(Ria dining room: taken from Yelp)
Ria was one of the first restaurants that I dined at after arriving in Chicago this past fall. I have strong memories of that meal, not only because of the cuisine but also because of the devoted and congenial wait staff. I remember conversing with my head server over Chicago restaurants and Michelin. This was before the second edition of the Chicago Michelin red guide and she was very humble, telling me that the restaurant had only expected to be listed in the guide, let alone receive two stars. I then revisited in the winter and enjoyed the seasonal tasting, which was highlighted by two outstanding savory courses—Dover sole with calvados, and guinea hen with Madeira jus. At the conclusion of that meal, we took a kitchen tour and met with Chef Danny Grant, who discussed how he was attempting to expand the bread program and the mignardise offerings in pursuit of the third star. Given my enthusiasm and curiosity for how the restaurant has progressed since December, it was only natural that I would return with a friend following the introduction of their spring menu this past week.
Ria’s dining room—located in the Waldorf Astoria—has a grey, somewhat generic ambience. My companion described it as “a hotel dining room, nothing more,” and while this is largely true, I at least think there is an attempt to counteract the drab space through the artwork—the circular rhythms of the painting in the photo at the top do a decent job of infusing a sense of dynamism, for example.
The a la carte format is now gone and there are two options, a 4-course seasonal tasting and a 7-course chef’s tasting. Eliminating the a la carte option was prudent, not only because the portion sizes were quite small but because the tasting options are more focused. My friend and I chose the 4-course option, and went with the Dover sole for 2 (the restaurant’s specialty) as a third course.
After ordering, our head server from the December meal stopped by and we chatted for a short while; Ria certainly has a strong grasp of the difference that a warm welcome makes, and they do an amazing job of welcoming their returning diners. The sommelier, who had been gone traveling on our previous visit, introduced himself and talked at length about his general methodology. The manager, Brian, welcomed us back and stopped by our table on multiple occasions. Most interestingly, he talked at great length about the restaurant’s direction and his travels with Chef Grant. On his first visit, he delivered a canapé course of Wisconsin cheese curds, and explained how Ria is becoming even more regionally focused in its approach, capitalizing especially on Midwestern produce and foraging. It’s worth noting that both Brian and Chef Grant spent a good deal of time at North Pond, a well-regarded farm-to-table restaurant in Lincoln Park, and it’s interesting to see how Chef Grant is attempting to mediate iconic regional items within the fine dining setting and menu format.
The second amuse bouche was a familiar one that I’ve enjoyed at each visit: smoked sablefish wrapped in a chive sheet with a pain de mie crisp and white sturgeon caviar (hidden behind the crisp in the photo). I’m not especially fond of the chive, but the smoked fish and domestic caviar held a satisfying, intense flavor.
For our third opening course, an ancillary server delivered a small plate and a spoon topped with toasted bread crumbs, dried ramp, and preserved egg yolk. Brian then made his way to our table carrying an egg carton, out of which he removed hollow egg shells filled with egg and ramp custard, basil and frisee. This was terrific and a creative use of seasonal Midwestern produce.
The last amuse bouche featured a pair of foie gras-black truffle dumplings with apple ice wine (poured tableside). I had this same amuse bouche at both of my prior meals, although duck consommé was used instead—it’s nice to see the kitchen making a seasonal modification to one of their signature opening dishes, and the temperature and flavor contrasts were terrific—one of my favorite amuse bouches at any restaurant. Altogether, the opening bites provide a microcosm for the restaurants overall project, integrating regionally grounded offerings (cheese curds, ramps) with more traditional luxury ingredients (caviar, foie gras, black truffle).
A visit by the bread man revealed that Chef Grant has in fact expanded his bread offerings. The baguette that used to represent their only option has been supplemented by brioche and raisin bread. All breads are made in house and the raisin bread was especially terrific. The butter is also my favorite anywhere—it is sourced from Wisconsin and literally glistens. Its texture is so soft as to be on the brink of dissolving, and it was replaced later in the meal.
The first official course was a terrine of foie gras and poussin, with carrot puree, beet puree, and verjus. Not shown in the picture are two slices of bread that were served as an accompaniment. The dish was sufficiently cohesive without the bread and I wasted a couple of bites trying to integrate the bread with the pate. The plating showcases the plasticity of Chef Grant’s aesthetic style, shaping the constituent ingredients in an almost architectural way. In fact, an October 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal identifies the architectural compositions of the cuisine at Ria: describing a dessert dish, the article states that “the rich chocolate pudding with rice, banana, Maldon-salt sorbet is an homage en dessert, its horizontal lines meant to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic.” While I am skeptical of the claim that the cuisine at RIA deliberately references the horizontal rhythms of Frank Lloyd Wright, the compositions at RIA are undeniably meticulous.
For the second course, we were given butter-poached Maine lobster with morel mushrooms, white and green asparagus and pastis. As someone from Maine, I have had butter-poached lobster many times, but this preparation was the best I’ve ever had—the texture was incredibly soft and the pastis added flavor depth. The composition resembles a garden, a unifying motif that ties together a high-end protein with the menu’s broader emphasis on seasonal produce. This dish demonstrated Ria’s ability to capitalize on the contrast between the highly manicured plating and the explosive flavor.
The climax of the meal, our Dover sole was filleted tableside.
The sole was paired with apples, hedgehog mushrooms, rapini, and a sauce normande involving calvados. This is Ria’s signature dish; even though the ingredients are not especially novel, it was another dish that utilized a dynamic contrast between the reserved plating style and the dynamic flavor. Where I’ve sometimes found the cuisine at Tru to taste less impressive than it looks, I think Ria is able to achieve the inverse, largely due to their incredible sauces. Having had the Dover sole in the same preparation used in the current chef’s tasting menu at my previous meal at Ria, I preferred this version as it benefitted from the drama of the tableside preparation.
Following the savory courses, we were presented with a cheese list. As usual, I decided against cheese although my companion selected four cheeses and I sampled the Winnimere, a very soft, cow cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Wisconsin. During the cheese course, Brian stopped by our table and chatted about his recent trip to Paris with Chef Grant. They went to Le Bristol, Michel Rostang, and Pierre Gagnierre, and were especially impressed with Pierre Gagnierre. He said they had included it as a sort of counterpoint to the other two and that they enjoyed every course except a foie gras/oyster dish. Brian also mentioned that he is looking forward to trying the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, and he spoke fondly about Eleven Madison Park and Daniel. It was interesting to hear him speak with a sense of confidence and discursiveness concerning Ria’s relationship with other Michelin restaurants, and I couldn’t help but contrast this with my server last fall discussing how in the first Michelin guide Ria would have been satisfied with just being included in the guide. Michelin hasn’t been kind to Chicago, but Ria represents the rare example of a restaurant that seems to have really taken off following Michelin’s endorsement.
The evening’s pre-dessert was a lemongrass sorbet with passion fruit foam and mango. Although the flavors were relatively similar, there was a compelling temperature contrast between the warm foam and cold sorbet.
The official dessert was titled “Chocolate, Armagnac, Caramel, Ginger.” The sorbet is ginger-flavored, and the (hardly visible) clear thin strips contain Armagnac. Everything else involves variations of chocolate and caramel. We were cautious about this dessert because the dessert on our previous visit had been quite disappointing—a chocolate bombe filled with pumpkin, paired with kabocha squash sorbet. On the surface, this was an improvement since it utilized more contrasting textures. However, this dessert was also a disappointment since—due to its solid texture—the Armagnac wasn’t able to harmonize with the rest of the dessert. It is a shame that Stephanie Prida is not still the pastry chef–she has since moved on to L2O, and her desserts were the only aspect of my meal at L2O that I found especially compelling. At any rate, I think it’s telling that both the seasonal tasting and the chef’s tasting only include one dessert offering, and sadly, the pastry program could be what keeps Ria from getting the 3rd Michelin star.
Following dessert, our server stopped by with a box of mignardises. Chef Grant has made good on his promise to expand the mignardise program and there were 9 offerings, the most compelling of which was the citrus-infused caramel. Along with the bill came a copy of the menu and a take-home gift of pistachio-almond financiers.
The dessert notwithstanding, this was a terrific meal and cemented Ria’s place as probably my favorite restaurant in Chicago. One of Ria’s most remarkable achievements is that it is able to avert the potential tension between the ambitious cuisine and the generic setting, creating a compelling experience without the benefit of an ambience that fully supports the cuisine. The restaurant is able to create an exciting experience through the way in which the composed plating style—while very attractive—belies the intense flavor. It is one of the most exciting restaurants in Chicago because it is able to synthesize luxury ingredients with Midwestern ones, placing them side by side with a result that tastes greater than the sum of its parts. The sense of excitement is different from the excitement that one gets at Alinea; where Alinea surprises through how different it is in every way from other restaurants, Ria surprises through how amazingly original the cuisine is within its comfortable yet generic hotel setting. Given its fast evolution, I think Ria is probably the Chicago restaurant that is most actively pursuing the 3rd Michelin star, and it will be exciting to see whether they are rewarded this fall.