Sunday, March 02, 2008

Chicago Food and More on Distant Worlds

And now for a more complete chronicle of my Chicago trip.

I had window seats both ways, so I enjoyed watching the clouds and the landscape below. The area near the Missouri River is mostly brown, with very scant patches of residual snow. The further east we went, the whiter everything got. Illinois is still fully snow covered.

On the flight out, I saw one of the coolest spectacles I've ever beheld: the reflection of the sun on the surface of the clouds. There on the smooth, flat sea of white was one luminescent spot, surrounded by a faint halo of red, orange, and yellow. Exquisite.

I did not get to do a single bit of sightseeing. Our unfabulous hotel was in a sort of industrial area far, far from any points of interest. To take a taxi to the downtown area would have cost well more money than we had on us. We could probably have used a credit card, but it hardly seemed worth it, given that we would probably have had little more than an hour to play once travel time was factored in. So we hung around the hotel watching Animal Planet, and then we went for an early dinner before the concert.

I ate three meals in Chicago, two of which were in O'Hare airport. Upon arrival, before we went to the hotel, we had wood-fire-baked pizzas at Wolfgang Puck's. I had spicy chicken with red and yellow bell peppers. Oh, it was delicious, but it was nothing to compare to dinner that evening. Since we weren't getting to do any sightseeing, we opted to make dinner a memorable experience, and we decided to go for steak. We chose Gibson's Steak House because a) it was walking distance from the theater, and b) it was highly recommended by our hotel's shuttle van driver, who seemed like a nice guy. (Well, otherwise we would have blindly picked a place out of the tourist brochure.)

I was not really prepared for the caliber of this establishment. To say the least, we were underdressed. The wait staff were all in white suits and black ties, and the service was impeccable. Entrees started at about $10 for a simple hamburger, and they went up to about $100 for Australian lobster with turf. Most entrees were in the $30-$50 range, before sides. My natural instinct to save money kicked in, and I had almost decided on a steak sandwich, which cost slightly more than the hamburger, but was still near the bottom of the price range, but then the waiter brought out a tray with several cuts of meat to show us. Once I saw the superb quality of the beef (USDA Prime) and realized how rare of a culinary opportunity this was, I upgraded my order to filet mignon.

Oh, it was one of the most delicious, flavorful, tender pieces of beef I have ever tasted. I savored every bite like it was manna from heaven.

My friend and I split a half-order of fries, and they were the best I've ever had. (And even a half-order split between the two of us was plenty.) They were thin cut with the potato skins still present, and the seasoning was delicious. And--unlike any other fry I've ever had in my entire life--they retained their excellent flavor even after they'd gotten cold. I love fries--and potatoes in general--but this was an unprecedented experience for me. Generally a cold fry is a dead fry, unsalvageable. These, on the other hand, were good to the last crumb.

The marvelous quality of the beef and potatoes encouraged me to splurge further and get the creme brule for dessert. It was simply divine. In short, if you're ever in Rosemont, Illinois, and you want a superb steak dinner, go to Gibson's.

After dinner we walked over to the Rosemont Theater for the Distant Worlds concert. While we were standing with the crowd outside waiting for the theater doors to open, Nobuo Uematsu himself stuck his head out to see the fans. I was too far to hear what he said, but I saw his face pretty clearly. I thought it was very cool for him to greet the crowd personally.

Although I've already described the concert in my completely lackluster post last night (sorry about that--I was dead tired by then), I'd like to add that I am almost at a loss for words to convey how wonderful it was. Every single performer was masterful, from the Spanish guitarist to the opera singers to the pianist. The chorus was magnificent, as was the orchestra. The conductor, Arnie Roth, effused his delight in the music, and he knew how to play the audience as well, feeding on and feeding into the collective frenzy. Uematsu was received like a rock star, with much hooting and cheering. The pieces were arranged in a variety of styles, from swing to flamenco to opera, but always with a sweeping, classical orchestral flavor. This was music to stir the heart and soul. And it's not just the effects familiarity and nostalgia: I'd never heard any version of "Memoro de la Stono~Distant Worlds" before, and I was still blown away.

"Liberi Fatali" and "One-Winged Angel" were the perfect bookends to this concert. I can't imagine a stronger start or a stronger finish. The selection and order of the pieces throughout the concert was likewise well balanced.

I loved watching the videos projected onto the screens, too. For the Final Fantasy games I've played, it was a trip down memory lane. For the ones I haven't, it was a helpful glimpse into the world described by the music. But while the music would surely be enjoyable for someone who had never played Final Fantasy or heard the music before, most of the videos would probably have seemed incomprehensible to non-gamers. (And before you ask why I think any non-fans would attend a concert like this, I know there was at least one present--I met her in the lobby. She was attending with her son-in-law, who was a die-hard fan. She was a very gracious lady, but she seemed a bit bemused by the spontaneous game-talk among total strangers. I do hope she enjoyed the concert, though. The music stands by itself.) One comment on the video for "Swing de Chocobo": I can't understand why no Final Fantasy VII chocobos were shown, given that chocobo breeding and racing were big parts of that game; I think they showed chocobos from every other game.

Oh, and if I may digress yet again . . . the conductor happened to mention (perhaps without Uematsu's permission) that a third Black Mages album is coming very soon, and that "Maria and Draco" will be one of the pieces on it. I am intrigued by the idea of a heavy metal arrangement of the opera. But whatever pieces will be on it, when I hear "Black Mages," I'm already sold.

I only have two criticisms about the concert. First: the lack of bags and poster tubes for souvenirs. I bought a T-shirt, a CD, and a program, and I found it pretty difficult to wrangle all of them on my lap during the concert. (I bought them first because they were selling very, very fast, and I doubted there would be anything left after the performance.) My friend bought a poster that had been autographed by both Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu (real signatures--not printed or stamped--we compared them with those on the poster purchased by the guy sitting next to us), but with no cardboard tube to protect it, the poster was pretty badly damaged by the time we got back to Omaha. Air travel is not kind to posters, even as carry-ons.

My second criticism: the lack of a program listing all the songs performed, in order, with the names of the soloists. As it was, I do not have a record of exactly who and what I heard. Every piece on the CD was performed at the concert, but not in the same order, and not by the same orchestra, chorus, or soloists. And there were at least two pieces performed which were not on the CD. The glossy program I purchased tells a bit about each game in the Final Fantasy series, and it is filled with beautiful artwork, but it does not contain any specific information about the music. I like it, but it's really more of an artbook than a concert program. So I would have liked a program with details about this performance. Even a simple photocopied sheet would have been nice.

Neither of those complaints detracts from the quality of the music or the performances. The concert was spectacular, and I hope they do more concerts in North America. I would love to hear a live performance of "Dancing Mad" or "Cosmo Canyon."

The next morning (that is, this morning), we were at the airport before dawn, so we missed out on the hotel's free breakfast, having left before it started. Then our flight was delayed, so we ended up sitting in the airport for quite a while. This brings me to my third and final meal in Chicago. I decided to get a genuine Chicago style hot dog, just so I could say I've had one.

The dog itself was a little different from the hot dogs I'm used to. It was more of a red hot, as long as the bun. Then there were the toppings, many of which just seemed weird to me. The dog was buried in a sloppy mess of yellow mustard, chopped onions, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, and several large slices of tomatoes. Notably lacking was ketchup, the one thing I personally consider essential to hot dogs. I didn't know whether or not I'd like it, because I dislike both onions and mustard, but somehow it all worked together. I think it was the two kinds of pickle that saved it for me, since I love pickles. It was good, and I'd gladly have it again.

My friend got a hot dog with ketchup only. Now, I've heard that street vendors in Chicago will refuse to make one this way. It's Chicago style or nothing. But in the airport, since there are so many tourists, they were willing to customize. My friend informed me that the ketchup they used was rather spicier than she was used to, along with the sausage itself being spicier.

And now for the photos. Here's Red XIII, showing us where the Rosemont Theater is on the map.

And sure enough, there it is! Despite the burned out bulbs in the sign, it's a beautiful theater inside and out, with a massive grand chandelier that reminded me of the Phantom of the Opera.

Here's Red showing off all my loot. I have listened to the CD several times already today. It is fabulous.

And here is Nobuo Uematsu's signature on my friend's poster. Sweet!

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