(Sixteen Dining Room; Both Pictures Taken by Rich of windyfoodie.com)
Sixteen takes its name from its 16th-floor location in the Trump Hotel in Chicago. Similar to other Chicago hotel restaurants, such as those in the Four Seasons and the Park Hyatt, there has been recent turnover. Last year, Executive Chef Frank Brunacci left and the restaurant lost its Michelin Star. Unlike the others, however, Sixteen has not changed its fine-dining concept. The new Executive Chef, Thomas Lents, was previously Chef de Cuisine at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. There are actually a good deal of Robuchon alumni in Chicago—most notably, Matthew Kirkley of L2O and Anthony Martin of Tru. Interestingly, despite his pedigree Chef Lents distances himself somewhat from French cuisine. From a recent interview with chicagofoodies.com:
The thing is, I’m not running a French restaurant. It’s a modern restaurant utilizing modern technology. I mean, I’m an American. I grew up in the Midwest. I’m taking French technique and bringing that level of precision and drive to American cooking, not reproducing French cuisine.
It’s interesting that Lents is so regionally focused since the hotel and restaurant don’t seem to have cultivated a strong relationship with the Chicago community. Although the chef has given a couple of interviews, the restaurant has not been reviewed by any of the local press and there are very few recent reviews on sites like Yelp or Chowhound. The dining room is obviously posh and offers a great view of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline from its 16th-floor perch, but I felt it was more of a tourist’s view than one that resident Chicagoans would return to on a consistent basis. It is perhaps for this reason that similarly-priced restaurants like Tru or Graham Elliot seem to be better embraced by local residents. Otherwise, the dining room is very dramatic and the chandelier nicely unifies the space.
Upon arrival, we were seated at a large 4-top in the center of the dining room. There was an a la carte option, a chef’s tasting and an extended tasting. We chose the chef’s tasting, which had a very unusual structure: 2 starters, 1 main course, and 2 desserts. This placed a good deal of pressure on the main course and forced one to choose between meat and fish (lamb loin or Dover sole.) My companion and I each selected the Dover sole, and I was curious to see how it would compare with the terrific version I’d had at Ria a month prior. One awkward aspect of the menu is that the amuse bouche, palate cleanser, and mignardise are all listed on the menu; not only does this make one feel as though they are paying for ‘little extras’ that are traditionally presented as bonuses, but it makes the experience feel all the more scripted and unsurprising.
As a canapé we were given gruyere gougeres filled with prosciutto bianco—a terrific bite that was creative yet avoided the sloppiness of the liquid ones offered at Michael in Winnetka.
The amuse bouche was a radish salad with apple-yuzu foam. The foam bubbled upward and smoke emanated from the container. As one can see, the presentation was quite unusual and was served in a strange container. I generally enjoy citrus foams and this was no exception, although the yuzu completely overwhelmed the apple to the point that we couldn’t taste it. Our inspired server introduced the dish with a reference to Macbeth, saying that the serving vessel reminded him of the witches’ cauldron from the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play. This was probably the most unusual description I’ve ever heard, though I’m not sure this was a good thing–we couldn’t figure out how invoking witches and cauldrons would make a dish more appetizing. I wonder whether the story was a gesture toward Alinea, Next, and Moto, which also supplement the generic ingredient descriptions with additional “material.” What was unusual about his story, though, was that he appeared very sincere in telling it, much different from the smug delivery of Alinea or Next. The problem was that—unlike Moto—the reference clearly had no relation with the dish’s conception, and it just seemed like the server was imposing his own story material into a context that simply didn’t support it, breaking from the narrative of the meal established by the kitchen.
The bread service was robust although they don’t make any of the varieties in-house (as my companion noted, they are very talented at shopping for their bread.) Each of the six offerings were outstanding, though, especially the ciabbata and the bacon bread. They also don’t make the butter (sourced from Oberweiss) although it was terrific as well.
The first substantial course was sangria-poached foie gras. Our server informed us that the foie gras is sourced from an exclusive purveyor who only sells to Chef Lents, Joel Robuchon, and Alain Ducasse (apparently, Lents had established this connection during his time at Robuchon). The liver is paired with almond brioche, white asparagus panna cotta, and citrus emulsion. This was possibly my favorite foie gras preparation; the sangria supplied depth while the foie gras held a great mix of savory/sweet.
Our second course was listed as “Minted English Pea Soup,” and it was served with spring onion foam and rabbit confit. The picture on the left shows the spring onion foam, and the one on the right shows the completed presentation, after the soup and rabbit were poured tableside. The execution was terrific; the soup was smooth and refreshing and the rabbit was the perfect complement to the light, spring flavors of the peas and onion. Still, I felt this was sized too small for the second course of a 5-course tasting menu; it really wasn’t significantly larger than the foie-gras/black truffle amuse bouche at Ria, and miniscule in comparison with soup courses that I’ve had in 5-course tastings at Topolobampo and McCrady’s.
Progressing to the main dish, the Dover sole arrived pre-filleted and plated alongside petite spring vegetables, preserved lemon, osetra caviar, and a warm carrot and ginger nage. The sauce was poured tableside and unfortunately our server ran out of sauce midway through, resulting in a moderate delay. This was only a minor inconvenience although it definitely made the presentation fall short of the drama of Ria’s tableside Dover sole presentation. Our server supplemented the description with a confusing story, likening the ratio of fish to vegetables to a motif from Gulliver’s Travels. This wasn’t an especially pleasing story—who wants to be told that the portion size is tiny?—and I took the opportunity to ask whether he had devised the story or whether it had formed the basis for the chef’s inspiration. He informed us that he often goes out to eat and is bored by the plate descriptions, so he tries to incorporate some of his personal creativity. I appreciate his honest response and he was a very likeable, earnest fellow, but again it felt as though he were imposing his own narrative where it didn’t belong. Thankfully, he got the hint and we didn’t receive any more stories during the rest of the meal.
Unfortunately, my companion and I agreed that the portion size of the Dover sole was simply too small—roughly half the size of that from Ria. The fish was impeccably executed; however, the accompaniments and the sauce weren’t rich enough and the dish felt too “light.” There was almost no caviar and it was indiscernible to the palate (and indistinguishable in the picture.) When our server asked us for our impressions, we gave him our input concerning the caviar and small portion size. Given that this was the only main course of the meal, it was hard to consume without feeling like it was building up to something heavier. Similar to the English pea soup, the flavors were crisp and smooth, but as a main dish I think there needed to be a heavier sauce. This launched my companion and I into an extended discussion of execution errors versus conceptual errors; the fish was flawlessly prepared, but I find it almost unfathomable that the chef could conceive of it as a fitting centerpiece to the meal. I would have been blown away by the dish if it was followed by a heavy meat course, but it was shouldering a burden that it couldn’t handle. I’m curious what Michelin will make of a situation like this; the fish itself is definitely worthy of multiple Michelin stars, but its awkward context within the meal suggests to me that the chef is not able to conceptualize a proper tasting menu at the level of multi-starred restaurants. Perhaps the grand tasting menu doesn’t exhibit this problem, but it seems like a glaring error in judgment that the chef wouldn’t incorporate any heavier flavors. Tasting menus really privilege the chef’s conceptual acumen—the ability to construct a coherent and exciting narrative—and in this regard I was more disappointed than if there had simply been minor execution errors within a compelling menu progression.
Beginning the pastry section of the menu was a composed cheese course consisting of Dante, a sheep cheese from Cowgirl Creamery in Wisconsin. It was accompanied by apricot mostarda, carrot salad, drops of basil, and caraway rye toast. While the portion size was somewhat small, I enjoyed all of the flavors. It nicely incorporated the carrot flavor from the previous course, while the apricot imparted sweeter flavor that transitioned us to the pastry section of the menu. My companion noted that the plating was very “Trotter-esque” and this composition was certainly more abstract than the highly manicured preparations from earlier courses. It’s worth noting that Chef Lents is not in charge of pastry; the pastry chef is instead Sarah Kosikowski, who has been with the restaurant a few years.
As a pre-dessert, we were given “Citrus Almond Cake,” with rhubarb compote and crème fraiche. This would have been more compelling if the almond was actually integrated into the cake, but instead it was in a tuille form and the cake was basically a lemon pound cake. While it was pleasant-tasting, the lack of integration made it taste precisely like the sum of its parts.
Our dessert was a Gianduja Chocolate Cremeaux with cocoa nib ice cream, peanut butter feuilletine crunch, and nutella powder, and it was outstanding. Unlike the pre-dessert, all of the components harmonized seamlessly, and the well-manicured composition tied it in with the aesthetics of the savory courses. One puzzling aspect of this dessert was the size, which was enormous and not much smaller than the Dover sole. Given that this dessert was incredible the ample portion was not a problem, but the ratio of portion sizes from one course to the next does make me wonder whether the chef has adequately visualized the dining experience in its entirety.
At this point, we had expected the mignardise service, but were instead gifted with a very large cheese plate compliments of the kitchen. Our server had taken note of our earlier comment that the fish course had seemed underportioned and thoughtfully provided us with this nice addendum to the meal. There were six generously-portioned cheeses, and I especially enjoyed the Tomme Chevre Aydius and the Two Sisters Isabella Gouda. The accompaniments (in the middle row of the picture) were also terrific: pickled beets, Armagnac cubes, and a raisin-almond cake. There was also a jar of apricot mostarda and not shown in the picture was a bread basket that included baguette, miniature raisin scones, and parmesan flatbread crisps. There is certainly no faulting the waitstaff’s hospitality—not only was the cheese plate a nice gesture, but they were each listed in the take-home menu provided at the end of the meal.
Our meal finished with a pleasant, textbook mignardise selection: canele (I had two), orange meringue, pate de fruit, and a caramel. While leaving, there was also a take-home gift of chocolate cookies.
Sixteen offers a very comfortable and overtly luxurious experience. I do wonder whether the glamorous dining room and hotel setting have segregated it from the Chicago dining public—a possible explanation for the strange absence of reviews from the local press. Given the setting, I think Sixteen is probably in dialogue at least as much with out-of-town vacationers as Chicagoans. Architecture and ambience are influential in organizing emotional response and sensory perceptions, and while I actually enjoy the décor, the postcard view has a defamiliarizing effect that made me feel estranged from the city environs.
The execution at Sixteen is quite good and I would be shocked if Chef Lents didn’t earn a Michelin star. In fact, if one judged each dish in isolation than the cuisine is probably worthy of multiple stars. That said, the meal’s structure placed undue emphasis on the main course, and instead of a proper centerpiece it felt more like a gaping hole in the center of an otherwise intriguing meal. The ratio of portion sizes was also rather awkward; not only was the Dover sole too small but the dessert was quite massive. I’m not sure whether other tables received the same portion size (it’s possible that we received an a la carte portion rather than the tasting one) but the chocolate dessert resonated as though a giant weight had been dropped on an otherwise feather-light meal. Still, between the high-quality of the cooking technique and the earnest wait staff, there is much to recommend with the restaurant—Chef Lents just needs to arrive at a more coherent menu progression capable of showcasing his technique.