Can a four-star meal begin with fried smelts and end with a Butterfinger bar? My last dinner at Sixteen says yes.
These are uncertain times for four-star dining in Chicago. Since last September, four previous top-rated restaurants have closed up shop (Avenues, Carlos', Charlie Trotter's and RIA), and two of the city's premier hotels, the Four Seasons and the Park Hyatt, have recused themselves from the luxury-dining debate by scaling back their respective restaurants.
Indeed, when opening chef Frank Brunacci left Sixteen a year ago and the restaurant adopted a snail's pace in searching for a replacement, it occurred to me that Trump International Hotel & Tower also was planning a strategic retreat.
Instead, the hotel boldly charged the other way, assembling a formidable team that includes general manager Will Douillet (ex-Alinea and Next), executive chef Thomas Lents and, most recently piped aboard, Patrick Fahy, one of the most highly respected pastry chefs in the country.
Combine this talent pool with the crystal-chandelier appointments of Sixteen's dining room, and you just might have the most lavish dining experience in Chicago.
Lents is a former executive chef at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas (the first American to achieve that rank under the famed French chef), so the guy clearly understands the power of luxury. But the Michigan-born chef spent five years as a sous-chef under Jean Joho at Everest, so he brings to Sixteen a solid sense of Chicago and Midwest sensibilities.
Sixteen boasts arguably the most dramatic setting of any restaurant in Chicago, its quarter-circle arc of three-story windows providing tourism-bureau views of the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. But Lents cooks as though his windows are boarded up. Not content to let the view provide diners with a sense of place, he presents an opening course of crisped Lake Michigan smelts over green-tomato relish, presented on a glass plate over a composition of beach sand and local wildflowers (foraged on the way to work).
"This is a lakefront city," says Lents. "I wanted to make that statement."
Leading up to that are finger-food snacks, beginning with an ethereal rosemary-Gruyere gougere topped with a smidge of lardo, then becoming progressively simpler and more whimsical. Deviled egg, topped with salt-cod foam and fried capers. Popcorn, served in a corn husk (a cute before-after presentation) and dusted with espelette pepper. Finally, a bit of theater with two shishitos, those occasionally hot, usually not peppers, adding an element of chance into an otherwise scrupulously plotted menu.
There are several ways to dine here. There is the a la carte menu, in which most entrees hover in the upper $40s; the $120, seven-course chef's tasting menu, with choices in several categories; and the splendiferous, 12-course Menu Prestige, for $165. A few dishes are common to all three options, including a lovely lobster salad, brightened by cubes of compressed heirloom melons, large circles of radish and lemon-verbena drops; and beautiful poached halibut coddled by a series of nurturing flavors, including curry-perfumed summer squash, coriander-laced broth and lemongrass sabayon.
Highlights of the tasting menu include sangria-poached foie gras alongside white-asparagus panna cotta, porcini-mushroom soup with rabbit sausage and an Alsace-inspired veal composition of sweetbread, breast and fleischnacka (rolled veal with herbs).
Three dishes, I think, justify the splurge on the prestige menu. Sea scallops and sea urchin is an inspired duo, brought together with citrusy yuzu cream and super-smooth pommes puree with a subtle scent of coffee. Fork-tender squab gets a farm-and-forest presentation, surrounded by corn (toasted kernels and smooth puree) and chanterelle mushrooms. And vivid-red rectangles of American wagyu-style beef with eggplant puree, coins of bone marrow and mustard, melted garlic and "sponges" of buckwheat and rendered marrow — inspired, Lents says, by English popovers — make such an emphatic savory finale (so rich I needed a midcourse rest) you'll be begging for dessert to begin.
Fahy is doing his customary exceptional work here. My trips yielded a simple but beautiful plate of mission figs in a toasted-almond cream topped with honey streusel, a doughnut-shaped bee-pollen parfait (more like a hand-whisked frozen cream) with a raspberry granita center and a criollo platter presenting chocolate in various forms, including milk-chocolate meringue, chocolate streusel and "snow," cupuacu foam and chocolate spheres filled with tonka-bean ice cream and liquid chocolate ganache.
Sommelier Nathan Cowan presides over a massive wine list, though if you're indulging in one of the set menus, I recommend opting for the wine pairings ($55 and $95, respectively) and letting Cowan do his thing. It's unlikely you'd have paired Ommegang Abbey Ale with Irish bleu cheese, or Charleston Sercial Madeira with the foie gras and eel dish, on your own.
And Sixteen's barrel-aged negroni cocktail, the aging rounding out the bitter notes without obscuring them, is the best negroni I've ever had.
Finally, there's that Butterfinger, or rather a gourmet homage to the Chicago-born confection, layers of butter and dough, peanuts and caramel wrapped in chocolate. It appears in a take-home bag of little goodies, and, for those of us who think of luxury dining as an escape, the treat serves as a reminder that we were home the entire time.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
401 N. Wabash Ave., 312-588-8030; trumphotelcollection.com/chicago
Tribune rating: Four stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday (brunch Sunday)
Prices: Entrees $47-$64; set menus $120 and $165
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking available
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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