For the most part, Chicago chefs are in the kitchen. Well, the best ones are, at least. From big names such as Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz and Roland Liccioni to countless little guys overseeing nightly service at neighborhood gems, our chefs have set a precedent that can cause even the most open-minded person to bristle a little upon hearing that some celebrity chef from New York will descend upon our city to open a restaurant then leave. So when Marcus Samuelsson announced he’d be opening C-House in the new Affinia Hotel, we never entertained delusions that the guy would be working lunch service or frying up eggs and bacon for guests’ room service. But we did hold out hope that he might set up something distinctive, a restaurant with as much signature style as his Scandinavian-rooted Aquavit or his pan-African Merkato 55, both Manhattan successes. Instead, we got a very basic upscale seafood restaurant, and in a town that Laurent Gras (another transplant but one who’s obsessively present) is currently owning when it comes to that market, you better go big or you better go home.
One of C-House’s cooks says Samuelsson has, in fact, made three or four visits to the restaurant since it opened, spending a bit of time in the kitchen with chef Seth Siegel-Gardner in between making the dining-room rounds. But even leaving his time card out of the equation and simply looking at the end product, the experience doesn’t stand out enough to make C-House a destination in the increasingly competitive local dining scene. The room itself isn’t helping much, a muted palette of earth tones and copper with generic nautical photos. It’s comfortable enough, but a bit blah, with a small lounge that doesn’t really inspire sitting and sipping, even though cocktails are well made (especially the C Fizz, lemon-spritzed North Shore gin frothed with an egg white). If you’re there for drinks, you’d do better to just head for the rooftop patio dubbed C-View.
But assuming you’re there for dinner, you’ll have to stick to a specific regimen to be impressed: cocktails, cooked apps and dessert. Order a shellfish “tower” and you might wonder what justifies the hefty price when equally fresh shucked oysters and chilled shrimp can be had at Shaw’s and the like for less dough. Chef Siegel-Gardner gets to show more creativity with raw starters (pictured), but unfortunately only a couple nail “delicious.” Sliced tuna’s sesame-soy vinaigrette and toasted pine nuts make for a flavorful winner, but goat’s-milk butter coagulates on chilled Wagyu tartare for an unsettling texture. Tiny, crispy tortilla shells are filled with raw halibut that could use more lime and are served, inexplicably, atop dehydrated corn. Actually, the best starters don’t have a thing to do with seafood: Ricotta-stuffed ravioli are delicate pillows perfectly paired with corn consommé, and delicious pork belly is slathered with bracingly acidic but balanced grain-mustard glaze, topped with a poached duck egg and plated with earthy braised greens. In their wake, entrées of seared trout, lamb chop and whole branzino are fairly forgettable, aside from the stinging $60 tag for the whole fish (granted, it’s more than enough for two, but I’d rather pay twenty bucks less for a smaller fish or at least get some sides for that price).
The dark horse of the meal breaks out in the final stretch. Local pastry chef Toni Roberts (formerly of Custom House) modernizes comfort classics with a clear vision and seasonal flavors. Blueberry-buttermilk ice cream is a natural pair with cornmeal pound cake and cashew brittle, while vellum-thin cinnamon toast sandwiches subtle cinnamon semifreddo set off by fresh peaches on the side. Creations from the “candy bar” can be ordered by the piece, and each—from chocolate-encased marshmallows to rhubarb jellies to salted fudge brownies—are memorably delicious. In fact, risking hometown bias, hiring Roberts might just be Samuelsson’s biggest contribution to C-House.