Even in this choppy economy, entrepreneurs are pouring scads of money into renovating landmark hotels and building new ones. And all that shimmering real estate cries out for flashy restaurants to complete the picture. The Blackstone Hotel, the Trump Tower, and the Palmer House Hilton all boast extravagant new additions, and, incidentally, each brought in its own chef. There’s new blood coursing through the hotel dining scene.
MERCAT A LA PLANXA, the hot new Catalán tapas restaurant and bar, oozes modern style, but it looks completely out of place in the historic Blackstone Hotel, recently restored to its classic elegance (see Chicago, April 2008, Reporter: "Rooms with Memories"). With its Gaudí-derived hexagon motifs, dangling bare bulbs, and large illustrations of bustling street life, Mercat’s 7,500-square-foot setting is supposed to evoke contemporary Barcelona. But the entrance up a winding staircase to the soaring bar and dining room is awkward, and most of the tables are arranged in a large sunken circular area that our young waiter called the "mosh pit." It’s crowded and noisy—perfect for the scene-sters. Me? I prefer a table outside the circle near the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows, which provide a fine view of Grant Park.
The executive chef, Jose Garces, raised in Chicago by Ecuadorian parents, has an extensive resumé that includes a stint with Nuevo Latino pioneer Douglas Rodriguez. Garces went on to open acclaimed Spanish restaurants in Philadelphia—Tinto and Amada. Don’t expect to see Garces in the open kitchen, however; the chef de cuisine, Michael Fiorello, is the man on the scene. When the big party at the next table came to feast on a whole roasted suckling pig, Fiorello himself marched over and carved the beast. (If you want a hog of your own, order it two days ahead; it’s $45 per person and includes four vegetable dishes.)
A selection from the eight Spanish cheeses and eight cured meats makes a good start, although our cheeses were served too chilled. Imported acorn-fattened jamón ibérico is beautifully marbled, but it’s a whopping $23 for a small portion. The serrano ham and fig salad—a long cylinder of figs, spinach, and cabrales cheese dotted with spiced almonds and wrapped in serrano ham—looked like a fat uncut maki roll. Then the waiter dropped part of it on the floor attempting to cut it. Even so, it tasted good. Service in general was a problem—overenthused, in-your-face wait staff—and pacing proved nonexistent.
The kitchen, though, does faithful renditions of traditional tapas: octopus and potatoes with smoked paprika; bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds; garlic shrimp; marinated anchovies. Mercat also knows its way around a grill—its Catalán name refers to the grilling popular in Barcelona’s market cafés. So I’d also throw in a few well-made offerings from the grill like chipirones (baby squid) and morcilla (rich, spicy blood sausage). The steaks are way too pricey ($54 for a 12-ounce New York strip outdoes Morton’s): Instead, order the flatbread densely topped with short rib meat, horseradish, Parmesan, and bacon. And a decidedly nontraditional braised rabbit agnolotti on brandied cherries with truffle-chestnut purée may be the menu’s best dish.
Of course you’ll want to drink what the Barcelones drink. From a big selection of Spanish wines, an attractive 2006 Joan d’Anguera Planella Montsant ($44) was the right red for the food. I like the three inventive sangrías and the dark solera-style Carlos I brandy, but a tapas restaurant shouldn’t hide its paltry six sherries on the dessert menu.
* * *
Donald Trump has never been known for modesty. SIXTEEN, which holds court just beyond the glass-fronted wine gallery on the 16th floor of the Trump Tower, is Chicago’s glitziest restaurant of the moment. His grand dining room, paneled in curving West African kevazinga wood and elegantly lit by a spectacular Swarovski crystal chandelier, provides a riveting view of the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and even the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. Thanks to the long waits between courses, you’ll probably spend a lot of time looking at all three. I also found myself eyeing ex-governor Jim Thompson across the room, wondering if he could hear his pals over the noise and the thumping soundtrack. I certainly could not hear mine.
An amuse of delicate chilled pea soup with mint oil signals that there’s serious cooking afoot by the veteran Australian chef Frank Brunacci, who incorporates his roots into stylish American cuisine. He got my attention with an appetizer featuring New Zealand shellfish: a whole thick seared abalone that looks like an alien blob, served with black trumpet mushrooms and a delicious corn cake. This mollusk is certainly unusual, mild in flavor but chewier than many diners will appreciate. If that sounds off your radar, go for the laughing bird shrimp, a pile of small broiled crustaceans served alongside olive oil ice cream, grapefruit crystals, and blood orange salad. It’s criminally good.
Chef Brunacci’s entrées stay down under with terrific pan-seared Tasmanian sea trout—rosy and similar in taste to salmon—with smoked eggplant purée, baby artichokes, and sauce gasconne (anchovies, white wine, shallots, and tomato, emulsified with olive oil). I suspect there is a commandment that an Australian chef must offer lamb, if not kangaroo: Brunacci’s is a terrific sous vide lamb loin flavored with rosemary jus essence and served with black trumpet mushrooms, ramps, and glazed baby turnips. From the 440-label list, the sommelier agreed with my hunch about a 2006 New Zealand Te Kairanga pinot noir ($67) tasting of blackberries and currants.
Executive pastry chef Hichem Lahreche’s stylish made-to-order desserts include pierce neige, a chestnut cream meringue with port wine ice cream and port reduction. Trump Tower may be another monument to a man living large, but Sixteen’s sophisticated chefs overcome the Trump brassiness. For fine food with a stellar view, it’s not quite Everest, nor even NoMI. But it’s reaching its own heights.
* * *
Shortly after LOCKWOOD opened, a friend of mine asked his waiter to describe the banana napoleon, but the poor guy explained the apple Tatin instead. Realizing his mistake, the waiter admitted he didn’t know what the napoleon’s layers were. "Was it a mille-feuille?" my friend asked helpfully. "It’s not that many," he replied.
Lockwood, the ambitious new restaurant in the restored Palmer House Hilton, got off to a terrible start. Laughable service undercut the inventive cooking of the chef, Phillip Foss (who worked at Le Cirque in New York and the Four Seasons in Maui before he helped open Old Town’s Bistrot Margot), but his kitchen was also unsteady and disappointing.
Along came an interim general manager, Kirk Alston from Otom, to save the day. Service has sharpened, and the change seems to have rubbed off on Foss; his evolving menu is much more enjoyable. I still have mixed feelings about the dining room. Yes, it’s blessedly subdued, handsomely clad in white walls and amber-shaded Tiffany candelabra amid rich woods and suede and leather upholstery. But it’s also got a low ceiling, and all those booths feel cramped in contrast to the grand old mural-ceilinged lobby and the expansive bar you pass on the way in.
Big-league pleasure awaits in house-cured Muscovy duck breast with porcini and white asparagus garnished with a quail egg and a sweet touch of toffee. A tad more delicate are the shad roe sacs, which have been slow-cooked in brown butter, sliced, and served with baby leeks, lardons,
50-year-old balsamic vinegar, and micro red mustard greens. A more familiar—and indulgent—option: lovely butter-poached Maine lobster in ginger-saffron sauce with a cauliflower raviolo.
"Fig-mint" of Colorado lamb showcases Foss’s cleverness and his high style. He marinates a rack of lamb in a purée of figs, mint, brown sugar, and more before roasting it, and the result is terrific. So is the trio of veal: rib eye; shank and mascarpone cheese in a golden sautéed crêpe; and crisp sweetbreads with caramelized root vegetables in a hollowed apple. And it wouldn’t have been the same without a 2006 Argentine Crio syrah/bonarda blend ($55). In perhaps the best sign that Lockwood is on track, on our last visit the waiter perfectly described the winning banana napoleon: a warm brioche "pain perdu" with flamed banana, rum ice cream, and Valrhona chocolate sauce.
LOCKWOOD Palmer House, 17 E. Monroe St.; 312-917-3404 A model meal Cured duck breast, trio of veal, banana napoleon Tip Check out the giant feathered columns in Potter’s lounge. Hours Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $60 to $70
MERCAT A LA PLANXA Blackstone Hotel, 638 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-765-0524 A model meal Serrano ham and fig salad, octopus and potatoes, rabbit agnolotti, sheep’s cheese mousse with black grape salbitxada (compote) Tip Resist the soggy corrugated bruschetta-style bread: It’s not as good as it looks. Hours Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $40 to $50
SIXTEEN Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, 401 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-588-8030 A model meal Laughing bird shrimp, lamb loin, pierce neige Tip Don’t be deterred by protective scaffolding shrouding the entrance. Hours Sunday brunch; breakfast, lunch, dinner daily Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $60 to $70
Photography: Nathan Kirkman