The restaurant industry moves at a fast pace. It seems as though chefs are always coming and going, at least until they reach a point in their career where they can open their own restaurant. Naturally, this is most pronounced in the hotel restaurant category, where the institutional setting tends to operate as a training ground in which chefs can hone their skills and build their reputation before breaking out on their own. A benefit of this constant change is that downtrodden restaurants can make great comebacks, as evidenced by the rise of Sixteen (in the Trump Hotel) and The Lobby (at The Peninsula) over the past couple of years. Of course, this game of musical chairs cuts both ways—I was very sorry to see RIA close, and sure enough, The Lobby has just announced that Lee Wollen will be leaving the restaurant, as he will now be the executive chef at Boka. This marks the latest in a string of high-profile departures for The Peninsula, as Graham Elliot Bowles and Curtis Duffy formerly spearheaded the kitchen at Avenues, which no longer serves food, leaving The Lobby as The Peninsula’s sole Michelin-starred restaurant. Fortunately, I was able to dine there about a month before Wollen’s scheduled departure; this write-up is obviously not a good measure of where The Lobby stands moving forward, but instead offers a snapshot of how far Wollen took the restaurant in his short time there and a discussion of the pleasures afforded by hotel dining at its finest.
As our dinner took place towards the end of October, the hotel was all ready for Halloween. Fortunately, I was able to evade the grasp of this large creepy spider.
With gold tones and a balcony featuring musical accompaniment, it is impossible to deny that The Lobby’s dining room is quite extravagant. At the same time, the very fact that it is a “Lobby” means that it feels a bit like a transitional space. In fact, at the conclusion of this meal, our server hinted that the restaurant’s bland name is something that it’s constantly working against. To my mind, this is also a dining room in which there are good seats and bad ones—we occupied a nice window-side table, but if we had been seated closer to the entrance this meal may not have been so pleasant. When people praise restaurant dining rooms I’m always curious whether they are only thinking of the best seats in the house, as it’s pretty rare to find a space in which every table is nicely situated.
Before this meal, my companion and I agreed to order the whole chicken, which was a signature dish of Chef Wollen. We noticed, however, that they also offer a reasonably-priced 5-course tasting at $85 and so we went with it. Interestingly, the tasting menu is not set in stone—the diner voices their allergies and preferences and the chef’s whim takes over. The kitchen was even willing to oblige our request that the whole chicken be incorporated into the tasting; one quibble I often have is that restaurants typically make the diner choose between ordering a signature dish or the tasting—this is the case at Craigie on Main, for example, where the whole chicken can only be ordered via prix fixe. Obviously, a whole chicken doesn’t conform to tasting portions, but I have a larger appetite than most and so this wouldn’t be a problem for this meal.
Our first taste was an amuse bouche of pumpkin soup with sunflower seeds. With the chilly weather outside, this was seasonally appropriate but something that certainly wouldn’t challenge the conservative hotel clientele and really nothing one couldn’t find elsewhere.
Bread was rationed, although I’m sure they would have brought more if I’d asked. The butter was especially nice.
I was surprised to see a salad kick off our tasting, especially since the ingredients were fairly mundane: Jerusalem artichoke, pear, sunflower seeds, watercress, potato, and bleu cheese. What does a restaurant say about itself when it offers a salad as the first course of a tasting? I may be reading too far into this, but I think a restaurant really displays inexperience with tasting menus when it leads off with a salad, particularly one this trite. There’s nothing wrong with this dish being offered a la carte, but it seems to me that anyone ordering the tasting would expect a more ambitious opening. The flavors and composition were immaculate and the bleu cheese was characteristically bold, but one couldn’t devise a more conceptually sanitary first course.
Course two would have made a much stronger beginning: marinated fluke with pomegranate, dashi, and daikon. With its mild flavor, the fluke was an ideal foil to the pomegranate, which also added some visual flair.
We were next served marinated Spanish octopus, which I would have ordered anyway if we’d gone with the a la carte. It was served with grapefruit, olives, chorizo, and marcona almonds. As a great fan of octopus, this was a real highlight. I had a very similar preparation at Craigie on Main and I really enjoy octopus with chorizo. One motif that caught my attention is that there was no variance in serving vessels; everything was served in the same white plates with the circular design in the middle housing the ingredients. This uniformity mitigated the visual appeal of Chef Wollen’s compositions, and the fluke course, for example, could have really benefitted from more colorful serviceware. At the same time, I feel that the plates are a good metaphor for the hotel restaurant category as a whole, as the chef has to overcome limitations that make superb execution all the more essential.
By this point, we still hadn’t arrived at the substantial proteins, suggesting that we would receive more than the five courses we’d signed up for; the kitchen’s generosity was on full display with our next course, hand rolled tagliolini with garlic, caraway, and shaved white truffles. If this were on the a la carte, it would probably cost more than the entire tasting, so it was quite thoughtful of the kitchen to include this treat in our dinner. The truffles were obviously the star of the plate and consuming them was a highlight of this autumn.
Our cooked fish course was seared Florida red snapper with fregola sarda, tomatoes, and mussels. The kitchen managed to avoid overcooking the fish, which relied on the skin for texture contrast. The Italian rustic flavors broke from the more precise combinations of the earlier plates, but with everything executed so well, I couldn’t complain.
A runner brought out the chicken before it was sent back to the kitchen for carving:
This dish showed off where the hotel restaurant excels—they may lack the precious quality of neighborhood restaurants, but they really know how to cook dishes on a grand scale. This pomp and circumstance may be in excess of what’s needed, but such bombast can be overwhelming in the best possible way. The white and dark meat were divided; the breast was served with sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, prunes, and its own jus; the dark meat sat in a sour cream broth. With the sour cream, the dark meat was obviously richer but not overwhelming. Meanwhile, the white meat was soft and the skin a perfect textual wrapper. As with the earlier courses, the plating design was arresting in its simplicity, a description that could just as easily refer to the flavors.
The palate cleanser wasn’t listed in our menu, but I believe the dish below contained a scoop of peach sorbet with almond tuille.
Chef Wollen was not in charge of pastry, and I think it’s easy to see that the dessert was designed by a different chef. We were served “Variations of Chestnuts,” with candied chestnuts, chestnut mousse, and cassis sorbet . The deep Autumn flavors were exquisite, and it was difficult not to appreciate the textural variations at work. As a side note, I think it’s pretty noticeable that this dessert had a much more contemporary appearance than the savories. I bring this up not as a criticism, but rather because I’ve noticed this dynamic across many restaurants. It seems as though pastry has become more indebted to modern cooking practices than savories; do desserts have a more limited pool of ingredients to draw from, making them better suited to a technique-based approach? Are pastry chefs typically younger and therefore more experimental? Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I find it interesting that even in a restaurant like The Lobby that resists modernist touches, the pastry program is clearly grounded in 21st century practice.
A duo of mignardises followed suit nicely:
Along with copies of our menu came a small loaf of pumpkin bread:
Hotel restaurants have a reputation for being cold and mechanical, and The Lobby overcame these connotations. In fact, one of the more enduring impressions left by this meal is simply the restaurant’s generosity—not only evidenced by the extra courses and the truffles but also through the conviviality of the waitstaff. Our head server incorporated humor periodically and things never felt stiff—in fact, the service reminded me of RIA, which also overcame the reputation suffered by hotel restaurants.
The comparison with RIA extends to the cuisine as well. This similarity can be seen through clean, direct flavors and composition. RIA was certainly more ambitious and a bit more skilled in its execution, but in both cases it is not through creativity but instead through timing that they distinguish themselves. Every protein we received was masterful and Wollen knows how to let the flavors of the animal shine through—it has been a long time since I’ve had chicken and fish that were so tender. The chicken dish, in particular, really took me back to RIA and I hope that an iteration stays on the menu after Wollen’s departure; I say this not only because it was so delicious but because it’s better suited to the luxury hotel setting than to Boka’s edgier trappings.
This comparison with RIA only stretches so far. Conceptually Danny Grant was light years ahead of where Wollen is at. The salad course, in particular, had no place on a tasting menu and while comforting and delicious, the rustic Italian flavors of the snapper were a bit out of place. I wonder whether the slight awkwardness of our progression is a natural consequence of impromptu tastings. The kitchen may need a couple of courses to feel out its customers, and unadventurous diners who order the tasting may receive the more conservative dishes. The boring salad course may have been a result of the kitchen not realizing that we have more ambitious palates; that the next course, the fluke, was much more interesting bears out this theory. Yet, this explanation does not excuse the clumsiness of the course sequence, as every dish should be intentional in its placement.
Having now enjoyed Wollen’s cooking, I’m interested to see what he does with Boka. I was surprised to see him get the job since his cuisine is quite different from what Guiseppe Tentori and Carl Shelton were doing. In my experience, Tentori is the most Trotter-esque of the Trotter alums—by this I mean that he uses ingenious ingredient pairings and an abstract (sometimes to the point of messiness) plating style. From this meal, at least, Wollen has a much clearer voice and so his hiring means that either he or Boka will be moving in a different direction. I am, however, aware that Wollen was previously at Eleven Madison Park and his tenure there does indicate that perhaps he will be able to modernize his technique without sacrificing his classical grounding.
Overall, this meal displayed the very best aspects of hotel dining, namely precision, comfort, and luxury. Wollen offers a representative case study for the way in which the hotel is simultaneously an institution all its own as well as an audition for the head chef to showcase his skills before moving outside the ‘factory.’ It is a coup for Chicago that Wollen will stay in the city, and hopefully The Lobby can maintain its place in Chicago’s conglomerate of fine hotel restaurants.