This past year, the Chicago Michelin Guide awarded two stars to four restaurants: Grace, Graham Elliot, L2O, and Sixteen. Graham Elliot has since closed, but it is clear that all three of the extant restaurants harbor aspirations for a third star, as each offers tasting menus of eight courses or more. Thomas Lents (Sixteen), Curtis Duffy (Grace), and Matthew Kirkley (L2O) are also relatively young and within two years or so of assuming the executive chef duties at these restaurants. Yet, I’ve had subpar experiences at all four of the two-star restaurants in Chicago, with an underwhelming meal at Grace (August 2013) the latest example. My last meal at Sixteen involved undersized portions and an incoherent progression. Between L2O, Grace, and Sixteen, only the latter drew any interest, as I’d heard great things about what Chef Lents has done over the past year-and-a-half. Even so, it was only after noticing the winter “Story of Chicago” menu that I was really motivated to return, and I secured a reservation for dinner on an evening in late January.
One of the peculiarities of my last meal at Sixteen was that our server was fond of embellishing the presentations by likening the plating designs to certain literary motifs—I believe these included Macbeth and Gulliver’s Travels. I attributed it to a quirk that was just native to our server, but the theme of this new menu suggests that perhaps storytelling isn’t out of line with the spirit of the chef. Moreover, the narrative that Lents has developed brings an almost scholarly rigor—one gets the sense that he spent a great deal of time researching Chicago’s past and prioritized incorporating dishes not only from significant moments in Chicago’s past but also from the disparate subcultures that have helped comprise Chicago over the years. In this sense, Lents’s method functions as a sort of culinary anthropology, not unlike what one finds with Rick Bayless and Mexican cuisine. Of course, there is also the consideration that with its location in the Trump Hotel, Sixteen maintains a touristic clientele, making it so that Lents is telling the “Story of Chicago” primarily to non-Chicagoans, but this cannot be avoided.
Sixteen’s dining room hasn’t undergone any renovations since my last meal there two years ago. One touch that was added for this seasonal menu, though, is the incorporation of images of Chicago’s past. Below, one can see a couple of examples—these alternated in a looping pattern. The images weren’t so unfamiliar on their own, but iconographically, it feels like a significant proposition that the restaurant positions pictorial imagery together with the cuisine as active components of the experience. For example, it was fun to see images from the Midway exhibition while I consumed the fair-themed snacks that introduced this meal. By conducting this practice, the restaurant not only acknowledges the spectator as an observing agent, but also calls upon images from the past to elucidate culinary creations from the present.
Even though it’s the 20-course menu that offers Lents’s complete narrative of Chicago, the restaurant actually offers four different menu formats: a la carte, four courses, ten courses, or twenty. Choosing the twenty course option was the obvious way to go since I’d driven a long way specifically for this meal.
After I placed my order, dining room manager Dan Pilkey stopped by to offer his greetings, and generously offered a glass of complimentary sparkling wine. Pilkey was the sommelier at RIA, and I was amazed that he remembered me. He intimated that he has elevated the service at Sixteen via his role as dining room manager. This is no surprise to me given the remarkable service that RIA used to provide. We chatted for awhile about Chicago dining more generally, as well as the ambitious direction that Sixteen has taken over the past year-and-a-half. The sparkling wine was the first of the wine pairings that one could order with the meal. In keeping with the theme of the cuisine, it was the “Bride of Freak of Nature” sparkling wine from the Illinois Sparkling Co.
The meal began with an array of snacks based on what one might have found at the Chicago World’s Fair. Having lived on the Midway myself, this brought back memories from my own experience. The server offered a mini history lesson of the World’s Fair and explained the treats. Notice also the incorporation of an actual ferris wheel, establishing from the outset Chef Lents’s enthusiasm for props. I enjoyed the service and the execution of this sequence of snacks.
Similar to Grace, Sixteen now offers bread pairings rather than a roving bread person. The breads aren’t baked in house, but if I remember correctly, they are baked according to Chef Lents’s custom recipe.
Course two was “Fort Dearborn and the Potawatomi”: game pemmican, three sisters style trout. This preparation reflected Chef Lents’s proclivity for using multidimensional compositions, with the fish served in the vessel on the left and the jerky in the disc to the right. I suppose the ear of corn was there to unify the two parts, but it wasn’t edible and so operated more as a prop. The trout and (especially) the pemmican were both delicious, but serving an inedible garnish like that ear of corn was distracting. I can appreciate when chefs get creative with serviceware or incorporate edible centerpieces, but the corn serves no purpose other than (I suppose) to support the Native American theme alluded to in the title. While the corn may have held some narrative utility, it was distracting for it to masquerade alongside the fish and meat, and bringing edible and inedible food in conversation is a distraction.
Next was “Shikaakwa, the Stinking Onion,” which consisted of langoustine topped with osetra caviar, quinoa, and an onion foam. There was a discrepancy between the title (which suggested an homage to the onion, a peasant ingredient), and the showiness of the appearance—bringing caviar and gold leaf into the fray suggested that the onion was of secondary importance. Even though I would have liked to see the onion more heavily emphasized, I like caviar and so seeing the onion subordinated wasn’t a deal-breaker. My issue with this course was that the caviar was bland—I’ve had domestic paddlefish caviar with far more flavor. As a result, this course brought the sinking feeling of an appearance and title that are disproportionately more attractive than the actual taste.
Fourth was “The Rail City: Beef and Oyster Tartar, Quail Egg, Ice.” The egg was topped with winter truffle, while a pair of blini were served on the side. There was nothing too inventive here, but I enjoy tartar and it was wonderfully paired with the oyster. I have to take issue again, though, with the use of the luxury ingredient, in this case the truffle. Perhaps as a result of serving such a trace amount (or maybe the truffle was just poor in quality), the taste and aromatics were nowhere to be found. I can understand treating truffles as a garnish, but when one can’t even taste the ingredient, the portion doesn’t even qualify as a garnish. Overall, the tartar was great and I would have been satisfied with this dish had there not been the promise for truffle.
I was then served “Canals to the Sea: Smoked Eel, Radish, Confit Lemon.” The abstract composition belies what was a focused and intuitive flavor combination, and this was delicious.
This was a meal in which there wasn’t a clear shift from starters to more substantial dishes, but course six was the heartiest dish to that point. Titled “A River Reversed: Turbot, Carrot Consomme, Vacuum,” the vacuum was placed as a centerpiece in between courses. After it was finished cooking, a sever arrived to supply the contextual grounding for the dish—as the title suggests, he described how the trajectory of the river was reversed in Chicago. Typically, they serve this course with lake perch (a local fish), but apparently there was an issue with the supplier. This turned out to be fortuitous, as I was served turbot instead.
This was the first memorable course of the meal. I haven’t had seafood cooked this well since the lobster at RIA from April 2012. The gelatinous texture was a perfect match for the carrot consommé and I can’t think of any way that this course might be improved. This was also the first, and by far the most successful, of several sauces that more closely resembled broths. Serving consommé is hardly unusual, but I do feel as though it is uncommon to see a fine dining chef with an affinity for very thin sauces, as opposed to wine sauces or purees.
The next four courses were grouped under the theme of being immigrant-inspired fare, all served on a large table setting bearing the Chicago flag. Because I had already started eating one before the next arrived, there was no way of taking a photo of all of them together untouched. The courses began with “The Irish Contribution: Cod (cheek), Potato Croquette, Caper. Next was “A Proud Slavic Influence: Mackerel, Seaweed, Potato, Dark Bread.” This was followed by “A Latin Migration: Hominy Broth, Guajillo Paste,” and finally “West Africa via the Low Country: Savannah Red Rice, Okra, Field Pies.”
On the one hand, I appreciate the way in which these immigrant-inspired courses incorporate ingredients one doesn’t normally find in fine dining. Each course contained at least one ingredient—be it hominy broth, red rice, dark bread, or caper—that isn’t often featured at luxury restaurants and so this novelty imparted some degree of interest. In the end, however, these courses challenged more than they satisfied. First, being served four consecutive dishes in such rapid succession made me feel rushed, even though I’m sure this was not the kitchen’s intention. Second, when one is juggling different courses in front of them at the same time, one is tempted to pause completion of one dish in order to sample the other ones. I do feel that the courses were thematically grouped in such a way that it was easy to see how they were related to each other, but they still didn’t feel like stand-alone preparations—this was more like a four-part course than four courses cast on the same plate. There is, therefore, an interplay between partiality and wholeness at work here that I struggle to embrace.
Courses 11-13 all utilized partridge, each with a composition referencing a famous Chicago architect. Because they shared a common protein, this trio of courses was more coherent than the four immigrant-inspired plates. Unfortunately, I only remembered to photograph the last one. The first of these was “Daniel Burnham’s Classic: Partridge, Truffle Under Glass.” There was also a culinary allusion here, as the glass dome with which this was served recalled the classic Escoffier preparation. Again, though, the truffle was weak and the portion of it too insubstantial. The partridge was outstanding, so I would have enjoyed this more had there not been the promise of truffle. Course twelve was titled “Frank Llyod Wright’s Naturalism: Partridge, Endive, Gastrique.” Everything was nicely prepared in this dish. Finally, I was served “Mies Van der Rohe’s Modernism: Partridge,, Celery, Grapefruit.” This was the least substantial of the trio and also the least appetizing; the grapefruits were frozen (hence the “Modernism” label) and didn’t complement the partridge. In each of these partridge courses, the protein was perfectly cooked, but I would have rather been served a more substantial composition—perhaps an expanded portion of the Frank Lloyd Wright preparation.
At this point, one would expect to be served heavier meat courses, but I instead received “A Worker’s City: Ploughman’s Lunch, Pork Broth and Noodle, Onion, Raclette.” As the title suggests, this was an interpretation of the sort of lunch that a laborer might bring with them. The ribbon in the photo is a slice of good Iowa ham, and the raclette was also delicious—Sixteen has featured raclette in some form for a while now, as there used to be a composed cheese course featuring it. Still, I would have preferred a sauce over being served another broth, and taken together with the ham and cheese, this was extremely salty. I also feel as though these ingredients would have been better served in the first third of the meal, as a thin slice of ham feels a bit out of place sandwiched between three partridge courses and the red meat dishes that succeeded it.
There were two red meat preparations. The first was “Sinclair’s Jungle: Wagyu Deckle, Beef Heart, Watercress, Horseradish.” This was obviously an allusion to the meatpacking district conveyed in Upton Sinclair’s novel. The beef was Japanese Wagyu and one could not cook it any better. I don’t think these accompaniments did justice to the protein, though. They needed to be more substantial and while there was a lot going on in this plate, none of the supporting ingredients were satisfying. Of all the plates from this dinner, this was the most similar to Lents’s style in 2012. By this I mean that the protein was cooked expertly, but the supporting ingredients were paltry and hard to enjoy. I wasn’t entirely disappointed with this course since there are few ingredients more satisfying than well-executed Japanese Wagyu, but at the same time I’m surprised that Chef Lents crafted this mix of flavors and textures.
The final savory course was “The Great Fire’s Rebirth: Ash Roasted Venison, Salsify, Blood Orange, Nasturtium.” When my server delivered this, he acknowledged that the Chicago Fire could not be overlooked in a narrative of Chicago, but that Lents had wanted to celebrate the city’s response rather than the disaster—hence the title. This course involved a tableside carving; this is to my mind one of the great pleasures of hotel dining. I love it when hotels choose to celebrate their grandiosity and incorporate these showy tableside finishes. Pilkey also generously insisted that I try the wine pairing for the venison.
This was probably the most delicious meat course I’ve had since my meal at McCrady’s in January of 2013. The meat was served with salsify, parsnip puree, nasturtium, and a blood orange sauce. I’d never had meat coated in ash like this, and the depth of flavor was inspired. The dish showcased Lents’s core strength—cooking proteins—but here he utilized the meat in a way that one won’t find elsewhere. I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between this and the preceding beef course; where the steak dish was fussy and difficult to harmonize, here everything was designed to support a piece of meat that was already amazing on its own merits. With the combination of an exquisite protein, tasteful sauce, and appropriate accompaniments, this course brought me back to RIA, so there was also some nostalgia contributing to my enjoyment.
A recent development at Sixteen is the incorporation of a cheese supplement. Previously, they offered a composed cheese course, but Pilkey discussed how they are looking to really add to their cheese program. As of now, four cheeses were on offer and I sampled each (they were comped.) Even though this was a cheese tasting rather than a composed dish, they were plated by the kitchen and one can see that the presentation was more abstract than usually found with cheese courses. They were delicious and I look forward to seeing the cheese program expand.
A few weeks before this meal, Sixteen lost pastry chef Patrick Fahy to The French Laundry. The restaurant then hired Aya Fukai. I remembered Fukai as she was the pastry chef at RIA, but I never enjoyed her desserts, as they struggled to develop deep flavors or incorporate textures. The desserts from this meal were no better. The first was “Ferrara’s Lemonhead: Meyer Lemon, Celery, Tapioca.” As is evident from the photo, this was more of a palette cleanser than a dessert all its own, but it was easily the best tasting of the pastry items served this meal.
The second dessert was “The Mar-O-Bar: Peanut Financier, Honey, Salted Caramel.” This was obviously a deconstructed Mars Bar, which sounded great. However, it was impossible to eat; the outer shell was chocolate, with ice cream on the inside, but the chocolate was impenetrable. Even after I managed to shatter it, the chocolate was too hard and impossible to marry with the ice cream.
The penultimate course was “The Lost Coconut Grove: Coconut Macaroon, Passion Fruit, Coquitos.” This was fine but the lavish presentation belied the fact that this was no more than a couple of bites. I’ve enjoyed tiny desserts before, but this wasn’t an improvement over a standard Mounds Bar and fell well short of qualifying as a proper dessert.
Last was “Wrigley’s: Candied Beet, Vanilla Sponge Cake, Spearmint.” This dessert had easily the most promise of the pastry courses, but again there were execution issues. The sponge cake was insipid and the spearmint ice cream way too hard. The candied beet was admittedly terrific, but the issues with the other components made this too difficult to enjoy.
The meal closed with a passionfruit gelee, a chocolate, and a caramel. The take-home gift was a box of excellent house-made cracker jack.
The desserts brought varying levels of disappointment, and the Wrigley’s dessert was the only one that wasn’t just a glorified mignardise offering. Still, I’m not sure that they can be blamed entirely on Aya Fukai. At the time of this meal, she had barely arrived at Sixteen and I don’t believe that she was the one who designed the desserts. The execution was very weak and she obviously played a part in this, but perhaps her desserts will improve over the coming months. Given that storytelling is central to Lents’s style, though, it will be interesting to observe whether Lents grants her much latitude, or whether he formats the pastry items to his thematic agenda.
In this post, I’ve been somewhat critical of Lents’s storytelling method, but I think that when done well, it is quite compelling. For example, incorporating the photographic images added complexity to the experience, and grouping cuisine into an established narrative could add focus. Where I have trouble embracing this cuisine is that so many of these courses felt like incomplete thoughts. This is perhaps the result of the fact that this meal was organized more into chapters than a progression of autonomous plates. However, the plates I was served were listed separately on the menu and demanded to be treated as discrete courses; this becomes difficult to accept when several of the courses are served in discs rather than actual plates. To my mind, a more successful approach would have involved paring down the menu to 10-12 courses and incorporating more bountiful plates corresponding to each chapter. This would have lent gravitas to each chapter and could have highlighted the very best courses from this meal.
My last critique related to Lents’s storytelling approach relates to the titles he bestows upon his courses. Specifically, many of the dishes from this meal held wonderfully evocative titles that clashed with rather pedestrian preparations. To be fair, a few of the compositions were quite stunning, including the venison, turbot, and fermented onion courses. However, when a course is titled “A Proud Slavic Heritage,” one expects to find a proud dish and the jumbled composition of potato/dark bread/mackerel was far from dramatic. I’m sure that Lents didn’t intend for the titles to be more compelling than the cuisine, and I appreciate that he puts more effort than most chefs into his titles (indeed, most chefs simply list the principal ingredients utilized), but this is a double-edged sword as it carries the danger of raising expectations that may not be realized.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this meal is that as challenging as it was to embrace, the experience was pleasurable throughout. Much of this can be attributed to Dan Pilkey and his team, and the service has elevated dramatically since 2012. Pilkey deserves any and all commendable adjectives and even though I was known to him from beforehand, excellent service flowed throughout the dining room. If the food can match the front of the house, Sixteen will be my favorite restaurant in Chicago. Fortunately, the restaurant overhauls its entire menu each season, so perhaps with a new season will come a new story and an even better resolution.