If last year’s hit movie Ratatouille is any indication, the world thinks of food critics as stuffy, evil, old windbags just waiting to poke a hole in chefs’ dreams. In actuality, I’m pretty far from Anton Ego, and always go into a review wanting nothing more than to discover a great restaurant. I’ve worked in plenty of them, had friends in the business and, as a writer, have heard the personal challenges of many chefs firsthand. So that makes it even more difficult to report that it’s going to be tough to get local foodies into the newly remodeled Palmer House Hilton’s Lockwood. The food’s disappointing, service is sloppy and the wine list assaults diners with boring bottles marked up, in some cases, 500 percent, apparently in an effort to help pay off the hotel’s $150 million renovation.
The hard part about this is that chef Phillip Foss seems like a nice guy, or at least seemed like one when I interviewed him via phone a couple of months ago, right before Lockwood opened. And he also seemed like a chef with passion and a clear idea that he’d need to modernize classics and reinterpret staples to lure local diners to an old-school hotel. So he created a menu that features lobster beignets, quail saltimbocca and “faux gras.” But the bready beignet batter steals all the flavor from the bits of lobster while the pears, endive and macadamia nuts add nothing to the party. The quail saltimbocca is a good idea, and the crispy rectangle of polenta it sits on is pretty tasty, but both the bird’s skin and the prosciutto wrapped around it are far from crispy and the fig-sage filling is a mushy mess. And the duck-liver terrine may be a tongue-in-cheek way around the foie ban (the ducks aren’t force fed), but its blah flavor could be a case for engorging.
But at least these starters sound interesting, suggesting that there’s creativity in the kitchen and potential yet to be realized. Dinner entrées, lunch and dessert don’t fare quite as well. An entrée called Surf, Turf and Turf is a towering test of wills—a fatty beef tenderloin plated on whipped potatoes that are more cream and butter than spuds, topped with flavorless shortrib meat then a lobster tail drowning in béarnaise. Thick bordelaise surrounds it all, adding yet another single note of richness to a dish whose florid decadence parallels the hotel lobby’s Beaux Arts decor.
Set off to one side of the lobby, Lockwood does manage to trump the rest of the hotel in contemporary looks (not tough to do, given the early-19th-century motif), but a few odd details sabotage its swank status: Low ceilings create a basement feel and strange track lighting of chintzy minichandeliers evokes the look of a retail jewelry store. Still, it’s comfortable enough that a lunch of a pork-belly sandwich and a bacon-topped burger doesn’t seem like a bad idea—that is until the sandwich arrives a sloppy, chewy pile of pork dressed in sweet barbecue sauce and the burger, a very uniform and seemingly preformed patty, is well-done and flavorless.
And Bertha Palmer’s famed brownie? While I didn’t taste her version, which the Palmer House debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair, I’m certain that Lockwood’s modern interpretation will have somewhat of a lesser imprint in culinary history.