Dos Urban Cantina (Chicago, IL)

I first learned of Dos Urban Cantina during a meal at Topolobampo in November of 2015. Startled by the elision of Jennifer Jones’s name from the menu credits, our server confirmed that she had left to start Dos Urban Cantina with her husband, Brian Enyart (himself a longtime Rick Bayless alum.) The name struck a harsh chord; “Dos Urban” evokes the kind of cartoonish Mexican cuisine that’s all too common in this country. The phonetic proximity between “Dos Urban” and “Dos Equis” doesn’t help matters, either, and indeed, “Cantina” unwittingly positions the restaurant within the generic framework of the Mexican watering hole. How, I wondered, could a serious restaurant emerge from the silly wrapping of this woefully-misnamed venture?

That I was willing to suspend disbelief speaks to my admiration for Jennifer Jones’s talents. Having enjoyed her desserts at roughly ten different meals at Topolo, she was responsible for many of my most memorable desserts, including “Vida, Muerta, y un Tazon de Chocolate,” a chocolate offering that ranks as perhaps my all-time favorite. Even her ice creams, of both fruit and chocolate variety, resonated as exquisite examples within their category. Given these past experiences, it wasn’t hard to muster enthusiasm for this restaurant, weird name aside.

Located in Logan Square—prime hipster locus of Chicago—I was expecting a rather cramped interior. So it came as no small surprise to see a dining room with ample space between tables, not unlike what one might find at a Michelin 2- or 3-star establishment. Most of the tables were filled with families dining, and the dining room produced mixed signals: on the one hand, the sizable gulf between tables fostered the hushed seriousness of a fine dining temple; at the same time, the many children filling the dining room blunted this severity.

Apropos of my remarks on the table spacing, I should also note that Dos Urban’s dining room bears few of the other attributes associated with Mexican restaurant dining rooms. Many Mexican restaurants in Chicagoland, for example, boast macabre touches—skeletons and skulls, for example—whose exoticism complements the somewhat mysterious character of Mexican cuisine, with its hyper-saturated moles belying scores of ingredients. Meanwhile, the brick walls and chocolate-colored booths at Dos Urban feel ‘safe.’ Here it’s worth noting that the other two of the restaurant’s four owners (Enyart and Jones being the first two) have backgrounds with Lettuce Entertain You. This may be confirmation bias, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain LEY flavor to the space, by which I mean a ‘lite’ quality that avoids all manner of drama.

Having loosely monitored its progress over the past year, I’ve noticed an array of structural changes to the menu. The originating menu forwent the standard 3-course structure, instead adopting unusual diacritic flourishes. For example, larger menu items were listed in boldface and in a larger size than the smaller plates. These touches must have posed untenable interpretive hurdles, as the design has been overhauled to feature 3 intuitive categories: small plates (roughly appetizer size), family-style sharable dishes, and desserts.

On its website, Dos Urban trumpeted the family-style offerings, which included cochinita pibil, chicken in mole negro, and a whole sea bass. My sense, however, is that these are crowd-pleasing concessions to timid diners who were previously jaded by the less-familiar plates. For the restaurant’s more distinctive offerings, one is best advised to restrict attention to the smaller plates, and so my brother and I ordered 3 each, as well as a dessert. Our server gave our choices her vote of confidence and hinted that the small plates offered the clearest route to a memorable meal. This essay focuses exclusively on my dishes.

I began with “Roasted Winter Squash: brown butter tamarind glaze, walnut pipian, chile escabeche.” Unlike Topolo, sauces are not finished tableside, yet the clean layers—walnut pipian at bottom, then squash, then chile—still carried precision. This was a fantastic dish for those, like me, who love sauces. Others might find themselves taken aback by the surfeit of sauce, resulting in a dish that straddled the line between squash plate and squash soup. As I suffer a relatively low spice tolerance, I was pleased to find that the chiles emitted a slow heat that never overwhelmed the palate. I am aware, of course, that some might consider this to be another inauthentic concession to the timid palate—although it does irritate me that, in certain circles, “authenticity” finds itself conflated with degree of spiciness.

winter-squash-walnut-pipian

Winter Squashes: Walnut Pipian, Chile Escabeche

I then selected “Goat Albondigas: black mole, masa gnudi.” Obsessive-compulsive customers may question the curious asymmetry between meatball and gnudi, with 6 of the former and 4 of the latter. The Mexican-Italian fusion worked conceptually, although the meatballs were too tough for my liking. I understand that the intention may have been to juxtapose the albondigas against the silky dumplings, but I would have preferred softer meatballs. Perhaps using pork, beef, or veal might have paid dividends. The mole rescued the dish, but only makes me fantasize over how memorable this would have been with plusher albondigas.

goat-albondigas-black-mole

Goat Albondigas, Masa Gnudi, Mole Negro

The most substantial of my savory plates was “Grilled Mushrooms: maitake and shimeji, Oaxacan red mole, chestnut cornbread.” As with the meatballs, this has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception and must be emerging as a signature dish. One really has to love mushrooms to appreciate it (as there wasn’t much to offset them), and as a mushroom fan I was in my comfort zone. The mole and cornbread brought a nutty accent that complemented the earthy mushrooms. I could see some people finding this dish boring or perhaps lacking a proper centerpiece, but I could not have been happier. As with the squash preparation, the generous portion of sauce brought this composition to the precipice of being a soup, and I was able to linger over the delicious flavors.

mushroom-red-mole

Grilled Mushrooms (Maitake and Hon Shimeji), Chestnut Cornbread, Oaxacan Red Mole

I finished with “Rompope Sundae: pecan polvoron, pear and jamoncillo.” This was just delicious, and the pecan polvoron, pear, and jamoncillo demonstrated Jones’s facility for integrating contrasting textures. To her credit, Jones has resisted the urge to over-experiment that currently pervades pastry programs; I’ve grown tired of the widespread attempts to incorporate herbs and other savory elements within the domain of pastry, almost invariably to the detriment of the desserts. Even so, it’s hard not to feel as if Jones is limiting herself here. Below, I’ve displayed this dessert alongside the aforementioned dessert from Topolo a few years ago, and I just don’t see that this sundae showcases the same degree of ambition. Where “Vida, Muerte, y Un Tazon de Chocolate” presented a focused study in chocolate, the sundae proffered easy pleasures that didn’t necessarily speak to the presence of a master pastry chef. I will also note that the other options (apple crisp and chocolate cake, for example) were no more ambitious.

rompope-sundae

Rompope Sundae, Pecan Polvoron, Pear, Jamoncillo

vida-muerte-chocolate

Vida, Muerte, Y Un Tazon de Chocolate (Topolobampo, c.2012)

Overall, three of four dishes were quite delicious, a high batting average indeed. Yet I feel that the sundae captures the spirit of this restaurant, namely the sense in which it provides delectable cuisine that never risks challenging the diner—and I say this having ordered what I’d consider to be some of the more ambitious offerings. Fans of Topolobampo, a restaurant that has upped its ambitious ante in recent years, are likely to find their hopes unrequited. I will return when I want delicious Mexican, but not when I’m looking for gastronomic challenges or want to probe deeper into Mexican cuisine. Jones and Enyart are skilled culinary artisans, but lack Bayless’s anthropological charge. I still think highly of Dos Urban Cantina, however, especially as it manages to overcome its most unsavory appellation.

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Vie and North Pond (Fall 2016)

north-pond-dining-room

North Pond Dining Room

This post revisits Vie and North Pond with the primary aim of exploring how the two paradigmatic farm-to-table restaurants illuminate what “farm-to-table” means as a taxonomic marker. Or put differently, the question motivating this post might be phrased thusly: does “farm-to-table” signify an actual cuisine, or a method through which to execute a cuisine?

Certainly, farm-to-table carries certain generic attributes: prioritization of local, micro-seasonal ingredients; simple, often rustic preparations; transparent disclosure of ingredient provenance, with an expectation that purveyors engage in humane treatment of animals; and culinary handiwork stressing ingredients over technique, simplicity over complexification. These qualities have of course been commoditized, with grocery stores and restaurants alike well-attuned to the surplus value conferred by farm-to-table and adjacent keywords like “fresh,” “farm-raised,” and “free-range.” But is this enough to constitute a proper cuisine? After all, Rick Bayless uses seasonal, humane ingredients to produce Mexican cuisine. Given that the aforementioned keywords may be applied toward any cuisine, are we best off conceptualizing farm-to-table in loose, methodological terms, referring more to the ingredients one uses (or perhaps, one’s attitude toward ingredients) than the dishes one composes?

Within Chicagoland, Vie and North Pond register as ideal sites through which to open this investigation. After all, Vie was named a Top 25 Farm to Table Restaurant in the country by Best Life Magazine. Meanwhile, North Pond appears in Zagat’s list of “Chicago’s Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants.” I refer to these lists this not because I see merit in ranking restaurants along these or any other lines, but because the designation speaks to the collective image of farm-to-table as a cuisine, and to Vie and North Pond as archetypal examples. Yet after 5 meals at North Pond (1 recent, 4 further removed) and 4 at Vie, I consider both among my favorite restaurants in Chicago, but also consider them to offer evidence for farm-to-table as more of a method than a cuisine. What follows carries a more definitional than evaluative focus, using recent meals at Vie and North Pond to explore—on an admittedly limited scope—what we mean when we talk about ‘farm-to-table’ in the restaurant context.

It should be noted that neither Vie nor North Pond advertises itself as explicitly farm-to-table; the North Pond website introduces the cuisine of its chef, Bruce Sherman, as follows:
“Chef Bruce Sherman holds true to the Arts and Crafts ideal in the culinary philosophy of North Pond restaurant. Drawing inspiration from the local market, he utilizes exceptional ingredients at the height of their season. Whenever possible, Chef Sherman supports small local farmers and treats their products with respect in his kitchen. The path from earth to plate remains clear and his cuisine reflects the decor of the dining room – complex layers of subtle craft beneath a simple decorative style.”
The verbs deployed—“utilizes” and “treats”—allude to farm-to-table as a procedure, deployed to achieve an isomorphic relationship between dining room and food; rather than executing a preexisting cuisine, the implication is that Chef Sherman serves his own distinct cuisine, indelibly informed by not only local ingredients but the physical space of the building.

Vie, meanwhile, introduces itself as follows:
“Named after the French word for life, offer(ing) contemporary American cuisine inspired by Western European cultures and rustic fare. Chef and Owner Paul Virant opened Vie in 2004 and focuses on year-round seasonal eating and housemade pickles and preserves. Locally grown, artisan ingredients from Midwestern family farms are showcased.”
Local ingredients and purveyors are foregrounded here, but utilized toward the production of contemporary American and Western European cuisine. In sum, North Pond and Vie make reference to farm-to-table attributes, but farm-to-table remains procedurally-determined, suggesting that the common tendency to think of farm-to-table as a cuisine owes as much or more to the food media and the dining public than to the ways in which chefs define and market their craft. My recent meals at both restaurants confirm this conclusion.

These meals occurred during late Summer and early Fall, with a common rubric of ingredients on display. Menus falling on the late summer end of the spectrum featured much seasonal produce, including sweet corn, berries, summer squashes, watermelon, and tomatoes. The early fall meal, which took place at Vie, included hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, fall squashes, and brussels sprouts. Both North Pond and Vie offer tasting menus, yet my sense is that the focus remains on a la-carte. As this was a brunch at North Pond, we ordered from a 3-course prix fixe, in which each course carried 4 choices; at dinner, the standard shifts to 4 courses. At Vie, the expectation is that each diner experiences a traditional, 3-course endeavor.

Both North Pond and Vie welcome the diner with bread; Vie also includes an amuse bouche and mignardise (North Pond might also for dinner, but not brunch.) At our last meal, we were treated to an especially outstanding raw fish preparation.

vie-amuse

Raw Fish Amuse at Vie

My North Pond appetizer was griddled tuna with feta cheese, watermelon, and a sauce whose components escape my memory. I’m not sure why they call this “griddled tuna”—which evoked images of cooking it diner-style (my first association when I think of the griddle is of pancakes and burgers)—especially as our server indicated that it was prepared on a plancha, and thus grilled more than griddled. The fish was cooked longer than I like, as I generally favor tuna raw. It was also a relatively lean piece, and I wished for a more luxurious cut, closer in hue to the watermelon. My chief gripe, though, lies with the unsavory combination of a small portion and long list of ingredients. As this was a brunch app, I wouldn’t expect a grand portion, but the consequences of scale shouldn’t just get rationalized under the pretense of this being a midday meal. I couldn’t harmonize the ingredients and each bite felt more like a gamble than a foray; should I eat the tuna with the watermelon, feta, and sauce all together, or try to marry the ingredients in another fashion? There wasn’t an opportunity to taste the tuna by itself and see whether eating it with the other ingredients improved or compromised its merits. I’ve encountered this same problem in restaurants serving voluminous tasting menus, contributing to my general preference for a la carte.

north-pond-tuna

North Pond: Griddled Tuna, Feta, Watermelon

By contrast, Vie serves sizeable appetizers that solicit exploration. Below I’ve included pictures of a ribollita soup; an octopus dish prepared escabeche style (with lots of paprika), with chorizo and new potatoes; and a sweetbread preparation that included a memorable black garlic glaze. The octopus and sweetbreads were off the menu by the time of my third meal at Vie, leading me to order the soup instead, but it was no less enjoyable.

vie-octopus-escabeche

Vie: Octopus Escabeche, Chorizo, New Potatoes

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Vie: Black Garlic Sweetbreads, Zucchini, Onion Rings

vie-ribollita

Vie: Ribollita Soup, Grilled Sourdough, Cranberry Beans, Sausage, Swiss Chard

I would be hard-pressed to locate any limitations to these appetizers, which presented simple, straightforward flavors and graceful cross-pollination of humble (potatoes, egg, sourdough) and luxurious (octopus, sweetbreads) ingredients alike. This was neither comfort food nor fine dining proper, but rather their glorious marriage.

Chef Virant doesn’t just synthesize the prosaic and the luxurious, however; these appetizers also brought the local and the global into contact. Ingredients like octopus and paprika, not to mention ribollita soup, assume European roots, and black garlic is a staple of Korean fare. These aren’t farm-to-table dishes in any pure sense of the term, but dishes that use fresh-from-the-farm ingredients (as well as other non-local ones) to produce plates with strong ties to the Midwest, Europe, and Asia. What results is not so much cultural pluralism, but rather a more synthetic approach that weaves cultural influences together toward plates that defy facile taxonomic relegation.

We also ordered charcuterie on a recent visit, which included a country-style pate, as well as headcheese (tete de cochon) and bresaola. Each was enjoyed, and while there appeared to be few other tables ordering charcuterie, this is a necessary menu item for a restaurant that prides itself on its butchering.

Vie Charcuterie: Pate, Tete de Cochon, Bresaola

Vie Charcuterie: Pate, Tete de Cochon, Bresaola

North Pond draws from an equally broad array of cuisines. My main course, for example, was an Indian-style whitefish, which included an exemplary yogurt crust. On each visit, the kitchen has shown great facility with all manner of seafood, from shrimp to trout to whitefish to cod. The cauliflower was pickled, which isn’t my preference, but I enjoyed the spinach coulis. A bland cracker (behind the fish) lent a superfluous accent, easily overcome by the pleasures of the fish.

Whitefish, Pickled Cauliflower, Spinach Coulis

North Pond: Whitefish, Pickled Cauliflower, Spinach Coulis

I’ve ordered two main courses at my recent meals at Vie: first, slow-cooked lamb leg with lamb sausage, toasted hominy, and blueberry; and second, walleye pike with paw paw vinaigrette, Minnesota wild rice, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and caramelized fennel. The walleye was easily one of the most enjoyable dishes I’ve had all year. I’ve become increasingly fond of freshwater fish, especially with its delicate texture punctuated by a subtle crust such as this one. Rice, particularly wild rice, isn’t something I’d go out of my way to order, but it absorbed the vinaigrette to great effect. As a great fan of wild mushrooms, I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting accoutrement than the seasonal ones on display.

Walleye, Minnesota Wild Rice, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Paw Paw Vinaigrette

Vie: Walleye, Minnesota Wild Rice, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Paw Paw Vinaigrette

While the lamb leg was nicely done and the blueberry and toasted hominy both seasonally appropriate and brilliant textural complements, I could have done without the rather bland sausage. Chef Virant proves quite fond of two-way preparations: chicken breast was advertised alongside its sausage, while the pork dish featured multiple cuts of the pig. I understand that such dishes foreground the kitchen’s butchering skill, but in general, I find two-way preparations amount to a reductive ‘squaring’ of the protein that compromises focus, foreclosing the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sensation afforded by memorable dishes.

Roasted Leg of Lamb, Lamb Sausage, Toasted Hominy, Blueberry

Vie: Roasted Leg of Lamb, Lamb Sausage, Toasted Hominy, Blueberry

I also have to make note of Chef Virant’s rather unusual (euphemism) plating technique. If we compare the lamb, for example, with the whitefish at North Pond, both compositions possess a general abstraction (although “abstract” means something different in relation to gastronomy than it does in the fine arts, given that there aren’t “figural” culinary compositions.) Yet North Pond achieves abstraction without forfeiting precision. By contrast, my lamb at Vie suffered aesthetically on multiple counts, from the bubbling blueberries and hominy to the generally monochromatic study (compare this to North Pond, which makes great use of color, as evidenced by the watermelon and spinach coulis.) My critique isn’t that the dish is stacked high—more 3-dimensional than most restaurants—but that the whole thing looks rather sloppy, and not beyond the compositional talents of the home cook. Certain dishes, including the ribollita, are more aesthetically inviting, but these exceptions only prove the rule. Simply put, I admire Chef Virant’s palate but not his palette.

I’m not aware of a separate pastry chef at North Pond or Vie, and at North Pond in particular, desserts retain the accretional aesthetic of the savories. I ordered caramel profiteroles with champagne sorbet and a host of other ingredients, including blackberries. The horizontal fanning of the ingredients carried visual appeal, and while it wasn’t easy to harmonize the ingredients, I had fun enjoying the different ingredients (especially the sorbet) on their own.

Caramel Profiteroles, Blackberry, Champagne Sorbet

North Pond: Caramel Profiteroles, Blackberry, Champagne Sorbet

At Vie, we ordered a chocolate-hazelnut-raspberry dessert, with caramel poured tableside. The mason-style jar resonates as a salient prop at Vie, a restaurant that has built much of its reputation on canning and preserving, but while the tableside finish added drama, a more traditional serving vessel might have allowed for easier consumption (I struggled to scrape the dessert out.) This is a very minor critique, though, and I’d order this again in a heartbeat.

Chocolate, Hazelnut, Raspberry, Caramel

Vie: Chocolate, Hazelnut, Raspberry, Caramel

A refrain throughout this essay has been the deployment of regional and international ingredients and preparations, even within two restaurants known for farm-to-table tendencies. Rather than dogmatic adherents to a particular farm-to-table cuisine, Chefs Sherman and Virant resonate more as deft synthesizers of disparate culinary influences. To be sure, they use local ingredients to a greater degree than most chefs, which contributes in no small part to the pleasure their food imparts; yet it still feels to me as if farm-to-table refers more to the ingredients they use than to the dishes they produce. Indeed, I’m not sure I could actually name a farm-to-table “dish,” the way one could with Mexican, French, or even molecular gastronomy (hypothetically, sous-vide steak with a cauliflower foam, falls within molecular gastronomy.) Of course, no cuisine is born in a vacuum and cuisines are never entirely stable, but I still feel as if farm-to-table refers more to a method—to a principle of using primarily local items—than to a cuisine all its own. In a sense, farm-to-table is too amorphous to allow for a distinct cuisine, since ingredients that are farm-to-table in one region will by definition not qualify as such in another region. The institutionalization of farm-to-table as a cuisine would necessitate a canon of dishes that its relational constitution precludes. Beyond this distinction, though, few chefs, particularly at the fine dining level, confine themselves to all-local foood.

If Chefs Sherman and Chef Virant don’t produce farm-to-table cuisine per se, then which cuisines do they execute? Virant may refer to his cooking as “contemporary American” with “Western European” influences, but these categories are so ambiguous—not to mention that he draws from broader influences, such as the black garlic in the sweetbreads—that I don’t think we can align these chefs (or indeed, most chefs working today) within a set cuisine. Certainly, there are chefs who do cook within a particular cuisine, including Rick Bayless (Mexican) and Jean Joho (Alsatian), but these feel like rare examples. A cuisine requires an institutional presence and a history that most chefs today resist.

All of this is to say that the contemporary chef produces his or her own cuisine, rather than adhering to an extant heritage. Through this dynamic, we may observe the parallel trajectories of the culinary arts and the fine arts. That is, I wonder whether the postmodern decline of medium specificity evidenced through contemporary art—cause for celebration or critique, depending on one’s view—finds a corollary in the general resistance to conform to a particular cuisine. Trends, dominant methods (of which farm-to-table is one) and groupthink still abound, but the stability of cuisines and artistic mediums seem to have atrophied, with chefs free to borrow from different cuisines at will in exercises of culinary promiscuity. In many, if not most cases, the chef’s own vision supersedes the constraints imposed by a culinary tradition, so that Paul Virant and Bruce Sherman cook their own cuisines, just as Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy cook theirs. I don’t mean to suggest that these chefs don’t face their own constraints, and I admire anyone who can operate a kitchen and restaurant given all of the moving parts involved. But rather than misidentifying farm-to-table as a cuisine, we may be better off conceptualizing it as a method through which to express the authorial cuisine of the chef.

Salero (Chicago, IL)

Salero Dining Room

Salero Dining Room

Salero arrived in Fall of 2014 and its website announces its mission in clear terms: “Welcome to Spain in Chicago’s West Loop.” Visually embedded within this greeting is an aqua asterisk symbol, similar to the Michelin star icon. This may lead the uninitiated to infer that Salero has garnered a Michelin star (it hasn’t); or we may read this as ornamental augury—a wishful foreshadow of Michelin recognition in the upcoming year. The website, then, begs the following: how, exactly, would Salero transport us to Spain? And is there the promise for culinary greatness?

While this restaurant is a relative newcomer, its chef, Ashlee Aubin, isn’t. In addition to the usual platitudes (an investment in eating local, on the relationship between food and community, and the forth), his website bio indicates that he spent four years at Zealous, which no longer exists but seems to have been a paradigmatic locus for early aughties fusion. Aubin then spent a year at Alinea, and the website credits Grant Achatz as Aubin’s chief mentor. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Wood Restaurant in Chicago, a respected eatery but without the Spanish concentration Salero declares; this left me wondering whether Spanish cuisine was indeed native to Aubin’s culinary vision.

Locating Salero presented no challenges, since it occupies a small space adjacent to Blackbird and Avec, both of which I’ve dined at in the past. Our early reservation netted us the option of indoor or outdoor seating; arriving before my companion, I chose the former. Were I in Maine, I might have gone al fresco; at Salero, however, to dine outdoor is not to enjoy a prime layer of real estate, but rather to come into physical contact with Blackbird and Avec, the restaurant’s formidable competition. With exposed brick and wood, as well as wooden chairs and tables unadorned with cloth, the indoor dining room registers as fashionable, yet not particularly comfortable (perhaps these attributes are correlated.) One can see from the photo above the substantial variance in luminosity between the blinding sun outside and the dark interior milieu; combined with the nearly empty early evening dining room, the space felt almost cavelike (I imagine, however, that the exposed brick makes for a noisy late evening scene.)

Our server performed an efficient menu description, her presentation made all the easier by the absence of nightly specials. I was disappointed to find that jamon iberico had been replaced by cheaper serrano ham, which is delicious but relatively ubiquitous. Many dishes still caught my eye. Despite the Spanish focus, Chef Aubin accents his menu with touches extracted from a broader spectrum of European fare—harissa, foie gras, and orecchiette pasta, for example. I have no problem with such cultural borrowing; a nationally-specific focus need not entail the outright exclusion of other cuisines. I chose grilled octopus as a starter and whole lubina for my main. My companion chose differently, but I only tried my dishes and so I’ve limited this report to my plates.

A foodrunner stopped by with good bread, which I neglected to snapshot.

The octopus came with radicchio, escarole, and a croquette filled with tete de cochon. I don’t find the composition particularly attractive, perhaps because of the relatively monochromatic interplay between the reddish hues of the octopus and those of the lettuce and croquette. If there was aesthetic overlap, the taste proved just the opposite, and I couldn’t harmonize everything. The croquette wasn’t a bad match for the octopus and while the octopus was slightly overcooked, it remained within the bounds of enjoyability; yet the harshness of the lettuce really besmirched the complementary flavors otherwise at work.

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

The lubina was the real star of this meal, served with rouille, potato sticks, and charred escarole. I could have done without the latter (especially after the escarole and radicchio from the course prior), but this seems to be the age of bitter lettuces and so its presence may have been inevitable. The fish was cooked perfectly and the kitchen dexterously filleted it so zero bones littered the composition—often an issue with whole fish preparations. This dish had everything: a well-prepared protein, textural contrast, and an appropriate sauce. Given the youth of this restaurant, I imagine that Chef Aubin is mediating between overhauling his menu as the season dictates and hitting upon signature dishes; I hope this course claims signature status as it was a real tour de force.

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

To conclude, I ordered churros, served with salted whipped chocolate, and milk jam. These lacked the more dense sugar coating of the decorated version at Xoco, yet we may perhaps attribute this to a difference between Mexican and Spanish churros. The churros were satisfying, but lacked the modicum of sweetness that I enjoy in a dessert.

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

My hasty, one-meal conclusion is that Salero’s cuisine isn’t vastly different from what one finds at other West Loop spots, particularly Spanish-inflected restaurants like Vera and Avec (there may be others as well.) Certainly, those two restaurants remain anchored in small plates, distinct from the 3-course experience of this meal; all the same, Salero’s forte doesn’t seem to involve serving atypical ingredients, but rather configuring those ingredients into a more conventional dining experience than its competition. Salero might do well solidify its niche through offering more luxurious Spanish ingredients. The most high-end ingredient was foie gras—what does it say about an upscale Spanish restaurant when its chief luxury ingredient derives from another cuisine? I have no objection to foie gras being served, but the absence of iberico ham feels like a lost opportunity.

It was also a mistake, I think, not to produce a more distinctive décor, perhaps with more Spanish artwork. In other words: if Salero purports to transport its diner to Spain, national specificity is achieved through cuisine alone (unlike Topolobampo, for example, which represents Mexico through cuisine, décor, stemware, and so on.)

Fortunately, in Chef Aubin, Salero possesses a worthy chef who produces plates that are attractive to both eye and tongue. I can see that the middling octopus preparation has been replaced by a more compelling preparation, and other dishes invite return visits. Salero may not achieve a proper Spanish experience, nor even a singular experience within the West Loop, but the skilled preparation of my fish leaves me optimistic that Salero should manage to avoid getting muscled out of town by its more famous neighborhood competition.

Tru (October, 2014)

Charger Plate at Tru

Charger Plate at Tru


My first meal at Tru took place three years ago: same chef, same time of year, same dining companion. That meal has only grown worse in my estimation, lowlighted by a faux caviar course (smoked sturgeon shaped to look like caviar) and a kohlrabi soup that remain two of the most horrifying dishes I’ve had in any restaurant context, fine dining or otherwise—fancy preparations and serviceware (the faux caviar was served in a caviar tin, while the soup was served in its gourd), but each reduced to saltiness and nothing else. An intervening visit in the Spring of 2012, chronicled on this blog, delivered better results, but there were still faulty preparations (a friend’s red meat was dry and the desserts were poor) and nothing that engendered any kind of commitment. It was only after learning of Tru’s whole duck preparation, which actually debuted in 2013, that my friend and I made reservations for an October evening.

The longevity of the chef, Anthony Martin, might signal a kind of stasis, and the restaurant has actually been around since 1999, and so it now slips into the old guard of Chicago fine dining. Still, one of the more interesting developments in Chicago culinaria has been the impulse by old guard restaurants to modernize: Spiaggia is another restaurant that has made even more drastic efforts in this area. In an apparent attempt to keep up with exclusively tasting menu restaurants like Grace, EL Ideas, 42 Grams, and others, Tru has scrapped its 3-course prix fixe and so diners are now locked into tasting menu structures of varying lengths. Martin himself is still quite young and he must feel that an elongated structure is key for his culinary growth. These changes, as well as the duck course, impelled us to return, but questions remained: would Tru remain hamstrung by the conception and execution errors that compromised past visits? And does the dynamism of Martin (and his staff) necessarily correspond with culinary improvement?

Tru is known for its dining room, which boasts pricey Pop, Minimal, and Post-Minimal works by Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Yves Klein, and others. The space feels very much like a museal installation, with pieces rationally disbursed against white walls. On the level of taste politics, I understand this connection: fine art (and its public) corresponds with fine dining (and its public.) At the same time, I don’t think the design logics of the 20th-century museum can be unproblematically applied toward restaurants. When a restaurant feels like the modernist white cube, this presents its own paradox: the white walls of a museum purport to isolate vision in the high-modernist tradition, but this is obviously destabilized when food is served and taste enters the equation. Put differently, it’s all very well for restaurants to display nice artwork on the walls, but this becomes disorienting when the space feels more like a museum and less like a restaurant.

Tru offers three menu lengths: 5-courses, 7, or 12. We went with the seven, in large part because our tasting menu from Fall 2011 was not as successful as the shorter meal from Spring 2012. Two of our courses carried surcharges: the duck cost an extra $40 over the other meat choice (filet of beef), and a foie gras dish was $30 over a squash soup (I wasn’t going down that road after the soup debacle of 2011.)

The first item was a comte gougere. These have been served since before my first meal here.

Comte Gougere

Comte Gougere

Next we were deluged with opening bites: this first contained sweet corn in different textures, including freeze-dried, which I suppose allowed them to get away with serving sweet corn post-season. There were burgundy truffles shaved in there, but they didn’t generate much impact.

Corn Amuse

Corn Amuse

Other bites included cold foie gras enveloped in a strawberry shell (delicious) and a raw tuna preparation. Very good.

Cold Foie Gras

Cold Foie Gras

Our first course was dashi custard with California sturgeon caviar and yuzu kushu, a very spicy jelly. This composition signaled that Martin’s eye for style had not evaporated, and the plating and serviceware looked like something I wouldn’t find elsewhere. That couldn’t save this course, though; the yuzu paste wound up overpowering everything else, ruining good caviar. I think my friend liked this more, so one’s mileage may vary depending on heat tolerance.

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Next up was an even worse use of luxury ingredients. We were served seared foie gras with chestnut cream, quince, and shaved Alba truffles. I’ve never been fond of seared foie gras since it tends to be quite sweet, and that was the case here as well, although it wasn’t a deal-breaker. The problem lay in layering rich flavors on top of each other: first the foie gras and then the cream and truffle. To my mind, each of those luxury flavors should have anchored a dish on its own, rather than this cluttered concoction. I don’t think the chestnut cream had any business getting involved with either the liver or the truffle. Pairing foie gras with quince made sense, but should have been segregated into its own course. A more dexterous handling of truffle would have foregrounded it simply, with either pasta or risotto. Instead, these first two courses just showcased Martin’s lack of restraint when handling luxury ingredients and this felt like vulgar cooking, with square pegs crammed into round holes in the name of combining expensive foods just for the sake of it.

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Between courses, we were served small croissants with black truffle-spiked butter. They were awesome.

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Our fish preparation was this monkfish, served with chard, matsutake mushroom broth, and smoked pine nuts. It was good but looked and felt incomplete. This fragmental character reminded of the kinds of dishes that comprised my unsteady marathon meal at Sixteen last January. I don’t really see the point of serving this, especially with a substantial duck course to follow—it just distracted us from the main attraction, even if the fish was nicely prepared.

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Before the duck was served, a runner presented us with this photo-op; it was a ‘dummy duck’ and not the one we were to be served, but it was an accurate replica.

Duck

Duck

Our actual duck was served in two components, delivered simultaneously. The breast was served with caramelized endive and pineapple-ginger chutney. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the shoddy foie gras from two dishes prior: there was evident care here, with everything well thought through. The duck was aged for 8 to 10 days, with the skin containing honey, orange, Dijon mustard, coriander, black pepper, and cumin. This was a marvelous combination, and Martin achieved a perfect skin. I found the temperature to be great (roughly medium-rare); I wouldn’t have minded it cooked a bit less, but I think that might have foreclosed the possibility of crispy skin. The portion was generous, and the thigh meat was included in an apple-potato puree.

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

This was probably my favorite duck preparation of all time. I also appreciate the Versace plate; this classy preparation reminded me of when Grant Achatz used to serve a traditional course at Alinea, complete with period serviceware, just to break up the progression of more avant-garde preparations; in both cases, the luxury serviceware just brings an extra layer of grandeur.

I feel like this duck course could be a real signature for Martin, although this does raise the question: can a course qualify as a signature dish if it doesn’t actually represent a chef’s style? This duck was remarkable, but it worked against what I see to be Martins’ primary qualities: to be sure, there was the ornamental imperative that defines his compositions, but the tendency to overdo everything was mercifully absent, as this presented clear and intuitive flavors. In most cases, Martin’s preparations taste worse than they look, but this wasn’t the case here. I think Martin would do well to structure his menu around the duck and make it his signature, but I actually see that he’s just taken it off the menu—a real error in judgment as I see it. Also: what will they do with the Versace plates?

We were then presented with the cheese cart. I didn’t see many that interested me and so I went with three soft cheeses, which were nice.

Cheese Cart

Cheese Cart


Cheese

Cheese

The pre-dessert was verjus sorbet with mint. I have a low mint tolerance and so this wasn’t as refreshing for me.

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

A basket of madeleines was delivered.

Madeleine

Madeleine

One of the peculiarities of Tru is that Martin presides over both savory and pastry, and it’s not hard to see where most of his energies go (not toward the pastry.) There were only two dessert options, neither of which brought any originality: the first was a “plane” of good dark chocolate, and the other an apple-chestnut strudel. This was an easy choice and I went with the strudel, which was paired with pear sorbet. This was an absolutely uninspired dessert, though; I respect how hard Martin must have to work in order to manage each component of the menu, but also wonder whether he may have been more invested in choosing the serving vessel than crafting a memorable dessert.
tru dessert

The closing bites were much better, with a liquid truffle (not shown), pate de fruit, non-liquid truffle, and canele. All were great. A muffin was given as a nice parting gift.

Mignardises

Mignardises

On my way out, I snapped pictures of a couple artworks, the first a light and space work by Ed Ruscha and the second a statue by Yves Klein.

Ed Ruscha, Somebody's Mother

Ed Ruscha, Somebody’s Mother


Yves Klein, Somebody's Mother

Yves Klein, Venus Bleue

This meal was certainly successful, highlighted by a duck preparation that was absolutely one of my favorite dishes of 2014. Even so, the excision of the duck also gives me little reason to return, and this meal also evidenced the less savory aspects of Chef Martin’s style: a reticence to let expensive ingredients speak for themselves, a lackluster pastry program, and overaggressive seasoning. I also wonder whether Martin is actually to be commended for his dynamism, a question that really emerges after seeing that the duck has been removed. Why didn’t he just recognize that he’d hit on something really special and continue to serve it? Most tables in the dining room had ordered it and so the interest would seem to be there. In general, I think we have an impulse to reward chefs who are constantly experimenting and in this regard Martin should be lauded, but I might actually prefer the frozen rhythms of restaurants that don’t overhaul their menus (Everest, for example) if it means that I can count on past favorites.

Martin is also part of a cohort of Chicago chefs who spent considerable time at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, with others including Thomas Lents of Sixteen and Matthew Kirkley of L2O. I can’t help but draw similarities between Martin and Lents. I enjoyed this meal more than my dinners at Sixteen, but I think both chefs suffer the same limitations: they select clever serviceware and have great ideas, but overshoot their target and venture into gratuitous complexity. In the case of Lents, I think he executes seafood better than anyone in Chicago, but his talents are undone by wearisome tasting progressions. Martin, meanwhile, would have done well to cap this at 3 courses, without introducing a superfluous monkfish course. I understand that maybe these chefs feel that more courses=a more enjoyable meal, but in both cases diminishing returns materialized.

On a different note, but related at an angle: I was recently curious about the historical context in which Moto was received upon opening and so I browsed the lthforum. Several commenters remarked that Homaru Cantu displayed a firm grounding in classical technique (born out of his background at Charlie Trotter’s), which was occluded rather than enhanced by his experimentation. Moto has since come a long way, and I loved my one meal there. I think Martin and Lents are somewhat like Moto circa 2004; Lents is, in my mind, far more talented with proteins than Martin, but the same struggles to craft a compelling tasting menu manifest across their cooking, to the point that the progressions feel tacky.

To close, I think Tru is in a difficult boat because, as a Michelin 1-star restaurant, it’s both part of and distinct from the 1-star contingent. Part of this group, since Michelin gave it a lone star; and also distinct from this category by virtue of its elevated price point, which begins at $125 (for the 5-course with no upgrades) and can easily cross $200. There is an air of exclusivity to Tru that one doesn’t get from most one star Michelin restaurants, but I can also think of 1-stars whose cuisine I prefer, including Topolobampo, Boka, and North Pond, and it is at that point that a return visit becomes unlikely—that is, unless the duck ever gets resurrected.

Senza (Chicago, IL)

senza facade

Senza Facade (Taken from Senza’s Yelp Page)

Senza holds the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant. In a big city like Chicago, this gives them a fertile demographic and has made them quite popular. Senza’s executive chef, Noah Sandoval, was previously at Schwa, a background that undergirds Senza in several ways. Senza has borrowed the same all-tasting menu structure that one finds at Schwa, and, while I’ve never been to Schwa, I believe both restaurants are similarly dark (even if Schwa is much noisier.) Senza was one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants that neither I nor my friend had dined at, so when a conference brought me to Chicago in April, we made reservations.

At the start of this meal, my companion aptly mentioned that he feels that while Chicago harbors a reputation for elemental cuisine, occupying an equally potent presence are a legion of ‘supper club’-style restaurants. This genre, which I believe found its genesis in Los Angeles, is characterized by long tasting menus, BYO alcohol policy, an ‘underground’ décor, casual service, and youthful/trendy ingredients that shy away from traditional luxury fare. In Chicago, this category is principally represented by EL Ideas, Elizabeth, 42 Grams, Schwa, and Goosefoot. These supper club restaurants also overlap with molecular gastronomy, of course, and their direct convergence can be seen in Schwa and EL Ideas. Senza fits less tightly into this group, since it is not BYO. Yet, the restaurant is a bakery during the day, and its chameleon act supplies the requisite underground feel. Meanwhile, the restaurant prepares a similar brand of new American cooking, and exclusive tasting menu format, as these other supper club restaurants.

Senza offers tasting menus in two formats: five courses and nine courses. The longer menu, which we ordered, contains the same courses as the smaller ones, plus another appetizer, larger course, composed cheese course, and dessert.

Before being served any food, we were served complimentary glasses of this sparkling wine.

Complimentary Sparking Wine

Complimentary Sparking Wine

The amuse bouche was a small oyster with a silly floral garnish. It paired naturally with our sparkling wine.

Kumamoto Oyster

Kumamoto Oyster

The first course of the tasting was a scallop/seared foie gras dish. But, with my scallop allergy, I was served this dish of pickled tomato, burrata, and lingonberry syrup. Note also the inclusion of pea shoots, another in a long line of distracting, senseless floral garnishes. I feel bad critiquing this course since it wasn’t actually on the menu, but it was less than satisfying. To begin with, these ingredients seem more at home on an August tasting menu; I’m not sure whether this dish was recycled from last summer or whether they composed it on the fly, but it didn’t make sense in the context of this menu. We were already to be served a composed cheese course later in the menu, so it seems an error in judgment to weigh down the meal with two cheese dishes. I would have liked to see a vegetarian dish with spring produce. Another superior alternative would have been to just serve the regular first course, but with a larger serving of foie gras and no scallop.

Pickled Tomato, Burrata, Lingonberry Syrup

Pickled Tomato, Burrata, Lingonberry Syrup

Next was a loaf of gluten-free caraway seed bread with whipped gluten-free butter. I believe they make this using rice flour. Senza is proud of their bread, since they sell gluten-free pastries during the day, but there really wasn’t anything to recommend with this bread.

Gluten-Free Caraway Seed Bread

Gluten-Free Caraway Seed Bread

Course #2 was a parsnip soup with horseradish cream, drops of cherry syrup, guanciale, and crab. This dish typifies the kitchen’s plating style, which involves, paradoxically, a composed abstraction of five or so core ingredients, in addition to a superfluous garnish. This was probably my favorite course. I like crab in decadent preparations, and the parsnip broth and horseradish cream served this purpose, while the guanciale and cherry kept things interesting.

Parsnip Soup, Crab, Guanciale, Horseradish Cream

Parsnip Soup, Crab, Guanciale, Horseradish Cream

Our fish course came third. Here we have a nice piece of loup de mer, with artichokes, trout roe, and dashi broth. Rather than serving the skin on the fish, it was fried and dusted with paprika, presumably in an effort to mimic a chicharron. This application of the skin probably constitutes the most inventive flourish from the meal and so conceptually, I liked this dish. Unfortunately, I would have rather just had the skin served on the bass, although the sea bass was perfectly cooked and the dashi broth appropriate for this very delicate treatment of fish.

Loup de Mer, Paprika-Dusted Skin, Artichoke, Trout Roe, Dashi Broth

Loup de Mer, Paprika-Dusted Skin, Artichoke, Dashi Broth

Pork belly comprised the first meat course, served with celeriac, coriander, marshmallow and lingonberry syrup. The kitchen did a nice job of achieving a crispy texture while also keeping the meat tender. The supporting ingredients didn’t add much of anything and seemed aesthetically motivated more than anything.

Pork Belly, Celeriac, Lingonberry

Pork Belly, Celeriac, Lingonberry

The meal then took a detour away from proteins, with agnolotti filled with morel mushrooms and served with kumquats and huckleberries. I think the kitchen includes this pasta dish in an effort to overcome perceived limitations relating to gluten-free cuisine. The pasta tasted way off, though—there was no substance to the wrapper. Also, I love morels, but the incorporation of fruit didn’t make much sense. For morel agnolotti, I’d rather the kitchen embrace the luxurious flavors all the way, which didn’t need to be tempered with the acid of the fruit. A very disappointing dish.

(Gluten-Free) Agnolotti, Morel, Kumquat, Huckleberry

(Gluten-Free) Agnolotti, Morel, Kumquat, Huckleberry

The last meat was lamb rack, lamb belly, cippolini onion, garlic chip, nasturtium, and pickled mustard seeds. The lamb rack was roasted in ash, a technique I experienced earlier this year at Sixteen. It is salty but successful, yet I think it works better with heartier winter flavors than the spring garnishes featured in this presentation.

Ash-Roasted Lamb, Cipollini, Garlic Chip

Ash-Roasted Lamb, Cipollini, Garlic Chip

A composed cheese course featured raclette, with membrillo, raisin, pancetta, and basil. This seemed overly heavy for a meal that rested on light flavors. My enjoyment was also mitigated by the fact that I’d already been served a heavy cheese earlier.

Raclette, Pancetta, Raisin, Membrillo

Raclette, Pancetta, Raisin, Membrillo

Senza includes two desserts in the nine-course menu. The first of these was an oatmeal dessert that also included pine nut, toasted marshmallow meringue, apricot, and sherry vanilla ice cream. This was better than the second dessert, but I don’t think the oatmeal worked. Rather than offering any crunch, it was powdery and dominated by the ice cream.

Oatmeal, Vanilla-Sherry Ice Cream, Apricot

Oatmeal, Vanilla-Sherry Ice Cream, Apricot

The last dessert was a chocolate butterscotch cake, with butterscotch ice cream, pumpkin seed brittle, rosemary, and raspberry. This dessert was marred by the absence of any butterscotch, either in the ice cream or the cake. Chocolate and raspberry is a classic combination but this could have been better. I do like that this was a rare case in which the composition of the desserts was actually in line with the aesthetic of the savories. This style of abstract dessert is ubiquitous now, and for most restaurants, the free-form composition breaks away from the more composed look of the savories. However, because Senza’s earlier dishes were also abstract, we don’t see the schism that often takes place in the shift from savories to sweets.

Chocolate-Butterscotch Cake, Butterscotch Ice Cream, Raspberry

Chocolate-Butterscotch Cake, Butterscotch Ice Cream, Raspberry

Considering that Senza is the only Michelin-starred gluten-free restaurant, I am not surprised that it’s attracted a lot of attention over the past year. Moving past the singularity of its dietary precepts, however, this meal was not impressive. In fact, given that Senza holds fast to dietary restrictions, I’m shocked by how much this meal felt like what I could find anywhere else. There is a weightless feeling to the cuisine; the meal had no centerpiece, and for the most part, what we were served felt like trite variations of contemporary American cuisine. Most plates had a few different textures and a decent protein, but nothing inspired. The only exception to this was the unique application of skin in the loup de mer, but that was not ultimately satisfying to me. From one dish to the next, risks were not taken. I know that Chef Sandoval cooked at Schwa, but I don’t see that he is taking the chances that Michael Carlson does. The cuisine at Boka may seem less ambitious, but I would rather have an a la carte meal with clear flavors than what we were served this evening.

I also have to take issue with the way in which Senza presents its food. Specifically, the use of floral granishes was way out of control. Counting the amuse bouche, we were served 10 plates of food, and all 10(!) had ridiculous herb/sprout garnishes. They can’t be doing this to distinguish themselves visually, since this practice is seen everywhere now. There is no need for a composed cheese plate to be covered in herbs. I began noticing this trend in gastropubs/casual restaurants a few years ago, and it seems to be getting absorbed within the sphere of fine dining.

In addition, the aesthetics could be enhanced through the use of more creative service ware. Virtually everything was served on a white plate, which is fine for an a la carte meal but gets boring over nine courses. To be fair, the plates came in different shapes, but I would like to see more color. The only exceptions were transitional courses: the bread (served on a nice slate), the cheese, and the oyster. Senza clearly puts a lot of thought into their compositions, and they should be supported by more lively plates. It feels very high-modernist for all of the food to be framed by these white plates, which wind up flattening the compositions and countering the sculptural three-dimensionality of many of the designs. Grant Achatz’s genius, for example, doesn’t just lie in the food he puts on the plate; he also realizes that the impact of a dish is enhanced by serving it in a distinctive vessel. To my mind, extended tasting menus, particularly in youthful restaurants like Senza, need to be mindful of the stale rhythm of one white plate following another.

It is admittedly unfair to pin this visual criticism on Senza alone, since their method of presentation is shared by many restaurants. My central critique has to do with the restaurant’s treatment of gluten-free cuisine. I was hoping for this meal to really address the particularities of gluten-free, not unlike a vegetarian menu that foregrounds the virtues of good produce. Instead, the proposition here seems to be: “we can make gluten-free look like ‘normal’ modern American cooking,” not “this is what is special about gluten-free.” The two courses that offered specifically gluten-free versions of dishes that would normally contain gluten, the pasta and the bread, just tasted like impoverished versions of their gluten counterparts. I suppose that gluten-free may not offer any pleasures distinct from non-gluten-free cooking, but if that is the case I have no reason to dine at this restaurant in the first place. At least in this meal, gluten-free seems to be defined by negation—what it doesn’t have (gluten)—rather than what it may offer. I know one could point to many artistic movements premised on setting restrictions, with the idea that implementing limitations stimulates the creative process. However, I don’t see such creativity taking place at this restaurant, and it shows that the executive chef’s background is in non-gluten-free restaurants. Senza may hold the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant, but I can find more distinctive cuisine elsewhere.

Boka (Chicago, IL)

Boka Dining Room

Boka Dining Room

This past fall, I had just two memorable meals, largely because with the semester in full swing, I only ate out a few times. My top meal was at Alinea, but the other was at The Lobby (at The Peninsula hotel), a restaurant that went on to receive a Michelin Star just a couple weeks following my dinner there. Lee Wollen’s food impressed me with its precision, as my friend and I had a tasting menu with one perfect protein after another. Just after winning his first Michelin star, Wollen left The Lobby for Boka, a restaurant that I’d enjoyed twice while Guiseppe Tentorri was in charge. While I enjoyed Tentorri, though, Wollen has the higher upside as he’s better able to let ingredients speak for themselves. Tentorri is more imaginative, but prone to incorporating more ingredients than necessary; not only is Wollen skilled at foregrounding the virtues of each ingredient, but his subtractive methodology ensures that there are no wasted ingredients and that each carries a clear purpose. With Wollen at Boka, I knew that I would make it back there, and when I found myself headed to Chicago in April, it was an easy decision to return.

It is worth noting that hiring Wollen was just one component of a comprehensive overhaul that Boka underwent over the winter. These changes also included a major overhaul to the dining room, which now bears what I would categorize as an upscale chain restaurant vibe. The most curious aspect of the setting is the ‘living wall,’ which one can see at the photo at the top of this post. I suppose that many might like incorporating vegetation into the dining room, but I am always taken aback by sites that combine the living with the unliving, particularly as it relates to the domestication of nature. For me, there is an uncanny, haptic quality that arises when vegetation is given free rein to comprise an entire wall of a room—I have always been similarly unnerved by all of the overgrown ivy at U Chicago, which seems to take over the campus. Throughout this meal, I had the sense that nature was returning my gaze—a purely irrational response, but an unsettling one, nonetheless.

This was actually the first time in which I’ve had the same chef’s food at two different restaurants at which he/she’s cooked. Typically, when I return to a restaurant, it’s to chart the evolution of that eatery, but this was different in that I was more interested in the evolution of Lee Wollen than of the restaurant whose kitchen he commandeers. Because this write-up addresses Wollen’s cooking at the two restaurants, it may be helpful to read this post with a separate browser tab open with my post on The Lobby from November. The Lobby was a luxury hotel restaurant and so I’m sure there were restrictions placed on him that he probably doesn’t have to deal with at Boka, particularly since he is now a partner at Boka. Considering that he just arrived at Boka, it’s unreasonable to expect that Wollen has implemented all of the changes he envisions, but for anyone who dined at Boka under Tentorri, a cursory glance at the new menu reveals the breadth of the overhaul to this restaurant.

A structural change to the menu is that where Tentorri used to feature tasting menus of various lengths, Boka now offers just an a la carte option, with a vast array of choices for each course. For many restaurant enthusiasts, the lack of a tasting option—particularly at a Michelin-starred restaurant like this one—would be a deterrent. I actually feel, however, that the a la carte structure suits Chef Wollen better than the tasting. While I enjoyed the tasting menu meal at The Lobby, it resonated more as a series of great courses than a meal that wove a compelling narrative, which to my mind is the aspiration of any tasting meal. Wollen’s execution is gifted and he knows how to combine ingredients to inspired effect, but sequencing is not his forte and in this regard the a la carte structure suggests he is cognizant of his own strengths and limitations.

Boka probably holds less appeal for vegetarians than meat eaters. This is because Wollen’s cuisine privileges the protein, and even many of the salad dishes incorporated fish or meat, at least in an accenting role. There were four salads, six starters, and eight main dishes. One could order a plate from each category, but my companion and I restricted ourselves to a starter and a main. There were many interesting choices, and one of the benefits of dining in April is that we were far enough into the spring season that one could assume that any necessary editing had already been made to the courses and that the dishes had been fully thought through. Boka is a good example of how a la carte restaurants are not necessarily less ambitious than tasting menu ones; each plate was structured around a fish or meat, but complemented by interesting accoutrements, including fresh takes on proteins that Wollen prepared to great effect at The Lobby. He has developed a new preparation of chicken, which had become his signature at The Lobby—this skill with the bird dates back to The Nomad in New York City, where Wollen cooked before moving to Chicago. I also remembered his skill with octopus and so I ordered that as a starter. For a main, I chose the seared halibut. A side benefit of dining at Boka is that the prices are quite reasonable—the starters were ~$15, while the main plates were about $30 each—very fair for food of this caliber.

The amuse bouche was a cool carrot soup, punctuated with a dose of chili oil. The oil didn’t overwhelm and this was refreshing; it was basically the spring equivalent of the pumpkin soup that prefaced my meal at The Lobby. Wollen must really like opening meals with these orange soups.

Amuse Bouche: Carrot Soup with Chili Oil

Amuse Bouche: Carrot Soup with Chili Oil

We were served two breads: a delicious ciabatta and a heartier, crusty bread. Lemon zest was grated over the butter. Neither the breads nor the butter were baked in-house.

Duo of Breads

Duo of Breads

Lemon-Zested Butter

Lemon-Zested Butter

Here is my octopus. It was grilled and served with scallion and a broth of burnt orange and pork that was poured tableside. An extraneous garnish of green herbs topped the presentation. Serving an entire scallion amplified its flavor but was also cumbersome and not particularly attractive. The composition gestured toward the cluttered aesthetic of a bowl of Japanese ramen, which is fine but not as elegant as I’d come to expect from Wollen. I would order this dish again because the octopus was absolutely marvelous and complemented by the thoughtful supporting ingredients. One could not cook octopus any better—a well-spent $16.

Grilled Octopus, Scallion, Pork Broth

Grilled Octopus, Scallion, Pork Broth

The halibut was lighter than the octopus and clearly constructed with an eye toward honoring seasonal produce. A reasonably-sized piece of the fish rested in the center, supplemented by peas, carrots, fava beans, shaved radishes, asparagus, and a pickled pearl onion. Adding some decadence was a butter sauce that was accented with orange and thyme. There was much to recommend here; the dish toed the seductive line between being decadent without overdoing it. The vegetables were delicious and there were many different textures at work. Meanwhile, the fish was near-flawless; its texture was not quite at the level of my turbot from Sixteen, but still much better-prepared than what one finds even with the majority of Michelin-starred chefs (at least in Chicago.) As with the first course, my main critique concerns the presentation. Simply put, I don’t see why the vegetables needed to adorn the fish, which made the plate look too messy. One can also see weird green herbs scattered throughout—unnecessary in a dish that already boasted fresh vegetable flavors. So, this was a delicious main course, but the presentation could have shown more restraint.

Seared Halibut, Spring Vegetables, Orange-Thyme Butter Sauce

Seared Halibut, Spring Vegetables, Orange-Thyme Butter Sauce

There were around a half-dozen desserts from which to choose, including a composed cheese course. In the absence of a compelling fruit offering, I ordered the chocolate ganache, which was served with caramel ice cream, a fruity meringue, and a cassis gel. This was fine but no different from the sorts of desserts one finds everywhere nowadays. I think I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but one of the ironies of contemporary dining is that desserts have grown more abstract but less original. One would think that the free-flowing compositions typical in most fine pastry kitchens would facilitate more original compositions, but when everyone is thinking in the same spirit, the result is a lot of desserts that all look the same. This dessert, for example, had the same deconstructed, poly-textural composition one can find everywhere else. While delicious, I feel as if the groupthink in dessert composition has led to few distinctive voices in pastry right now.

Chocolate Ganache, Caramel Ice Cream, Meringue

Chocolate Ganache, Caramel Ice Cream, Meringue

A meringue and a superb chocolate truffle rounded out the meal.

Closing Candies

Closing Candies

This meal generally replicated the pleasures of my meal at The Lobby. The octopus was even better than the version I had at The Lobby and the halibut is also worthy of commendation. Wollen possesses a strong understanding of flavor combinations and his execution is almost flawless. This dinner also reinforced my preference for Wollen over Tentorri; where Tentorri inherited Trotter’s abstract plating design (which I like) and talent for combining flavors and textures that one wouldn’t ordinarily think of, he also inherited Trotter’s tendency toward awkward fusion cooking. This dinner borrowed from many cuisines (French, Japanese, etc.), but always with the focus that I’ve come to expect from this talented chef. My main critique involves the deployment of gratuitous vegetal garnishes, which cheapened the presentation and occluded the precision of each dish. At The Lobby, these garnishes were nowhere to be found, so I’d love to see Wollen return to a less-cluttered plating technique, which would be more synchronized with his culinary style.

While I feel that the plating could use some work, this meal actually accomplished more than my meal from last fall. With my meal at The Lobby, I felt that Wollen prepared a tasting menu when in fact his sensibilities lay in the 3-act realm of the a la carte meal. There is obviously a difference between a tasting menu meal and an a la carte meal, but there’s also a distinction to be made between a tasting menu dish and an a la carte one. With a la carte, one will spend more time with each plate and so it is not enough to have a clear focal point to each dish; there need to be interesting supporting ingredients in order to sustain one’s interest. This was on display with this meal, not only through the excellent vegetables in both dishes but also the exquisite sauces. I have no doubt that Boka will retain its Michelin star under Wollen, and I’ll be sure to return for another celebration of a la carte dining.

Sixteen (January 2014)

Sixteen Dining Room

Sixteen Dining Room

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.

Slides of Old Chicago

Slides of Old Chicago

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.

Bride of Freak of Nature

Bride of Freak of Nature

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling Wine

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.

Ferris Wheel Snacks

Ferris Wheel Snacks

Fair Snacks

Fair 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.

Bread

Bread

Butter

Butter

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.

Trout (Left) and Game Pemmican (Right)

Fort Dearborn and the Potawatomi: Trout (Left) and Game Pemmican (Right)

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.

Shikaakwa, the Stinking Onion

Shikaakwa, the Stinking Onion: Langoustine, Fermented Onion Foam, Osetra Caviar

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.

The Rail City: Beef and Oyster Tartar, Quail Egg

The Rail City: Beef and Oyster Tartar, Quail Egg

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.

Canals to the Sea: Smoked Eel, Radish, Confit Lemon

Canals to the Sea: Smoked Eel, Radish, Confit Lemon

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.

Vacuum Cooker

Vacuum Cooker

A River Reversed: Turbot, Carrot Consomme, Vacuum

A River Reversed: Turbot, Carrot Consomme

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.”

The Irish Contribution: Cod, Potato Croquette, Caper

The Irish Contribution: Cod, Potato Croquette, Caper

A Latin Migration: Hominy Broth, Guajillo Paste

A Latin Migration: Hominy Broth, Guajillo Paste

West Africa Via the Low Country: Savannah Red Rice, Okra, Field Peas

West Africa Via the Low Country: Savannah Red Rice, Okra, Field Peas

A Proud Slavic Influence: Mackerel, Seaweed, Potato, Dark Bread

A Proud Slavic Influence: Mackerel, Seaweed, Potato, Dark Bread

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.

Mies Van der Rohe's Modernism: Partridge, Celery, Grapefruit

Mies Van der Rohe’s Modernism: Partridge, Celery, Grapefruit

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.

A Worker's City: Ploughman's Lunch: Pork Broth and Noodle, Onion, Raclette

A Worker’s City: Ploughman’s Lunch: Pork Broth and Noodle, Onion, Raclette

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.

Sinclair's Jungle: Wagyu Deckle, Beef Heart, Watercress, Horseradish

Sinclair’s Jungle: Wagyu Deckle, Beef Heart, Watercress, Horseradish

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.

Venison Pre-Carving

Venison Pre-Carving

The Great Fire's Rebirth: Ash-Roasted Venison, Salsify, Blood Orange Sauce, Nasturtium

The Great Fire’s Rebirth: Ash-Roasted Venison, Salsify, Blood Orange Sauce, Nasturtium

Wine Pairing

Wine Pairing

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.

4 Cheeses

4 Cheeses

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.

Ferrara's Lemonhead: Meyer Lemon, Celery, Tapioca

Ferrara’s Lemonhead: Meyer Lemon, Celery, Tapioca

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 Mar-O-Bar: Peanut Financier, Honey, Salted Caramel

The Mar-O-Bar: Peanut Financier, Honey, Salted Caramel

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.

The Lost Coconut Grove: Coconut Macaroon, Passion Fruit, Coquitos

The Lost Coconut Grove: Coconut Macaroon, Passion Fruit, Coquitos

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.

Wrigley's: Candied Beet, Vanilla Sponge Cake, Spearmint

Wrigley’s: Candied Beet, Vanilla Sponge Cake, Spearmint

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.

Mignardises

Mignardises

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.