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.
* * *
What a difference 50 feet can make. If you enter the new French brasserie of Sue and Peter Drohomyrecky (Custom House Tavern) through the doors facing Randolph Street, you’ll swear you’re in the wrong restaurant. Up front, it’s all sun and steel, with floor-to-ceiling windows letting in the kind of harsh early-evening light that would make any self-respecting impressionist pack up his easel and go home. It’s the last thing you’d expect from a restaurant cozily named Maison.
But first impressions are often deceiving. Follow the scent of lavender to the host stand, where bundles of the sweet-smelling flowers are stacked up like firewood, and the world is right again. The casual front dining area—designed to look like a contemporary French kitchen—is merely a gateway to the main dining room, a stunning exercise in merging clean-lined modernity with Old World grace. It’s appropriately dark and moody, with chocolate-colored walls, a vaulted ceiling, tables made of pale ash wood, and exquisite chandeliers draped with French lace. It’s also the perfect setting for Perry Hendrix’s deceptively simple menu of French classics. At first glance, you’re going to have a bit of bistro déjà vu. There are serviceable chilled seafood platters and familiar goat cheese salads. There’s a nice mild offering of duck confit and a fine arctic char starter topped with crème fraîche and beets. As our excellent, if riddle-prone, waiter told us, “I like to say we’re different because we’re not different. Classic French preparations. Classic French ingredients.”
At a time when it’s chic to reinvent French food for the American palate—think gimmicky small plates and low-fat dishes for the calorie conscious—it’s comforting to find a place that can produce a garlicky sausage, artfully hovering between a coarse andouille and creamy boudin blanc, and slow-roast a chicken with just the right amount of rosemary. In fact, Hendrix’s roasted chicken, basted with plenty of lemon and garlic, is a revelation. The drippings soak into a slice of toast under the bird. It will redefine your definition of French toast forever.
If there’s an overriding flaw, it’s the repetition of flavors: Dried figs and a potato purée show up too often. But for every misstep—an overpowering take on veal liver, a pale-tasting duck pâté, an uninspired chocolate mousse—there is a success. Bocuse-style Parisian gnocchi, for example, are golden brown and pillowy soft. A liberal amount of Dijon mustard and rich tufts of rabbit add dimensionality to Maison’s lone pasta option, while the house’s delicious trout is moistened by a delicate brown butter sauce, its skin as crunchy as cracklings. And although the dessert list lacks depth, I haven’t enjoyed a better lemon tart in some time, its flavors redolent of iced lemonade, its texture soufflé-like.
But ultimately it’s the cohesion between Hendrix’s unpretentious menu and the dining room’s charm that makes the experience feel complete.
Maison manages to avoid most of the clichés that cling like lint to brasseries in the States. No Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. No distressed glass. No kitschy art nouveau knickknacks. Just the illusion that you’ve been invited to take supper at a fashionable French appartement brimming with flowers, friends, and fine food—the sort of place we’d all be proud to call home.
Jeff Ruby, Chicago’s chief dining critic, is on leave for September and October.
Photography: Anna Knott