Taste, as a jazz musician once noted, is manifested in the notes one declines to play. In that regard, Danny Grant is a taste master.
The original chef de cuisine and now executive chef at Ria, the magnificent dining room within the Elysian hotel and residential complex, Grant creates dishes that are marvelously complex but not overwhelming. At a time in which the food world is focused on big, bold flavors (not that I disapprove), Grant reminds us of the joys of nuance.
Ria is the restaurant that Charlie Trotter was originally signed to run, and the dessert program was briefly under the direction of Mindy Segal. Though both departed amicably while the project was yet in development, their participation was common knowledge. Thus Grant, along with pastry chef Stephanie Prida, faced sky-high expectations before Ria's June 2009 opening.
The property itself invites such expectations. The entrance is styled in the manner of a European courtyard, the interiors beautifully appointed but unfussy. Three flights later, the elevator opens into a vestibule, where hosts greet you with beaming smiles and escort you away from the clamorous Balsan (the Elysian's casual restaurant, which draws a lively weekend crowd) and into Ria, where the noise level drops to the gentle murmur of happy patrons. By this time, you're primed for a Big Evening, and Ria does not disappoint.
The amuses, the gratis precursors of the main meal, engage and excite. There might be an ethereal quenelle of smoked-fish mousse, with caviar and a pan de mie crisp over a vivid spinach sauce; or a gelatinized length of apple-butter puree, riding a pumpernickel crouton raft adrift in an ice-wine consomme.
The menu offers about a half-dozen appetizers and main courses with a la carte prices; the six-course seasonal menu, which is what most diners opt for, is $95. Given the prices at, oh, Tru and Charlie Trotter's (and Ria belongs in that company), the prices and flexibility are friendlier than they might be.
There's a foie gras dish, of course. Cured foie gras, chopped truffle and cognac are molded into a rectangular pave, covered with a thin, translucent gelee of chicken consomme and shallot. Red and orange dabs of wine gel and apricot, respectively, add color and a burst of tartness. The accompanying brioche — there must be brioche, non? — is baked into a coffee cup, the puffy bread's dome rising majestically above the rim.
Grant fills a nearly transparent fish fumet with bite-sized bits of sea scallop — octopus and caviar also lurk — in a lovely fruits de mer arrangement, accented with raw radish and hints of lime. The gorgeous rabbit terrine is worthy of a magazine cover, forcemeat and pave separated by an elegant mosaic ribbon of carrot, potato and turnip; it's such a labor-intensive dish I felt mildly guilty for the speed in which I devoured it.
Pearly-white poached dover sole is rolled into a tube shape, its middle stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms, then crowned with a matchstick of garlicky parsley and set above a foamy sauce of Calvados, brown butter and apples. The pairing of Pekin duck with orange is no surprise, but the dramatic presentation is; the perfectly pink breast meat is topped with a shiny piece of skin with the brittleness of a creme brulee crust, while the orange component is blood orange, two supremes resting on twin potato disks bridged by a length of fennel.
The signature entree is turbot, roasted in a salt crust and filleted tableside for two. And it's a fine dish, but what's curious is the presentation, a haphazard mess relative to the uber-precision of every other dish. One pristine fillet is draped asymmetrically over the other, with some braised salsify (cooked in bone-marrow cream) scattered on top and a powerful, aromatic red-wine reduction underneath. It's an aberration, albeit an absolutely delicious one.
Prida's desserts are mercifully light on the palate, but match the savory courses in their fondness for complexity and avoidance of dominant flavors. Brown-butter chiboust bears a crispy cinnamon-chip tiara, matched to tart lemon sorbet and lemon curd. The chocolate dessert is a study in exotica: black cocoa mixed with barley flour to form a deep-black crumbly soil, topped by a slender stick of tainori ganache, with pomelo curd and Aperol sherbet (if that description didn't send you straight to a search engine, congratulations).
Sommelier Dan Pilkey looks younger than his 30 years and has hands that look designed for palming a basketball rather than cradling a premier cru, and he talks about wine with the exuberance of a teenager showing off his comics collection.
His wine selections are absolutely fearless — the wines he poured with my chef's tasting spanned six countries and three continents, and on a previous visit he paired my dessert with a late-harvest wine from South Africa. But however unconventional, his flavor matches are unerring, and explained in vivid detail.
Service is the sort of exquisite, unflappable, serene experience that one scarcely notices any work is taking place at all. Ria doesn't throw an army of waiters your way, but you can time the distance between need, and need met, in nanoseconds.
And though I observed this level of attention throughout the dining room, it's worth noting that my vaunted anonymity was an inside joke 10 minutes into my first visit. I'm beginning to think those CRITIC 1 vanity plates were a mistake.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
In the Elysian,11 E. Walton St., 312-646-1329
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Entree prices: $38-$50; seasonal tasting $95
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking