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Special Section: Checking out Chicago

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White Chocolate-Sour Cream Topping

Chocolate Malt Syrup

My Favorite Ice Cream Sandwiches

Sweet Spot


Special Section

Checking out Chicago-"The Windy City" has innumerable attractions for travelers, whether you're there for business or on a family vacation. Listed below are some of the places I visited while there…

Seneca Hotel & Suites. 200 East Chestnut Street, phone: (312) 467-0800. Part residence and part hotel, the Seneca offers an unbeatable location (it's just over a block away from The Magnificent Mile). Check around among the travel websites for deals here. The staff is friendly and can give you lots of tips to make your stay more enjoyable. There are three restaurants here; one, Cantare, has a very good reputation as one of the better newcomers, but I was unable to try it during my stay. One caveat: if you demand five-star service and the ultimate in luxurious new furnishings, stay elsewhere. But for reasonably-priced accomodations with the occasional, minor slip-up in service, this makes a fine choice, particularly if you want to be close to, but not on top of, Michigan Avenue.

John G. Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum. All three rank high on the "must see" lists of many people, and it's easy to understand why. The aquarium is great for kids, as it has enough critters to hold their interest but is of a manageable size; I lost my heart to their enchanting sea dragons and pipefish. The Art Institute has some truly beautiful exhibits, ranging from medieval arms and armor to a room full of spectacular paperweights. And of course the Field Museum is famous for "Sue", their Tyrannosaurus rex, but I also saw an exhibit on gemstones and one on Japanese lacquer boxes while there. It's best to go early to any of these, before they become crowded. Consult your nearest guidebook for their locations, and please double-check hours of operation by calling before you go.

Treasure Island. 75 West Elm Street, phone: (312) 440-1144. I don't care what anyone tells you; this place just isn't that big a deal. I think it was an upscale gourmet market years before any other place in Chicago, but now it's simply a decent urban grocery store. Perfectly fine if you're in the neighborhood, but not worth a special trip.

Fox & Obel. River East Plaza, 401 East Illinois, phone: (312) 410-7301. This place, on the other hand, is that big a deal. Opened just last September, this store/café combination knows a thing or two about food, and it shows in almost everything they carry. Good-looking produce, a great cheese section (try the Saint Agur bleu), olive oils and flavored vinegars by the dozen, good prepared foods to take home, and more. I was disappointed in their sweet baked goods, though the breads here are decent. Christopher Norman and Cluizel chocolates, along with Bonnat bars (not seen that often in the US) and Sonny's ice cream (you've got to try the fresh banana). Nice and food-savvy staff, too. Expensive.

foodlife. Water Tower Place, Mezzanine level, 835 North Michigan Avenue. An upscale mall food court that pretends to be both healthier and holier (or at least more spiritual) than thou. I could do without the preaching (I swear there's a sign hanging from the ceiling that says "Call your mother" and another proclaiming that wisdom is greater than knowledge) and the food is generally overpriced. I love the carrot-apple blend at the fresh juice booth, though, and among the stands there are some healthier options and more choices than you'd normally find in a mall food court.

Restaurant Kevin. 9 West Hubbard Street, phone: (312) 595-0055. I had read a few reviews of this restaurant before I decided to eat here; most frequently repeated were the complaints that the food was overpriced and the portions were tiny. But I liked the sound of the food, which was supposed to be French with an Asian spin. Kevin is a small restaurant, but it feels open and airy and comfortable, and I liked the understated décor. While I consider the portions here to be human-sized (most restaurants serve unreasonably large portions), the prices are seriously inflated. There is too much complexity in many of the dishes here, in combinations that don't always work. The service slowed during dinner to the point where we were being ignored by the end of our meal. And when are restaurants going to learn that omitting salt and pepper shakers/mills from their tables is merely pretentious? Recommended dishes: chocolate trio; cornet-copia of fresh fruit with sweet camembert crème and blackberry syrup.

mk the restaurant. 868 North Franklin, phone: (312) 482-9179. mk is a sleek, modern-looking establishment that is clearly a "see and be seen" restaurant. I don't often like places of this nature, but once you are seated it's surprisingly easy to put that all behind you and concentrate on the food, most of which merits your undivided attention. A good deal of emphasis is placed on presentation here, but seldom at the expense of the food-and that's the way a restaurant should work. Recommended dishes: morel mushrooms with house-made fettuccine and English peas (a special the night we were there); grilled artichokes with lemon, garlic, and olive oil; ravioli filled with fresh goat cheese, teardrop tomatoes, and rosemary; cake and shake; one banana, two banana. Skip the signature pommes frites with truffle cream unless you get the frites unsalted. Courteous service. Reservations are a must.

Bite Café. 1039 North Western Avenue, phone: (773) 395-2483. A tiny (12-table), funky little local place that serves fare from all over the globe, from beer-battered catfish to baba ghanouj to biscotti. The most expensive dish I saw was a salmon special for $11.50. Recommended dishes: jerk pork chops with mango relish, rice, and beans. Be warned: there is no non-smoking section here.