The Robert Johnson Proposition

Michael Nagrant / 12.02.18

Hotel restaurants are like a mash-up of The Twilight Zone and the Bermuda Triangle. Weird stuff happens. Models eat carbs in sweatpants next to dudes in Beats headphones making music on Macbook Pros, while ingenues like Scarlett Johansson fall in love with washed up old men. Ok, that last part was a movie, but you know what I mean. Hotel restaurants also swallow up chefs’ careers like the Triangle claims ships and airliners.

As a chef, it’s tempting to helm a hotel restaurant. You’re promised good pay, reasonable hours, and an investment in your craft.  You want to order fancy equipment? Rotovaps, immersion circulators, searzalls, combi-ovens, or pasta extruders?  No problem!

But, joining a hotel is often a devil’s bargain. In return you will have to cook breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and fourth meal that isn’t Taco Bell. You will likely have to do it with a unionized workforce. While this staff is professional, they’re often not working at the hotel because of a passion for hospitality. It’s just a J-O-B.  So, no matter how many ropes courses or whiteboarding sessions or pre-service meetings you have with the staff to get them to buy your vision of achieving three Michelin stars, it’s not likely going to happen.

There are exceptions. NoMad in New York is like the Michael Jordan of hotel restaurants. (Ironically, Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse in the Hotel Intercontinental isn’t even the Scottie Pippen of hotel restaurants – although the garlic bread with blue cheese fondue should not be missed). Graham Elliot and Curtis Duffy both made their names at Avenues at The Peninsula hotel.

But, NoMad was not a career maker. Partners Daniel Humm and Will Guidara had already shocked the world at Eleven Madison Park. In the case of Elliott and Duffy, even though it gave them a platform, finding Avenues required an Indiana Jones-like search effort. The dining room was often half-empty. Their success is more a testament to their will and creativity triumphing over the perils of hotel restaurants.

For every Duffy, Elliot, or Humm, there are a hundred cooks who joined hotels only to become no name mid-level managers focused on budgets and food cost. This sort of makes it ironic that after making a name for himself at the short-lived but excellent GreenRiver from Danny Meyer, chef Aaron Lirette’s newest venture, located in the base of the St. Jane Hotel is a place called Free Rein.

A hotel chef job is likely to be anything but “free rein”. Then again, I do suppose Danny Meyer, swami of hospitality, shaker of shacks, and all that, probably brought a heavy hand down on whatever was going on at GreenRiver.  Although, if that were the case, one wonders how a person really paying attention would think it’s a good idea to open a restaurant with such atrocious spacing in its name. Were DeepDishPizza and SaladDog or any other matter of Chicago clichés also considered?

Still, I loved GreenRiver. Julia Momose ran one of the best cocktail programs in Chicago and Lirette’s food was almost as breathtaking as the restaurant’s downtown view.

Given that Lirette now has free rein at the St. Jane, I do wonder why his new menu reads like the greatest hits of GreenRiver, i.e. his uni saffron spaghetti and open-faced tartines are all here.

More concerning than the greatest hits album is the restaurant space. The front is basically like a combo coffee/pastry shop. The back of the restaurant is vast, filled with deep horseshoe-shaped banquettes that seem like they’d be more comfortable hosting bottle service in a booty-shaking club.

The one thing about banquettes like this is, even the most self-effacing human wants to sit in them. They’re comfy and, if for only a minute, it allows you to imagine what it might have been like to do drugs and hang with models as if you were Tobey Maguire and Leo DiCaprio in the late 90s. (Leo is still doing this apparently – well, maybe not drugs. In fact I don’t even know if either of them ever did drugs, although given their level of celebrity, it feels period-appropriate).

Though Free Rein was virtually empty, we were sat at a plebeian table. We inquired as to whether maybe the Chicago Blackhawks were arriving within the hour and had reserved all the currently empty banquettes. Upon learning Kane and Toews would not be joining us, we begged for a reprieve from our steerage accommodations. Our pleas were answered, and we were reseated at a coveted banquette.

So that we look like we belonged, we ordered the large seafood tower and beef tartare. Seafood towers at Free Rein are called “elevations”, which is weird since most fish tend to chill out at sea level. I don’t usually order these because they don’t tell you much about the talent of the cooks except that they know how to use refrigeration and make mignonette sauce. In the parlance of Hemingway: We ate the towers. They were good.

Beef tartare is another thing I generally avoid, but Lirette’s was original, adorned with scallion kimchi and carrot dressing. I mostly ate it straight with a fork, because the togarashi “cracker” served with it had the consistency of taut rubbery turkey skin that had spent too much time in a smoker.

Foie gras service too was unique. Instead of the usual conceit of pairing a seared lobe with jam and toast, Lirette’s version swam in green curry on a raft of macadamia nuts. I liked the tropical perfume, but the green curry overpowered the mango and I longed for a touch more sweetness.

The server raved about the halibut, but it was but a dry bark adrift on trumpet mushrooms.

The duck breast, it’s crackling skin and accoutrement like ripe plum and puffed barley and funky fluted chanterelles was solid.

Underwhelmed at this point, I was slapped over the palate with one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had this year, plump ricotta cavatelli tossed with blood sausage ragu, Asian pear, and black truffle. Sweet, salty and funky, I’d like to take a dip in a jacuzzi filled with this stuff.

Dessert, like dinner, was mixed.  Our server told us we needed the marjolaine, which is not a heroine from a Chuck Berry song, but a classic cake featuring meringue and chocolate butter cream. The crumb was a touch dry. The smoked vanilla ice cream had a subtle campfire vibe, but this was overwhelmed by the richness of hazelnut and ganache.

A carrot layer cake dripping with creamy goat milk-semifreddo was a super-cheffy and satisfying antidote to the usual cream cheese-frosted spiced-crumb classic.

Lirette and pastry chef Evan Sheridan are really talented. Despite some of the shortcomings in execution, their ideas and their techniques are advanced and exciting. But, they’re hampered by a substandard staff and a setting where their talent is likely to be overlooked.

This is kind of ironic as the building the restaurant is located in, the Carbide & Carbon building, designed by the sons of Daniel Burnham (aka Mr. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood … ”) is absolutely unforgettable. The gold accents on the building are made of actual gold leaf, and its roof recalls the capsule and shoulders of a vintage Champagne bottle. (This has given rise to the myth that design was inspired by an actual Champagne bottle, though this has never been substantiated).

My meal at Free Rein ended with mignardise, or pate de fruit, aka the fancy restaurant version of Chuckles candy.  I loved this. The meal also began with a smoked trout amuse bouche. These are the kind of fine dining touches you don’t see anymore. They’re often considered an unneeded expense or too fussy for standalone restaurants. For a diner they feel like gifts, a miniscule hospitality that breeds outsized gratitude. Score at least one for hotel dining.

Free Rein is located at 224 N. Michigan Ave.