Been anywhere good lately?” a friend asked the other day. Yep. Sixteen. Gorgeous room, gracious service, four-star food. She stared blankly. On the 16th floor of the Trump. “Wow,” she said. “I thought that place closed.”
Restaurants, be warned. This is what happens when your executive chef leaves and you take six months to replace him, during which time you lose your Michelin star, fall off the radar for 99 percent of Chicago, and get written off by the other 1 percent. In the restaurant world, six months is forever. In that span, Next changes concepts multiple times and Brendan Sodikoff opens 17 spots. It’s tough enough to keep a splurge like Sixteen open when it’s on everyone’s mind; imagine a restaurant surviving when it is forgotten but not gone.
But the Trump people knew what they were doing all along. After a proverbial nationwide search, they lured Thomas Lents, the gifted chef de cuisine at Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, from Las Vegas. Then they added Will Douillet, the whip-smart restaurant director who was the motor under the hood at Alinea and Next. Together, Lents and Douillet guide a determined staff toward a goal so lofty that it sounds almost laughable in 2012: to rescue upscale dining. The funny thing is, they may actually be succeeding.
Fifteen years ago, Chicago’s holy trinity of haute was obvious: Le Français, Charlie Trotter’s, and Everest. Today, one is gone, another closes at the end of the summer, and the third keeps chugging away high above South LaSalle Street to little fanfare. “There’s an opportunity in Chicago right now to promote more fine dining,” says Lents, 39, a Michigan native and former Everest sous chef. “A lot of restaurants have been moving away from that, but the market is still there.”
Once you get past Alinea, the rulers of today’s landscape are less obvious—Tru? L2O? Ria? Sixteen, after a promising start in 2008, fell into nowhere in 2011 when chef Frank Brunacci left to join his wife’s online truffle store, based in Indiana. Joe Rose, Sixteen’s chef de cuisine, took the helm in the interim and performed admirably, but when Lents took over in January 2012, Sixteen shouted down from the 16th floor: We’re ready!
First off, that space. There may be no dining setting more striking, with its massive Swarovski crystal chandelier, smooth steel and granite details, and 30-foot-tall windows boasting a panoramic view of Chicago you’ve never seen and won’t soon forget. From your orchid-bedecked table, the magnificent terrace looks like a path straight to the clock at the top of the Wrigley Building; go for an early dinner and watch the sun paint golden streaks on the skyscrapers. Then there is that staff, trained within an inch of their lives to treat you like the multimillionaire you suddenly imagine yourself to be. If you order wine, be prepared to spend—and be ready to feel the pressure. The new sommelier, Nathan Cowan, asks things like, “Do you need a glass of red to get you through your entrée?”
Lents offers multiple points of entry: a 13-course menu ($165), a six-course option ($115), and good old à la carte. However you go, it will cost you, but unless you are a competitive eater, you will not go home hungry. My meal started with two amuses, both stunning. One was a warm and cheesy choux pastry topped with a translucent slice of lardo; the other, a bold green fennel purée in a cone-shaped glass set in a bowl of spring water wafting with plumes of dry ice. From there, I moved on to a paper-thin crudo of Maine diver scallop with osetra caviar and hazelnuts, accompanied by miraculous dollops of Meyer lemon cream, dabs of haricots verts, and edible flowers.
Sixteen’s versatile kitchen can go heavy, as in the crispy pig’s head with foie gras and horseradish gremolata, a starter so rich and punchy you barely notice the decadent sweetbread “croutons” cavorting among all the artichoke hearts and baby mushrooms on the plate. And the kitchen can go light, showcasing a wondrous sablefish gently glazed with maple and citrus and served with a salad of pickled radish and daikon and a navet (turnip) purée. It can also go over the top, pairing a world-class rib eye of American wagyu beef with caramelized cauliflower, roasted hearts of palm, and a bone marrow and Malabar pepper jus more aggressive than a negotiation with the Donald himself.
Even offerings that sound fairly innocuous (fillet of Dover sole?—yawn) become showstoppers in Lents’s rejuvenated kitchen. Each delicious, mild chunk of sole is blessed with osetra caviar, and when the runner pours on a warm carrot and ginger nage, it may as well be your sense of wonder streaming from that ramekin.
Just about the time you’re looking around the lounge for a nook in which to lie down, the ridiculously ambitious palate cleanser arrives: strawberries that have endured, among other things, poaching, moussing, and dehydration. If I have any criticism of Sixteen, it’s that the excess verges on oppression by this point. The hours of feasting have already got you on the ropes when Sarah Kosikowski, the French Laundry–trained pastry chef, goes for the knockout. If you’ve been pacing yourself, take a shot at her gianduja cremeux with Nutella powder, peanut butter feuilletine crunch, and cocoa nib ice cream—basically the greatest crispy-creamy candy bar ever.
You will stumble out of Sixteen with armfuls of complimentary meringues, gelées, macarons, and canelés, and just when you think you have escaped, the hostess will hand you a chocolate coconut rocher, the lovely homemade treat you will most likely give away.
No, fine dining is not dead. A new breed of chefs, like Lents, Anthony Martin at Tru, and Matthew Kirkley at L2O—all three of whom worked together at Joël Robuchon in Vegas—leads the way. Sixteen spends a lot of money and energy to recapture the kind of opulent, spectacular experience that’s so rare in 2012. And they’re not resting. The staff even plans to learn calligraphy so Sixteen can switch to handwritten checks. “We do want our [Michelin] star back, but more so, I hope we have a group of people assembled that won’t be contented with one star. I know [Lents] won’t,” says Douillet.
Now he and Lents are trying to convince the hotel to allow them to serve appetizers and Champagne on the spectacular terrace before moving diners inside for entrées. On a warm summer night, with the city twinkling below you, it’s tough to imagine anything—or anywhere—better.