Set a story in Chicago and I’m glad to read it: Review of Secrets of Sloane House by Shelley Gray

I first knew of Shelley Shepard Gray as an author of Amish fiction. Now I know her writing credits stretch beyond those boundaries. In Secrets of Sloane House, writing as Shelley Gray, she pens a novel of suspense, mystery and romance set against the Chicago World’s Fair. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book through the Booklook Bloggers Program in exchange for my review.)

sloane houseI love a story set in historical Chicago, and even though I don’t know much about the era, it’s still fun to read about the city I most love to visit. My husband recently read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a true story of events that happened during the Chicago World’s Fair. As I read Secrets of Sloane House, I got the impression that it was like The Devil in the White City meets Downton Abbey.

Rosalind Perry is a servant in Sloane House, but she’s there under false pretenses–investigating what might have happened to her sister who was a servant there and has disappeared. As she asks questions and tries to uncover the mystery, she begins to fear for her own safety when it becomes clear that everyone around her is keeping secrets and her questions are drawing the wrong kind of attention. Only Reid Armstrong, the heir to a silver fortune, agrees to help her. Remembering his middle class roots, Reid forgoes propriety to help Rosalind, a servant in another house, much to the dismay of some of society’s members.

Though it’s not a fast-paced action kind of story, it is intriguing and held my attention. I wanted to know what happened to Rosalind’s sister, and I was interested in the World’s Fair come to life in the lives of ordinary Chicagoans of the day. The relationship between Reid and Rosalind is full of potential problems and it was fun to see how their story played out.

Secrets of Sloane House is the first in a series that I would continue reading. If you’ve read any of Gray’s Amish fiction, you’ll find this a departure from those stories, but if you’re not interested in Amish fiction, this one is worth a try.

And it makes me wish for a Downton Abbey style show set in Chicago!

Good eats in Chicago

 It’s no secret we like food, and good food at that. So, when we took two days in Chicago, food was definitely on the agenda. My husband planned it all, so I didn’t have much clue about where we would be eating.

Tuesday, for lunch, I had the directions to navigate us to our restaurant location, but I didn’t know where we were going until Portillo’s came into view. I had mentioned something about wanting a Chicago dog recently. But I ended up with the garbage salad.

Phil enjoyed a dog and an Italian beef and we shared cheese fries. It was a good start.

Next up for dinner that night was Italian Village. I don’t have any pictures of this because we were later than we wanted to be for dinner and almost missed the ballet. We ate in the Village section, the top floor of three in this unique restaurant. We had a 40 minute wait, then waited another 40 minutes or more for our food to arrive. We filled up on bread, soup (for me) and salad (for Phil) while we waited. The time ticked away and we soon realized we’d either be inhaling our food or leaving it. When it came to our table, we had about 3 minutes to eat it and pay before we needed to head out the door. Even at that pace, the food was delicious. I wish we could have enjoyed it more. I ate cannelloni with a cream sauce. Phil had mostaccioli with arrabiata sauce and meatballs. This was one instance where knowing how to eat fast because you have children who require it comes in handy. We did make it to the ballet. You can read more about that here.

Wednesday morning we took our breakfast at Fox & Obel in the cafe inside the grocery store.

I had biscuits smothered in chicken gravy topped with sunny-side-up eggs. The biscuits were sweet and reminded me of my grandma’s sugar cookies. A hint of almond flavor, I think. Phil ate a croque madame, which was a fancy egg sandwich — scrambled eggs, country shaved ham, Gruyere cheese, baby greens and a bechamel sauce between two slices of toasted bread. His came with home fries and fresh fruit cup. Wonderfully delicious, all of it.

We browsed the market that day after our breakfast. By lunchtime, I wasn’t too hungry, but my husband assured me lunch could be as light or as heavy as I wanted. We went to Christkindlemarket to take in some German fare. We ate bratwurst in the Nuremberger style, which Phil had when he was in Nuremberg for Army training.

We also had Austrian strudel: half a box of cherry and half a box of cheese. Warm and gooey, so tasty. We made a mess, but it was worth it.

That night, we didn’t want to make the same mistake we made the night before, so we headed to dinner early. Our short walk down Michigan Avenue found us at The Purple Pig.

Earlier in the day, Phil told me that he wasn’t sure how dinner “worked” exactly so he’d have to ask some questions. This sort of scared me because I thought dinner was a self-explanatory sort of thing. But after we got there, I understood why he said that. The Purple Pig serves its food on small plates, family-style, so you’re encouraged to order several items and share. You’re also seated at a table with other people not of your party, which is kind of fun if you don’t mind an invasion of privacy. The motto, or subtitle, of The Purple Pig is “cheese, swine and wine.” Let me tell ya, they use every part of the pig in ways you can hardly imagine.

Here’s what we ordered:

Shaved Brussel Sprouts, Pecorino Noce & Parmigiano-Reggiano — it was a bold and refreshing way to start. Brussel sprouts like I’ve never tasted them.

Pig’s Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers & Fried Egg — this was on my husband’s list of things to eat here before we walked in the door. I was skeptical about eating pig’s ear. It wasn’t my favorite, but if I didn’t know it was pig’s ear, I wouldn’t have guessed that’s what I was eating. It was served in a little pig shaped bowl, which was a nice touch.

Chastelfranco, arugula with Sunchokes, Hazelnuts & Apple Cider Vinaigrette — a palate-cleansing salad with a fantastic blend of flavors.

Roasted Bone Marrow with Herbs — another dish my husband had pre-selected because it was one of the top 50 must-try foods in Chicago. Served in the bone, the marrow is cooked until spreadable. Smear it on a piece of toasted bread, top with a caper-onion-parsley-cilantro salad and sea salt and eat. It was good. Better than I expected. We made the mistake of using too little marrow to start and had to heap it on at the end to use it up with the remaining bread.

Milk Braised Pork Shoulder with Mashed Potatoes — by far, my favorite dish. So tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The recipe was posted on the Web site recently, but I’ll be surprised if we can duplicate this to exactness.

We also ordered dessert: Sicilian Iris which is a ricotta and chocolate chip-filled fried brioche and toasted cinnamon soft serve ice cream.

This place is a foodie’s dream, really, but save up if you plan on going. It’s not cheap, but it’s a unique dining experience. Even if you’re a picky eater and parts of the pig I’ve mentioned don’t appeal to you, you won’t go hungry.

Eating at The Purple Pig, for me, was just another reminder of why my husband is the perfect match for me. I would never have chosen to eat there on my own, and I certainly wouldn’t have tried new foods, especially parts of the pig I didn’t think were edible, without him. He stretches me in good ways.

For breakfast the next morning, we went back to Fox & Obel for pastries. Their bakery is one of the top 10 bakeries in the country. We ordered a cinnamon swirl, a creme orange danish and a brioche tart. After shopping a bit in the grocery, we also bought egg nog lattes and took our breakfast back to the lobby of our hotel. It was the perfect way to end our trip. We sat, ate and talked without interruption. Of all the things we did, it’s hard to choose a favorite, but this was the moment I felt most connected to my husband.

Some people eat to live. At times, we live to eat. This was one of those times.

A hidden Chicago gem

One of our first stops on our Chicago getaway (click here for the overview blog of our recent trip) was the Garfield Park Conservatory. It’s not far off the interstate, and I’m sure I’ve seen the sign for it dozens of times, but I never gave it much thought. My husband chose it as a place to kill time before checking into the hotel and as an addendum, of sorts, to our Longwood Gardens  visit in Pennsylvania in late summer. We took the kids there, which isn’t always conducive to a leisurely walk through the gardens.

Here, though, on our own, we could stop and read the plant markers, savoring the sights and smells of green.

When I look at these pictures, I can’t even believe I was in Chicago when I took them. The city never ceases to surprise me in some way.

The conservatory has palms, ferns, poinsettias (in season, which they happened to be), fruits and desert plants.

Here’s a cactus skeleton, 100 years old:

And beautiful art mixed with the beauty of nature. These are glass sculptures the conservatory purchased after housing an exhibit of this artist’s creations.

I’ve not been much of a plant person in my life, but it’s growing on me, pun not necessarily intended. I have an aloe plant in my kitchen that sparks something in me when I see it. A sign of life. I’ve never been very good about taking care of plants, but I suddenly want to add them to the decor in our house. There’s a sense of peace that comes from greenery.

So, we left the conservatory with a souvenir. A tradescantia zebrina plant, also known as an inch plant or a wandering Jew. (Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?) We’re tending it carefully until we can get it back to Pennsylvania to repot it and take better care of it.

A cool souvenir. The start of more to come, I hope. I can feel my thumb changing from black to shades of green.

All because of a couple of hours spent in a conservatory in a somewhat rough part of Chicago.

Did I mention the conservatory is free with free parking? If that’s not reason enough to check it out, then nothing else I can say or show will convince you.

Chicago for two

One thing we’ve lacked since having kids is pictures of just the two of us. Our trip to Chicago helped fix that.

Here’s a few from the Garfield Park Conservatory.

OK, so that middle one is just me, but my husband likes it. It’s probably been since our honeymoon that he’s had a picture of just me.

This one is from the show room, full of poinsettias. The staff person who took this was so proud of herself for the framing of the photo. She eagerly offered to take our picture. We thank  you, whoever you are!

This next one is my favorite, I think.

We took the following picture at the Christkindlmarket because we’d seen The Nutcracker ballet the night before. We didn’t have a chance to take any good pictures when we saw the ballet because we almost missed it. Our dinner at Italian Village ran late, so we had to run (me in heels!) to the ballet. We made it as the usher was making the final seating call. We dropped into our seats almost as the lights were dimming. So glad we made it on time, even if I had trouble walking for the next couple of days. I’m glad we had the chance to get a picture with The Nutcracker, too.

The next ones are our shots in the “Bean.” It took us several tries to get these.

Great memories!

Chicago in winter

For a month or so, my husband has been planning a secret two-night getaway for just us while we’re home for the holidays. Only a week ago did he let slip (because of tiredness) our destination city — Chicago. He planned our entertainment, our lodging, our eating without any input from me. That was difficult at first, but the string of surprises was fun as we walked through the city. This post will be the first of four about our trip, including pictures and commentary about food, a photo page of us in Chicago, and my impressions of the Garfield Park Conservatory. Not since our honeymoon 3 1/2 years ago have we taken an overnight trip without children. Long overdue. Much needed.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency because my husband found us a couldn’t-pass-it-up deal on Hotwire. My first overwhelming moment of the trip. We’re not exactly Hyatt material, in my mind, so I immediately felt out of place. I got over it and enjoyed the downtown views, the river traffic, the amenities. It was the perfect location for walking everywhere we needed to go.

Night and day views from our hotel room window:

Here’s some of what we saw on our three-day trip to Chicago:

The Christkindlmarket, a German Christmas celebration in Daley Plaza (above). It was this busy. And the nearby Chicago Christmas tree. We saw it at  night our first night in the city but didn’t have time to stop and take a picture.

Speaking of trees, check out this 10,000-light beauty at Macy’s.

We also strolled the street to read the “Yes, Virginia” window stories. I’d never done this before and was amazed that the construction was all made from paper and takes 35 weeks to complete!

Next stop after Macy’s was the Bean.

Our second evening, we saw “A Christmas Carol” at The Goodman Theatre.

My husband bought us box seat tickets, which was another surprise. Even though our view of some of the stage was obstructed, we felt super important sitting all by ourselves. We had an up-close view of most of the production, which was moving and captivating.

Hold on to your hats, ladies, when I tell you this next part: We spent two evenings in Chicago and the Bulls and the Blackhawks were playing each of those nights. Yet  my husband chose to take me to The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker one night and to “A Christmas Carol” on stage the next night. Some of his decision involved money and seating, but let me tell you, I felt loved and blessed. The ballet was breathtaking and stunning, something I’m not sure I would have chosen and expected to enjoy, but I loved it. And it’s been years since I’ve seen a professional stage production.

My husband knows me well, and he did a fantastic job planning our getaway.

If I wasn’t already, now I’m totally in the Christmas spirit. At every stop, since I didn’t know where we were going, my husband would stop and say, “Merry Christmas.” It’s definitely a Christmas to remember.