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Allium’s Wisconsin walleye and its dining room
Skim chef Kevin Hickey’s playful menu at Allium, the new American-themed dining room at the Four Seasons, and you’ll find roughly 35 small-plate and entrée-size offerings under sections with cutesy names such as “Smaller,” “Bigger,” “Mine,” and “From the Meat Locker.” But one entry leaps off the page, as if printed in 3-D: “Chicago Style Hot Dog, Homemade Everything, $14.”
So I took the bait. Yes, it’s a damn good dog—a moist, flavorful all-beef red-hot—and if I may play shameless nativist for a moment, it ought to be mandatory for every pushcart-loving New Yawker to try one to learn what a hot dog should taste like. Hickey’s haute dog was launched to much fanfare in 2008, which paved the way for the freewheeling Allium to replace the hotel’s more conservative Seasons earlier this year. But don’t let it overshadow everything else on the menu.
Hickey’s creations honor the multitude of flavors—Italian, Mexican, Polish—he encountered growing up in Bridgeport, but his best pay tribute to the entire Midwest. Wisconsin cheese curds are folded into mashed potatoes, crab cakes become state fair fritters, and onion biscuits are baked with a touch of bacon grease, downstate-style. It’s like your great-aunt Gertrude’s kitchen with a four-star hotel’s grocery budget. The warm Burrata starter with heirloom tomatoes, for example, isn’t another caprese clone but a satisfying bowl of tomato soup made velouté-like by baking the creamy cheese right into the mixture. And the house’s fabulous goat cheese flatbread—made from thin slices of crispy lavash—combines lamb bacon, artichokes, and pickled ramps atop a mustard sauce borrowed from the German brew houses that once dominated our region.
My dream meal at Allium is a sweet, peppery bowl of “urban greens” (radishes and red leaf lettuces) with a stinging-nettle vinaigrette, followed by a brandade-smeared Wisconsin walleye, and finished off with pastry chef Scott Gerken’s candy bar take on s’mores, which includes smoked chocolate sauce and wisps of cotton candy. Collectively, it’s a reflection of the Midwest: an edible amalgam of green fields, cool streams, and smoky campfires.
Yet, some of Allium’s dishes are disappointments. The miso deviled eggs are too salty, and the chicken with noodles is downright bland. Then there’s the dining room. Until Alium moved in, it was so British-looking that it was impossible to take two steps out of the lift without humming “God Save the Queen.” Who knows what to whistle these days? The space is divided into a tearoom with wood paneling and prints of bright flowers on the walls and a dining area of limestone with bird tapestries and chandeliers in the shape of birdcages. There’s symmetry, I suppose: wood, flowers, and birds—a modern art take of a botanical garden. But it’s hardly designed for casual luxuries like bison tartare or short-rib sliders. “You got me there,” says Hickey. “The best I can say is that I like [the decor] better than it was.”
Then again, the restaurant shares its name with the genus to which onions belong, a subtle salute to our fair city. (“Chicago” allegedly derives from shikaakwa, the Algonquian word for onion.) You can sprinkle a few chopped onions on your hot dog as a sign of respect, but it’s the memory of cheese curd mashed potatoes and Wisconsin walleye that will linger with you long after you leave.
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