All that Jazz at the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny

The French Quarter really is very charming. It is not difficult to see why and how it embodies the spirit of New Orleans. It's alive day and night but each time of the day with different types of crowd and atmosphere for obvious reasons. No time of the day is more exciting than the other. When the sun is out, art galleries, stores, boutiques, and cafes come alive. Come sundown, the fun and craziness begins on Bourbon Street.

The buildings throughout the French Quarter are striking with the common theme of Victorian-style cast iron railings. There was certainly no shortage of cafes and bars on every street we walked on in the Quarter. While many of the streets can easily be passed off as being similar, they actually each have their own little unique characteristics. We turned from one corner going on to the next street and found ourselves in quite a subtly different setting. Royal Street, best seen during the day, is lined with a multitude of expensive and upscale antique stores, art galleries, and specialty boutiques. Walking past the many antique stores make a good opportunity for window shopping although I am also curious as to how often these stores make a sale given the competition from their neighbors.

There was no lacking in dining and shopping options along Decatur Street during the day and we could easily see how the colorful bars come to live at night.

We probably walked on Chartres Street most often really because our hotel was right around the corner from here. The colonial architecture buildings were each different and unique in their own way. It was not uncommon to spot ceiling fans on many upstairs patios on the second floor which was really interesting given that the patios were outdoors. Perhaps they are needed for the non-breezy summer days in New Orleans. Or maybe I need to get used to the fact that not every city is as windy as Chicago.

Cocktails to go. Only in New Orleans.

Come sundown Bourbon Street turns into a pedestrian-only zone with Mardi Gras-like festivities no matter the time of year. One of the wonderful things about Bourbon Street is that we did not necessarily have to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras because every night on Bourbon Street feels like Mardi Gras although with a lesser extent of craziness but nevertheless bustling with energy. Mardi Gras may have been recently over but there was still the ritual and tradition of people gathering on balconies throwing colorful beads to people (women, especially) on the street in exchange of bearing their breasts. But really though, these beads throwers are getting nicer and nicer. They still throw you beads and trinkets as long as you raise and flap your arms in the air signaling that you want them too. We did not really see people actually working hard to earn all the colorful beads they draped around their necks. Live jazz bars were everywhere and the music from the different bars were loud enough to escape out onto the streets that we did not necessarily have to be inside any of them to feel the jazzy atmosphere of Bourbon Street. When we had enough drinks for the night, late night eats were everywhere as well. People working for the various strip clubs clamored for patrons and many of them would walk up to us both and say, "No cover charge for you couple!" One of the big differences between the law in Chicago and New Orleans is the alcohol consumption on the street. No surprises here that in New Orleans it is legal for people to carry a beer in hand walking on the street and enjoying the night out. In Chicago, you drink inside and if you cannot finish your drink before you leave, I guess it is too bad for you.

Artists, tarot card readers, and musicians find their comfort spot at Jackson Square. Right outside the park, tarot card readers set up their own little tables, sit on their chairs, and wait for passersby to stop by hoping to get a reading. Artists display their works for people to admire and maybe make a sale. Musicians offer live entertainment to people walking past and maybe some interested passersby will buy the band's CD.

Lovers of jazz will like Faubourg Marigny, an area located right outside the eastern edge of the French Quarter. This hip and bohemian neighborhood has four blocks of live jazz bars and restaurants along Frenchmen Street. On one of our nights there we strayed away from the drunken and tourist atmosphere of Bourbon Street and went to Frenchmen Street. We heard that this was where locals come to enjoy jazz. Many of these bars do not have a cover charge but patrons are encourage to leave a tip for the musicians. The best way to enjoy Frenchmen Street is to stay for a drink at a bar while listening to the music, and then hopping over to the next bar for another drink and for more jazz. As the bars have different types of jazz genre playing at a time, it really was a good option for us to decide the types of jazz we wanted to listen to that night whether for a short while or longer at a certain bar. Some of the popular jazz bars on Frenchmen Street are Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, and Apple Barrel.

All we needed was good jazz to complete the essence of the true New Orleans experience and it was not difficult to find it.


New Orleans: Warehouse District and Garden District

Our time spent in New Orleans actually turned out to be more of a foodie trip than anything else. Armed with our list of must-go-to restaurants and must-eat food list, we had non-stop gastronomic moments which deserve separate entries of their own. It wasn't just all eating, luckily. We walked a great deal everyday in the spring heat of 88 degrees F. We could only imagine how much warmer it becomes in summer. Our legs were put to good work the few days we were there and we really wouldn't have done it another way. What could be a better idea than walking to soak up and experience the local culture. And yes, we also needed to offset the amount of food we packed into our stomachs.

Our first trip to New Orleans was back in college and that was before Katrina happened. A few years have passed since the Katrina disaster and New Orleans is back to life, although the Ninth Ward area is still very much feeling the disaster effects and have yet to fully rebuild. Most often when people think of New Orleans, they associate the city with the French Quarter and the craziness and drunkenness on Bourbon Street. Beyond that, New Orleans has its own distinct areas that carry their own character. These areas are worth exploring and we got into a sense of a more local vibe that was beyond the overly touristy vibe.

Warehouse District (Arts District)

Some sections of Tchoupitoulas Street were quite reminiscent to the Fulton Market area in Chicago. Originally an industrial area, some buildings in the Warehouse District are converted into fine restaurants that are perfect for a great night out. This is where you can find Emeril's flagship restaurant. Other than restaurants, some storefronts are transformed into art galleries, wine lounges, and cafes. We were surprised to stumble upon a random Australian-themed cafe in the area. We walked a half block farther and saw a man set up a temporary cooking station right on the street. In true New Orleans fashion, the massive pot he was stirring into with an equally massive metal spatula was filled with crawfish, mushrooms, corn, lemon halves, bay leaves, and whatnot right outside the restaurant bar he worked at.

Most of the art galleries are concentrated on Julia Street or otherwise known as Julia Row. Here are some of the city's best art galleries although they weren't bustling with people on a Friday afternoon but interesting nevertheless to see the different types of art exhibits.

The historic sense of the Warehouse District is not all lost in this gradual transformation process. As we walked along the streets, there were many visible warehouses that were probably still functioning or at least appeared to be, as well as storefronts that were seemingly abandoned and perhaps waiting for its very slow transformation fate.

The Ambassador Hotel stays true to its historic origin in the Warehouse District with this plaque that tells people the building once used to be a coffee warehouse back in the days when this district was a bustling area for trade and commerce.

Garden District

At Garden District we saw a whole different community entirely. We went on a self-guided walking tour beginning from St Charles Avenue to Prytania Street and Coliseum Street and some other streets in between before ending on Washington Avenue. The mansion-style homes were grand and yet there was a strong historic sense in them with many of them built about 150 years ago. Many of the mansions have a plaque at the front gate that references the original owner(s) who lived there once upon a time. One of the notable original residents of the homes was the novelist Anne Rice.

One of the first mansions we saw was Colonel's Short Villa which was occupied at one time in history by one of the governors and his wife. The cast iron railings surrounding the garden has the distinct pattern of cornstalks.

We later realized that the cornstalk pattern theme in the cast iron railing was often a repeated design in some other homes.

Expansive gardens are also a common theme in this area with flowering plants. Some mansions have enough space for their own mini fountain.

One of the mansions was previously the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel that was once owned by the novelist Anne Rice. The original use of this building as a chapel is still visible today with the statue in the garden, as seen in the picture below. The former chapel is now owned by Nicholas Cage.

Just across the street we saw a slightly different architectural influence for this mansion. Spotting the Greek Revival style architecture, this building is now owned by the Women's Opera Guild House which promotes the opera culture in New Orleans.

We ended our walking tour at the famous Victorian-style Commander Palace restaurant, noted for its tradition of turtle soup and jazz brunch in New Orleans.

We veered onto Magazine Street which is the area's main commercial area that reminded us a lot about the little neighborhoods back in Chicago. The street was bustling with pedestrians and there wasn't a shortage of coffee shops, bars, cafes, gelato store, salons, locally owned boutiques, studios, etc. We spent the whole afternoon strolling on the street and absorbing the local charm without the rush of having to do anything else or be at anywhere else.


Lovely A Bake Shop

There's something about Lovely A Bake Shop that makes it so alluring. Located in the unsuspecting West Town neighborhood of Chicago, its vintage and quaint charm with mismatched furniture add to its character. And, oh yes, the bar stools at the counter-- just gotta love them. The retro design of the bar stools momentarily transports you back to an old school diner or an old fashioned ice-cream parlor. Most of the people there who had their laptops with them had MacBooks. T and I got seats on those very cool bar stools and parked ourselves at the counter. I had brought my MacBook along to do some research on our upcoming trip to New Orleans, and there you go I secretly felt proud to be a part of that Mac niche. There, I just said it. Sounds a tad bit geekish, I know. At a nearby table, there was a group of about 10-12 women who plopped themselves at the big communal table and had rolls and rolls of knitting threads set out on the center of the table. Each of the women had their knitting sticks working away with their own project. What an interesting and charming atmosphere this place has. An elder couple who had a dSLR camera draped around the husband's neck went over to that table, presumably intrigued, asking the ladies about their activity.

Giving this place a quick glance over, it felt like we were at the Anthropologie store. At one corner of the wall there were displays of aprons and hand and dish towels secured by wooden pegs to a string hanging from one side of the wall to another. On a vintage cabinet were bakeware, mugs, etc. Adding to its vintage charm, another table at the wall displayed a black old-fashioned typewriter.

Courtesy of Lovely A Bake Shop
Lovely A Bake Shop serves Intelligentsia which is T's favorite local brew because of its strong and intense flavor. I ordered a caffe late and T had a single shot espresso. The coffee beans were freshly ground for our drinks after we placed our order.

They also have quite an array of baked goods that include cupcakes, fruit pies and tarts, muffins, cookies, scones, etc. As tempting as the others looked, we've only tried the red velvet and carrot cupcakes. The cupcakes were a tad bit dry which was a little disappointing. I usually only eat half the amount of frosting on cupcakes in general because of its sweetness but I found myself eating each bite of the cupcake with the frosting (and effectively almost finishing all the frosting) to compensate for the dryness of the cupcake. I think we had expected more especially when we found out that the owners were graduates of the French Pastry School in Chicago. That said, we would really still love to try their other baked goods. I realize that Lovely A Bake Shop is not a cupcake boutique but instead a coffee and bake shop that may has its strengths in other baking aspects. For this, we would definitely return although not for their cupcakes but for the atmosphere, character, coffee, and of course to try their other baked goods.

Lovely A Bake Shop
1130 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622


No Frills Banana Bread

We always try change it up a little what we have for breakfast. I love my yogurt with honey, toasted bagel, and granola with milk but I find it difficult to eat the same thing for more than a few days in a row. I need variety. And it's no different when it comes to lunch and dinner. I need variety throughout the week. Perhaps that explains why I'm not big on leftovers. I always joke with T that although I'm Asian, I can't eat rice everyday. Yup, it's for the same reason-- I need variety. T, however, has no problems with eating the same type of food three times in a row. Back in the days when he lived alone in his bachelor pad and just got a job after college, each time he cooked he made enough food for several weekday meals.

This week is one of those times when banana bread changes up our breakfast routine food a little. Bananas have made its way into quite a big part of our diets. We either grab one before our runs or after. Or we grab one when we're hungry and dinner's not quite ready yet. A hearty slice of banana bread is as fulfilling, if not more. Sometimes I add chocolate chips or nuts to the banana bread but sometimes plain ol' no frills banana bread really is the best and most comforting. It's all about truly going bananas with this bread, no pun intended, and letting the banana flavor shine.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cups sugar
4 bananas, peeled and mashed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven at 350 degrees F. Grease a 9" x 3" loaf pan.

2. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer under medium speed. Add in the mashed bananas and lemon juice and continue mixing. The mixture will be lumpy.

3. In a separate medium size bowl, combine the flour and baking soda. Gradually add the flour mixture into the banana mixture in separate 1/3 portions at a time, mixing well in between.

4. Pour batter into the greased pan. Bake for 1 hour.


Shamrock Shuffle 8K run

Running season has begun in Chicago. Along with many other Chicago runners, we run throughout winter but the annual Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8K race has become almost like a rite of passage for runners as this massively popular race is officially viewed as the kickoff for running season as Spring approaches in the Windy City. However, it is also ironic that although the Shamrock Shuffle marks the start of spring running, the past two years we've had very cold weather on race day that made running conditions very much less than ideal. Race day in 2009 was especially memorable. We woke up that day, looked outside our window and saw what was almost like the start of a blizzard. We still made our way to the start line. Total registered participants that year was 30,000 but only 14,000 brave souls turned up at the start line. We ran through slush and snowy mess. I should also mention that our feet were already soaked from the slush as we made the journey from our home to the start line.

This year, we almost obsessively checked the weather forecast for race day. It would rain and thunderstorm, it seemed. We received email alerts from the race organizer on ideal running apparel and gear for wet conditions. Mother nature had a change of mind when the evening before race day, the latest weather forecast showed sunny and warm weather. Running shorts, it was then for us.

Photos courtesy of MarathonFoto, the official race photographers.

This year a record of 40,000 participants signed up to run this race which made this 8K race the biggest in the world. We ran through the streets of downtown Chicago with no shortage of spectators, supporters, running coaches, and volunteers throughout the race course. I hope it never becomes an understatement to how much volunteers contribute to events like this. One memorable female teenage volunteer shouted "Good job, you guys. I wish I could run an 8K".

The Shamrock Shuffle is also viewed as a fun race. It's a good distance for a not-so-long race for competitive runners as well as leisure runners. Going along with adding the fun to the race, T wore his favorite green Goofy hat for the race. He likes to be goofy that way, no pun intended. Other runners were decked out in green socks or green shamrock head pieces.

The sun came out and we honestly never expected it to become that warm that morning. But we could only thank Mother Nature for being kind to us this year after the previous years of crummy weather running in layered clothing, gloves, and headbands. This year, I came in at 47 mins 50 secs; didn't break my personal record from last year's 8K race but it was a good run this year nevertheless. T came in at 37 mins 53 mins. We came home, showered, and went out for a beer and burger. That's how we like to top of our runs.


Crumbs Bake Shop

Crumbs? I don't think there were much crumbs left to clean on my plate after devouring these cupcakes. Actually, devouring may be too strong of a word here. Savor may be a more appropriate choice of word here since I usually never eat cupcakes in a hurried manner but instead, tasting it completely. I'm on a continuous quest to find my favorite (since calling it best is a very subjective matter here) cupcake shop in Chicago. Unless I find another possibly better cupcake shop in the city, it's safe to say that indeed Crumbs is now #1 on my personal cupcake list.

Tucked in a small store on the first floor of a corporate building in the financial district, this Manhattan import is easy to miss. We almost missed it on the day we were there because of some temporary construction scaffolding structure right outside the store. We kept looking at our GPS and swore that we had arrived at the right place and then ah hah, we realized that it was there right in front of us.

The choices of cupcake flavors were enormous and it took awhile to make some decisions. Staring at all the cupcakes on the display case, I felt like a kid in a candy store on Christmas. There were dulce de leche, butterscotch, green tea, tiramisu, apple cobbler, and Irish cream flavors. But we also wanted the classic red velvet and carrot cupcakes. This was hard! During the time of indecisiveness, I overheard an employee telling another customer that Crumbs has about 120 flavors total but this location in Chicago only carries 45 flavors.

After what seemed like forever, we finally decided on three flavors. Yup, just three. After all, it was our first time trying Crumbs and we didn't want to get way too many cupcakes first since we weren't sure how they'd turn out. The signature size cupcakes that we got were enormous; 4.25" to be exact. They do carry taste size cupcakes although the flavors seemed limited. Besides, getting taste size cupcakes just takes the fun out of the whole cupcake journey. We shared the three signature size cupcakes over three days. What?! It was huge. Even a dessert person like me could only stomach half a huge cupcake at a time.

The dulce de leche cupcake came with a little surprise frosting inside. I sliced it in half to share between the both of us and saw that there was a dollop of caramel cream cheese frosting in the middle of the cupcake. The cupcake itself was chocolate based and had the right amount of chocolate goodness to it without being overly dense nor light; it was perfect middle ground. Carrot cupcakes, in general, are T's favorite and predictable choice at a bake shop each time. The carrot cupcake got his approval. I also liked the little bits of raisins in the carrot cupcake and the crushed walnuts on the edge of the cream cheese frosting. And finally, the classic red velvet cupcake. The color was so rich even just by looking at the red velvet crumbs on the cream cheese frosting that was edged with white sprinkles. The texture of all three cupcakes were moist and soft. That's probably one of the most important criteria to me. There wasn't a hint of dryness even on the 3rd day of eating the last cupcake.

So to date, Crumbs is our top cupcake place. We do hear that Magnolia Bakery (also another NY import) will be opening up in Chicago in June and I'm very excited to try it and taste how it compares to Crumbs. But until then, Crumbs it is for us.

Update: T came home from work and surprised me with a box of cupcakes, from Crumbs of course. He said "I'm not much of a sweets or dessert person but I think Crumbs are great!"

Devil's Food
Front: Vanilla Coconut, Back: Peanut Butter Cup

Crumbs Bake Shop
303 West Madison Street
Chicago, IL 60606