I have only one frame of reference for dining at hotel restaurants when not on vacation: Each year my family reserves a table at a hotel for Easter brunch with my grandparents. The tradition has stayed alive, at least in the kids' minds, because of the lingering hope that Grandma will once again drink far too much champagne and insistently slip five-dollar bills to the Easter bunny.
But outside of my utterly suburban family life, the unappetizing thought of dining on mountains of scrambled eggs buffet-style made me steer clear of Chicago restaurants that were unfortunately connected to a hotel. Which made a trip to Aria a perfect undertaking for this non-tourist.
Connected to the Fairmont Hotel at 200 N. Columbus, Aria maintains a separate entrance, perfect for proclaiming one's I'm-a-Chicagoan, not-a-hotel-stayer status (which turned out to be entirely unnecessary). It's nearly impossible to distinguish the residents from the rest: There are no "I heart Cubs" T-shirts in effect, and the only hint I had that I was dining with out of towners was one gracious server's "See you tomorrow evening" to a mother and daughter.
Unsurprisingly, Aria looks nothing like the Hyatt dining rooms of my youth. Gone are the tepid pinks and vinyl covered chairs; in its place is an impeccably styled space that tempers its understated nature with whimsical fish water pitchers, a glass-fronted wine wall and an in-full-view tandoor oven. Gone also are the tired servers who pour coffee with the same finesse you'd find at Golden Nugget. Our server, Hugh (who deserves to be mentioned by name), was exceptional, carefully balancing humor with an enviable knowledge of food and wine and a knack for pacing generally reserved for marathoners.
To fairly pit Aria against Chicago's best sans-hotel restaurants, we opted for the upscale-restaurant approach: the chef's table. Our six-course meal, complete with wine pairings, took us on a nearly four-hour tour through Aria's menu. The tagline, "culturally inspired. comfortable American." is a telling one that dispels all former notions of "fusion." The menu is truly a global representation, with Indian, Greek, Mexican and Moroccan-influenced dishes (to name a few) in its ranks. I say influenced, because each is tempered slightly for the American palate: The pungent curry mellows, the tzaziki tang softens. Don't be mistaken into thinking the approach is a slap in the face to your ethnic-friendly taste buds. On the contrary, it's a great way to get a clever spin on the idea of comfort food, trading mac n' cheese for the basic elements in comfort foods from around the world.
The chef's table experience begins with a consultation with chef Noah Bekofsky for dietary purposes (allergies, meat preferences); each course description and wine pairing is adeptly handled by your server, who points out not only the grape, but the country as well, an important element of your global culinary adventure. A tour of the kitchen is available upon request, and a curtain around the table provides an added dose of privacy.
The food was exceptional, enough to make me abandon all memories of Blackbird and Sushi Wabi that seem to creep in for comparison. We were poured a glass of wine of our choosing to get things started (one, appropriately enough, that we were "comfortable" with), as we munched on the best bread basket I've ever seen: homebaked naan sided by four dipping sauces.
We began with Aria's much-touted hot and sour baked rock shrimp with crab and sriracha stuffing and cider-chill vinaigrette. Paired with a Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, the meaty puffs were tangy but not overly sauced. A second course of Hawaiian grilled butterfish followed, and was equally pleasing.
The carefully crafted elements were clearly evidenced in the grilled asparagus and marinated shiitake salad, seasoned with a miso vinagriette and toasted black sesame seed oil over micro-shiso greens. We began to lose track of which taste we liked the best. Vatapa, a Thai coconut-lemon grass soup with jumbo shrimp, striped bass, okra and cashews was followed by both lamb and a Chicago cut as we sipped on Chardonnays, Merlots and Tempranillos; "perfect" dropped all too frequently from our lips.
The desserts, a Thai lemongrass creme brulee with passion fruit granita and a trio of chocolate (milk chocolate hazelnut cake, soft caramel tart, bittersweet orange crisp) were paired with a German eiswein that kept the metaphors ("Tastes like heaven!") rolling.
Bring on the hotel room: We went on a vacation of our own.
The stats: Make reservations seven days in advance at (312) 444-9494; chef's table is available for a minimum of six, a maximum of eight. Prices, with wine pairings, range from $125-$200 per person, depending on your selection of 4-6 courses.
Guidebook rating: Watch out, Chicago. Hotel dining is one reservation worth making.
Untrapping Tourism is a monthly feature that pits Centerstage's native and nearly native writers against the city's most stereotypical tourist traps.