One great thing about a hotel restaurant named The Lobby is that it's easy to find.
The great thing about this particular Lobby, the soaring space inside the Peninsula Chicago Hotel, is that Lee Wolen, brought on as chef de cuisine last year, has turned what was a capable restaurant into a dining destination.
The Lobby was always a solid dining choice; now it's an exciting one. One could hardly ask for a better setting. The sun-drenched space features huge picture windows, impossibly tall white walls with gold accents and a crane-your-neck ceiling outfitted with chandeliers and gold-embossed domes. At ground level, you tread on thick carpet to reach your oversized table, clad in custom-fitted, earth-toned cloth covers.
The elegant neutrality of the dining room makes Wolen's plate presentations that much more eye-popping. He doesn't go in much for precious plating — some of his dishes appear to have been assembled without using a single tweezer — but his naturalistic presentations are saturated with vivid colors.
One of my favorite starters, for example, is a salad of peekytoe crab and asparagus. It arrives at the table looking like something that washed ashore — a jumble of ingredients, as though tossed in the surf, of dark green roasted asparagus and light green strips of nearly raw asparagus, along with pearl white crab lumps and crisped shards of "seaweed croutons" (sourdough bread made with nori) and pieces of bright orange sea urchin. An equally bright sea urchin froth stands in for sea foam. Translucent pieces of Kona Kampachi coordinate with lemon puree, vivid green fava beans and toasted hazelnuts; pure white ricotta gnocchi are draped with slices of pink serrano ham and English peas.
Octopus is superb, whether it's the version I had a few weeks ago, joined on the plate by variously hued heirloom carrots, thin-shaved radishes and bits of smoked ham or the even better current iteration that matches pepper-dusted octopus pieces with chorizo, crisp-edged potatoes, tomatoes and sea beans.
Two main courses of particular note are the scallops, thoroughly seared on top and still rare at the bottom, set in a pale yellow gazpacho-like sauce with green grapes, tan almonds and purple olives, and an absolutely flawless lamb loin, uniformly pink except for the seared edges, alongside dabs of goat milk feta, toasted chickpeas and a thick slice of roasted eggplant over a burnt eggplant puree.
Wolen cooked for three years at the acclaimed Eleven Madison Park in New York, as impeccable a credential as anyone can wish; in moving to the Midwest, he toted along a New York City souvenir in the whole-roasted chicken for two, a $79 cult favorite at NoMad (EMP's sister restaurant) but a mere $54 here. As the name indicates, the chicken is roasted whole, presented at table and brought back to the kitchen for carving. What returns are the chicken breasts, the crisp-roasted skin the color of a well-seasoned wok, along with a subdermal layer of stuffing (herbed brioche breadcrumbs and plenty of butter). An accompanying cast-iron dish holds the leg and thigh meat, coddled in a cream sauce with morel mushrooms. To the extent that any bird can be said to be worth this lofty price, this one can.
The highly regarded Dimitri Fayard (French Pastry School, Vanille Patisserie) joined the hotel as executive pastry chef in June and recently overhauled the dessert list. The new menu has a predictably strong French influence and contains such treats as a gold flake-flecked tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream and creme fraiche (the sour tang of the creme fraiche really sets the dessert off) and a deceptively simple looking chocolate composition of soft chocolate cake and an oversized dark chocolate pot de creme. For dedicated dessert lovers, there is the Chocolate Bar, a three-hour chocolate dessert buffet ($45, $55 with chocolate martini) presented at 9 on Friday and Saturday nights.
Though dinner is Wolen's primary focus, The Lobby is a fine lunch destination as well. You'll find a few dinner menu items (notably the terrific octopus dish), pastas in small and full portions, full-fledged entrees (the roasted trout is delicious) and a few sandwiches, including a first-rate burger (at $22, it should be) and a Maine lobster roll so spot-on in its flavors and so packed with lobster meat that even its $24 price tag seems justifiable.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
Peninsula Hotel Chicago, 108 E. Superior St., 312-573-6695; peninsula.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday (brunch Sunday)
Prices: Entrees $26-$39
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Noise: Conversation friendly
Other: Live music nightly; wheelchair accessible; valet and self-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.