Chef Aaron Lirette has gotten the band back together.
And by the band, I mean his crew from the acclaimed GreenRiver, which closed earlier this year. At GreenRiver, Lirette got a Michelin star and good reviews, but its weird location (on a high floor of a medical building near Northwestern’s hospital) never quite got the foot traffic it deserved. Now, he’s comfortably ensconced in the newly opened Free Rein (224 N. Michigan Ave., Loop) on the first floor of the St. Jane Hotel, and he’s brought almost his entire team with him. Don’t call it an encore; call it a second act.
Some of the food here will look familiar to GreenRiver fans, such as the saffron spaghetti with sea urchin that’s taken to a new level with the addition of king crab. But broadly speaking, the menu at Free Rein is a totally new animal, dominated by seafood, local ingredients, and some impressive large-format dishes.
Lirette, who has never worked in a hotel setting, was initially a bit concerned about the location. “Not to knock our neighbors, but we’re in a hotel, in the Loop, south of the river. That’s already three strikes,” he says. “I needed to scream as loud as I can to be heard, so I wanted to come out swinging.”
For his diners, Lirette has dreamed up epic, raw seafood towers replete with king crab, lobster, oysters, giant prawns, mussels, crab salad covered in trout roe and nori, black truffle lobster salad, and scallop ceviche with caviar. There’s so much shellfish on one of these things, yet the pricing is surprisingly reasonable—$168 for the largest tower (which feeds six) and $58 for the two-person version, significantly less than comparable seafood towers around town.
“I hate hearing, ‘It was really good but really expensive,’” Lirette says. “I want people to say, ‘It was really good, and it was affordable.’”
Other standout dishes include a Rohan duck breast aged for 21 days, rubbed with cognac, glazed with buckwheat honey, and served with barley and plums; whole Dover sole served with a snap pea salad; and a roast chicken brined in red wine to evoke the flavors of coq au vin.
Free Rein is Lirette’s first attempt at all-day dining, and he holds his lunch menu to the same standards as he does dinner. There’s a soft-shell crab BLT, a fresh bean falafel, and, sure to impress, his take on an Italian beef made with shaved, 90-day dry-aged Slagel Farms rib eye. The space also houses a café, where hotel guests and locals can grab croissants, scones, and canelés, made under the direction of pastry chef Evan Sheridan, formerly at Sixteen.
As for Free Rein’s wine program, beverage director Rob Diaz curates 220 bottles at a variety of price points. There’s a heightened focus on champagne, since the hotel (which occupies the historic Carbon & Carbide building) was built to resemble a champagne bottle.
Despite the near-total lack of high-end dining south of the river, Lirette is convinced that this project will soar. “There’s a market for this,” he says. “There are people who live down here and travel down here that want an elevated experience.”