Posts Tagged ‘shopping’

worth a (farther) drive

Yesterday, in a supreme gesture of “because I can” and testament to the power of “why not,” I drove to Des Moines for a couple hours. And not the cultural big city Des Moines; no, I set my sights the mall, full stop. I don’t know what it says about me that I logged four hours behind the wheel just to indulge in the consumerist pleasure of tooling around an (admittedly beautiful) indoor shopping center with stubby, potted palm trees and water fountains, poking around the sauce pans at Williams-Sonoma and picking up a slice of peanut butter cheesecake for dessert several hours later. But it felt really good. I picked an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, the butter-dipped kind — one of the world’s best shopping indulgences. I spent an hour at J.Crew trying on soft tees and cropped pants and even (gasp!) gingham shorts and, at the end, marveled at how much nicer the Jordan Creek sales associates are than the ones in Tyson’s, VA. I popped across the artificial outdoor bridge for the P.F. Chang’s lunch bowl and read my Pride and Prejudice. And then it was back to Iowa City, where it was still brightly sunny and a gorgeous 65-degrees — and all of this to say, I suppose, how lovely a simple, do-nothing, indulgent day away is. I hope you get to have one soon, too.


the last farmer’s market

Alas and alack, the season’s farmer’s market has come to a close. It runs from early May through the last weekend in October and that, friends, is this.

I love the Iowa City’s farmer’s market, even though it’s only open Wednesday evenings (colliding exactly coinciding with my business class) and Saturday mornings. Since you all know what happens most Saturday mornings in the fall, I won’t waste space re-explaining how woefully ill-conceived such a schedule is. Strangely enough, though, Saturday mornings at the market are always a bustling medley of organic vegetable farmers and hippie beef, pork, and elk (!) vendors, local cheese makers, purveyors of jams, honeys, salsas, and single-variety apple butters, craft stands, baked goods and pastas, enviably flourishing herb planters, and, of course, samples. Samples are key. Samples are how we’ve been induced to buy aged Gouda, hummus, and, from one woman, two kinds of barbecue sauce. If you don’t have samples, you’re not in the game.

If I didn’t know this fall has been unseasonably warm, I’d be griping a lot more about the market closing before Halloween. Some farm stands were still hawking tomatoes! Tomatoes in October! Definitive proof that the growing season is far from over. I’m nearly positive they could keep chugging until the week of Thanksgiving — but maybe that’s just the desire for farm-fresh butternut squash and Iowa turkeys (!) talking. Still, we were perfectly happy to pick up those ugly tomatoes, tiny green beans, a violently orange cauliflower, potted thyme, home-spun fettuccine, and that lovely aged Gouda.

n+b’s big city day

Remember when I said that Des Moines, being merely two hours away, had become our go-to short-weekend escape? Well somewhere along the line we realized that Chicago is only three and a half hours away. Not even twice as far! How could we possibly justify not visiting?

In the end, we couldn’t. This weekend we did away with feeble excuses and took a true mini-break to the city. We left Friday morning at 9:30 (the one time I feel grateful for B’s 8am class!) and rolled back into our driveway Saturday evening, just in time for dinner, with a trail of skyscrapers, deep-dish, and smoky cocktails in our wake.

Understandably/as promised, our first stop in town was at a deep-dish (not stuffed crust!) pizza joint. This time we picked Lou Malnati’s — a chain, but one with enough Zagat cred and Yelp stars to warrant high expectations. We started with stuffed zucchini bread and calamari — neither particularly innovative, but hearty, richly flavorful and filling, which would probably be a good time to tell you we’d ordered a medium pizza. That claims to serve three.

And besides the impressive circumference, it’s, well, DEEP. Who knew? Butter crust, cheese, an entire layer of their specialty sausage, tomato sauce, and some parmesan “dusted” atop. I crawled my way through a slice and a half, and though the last few bites were more torture than transcendence, this is good pizza. The flavors are crisper, more awake than the anonymous toppings (middlings?) that Giordano’s greasily slaps between two crusts. And since we’re on the topic: butter crust! Chewy from top to bottom and crispy around the edges. I’m no convert to the Chicago-style, and will continue trying other pizzerias, but feel quite relieved to have finally found one solid option.

And then we went to the Chicago Auto Show. Full disclosure: this was my first auto show. (Yes, I can feel your surprise from here.) And it was really fun! We mostly saw new 2010 cars, some that won’t be released until the summer, and a bunch of interesting concept designs. Also — I swear I’m not this big a ditz with other things — but I didn’t realize that part of going to auto shows is that you get to sit in the cars. (Well, most of them. I didn’t get to sit in a Lamborghini.) I understand the appeal so much more now.




I don’t know much about cars, but even I can appreciate these fast, pretty machines. And they’re not even that hard to get, right? (KIDDING.) Here’s what we did for dinner: Frontera Grill. You have probably heard of it, because the restaurant also has a namesake line of grocery store salsas, sauces, chips and so on. But even if you’re not familiar with it, the food is fantastic. A bit pricey, but positively saturated with all those spicy, smoky, tangy flavors that good Mexican food should deliver. And flavors aside, it’s the sort of place you can tell treats food well. The rib steak of my Carne Asada a la Oaxaquena dish was spicy and juicy, perfectly medium-rare, and paired so tastily with thick black beans, sweet plantains with sour cream, and scoops of guac on the side.

(The smoky cocktail mentiond above came from here too: Billy’s Mezcal Margarita, which is artisanal mescal, brandy, bitters and limonada, shaken at the table. A bit too smoky — what, it is! — for me, but a really cool interplay of flavors.)

Saturday morning we went to Anthropologie (siiiiiigh), then the previously-reviewed and still-delicious The Gage for lunch. And then we trundled on home, through the Illinois flatlands and Iowa’s rolling hills, back to a warm house that’s just begging for a new thin-crust pizza experiment. Stay tuned!

road trippers and night riffers


On Friday afternoon, Billo and I bent to the exhortation of “Go west, young man!” and drove to Des Moines for a concert, a skyline, and a real mall. For those of you who have never driven across/in the Midwest (ahem most of you), banish forever the notion that (a) all ten-odd states in the region are geographically homogeneous, in other words (b) flat as a pancake. This corner of south eastern Iowa, at least, has plenty of sloping green hills to interrupt the corn fields (corn not wheat; wheat’s in Kansas) and lovely cotton-cloud skies. Also, fields of windmills and convoys of trucks hauling the blades there.

windmill blades on the road!

We rolled in to Des Moines right around dinner time and promptly rediscovered three City Things that we had almost forgotten about.

1) rush hour traffic

2) a skyline

3) having to wait for a table at restaurants

downtown des moines

The restaurant B found for us — in the pages of the New York Times, bien sur — was Centro, which the author of “36 Hours in Des Moines” describes thus: “Opened in 2002, the “Italian urban” restaurant Centro quickly became the hangout of various celebrities during the run-up to the 2004 Iowa presidential caucuses. A symbol of a re-energized downtown, it’s inside a once-faded 1913 Masonic Temple recently transformed into the Temple for Performing Arts, which includes a theater and a grand reception hall. Centro serves thin-crust brick-oven pizza ($10 to $18) and dishes inspired by Little Italy in New York ($12.95 to $32.95) in a bustling dining room overlooking a busy streetscape.”

centro door

What a no brainer! Of course we will eat there! And our hopes and dreams were fulfilled.


After a half hour wait we snagged a table on the semi-enclosed outdoor patio and fell on the warm focaccia (which I’m making later this week, stay tuned), olive oil, and general magic hour. When we told our waiter we were in a tiny hurry, he nodded appreciatively. “Going to the Dave Matthews concert?” WHY YES. What other evening performances or events might be happening here? So there’s a small town heart, still.

billy, evoo fan

We started with a pair of delicious, slightly crispy crab cakes with an easy aioli. Delicious. Then Billy ordered the Siciliana pizza, which was loaded with Natalie’s Favorite Things: capers, olives, pickled hot peppers. (NOT my favorite things.) I, on the other hand, am very boring classic, and got their Napoletana offering with fresh tomatoes and sauce, fresh mozz, fresh basil, olive oil, and garlic.

pizza napoletana

It was piping hot lusciousness, and went pretty far in quelling our mad hunger for Grimaldi’s and its ilk. It’s worth mentioning, though, that this remains New York style pizza, which is very different from actual New York pizza. It’s not quite as good. The dough is a little too thick, the cheese a little too heavy. But it’s still the best I’ve had this side of the Mississippi. I enjoyed it quite enough to make my pants feel too tight, two days later.

eaten pizza

Then we wasted some time finding different parking and headed to the fantastic Dave Matthews Band concert. They played for a solid two hours, or twenty five songs. Onstage were four of the five original band members — guitarist, bassist, drummer, violinist — accompanied by another guitarist, a trumpet player, and a saxophonist to replace the recently late LeRoi Moore of the original band. The resulting music is extremely full, and full of riffs, plays, and improvisations. Our original seats were directly behind the sound crew tent, but we hopped over a couple sections and landed a perfect view of the stage. (I was paranoid, though, and left my camera behind. This shot is from my little iPhone.)

dmb stage

We and our post-concert McFlurries spent the night at the airport Hampton Inn, the better to mosey on down to the wonderful Jordan Creek MALL the next day. What capitalism! I was irresponsible at J.Crew, even for for someone with my track record (there isn’t one in in Iowa City! I have to stock up!) and we rounded off the shopping with lunch at the Cheescake Factory. Fat, consumer-happy, and musically inspired, we rolled back to the car and on home to Iowa City.

rolling back