. And that sandy beach in Caye Caulker is calling my name, a place where I'll lay on the sand and snorkel with the marine life.

Just two more weeks in this Polar Vortex...hope it goes by fast.