It’s a good thing everyone already knows who Ryan Poli is. Because Little Market Brasserie, in the Gold Coast’s Talbott Hotel, isn’t the type of place that builds a chef’s reputation—at least not the way Mercadito Hospitality (which also owns Poli-helmedTavernita) is operating it. Sure, the food is pretty good and the room is nice, but those statements have to be followed by a qualifier: for a hotel restaurant.
Take, for instance, the cocktail program, which is overseen by the Tippling Bros., Mercadito Hospitality’s cocktail-consulting partners. It’s an improvement on the average hotelrestaurant, where you’re lucky if the cocktail list was given a consultation sometime in the last decade, and these guys are good at making easy-to-guzzle, food-friendly drinks. But compared to any other capital-R restaurant, their work here is weak sauce: The concept is “charged cocktails,” meaning diners pick a housemade soda (e.g., blood-orange cinnamon, cornflower yuzu) and pair it with a spirit. The sodas are so sweet, though, that the resulting drinks feel less like a new idea and more like a step back toward rum and Cokes.
How you like the room, too, depends on your expectations. For a hotel restaurant, this place looks great: The subway-tiled walls and the dim, warm lighting create that “hip restaurant” glow that, especially on busy weekend nights, tells you you’re in the right place at the right time. But the space also has its fair share of howlers, from paintings of vegetables that would be more at home in a Chili’s to a display of plants and jarred dried pastas in the center of the restaurant that’s both charming and a little cheesy.
On to Poli’s food. The menu is simultaneously scatterbrained and boring: deviled eggs, poutine, lobster roll, roast chicken with harissa—why not just add sushi and call the place Hub 51? That would be, ahem, the cynic’s take. Hotel patrons, or nearby Gold Coasters, would be more generous. They’d say the menu has something for everyone. But I think all Little Market constituents could agree on one thing: To get the most out of this restaurant, you have to go big or go home. Forget the salads, the perfectly average ravioli, the monkfish that tastes like paint thinner and the scallops that are categorically the same as every other plate of seared scallops ever served.
The best food here is the stuff that will take years off your life. I’m talking about the stupidly delicious pull-apart bread, on which you’ll spread honey butter. I’m talking about the tender mushrooms. dripping with cream, that you’ll pile on toast and sprinkle with shallot marmalade. And you better believe I’m talking about the Big Baby, Poli’s homage to the griddled cheeseburgers popular on the city’s Southwest Side (where the chef grew up), which is a blessed break from the big, fat, grilled patties most higher-end restaurants traffic in (though no less gluttonous). Poli won’t be known for Little Market, but Little Market will be known for this burger.