Photo: Anna Knott
When Chef Curtis Duffy announced he was leaving Avenues in 2011, it seemed the tony Peninsula couldn’t possibly fill his shoes. The man had earned two stars from Michelin and four stars from pretty much every critic in Chicago. The hotel could have gone the NoMI route, downscaling and filling seats at the expense of coherence or relevance. (When’s the last time you heard anyone talk about NoMI?)
The Peninsula chose a different direction. Lee Wolen’s regime at its Lobby may not be as ambitious—or as expensive—as Duffy’s fussy Michelin baiting was at Avenues, but it’s a superior experience. (Avenues got turned into a ballroom, which is what it always seemed like.) The Lobby’s quiet, airy space feels like a hotel restaurant should, with showy windows, high ceilings, and a carpet born after the year 2000. It’s a serene and lovely place for a meal. As one of my guests said, “When you have a restaurant that removes every possible distraction, then all that’s left is the conversation.”
Much of the conversation, of course, is about the food. Wolen, a talented veteran of Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, produces tremendous contemporary American dishes, à la carte and refreshingly lavish, equal parts cerebral and satisfying. The interplay of textures is masterful. Wolen crusts the outside of a silken foie gras torchon with almond crumble, excavates its center, and fills the cavity with custardy grapefruit purée. Amazing and delicious. He dabs a roasted Colorado lamb loin with smooth feta and serves it with roasted fennel, disks of merguez sausage, and chickpeas two ways: flash-fried and stewed. A little sweet, a little savory; a little crunch, a little chew. Even clichés become classics in his hands, as with an attractive roasted beet salad, which gets made over with a creamy pistachio ricotta and crispy toasted spelt.
The Lobby’s signature, a whole roasted chicken for two that takes 45 minutes to prepare, may be the best chicken dish in Chicago. Between the golden caramelized skin and the tender meat, Wolen pipes in a layer of brioche that your eyes might miss but your tongue won’t. The glorious fowl gets a boost from garlicky ramps, earthy morels, and a rich mushroom purée and comes with a side of more chicken: the dark meat, cooked in an intense and wonderful garlic confit sauce. “I don’t want to be known for the chicken forever,” says Wolen, like an actor forever associated with a sitcom character he outgrew long ago. For now, he appears to be stuck with it.
A spirit of generosity and ease imbues the entire operation, from the ace staff proffering housemade breads (bacon brioche, multigrain, and baguette) served with a great salt-topped goat’s milk butter to expert cocktails and predictably polished tea service. And with the recent addition of Dimitri Fayard—formerly of Vanille Pâtisserie and a teacher at the French Pastry School—as pastry chef for the entire hotel, you can expect stunners such as a chocolate orgy that includes chocolate crémeux, chocolate hazelnut crumble, chocolate sponge cake, and chocolate ice cream. (And lemon gelée.)
As if that weren’t enough, the kitchen sends you off with irresistible parting gifts of apricot macarons, peanut butter and chocolate truffles, and orange pound cakes. “That’s it,” the gracious waiter jokes, noting my tablemates’ fatigue. “Unless I go into the kitchen and scrounge something else up.”
The Lobby is Chicago’s latest four-star restaurant, and if the waiter had so much as brought us a few leftovers from the hotel’s fridge, I wouldn’t have argued about staying a little longer.
* * *
Brindille, Carrie Nahabedian’s celebrated new follow-up to Naha, tries for a similar aura of largess but misses the mark. The clean, striking room, with its tree branch theme (brindille is French for “twig”) and aubergine details, may be even sexier than its sister restaurant a block to the south. Would that it shared Naha’s finely tuned expertise.
Instead, meals drag at an atrociously slow pace, thanks to servers who never seem to notice what their diners need. My smarmy waiter was particularly tone-deaf; he spent far more time gushing about the greatness of the dishes than actually making sure I got them or telling anyone what was in them. “Beautiful people! Do you need anything?” he cooed repeatedly at my party, oblivious to the fact that we had been waiting 40 minutes for appetizers or, later, sitting with dirty plates.
Too bad, because Nahabedian’s smart Parisian-inspired American fare features lots of surprises, like a deconstructed—and handsomely composed—steak tartare with “flavors of rye,” sorrel, tarragon, pickled mustard seeds, and a quail egg. An omble chevalier, a perfectly cooked buttery-sweet wild arctic char, gets a zap of horseradish, a kiss from Granny Smith apples, and a hidden beefy punch from the shredded oxtail underneath it. The decadent caviar-topped oysters sprinkled with leeks and eggs brouillés are gorgeous, scrumptious, and a total gouge. Four oysters for $19 is hard to wrap your head around, caviar or no caviar.
I’m not sure where Nahabedian is going with all the syrupy tones, though. They crop up repeatedly, as in a Dover sole meunière with asparagus viennoise, grapefruit, and a cloying lemon balm that tastes like lemon meringue pie filling; the ample deshelled Lobster Brindille fares better, with its yin and yang of black trumpet mushrooms and cocoa beans in a balanced coral butter–vanilla sauce. And for every standout such as the tranche of duck breast with foie gras, wheat berries, and a candied orange peel, there’s an overpriced disappointment like a fatty $46 rib of beef with potato tarte Tatin, Tomme de Savoie (cow’s milk cheese), and bone marrow.
Two things you shouldn’t miss: the traditional absinthe ritual with the sugar cube upon which you squirt water from an eyedropper, and a truly wondrous cheese plate that features 12 top-notch French selections served with a multigrain raisin ficelle and an incredible jam made with huckleberries and Meyer lemons.
With time, Brindille could be a great restaurant, but right now it’s an expensive oddity that’s still finding its way. In a city where so many others have found theirs—and charge a lot less for the luxury—it can’t afford to spend much more time getting its bearings.