Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style


View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.


My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.


Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.


Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.


Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.


Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.


Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.


Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.


The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.


The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.


Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.


He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

Caesarean section.jpg

Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.


Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.


The strange lure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s red-haired muse

Toulouse-Lautrec, the supreme dwarf artist of late 19th-century France, created my current favorite painting, a moody, sullen portrait of a downcast prostitute titled “A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge.” The woman, standing/slumping, face in a clenched-jaw profile as if looking stage left at nothing in particular, is the Rosa La Rouge of the title, and she is a sight to behold: beset, bedraggled, strangely beautiful.


“A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge” 1886-87 at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

I recently saw the medium-sized but imposing painting in its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — my third visit in a short period of time. It might be the outstanding canvas for me at a museum so clogged, so Louvre-esque crammed, with modern masterpieces it makes your head twirl. Lautrec isn’t my favorite painter, but this is my favorite painting by him.


Barnes Foundation, one of a zillion art-jammed rooms.

Like so many great works of art, something ineffable defines the portrait of Rosa (Lautrec painted several pictures of her in varying poses and moods). She’s just there, her white blouse loosely buttoned, lank red hair pulled back but shagged out in front, mouth tight (is that lipstick?), eyes completely obscured. She’s like a specter, a little petulant, maybe resentful, not entirely pleased to be there. She looks almost bratty, and scandalously young.


Another portrait of Rosa.

She probably had good reason to cling to a sour mood. Life was surely hard — she was also a laundress — though posing for one of your johns may have been a smidge better than sleeping with him. Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis, which, it’s said, he contracted from Rosa.

My appreciation for “Rosa La Rouge” — the rouge is for her red hair, of course — is hardly unique. The picture is a verifiable masterstroke and it’s one of the most reproduced paintings in the Barnes gift shop (I got a nifty bookmark of lovely, enigmatic Rosa). Google it and it pops up like crazy — a repetitious gallery of Rosa in various shades of reproductive quality. (I took the picture of the painting on this page at the Barnes last month.)

But while the image is abundant, almost nothing is written about its subject. What I’ve noted here is all I know about Rosa and her life. On canvas, she’s enshrined in mystery, maybe incensed, maybe indifferent, glancing determinedly away from our enthralled gaze.

Tippling, Russian style

In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.

I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.


Guide Veronica explaining the vodkas I was about to gulp.

In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.

If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.


Three shots, three edible chasers.

Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.


Best whiskey sour, ever. Notice the egg-white froth.

No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.

Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.


The lone chilled vodka shot in Russia.

As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …

Those jarred babies — not quite jarring enough

As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.


And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.

I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.


It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.

Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.


Giant’s skeleton at Kunstkamera Museum

I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.


A gallery of the ghoulish in Russia

If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …

Let’s proceed.


For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):

“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “

OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)

Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:


I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.

Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:


Right, but let’s not forget its contents:


Three heads are better than one.

Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)

Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.


We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us. 

Bound for St. Petersburg, Russia. Any tips?


After some squinched-eyed consideration, I’ve elected St. Petersburg, Russia, for my annual fall journey.

Wise? A gaffe? Anyone?

It will be short — six days — but, from what I’ve gathered through meticulous research, that seems about right. The Hermitage Museum, the State Russian Museum, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, canal boat tours, the Peter and Paul Fortress and, naturally, the Russian Vodka Museum, to name a few must-dos. Plus the farm-to-table Cococo (anointed by Bourdain) and obligatory Mishka bar, among other hot spots for noshing and tippling.

My target dates are in mid-October, when the temps vary between the high-40s and low-50s F, my kind of climes (so long summer!). Eyeballing the way-off forecast, rain and snow aren’t slated to dampen things.

Has anybody been to St. Petersburg? Tips? Cautions? (Please tell me no more about obtaining an entry visa. So far it has been a nervous, expensive, off-putting ordeal.) Know any good cemeteries? Where to get a fine vodka tonic? Drop a line if you will, thanks! (Go to “Contact” at the top of page.)

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Gross anatomy: the marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.


Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, naturalistic detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

Strolling the more than 3,500 square feet of tidy halls and floors, I experienced kaleidoscopic feelings, be it excitement or queasiness or, in the presence of deformed human fetuses, such as the child with “46 twists in the umbilical cord,” great sadness at life so cruelly muffled before it even whimpered.

The upward of 1,700 sticky specimens — a sliver of John Wilkes Booth’s thorax; a full skeleton encrusted in its owner’s ossified sinew and organs — and 20,000 objects — an archaic penile syringe, leech jar and bleeding bowl — demand gawkers to question our flesh-and-blood frailty and peer across the accepted borders of what constitutes normalcy.

Some guests will ponder God’s inscrutable will and the crap-shoot of birth; others might mull our fleshly finiteness, staring at them at every turn, and thank their lucky stars.

“The museum challenges visitors in a way that few American museums do,” says Dick Levinson, Mütter spokesman. “It’s impossible to visit here without confronting issues of sickness, mortality and human sexuality. We’re the museum young people love because we don’t preach, we don’t sugarcoat and we have no agenda except for allowing the voice of science to speak.”

That voice speaks loudly, but with fitting respect and as much dignity as a naked cadaver can possess. There’s humor in the macabre, as horror movies show, so a giggle of shock or a throwaway quip (“Hey, Tom, that skull has your cheekbones”) won’t ruffle the contemplative oxygen of the galleries. It eases the mood. Remember, school kids come here. By now, them bones and body parts understand the various responses of the living to the so forthrightly dead.


Some of us get giddier than others at such places. I was most thrilled that the autopsy of the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was performed at the Mütter in the 1870s, and that the museum kept some nifty souvenirs for display. I examined the plaster cast of the twins’ bound torsos and, below it, their connected liver, a chalky, scabby island bobbing in a pan of fluid.

That’s an island this world traveler and seeker of the strange calls one thing: paradise.