Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Arboretum of South Barrington

I am the first to admit I’m not a shopper and suburban shopping centers can be downright depressing to me. So when there is a place I actually enjoy the shopping experience you know it has to be good. The Arboretum of South Barrington certainly fits the bill. Conveniently located near I-90 at the intersection of Higgins Rd. and Sutton Rd., a.k.a. Routes 72 and 59, so finding it should be no trouble at all.

I’ll give you a hint on how to woo me with you shopping center; make it open-air. I’m not sure if I like to pretend we in Chicagoland aren’t buried under snow with negative wind-chills a chunk of the year or if it is nostalgia from my days living in San Diego. The landscape architects and planners for The Arboretum of South Barrington did a bang-up job. Plenty of greenery with lots of trees, gardens (10,000 grasses, ornamental and otherwise) and flowers (20,000 perennials!) as a nod to the tree farm which used to occupy this same land years ago. For the tree-enthusiasts out there (and really, who isn’t?) “80 species of shade and ornamental trees were selected for their hardiness against snow and the residual salt from de-icing. Over 2,700 trees in all came from local nurseries, varying in size, shape, and age, including maple, oaks, linden and locust. The larger trees include elm, Autumn Blaze maple, Turkish filbert, Kentucky coffee tree, and Golden Raindrop crabapple.” Impressive, eh?

Okay, enough on the nature, let’s talk about the shopping and dining! I love to try unique and independently owned places – and this shopping center has a nice combination of places you don’t see everywhere (they may have more locations, just not plastered all over like Target) and locally owned businesses. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few of my favorites. For a complete list check out

Seasons Produce & Specialty Market – think farmer’s market on a smaller scale

Sur la Table – a fabulous kitchen store

Acquisitions for the Home – lovely furniture and accessories

Arhaus Furniture – ditto the above

Amazing Gracie’s Childrens Shoppe – now I don’t have children, but if you want yours (or your favorite nieces, nephews, etc.) to look good for a special occasion, this is THE place to go

Kinga European Children’s Shoes – once again, I have no kids, but love to look at these shoes!

L.L. Bean – yes, I know you’ve heard of them but they don’t have many locations and only one other in Illinois. All kinds of great outdoor gear, active wear and clothing. PLUS they are always having free or cheap workshops on a variety of subjects. Just recently while kayaking my husband and I came upon the LL Bean Kayaking Workshop learning how to paddle in the parking lot prior to getting in the water.

Kriser’s – go green for your furry friends with all natural pet food, treats, toys and grooming

L’Eiffel Bistro & Creperie – one of my absolute favorite places to eat with wonderfully delicious crepes (both savory and sweet), fantastic wines, lovely d├ęcor with outdoor dining patio, and they have Sunday brunch.

Anna Shea Chocolates & Lounge – Heavenly chocolates which look so beautiful you don’t want to bite in to them, until you do and discover how orgasmic they are! They also have cupcakes, a small gelato bar, frozen hot chocolate and plenty of chocolate-infused adult beverages and wine to go with your chocolate. Plus there are cutesy little items to purchase and they have a nice little room you can have a small private party in. These people know and love their chocolate!

Nozumi Asian & Japanese Cuisine – Mmmm, sushi. Need I say more? Sleek & stylish as well.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant They had me at “winery” but also a tasty menu and a gluten-free menu. Bonus points! Carryout and catering available as well.

Froots – smoothie heaven

Like I said, they have lots of other places to shop, eat, and you can even pamper yourself at a few of their spas and salons for hair, nails, facials, etc. And if it’s entertainment you are looking for they have a Gold Class Cinemas – the ultimate in theater experiences and Pinstripes Bocce & Bowling (which also has it’s own bar and restaurant area).

The center itself is always having different events and even antique markets. I hope I’ve inspired you to give suburban shopping centers another try and you will be taken to an entirely different level.

The Arboretum of South Barrington
100 W. Higgins Rd.
South Barrington, IL 60010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Did you just order a $5 milk shake? YES!

Going to Al's Cafe & Creamery in downtown Elgin reminded me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta questions Uma Thurman about ordering a $5 milkshake. I, like John, was skeptical...but upon trying their famous "Burn's Malt" I also exclaimed, "That is one good f@#%ing milkshake!"

Best. Shake. Ever.

Since this life changing experience my husband and I have been back to Al's several times - each time to bring a new person to worship at the foot of their milkshake machine.

And the deliciousness doesn't stop there! Their food is sooooo good. Al's ranks high on my list for "best burgers" - I especially love their Mushroom Swiss Burger but they have several others to choose from, all complete Yum. My husband loves their deluxe grilled cheese but Al's has much more than just burgers and sandwiches. Each month Al's has a themed ingredient for their Specials menu. August is Steaks and boy oh boy, on our most recent visit I had a fabulous steak! I ordered the bleu-crusted steak which came with a delicious sauce and mashed potatoes, as well as soup or salad. My steak was quite large, much larger than I was expecting for $13.95. It was easily two servings and I happily enjoyed it for dinner the next day as well.

Getting back to those shakes...If you are drinking a malt or shake alone I would definitely go for the half-size. A half is basically a normal size beverage. And they make it easy for you to split the half-size because they bring some of it in the soda fountain glass and the other portion in the milkshake machine cup. And don't go looking for a straw, these shakes are so thick you just get a long spoon. How big is the full-size you ask? The "full" version is like having one super jumbo shake. If you are going to order that size may I suggest wearing pants with an elastic waistband?

The inside of the cafe is small but the decor is interesting...the building itself was the old pharmacy in Elgin. You'll be transported back to another era when you check out the old soda-fountain counter. I believe there is seating upstairs as well, but I've never been up there. In the warmer months you can sit out on the patio. This restaurant is typically quite busy and the servers are trying to take care of several patrons so they might not be as attentive as you'd like - but they are certainly friendly.

Al's is located in the heart of downtown Elgin, 43 Du Page Court. Elgin has been working very hard to revitalize their downtown area so if you haven't been there in a while, check it out. There are a couple of free parking garages downtown, one not far from Al's so you'll have no trouble finding a spot. Check out their menu @

Local in Schaumburg?! Mad Mark's Mystic Pizza

As everyone in the Chicago area knows, Schaumburg is filled with chains. It's the big-box, retail capital of suburbia, what with Woodfield Mall, IKEA, and endless amounts of chain restaurants. It's often cited as a prime example of what city dwellers hate about the suburbs.

Now, not every suburb is Schaumburg, and in fact I've made it a point to highlight the many suburbs with their own sense of culture, with small and local stores and restaurants, unique downtowns, and so forth.

But as it turns out, even Schaumburg is not totally devoid of interesting places. I was recently invited to a free Yelp event at Mad Mark's Mystic Pizza, 871 E. Algonquin Road, Schaumburg, in the former location of the Alumni Club.

Upon entering, I was amused and a little overwhelmed by the decor -- with brightly colored dragons, a tye-dye motif, and random "stuff" everywhere, it looks like a hippie had an acid trip in a ski lodge. There's certainly plenty to look at. The interior has a large dance floor, a big bar, and plenty of seating. Outside features a patio with a good amount of seating, a bar, a bags court and a sand volleyball court (netted, so that patrons don't have stray balls knocking over their beers).

The atmosphere was inviting and casual, a great place for a summer's evening. But the real star was the food we sampled. Featured was pizza (pepperoni, cheese, sausage and the oh-so-decadent mac & cheese pizza!), jalapeno corn mashed potatoes (just a little kick, very creamy), firecracker shrimp (spicy perfectly-fried shrimp served over a bed of julienned veggies and greens, lightly dressed) and some of the BEST broasted chicken I've had in a long time -- a fabulously spiced crispy skin and tender juicy chicken underneath.

We were also plied with some free beverages, and the bartenders and servers were super-friendly and attentive.

Mad Mark himself made an appearance, talking up the food and personally thanking us all for being there.

While yes, our food was free and we were shown a great time, I would absolutely go back as a paying customer -- I want more of that great firecracker shrimp and broasted chicken! And while the place does have "pizza" in the name, their menu is nicely varied with sandwiches, salads and more.

If you're spending a long day shopping in Schaumburg, I very much recommend a quick trip up to Mad Mark's - take a break from the chains and enjoy a tasty meal.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Here fishy, fishy, fishy... Sushi Nest, Elmhurst

Since the day in college when I first popped a California roll into my mouth, I have been fascinated by, and later enamored with sushi.

I don't get it often because well-crafted sushi is often a bit of an indulgence. Well, that and the fact that my husband is just not a big fish fan - he eats shrimp and that's about it. Forget the raw stuff.

That said, I do love it when I can get it, and I recently had the opportunity to go to Sushi Nest, 142 N. York St, Elmhurst with a friend. And it was wonderful.

The atmosphere is elegant and cozy, and the service is top-notch. We were offered hot towels to clean our hands and big glasses of water with cucumber slices. After ordering, we received a complimentary bowl of edamame, perfectly and lightly salted, as an appetizer.

We shared two rolls -- a Red Dragon roll, with spicy tuna and crunch and topped with more tuna, and a California roll -- and three kinds of nigiri: yellow tail, white tuna and unagi (eel with barbecue sauce).

Everything was fresh and delicious. The white tuna simply melted in my mouth, and the flavors were great on the rolls. I have to admit the unagi wasn't my favorite, but I'd never had eel before. I'd eat it again, but it mostly tasted like barbecue sauce :)

Prices are good, about what you'd expect for a nice but not super-fancy sushi place. They do offer entrees, noodles, salads and combination platters.

All in all, fantastic fresh sushi at fair prices with excellent service... what more could you want?