(Province Dining Room; all pictures taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com)
Province is located in the West Loop region of Chicago, across the street from Sepia and relatively close to a circle of restaurants that can lay claim to Chicago’s best-loved restaurants: Girl and the Goat, Publican, Avec, Next, Moto and Blackbird. Paradoxically, while the West Loop has become Chicago’s most loved restaurant hub, its restaurants have been largely unheralded by Michelin, with only Moto, Blackbird and Sepia receiving stars in the latest red guide. Having dined at a number of the West Loop restaurants, I find there is a claustrophobic intensity to the dining scene there, likely the result of the condensation of a number of very strong personalities, including Homaro Cantu, Paul Kahan and Grant Achatz. However, while these are chefs who are famous in their own right, I do think the West Loop restaurants are generally characterized by a casual intensity that reflects the location, and a youthful culinary exuberance against which Michelin holds an aversion. I was interested in dining at Province as it was highly recommended by a friend and because I was curious about its self-proclaimed “Nuevo Latino” cuisine.
Province is noteworthy for the fact that it has received a Gold Level LEED Certification, the first Chicago restaurant to have been awarded this distinction. The sense of sustainability resonates throughout and my enduring impression is that the atmosphere feels very “light,” an unusual sensation within the context of a setting that involves eating. It is certainly not an ambience that primes one to overindulge, and this made me aware of the way in which restaurants typically construct an environment that prepares the diner for (over)consumption. For example, the lavish carpeting and chairs at restaurants like Ria and Everest establish an opulent environment that is more ornate and—for better or worse—transparently hedonistic. The floors and tables at Province are made from sustainably-harvested cork, while the artwork features plant and animal subjects. The bright color and plant-themed artwork vaguely gestures toward the aesthetic of Georgia O’Keefe, and it should be noted that Province does have a sister restaurant of the same name in Arizona. It was very unusual to encounter a pink-colored wall; while notable, I feel as though the brightness sacrifices the potential for a more dramatic feel. The ceiling is characterized by a number of hanging branches (visible at the upper left of the above image); these not only give the impression of dining within nature but also established a zero-gravity feel, or the sensation of weightlessness that is prevalent in Modern Art. Similar to the pink wall, the general feeling of lightness perhaps nullified the potential for a more arresting environment, although it did impart a clean, neat resonance that was by no means displeasing.
After seating, my dining companion and I were offered still or sparkling water and presented with the menu. Province’s website lists their style as “Nuevo Latino,” a curious title that perhaps attempts to encompass the native cuisines of several latin cuisines. Accordingly, there was a seafood moqueca, an “Argentine Grill” section, a pork arepa, and a tuna taco. However, the menu also features a large number of Spanish plates, with options such as paella, bacalao, and lamb with fideo noodles. While I am certainly not opposed to incorporating Latin and Spanish dishes, it does seem strange to me that dishes that are iconically Spanish are assimilated under the title of “Nuevo Latino.” The menu structure includes a tasting menu option, a tapas section, and a selection of larger savory plates. My companion, who has been to Province a number of times, stated that the tasting menu is fairly new, while the tapas section has been truncated and the larger plate selection expanded. Where it used to be easy to compose a meal from the tapas selection, the variety of small plates is now limited to the point that this would be awkward. The incorporation of a tasting option likely reflects aspirations for Michelin recognition, and the condensation of the small plate selection may well be a nod toward Michelin as well; there are no Michelin-starred restaurants specializing in small plates. I do find it interesting though, that unlike Avec and Girl and the Goat (which also specialize in small plates), Province appears to have reformatted in order to please Michelin. It is unfortunate that restaurants shape their concept in order to assimilate within Michelin’s relatively limited framework for restaurant evaluation–Michelin is overly evaluative, scoring restaurants rather than interacting with them on their own terms.
Before ordering, a food runner delivered an amuse bouche of smoked salmon with an Argentinian salsa, and a plate of small garlic rolls, long thin crackers, and a white bean puree. The salsa involved chopped peppers that were served cold. I don’t recall what the white spread in the amuse bouche involved, although perhaps this is due to the fact that the overall impact of the opening bite held a very muted flavor that made little impact. Smoked salmon has to be one of the most popular amuse bouche themes, and pairing it with the salsa felt slightly unassertive and unnatural. In contrast, I enjoyed the bread service and the white bean spread, both of which were crisp and clean in a way that correlated with the overall feel of the restaurant’s environment.
Although we considered the tasting menu option, we instead chose an array of tapas plates and then two of the larger plates, instructing the server to course out the selections appropriately. The first items to arrive were duck meatballs (served with a piquillo pepper sauce and shaved manchego) and a flatbread consisting of chicken linguica smoked sausage and eggplant escalavita. There was a contrast between the clean, ascetic décor and the messiness of these two dishes; the flatbread was difficult to eat with one’s hands as it was stacked high with ingredients, yet it also didn’t lend itself to utensils since the bread was quite soft. Similarly, the duck meatballs were messy due to the fact that the accompanying bread slices were overly thin. However, the messy compositions were recuperated through the light explosiveness of the flavors. The piquillo peppers and manchego contributed welcome depth to the light duck meatballs. The lettuce was pleasantly bitter while the sausage and eggplant added savory depth. However, while both dishes utilized a pleasant interplay between flavors, they were each quite soft to the point of demonstrating textural redundancy.
For our next round of tapas, we shared the bacalao. I should note that the servers did a great job coursing out the plates in a manner that didn’t overburden us. While they were somewhat utilitarian and didn’t provide an exhaustive description, this was befitting for the fast-paced, casual environment. As the menu description was somewhat vague, I was concerned that it would be prepared in brandade form, but instead it took the shape of a breaded cake and was paired with a poached egg and a small jicama salad. The dish was pleasant tasting yet the cod was unassertive and somewhat dominated by the breading. While the combination of the breading and the egg was pleasing, it was also highly familiar. The jicama felt as though it had been tacked on to the dish, possibly to add another dimension to the dish or perhaps just to counteract the somewhat bland aesthetic of the egg/cod cake. While it is certainly important to utilize differing colors, I feel as though incorporating greens has become cursory and a convention that is widely employed to the extent that it normalizes, rather than distinguishes, a dish.
Following the cod cake, we were brought saffron cannelloni and a tuna taco. Filled with squash, mushrooms, braised leeks, and sherry jus, the cannelloni were both light and rich and my favorite tasting dish of the evening. The bright yellow coloration was a good metaphor for the light yet bright feeling of the kitchen. The tuna taco was aesthetically monochromatic, yet this was tempered by the soy mustard aioli. Still, the dish was still somewhat bland in appearance, which detracted from my excitement in consuming it. I appreciated the pickled cabbage as it supplied some acidity, but the tuna itself was disappointing as I had been expecting a more fleshy steak of rare-cooked tuna rather than the fully-cooked, finely shredded tuna. Similar to the flatbread and the duck meatballs, I found the dish overly soft and texturally redundant.
Transitioning to the larger plates, we were first brought the grilled swordfish. It was a thick, generously portioned piece, and I felt that the roasted peppers added a pleasant, hot jolt of flavor. However, the fish was overcooked and even burnt, which made the dish much denser in texture than I’d hoped. The accompanying lobster mashed potatoes were appropriately light and didn’t weigh down the dish, but there was no discernible taste of lobster. Given that the swordfish had been largely drained of flavor, the lobster was really needed to supply added richness, and its absence was missed. I don’t typically like to evaluate dishes as being good or bad, but this preparation certainly felt unintentional and as though it had been executed improperly. Every dish in a restaurant represents a sort of mosaic involving its ingredients, and this preparation was especially disappointing for me since I love each of the constituent ingredients, just not the way they were cooked and assembled in this instance. At any rate, I’m very glad that my companion and I decided against a traditional 3 course format, as the heaviness of this dish was counterbalanced through the fact that it was shared.
Presented in its traditional serving vessel, the paella represented our final savory course. I appreciated the way in which Province serves it in a paella pan, acknowledging the way in which the Spanish national dish is constituted in Spain—similar to the way in which Alinea serves their family-style Daurade in the massive scope with which it is consumed in Greece. However, while the dish was presented in a traditional fashion, the ingredients were unusual, most notably the dominant use of manchego cheese. While I generally love manchego, I found that it completely overwhelmed the dish and rendered the consistency similar to a heavy risotto, or even a mac and cheese. The rabbit confit and the wild boar chorizo nicely counterbalanced each other, but the manchego was so pervasive that it eventually obscured the other components of the dish.
We each opted for dessert. I chose the coffee and donuts, with featured a cinnamon churro preparation, paired with coffee ice cream and a small glass of hot chocolate. The hot chocolate held a deep, complex flavor interplay that became even more dynamic when paired with the donuts. Similar to the saffron cannelloni, this dessert demonstrated an alluring combination between being both rich and light. The whimsy of the dish—a Hispanic variation on an iconic American staple—also introduced a welcome ludicity. I appreciated the plating composition, which was composed and well-regulated yet still largely open-ended in a way that left me free to explore.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience but preferred the small plates to the larger ones. Specifically, the lighter dishes (both in flavor and size) were more attuned to the overall feel of the environment, while the large plates were excessively heavy and clashed with the lightness of the environment. If I were dining at Publican, than heavy dishes would not be unwelcome, but for a restaurant that projects sustainability the heft felt cumbersome. As noted earlier, the incorporation of heavier dishes is most likely an attempt to please Michelin, and I think that in this regard Province emblematizes the pitfalls of Michelin’s arrival in Chicago. Michelin’s one-size-fits-all framework overemphasizes the taste of the cuisine and disregards the relationship between the restaurant’s cuisine and its environment. This is dangerous in that it pressures the restaurant to adhere to a more canonical menu structure, resulting in a dynamic similar to jamming a square peg into a round hole.
I also feel that Province reflects a dilemma endemic to restaurants that are open for lunch and dinner: I imagine that it is a completely different environment at night versus during the day. I would guess that a small plate lunch at Province is probably one of the most compelling lunch experiences in the city. The large windows are clearly designed for letting in sunlight, and I can envision a more upscale, cohesive feel during daytime. In contrast, when dining at night the weightlessness of the environment had an enervating effect that was numbing and somewhat sterile. While I feel that the sustainable décor is highly original and a real niche amidst a dense culinary landscape, it is a niche better suited to the daytime.