(Left: Allium Dining Room; Right: The View From Our Table)
Allium is the restaurant in the Four Seasons in downtown Chicago. In January, the hotel shut down the Michelin-starred Seasons restaurant and changed to the more casual concept. I have a real interest in hotel restaurants since they are confronted with a tension between the need to assert themselves while at the same time accommodating their guests. I imagine the role of an executive chef at a hotel restaurant to be something like a Hollywood film director; he is virtually guaranteed a strong audience yet his personal style has to be effected within the constraints of a generally conservative clientele.
Chef Kevin Hickey obviously has a formidable skill set since the previous concept received a Michelin star under his control. However, Seasons didn’t receive much attention and while I never went, it seemed that the restaurant was something of an afterthought in the Chicago landscape. Given its fine dining reputation, it was a bit unexpected when the restaurant shifted to the more casual concept. There is no tasting menu and the cuisine is centered around Chicago/Midwestern nostalgia, with an acclaimed Chicago hot dog, a burger, and an extensive roster of red meats. After a friend recommended it, my dad and I decided to dine at Allium, with the primary focus of trying out their much-raved hot dog.
The restaurant is located on the 7th floor, and the dining room is dwarfed by a massive lounge through which one must walk en route to the dining room. When the restaurant changed its concept last winter, the lounge and dining room also underwent a makeover; this was appealing as it made it so that the cuisine was not conceived to acclimate to a preexisting setting. I find that many restaurants (Acadia, for example) struggle to integrate within either the geographical or interior environment, and it’s fortunate that Allium was able to avoid such incoherence. With lots of mahogany wood, the lounge is uber-masculine, and given its proximity to the dining room it really sets the tone for the overall ambiance. Even though the dining room proper isn’t especially masculine, it’s difficult not to feel the influence of the lounge. Still, the restaurant does manage to make good use of its elevated height and as one can see from the photo at the top, our window-side two-top offered a nice view of the surrounding skyscrapers.
The menu is generally quite masculine (integrating it with the lounge setting) and divided into several categories: “snacks,” “smaller,” “bigger,” “mine,” and “From the Meat Locker.” There’s also a small list of side dishes. Like a number of Chicago restaurants, there is no formal bread service, and for a $4 surcharge, we ordered the much-raved bacon and onion buns. For the proper courses, we chose the smoked salmon starter, the “Big Bowl of Urban Greens,” the “Chicago Style Hot Dog,” and a side of mushrooms. Although the hot dog provided the impetus for our visit, I still scanned the menu and was disappointed by what seemed like concessions to please as vast an array of palates as possible; a number of dishes are marked as being gluten-free, for example, and it’s irritating to see items like the hot dog downplayed in the interests of providing ‘something for everyone.’
I’m glad that we ordered the bacon bread since it personified the restaurant’s sculptural plating style, playfully treating both the cuisine and serving vessels as props; the bright-red casserole dish resonated like a caricature of American domesticity, striking a nice balance between self-consciousness and bold assertion. According to Muke Sula’s recent review in the Chicago Reader, Hickey’s inspiration for the bread came from the well-known version from the Lithuanian Bridgeport Bakery—it’s quite endearing to see a hotel restaurant acknowledge its city environs and go to great lengths to achieve such geographical specificity.
The smoked salmon continued the exaggerated presentation of the bacon bread. It was covered by a glass dome, which the server uncovered tableside, releasing the aggressive and intensive smoky aroma. The accompaniments included a dill sauce, sauerkraut, and rye pancakes. We enjoyed the presentation and I hope that the showy delivery doesn’t lead to the restaurant getting labeled as “gimmicky” (similar to Moto, for example); I actually found that lifting the glass dome punctuated the dish’s consumption since it projected the dominant smoky flavor of the rye pancake and the salmon. While we ate, a separate server stopped by with the sole intention of chatting about the smoked salmon, which he described as his favorite starter on the menu. The green salad wasn’t especially noteworthy except for its size, which is not properly conveyed in the picture below. It was easily large enough for three people, removing any doubts about the validity of its menu title “Big Bowl of Urban Greens.”
A friend had described the hot dog as “a spectacle” and this was certainly true—it’s a major accomplishment that the chef is able to turn a hot dog into a proper centerpiece to the meal. Everything is homemade, and the presentation is very deconstructed, with most components existing in isolation. The toppings included giardiniera, red onion, and cherry tomatoes, and the condiments included Dijon mustard (made with Sophie beer), relish, and ketchup.The enjoyment of the dish also managed to extend to its taste, and the hot dog and bun were feather-soft in the classical Chicago style. As someone from Maine, I’ve never enjoyed the New England-style hot dogs as I find them too crunchy, so I find the dissolving consistency of the Chicago dog much more appealing. It is more filling than it perhaps appears and the mushrooms were unnecessary.
The dessert menu continued the theme of American nostalgia, with a roster of milkshakes and ice cream floats, as well as interpretations of oreo cookies, red velvet cupcakes, and lemon squares. We ordered the miso butterscotch shake and the lemon squares. Our server told us that the milkshake was recently praised in Chicago Magazine and it was massive and outstanding; the miso did a great job of mediating the potentially cloying butterscotch flavor. Given its novelty, it’s amazing that, at $5.00, this was priced the same as their standard coffee service. It was very filling and I’m glad that we limited ourselves to the lemon squares instead of a larger dessert, and they functioned analogously to a mignardise offering.
I was quite surprised when the Four Seasons announced last fall that they were scraping their Michelin-starred restaurant and changing to a more casual concept while still maintaining their executive chef. I appreciate how Allium’s personality was borne out of the iconic cuisine of its city rather than constructed more or less in a vacuum like many other hotel restaurants; as a result, the restaurant should appeal to a Chicago audience as well as the hotel clientele, since much of the enjoyment of eating their hot dog derives from one’s preexisting knowledge of the Chicago hot dog. While the archetypal Chicago-American menu will likely preclude Michelin recognition this year, I found that the high-end hot dog and milk shake—situated within a high-end hotel setting—demonstrated a contextual experimentation similar to that of the Childhood Menu at Next, and it’s alluring to see Michelin-starred chefs interpret such American staples in exciting ways.