Forget the massive porterhouse dotted in ruddy bordelaise of days gone by. Hotel restaurants, once grand ballrooms of glinting chandeliers, swirling Italian marble and classic uninspired French cuisine, now lead the wave of gastronomic inventiveness.
Pairing the deep pockets of corporations with the unique creative vision of chefs at the top of their craft has resulted in a new breed of sleek spaces and seasonal eclectic modern cuisine in Chicago.
Redefine the senses at Avenues (Peninsula Chicago)
Chef Graham Elliot Bowles is less mad scientist and more of a thoughtful artist prone to whimsy, with Seussian platings of red wafers of kangaroo carpaccio with shavings of melon, eucalyptus, micro mint and swaths of caramel served in a boomerang-shaped dish (pictured). Eschewing lasers and liquid nitrogen, Bowles is more concerned with redefining sense. Whereas most chefs contentedly balance sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoury), Bowles, who's fond of eclectically flavored sodas (chamomile, port wine), strawberry pop rocks and Altoid jus, has introduced effervescence as a sixth element. His dishes literally pop on the palate. For those craving steak, you can't go wrong with ring-mold-cut medallions of Waygu beef with a garnet merlot reduction that tastes like mom's cherry pie.
Find four-star inventive cuisine at NoMI (Park Hyatt Chicago)
Watermelon has transcended the picnic table. Chef Christophe David serves it up as a frothy cold soup perfumed with the star anise, micro basil, dots of vanilla and a swirl of Banyuls vinegar that mimics the amber and gold tendrils of original Dale Chihuly glass sculptures hanging overhead. Sipping the soup, topped with a crusty crouton plank dotted with chopped lobster, is like crunching on melon in the middle of a spice plantation. The dish is a nod to mentor Paul Bocuse, the father of nouvelle cuisine, but just to prove he's his own man, David complements light flavors with a porcini risotto dripping in mascarpone, cream, butter and truffle oil. Meals are finished off with dainty migniardise of chartreuse petit fours and chocolate fudge flecked with gold leaf.
Discover Asian-inspired comfort at aria (Fairmont Chicago)
Chef Noah Bekofsky and sushi chef Chef Byung Kyu Park demonstrate that comfort food isn't always mom's chicken noodle soup. Shrimp and chicken pad thai with zingy citrus notes, tender shoots of cilantro and wafers of red chili is soul satisfying. Creamy tuna tartare with crisp chives, crunchy batons of Japanese mountain potato (yamaimo) and caviar is a textural merry-go-round of contrasts, while slices of anago (salt water eel) marinated in mirin (Japanese rice wine) tastes like a puffed sushi dessert. Pair these eats with a glass of floral crisp Ginga "divine droplets," which is brewed in a Hokkaido ice dome where the fermenting rice mash is put into canvas bags, and the sake is coaxed only by gravity, dripping out overnight.
Enjoy haute meat and veggies at Custom House (Hotel Blake)
Even though James Beard Award-winning chef Shawn McClain's newest restaurant is meat inspired, the chops he honed while coaxing the best out of vegetables at Green Zebra is what makes Custom House shine. Braised rabbit is brightened by sweet bursts of English peas and the delicate whiff of green garlic. Sides of seasonal vegetable like salsify with orange and vanilla or funky Trumpet Royale mushrooms roasted in olive oil and rosemary are worthy amusements of the tongue. Nuggets of golden and purple beets with melting quenelles of mascarpone topped with mixed greens are glazed with a candy sheen. Paired up with crispy sweetbreads with glazed bacon or a bone-in-ribeye, your stomach will shout Yabba Dabba Do.
Savor Grandma's cuisine at 312 Chicago (Hotel Allegro Chicago)
I once asked Shawn McClain what his last meal would be if he were on death row, and he said that it just might be chef Dean Zanella's grandmother's meatballs. If you want to dine like McClain, all you have to do is order up a plate of the veal orbs with salted ricotta and tomato sauce at 312. Grandma has quite the influence in this classic prairie-style space, as her airy gnocchi paired with goat cheese also make an appearance. Zanella is one of those chefs you'll see talking shop with farmers at Chicago Green City Market on a weekly basis, and he focuses on seasonally inspired American-Italian cuisine, dotting his menu with the wares of local purveyors like Nichols Farm. If your mom ruined brussels sprouts by serving them as watery mushballs, Zanella's version with salty pancetta and drizzles of sweet tangy balsamic will restore your faith in the cabbage-like bud.