There are things the Boarding House does that other restaurants simply do not do. Things like approaching the table, two-thirds of the way through a meal—just around that time when the average server’s attention often begins to wane—to silently swap out the diners’ water glasses for new ones filled with fresh ice. Things like folding napkins when a guest gets up from the table, a practice carried out so scrupulously that my companion’s napkin was once refolded twice, by two different staff members. Was that really necessary? Did we really need fresh waters? Absolutely not. That’s the point. When it comes to service, the Boarding House isn’t trying to meet diner’s expectations; it’s maintaining a standard far above them. And these service guidelines are most certainly the vision of the restaurant’s proprietor, its face, its embodiment: Alpana Singh.
The youngest woman to achieve the rank of master sommelier, the former wine director for Lettuce Entertain You and the host of WTTW’s Check, Please! (for one more season, anyway), Singh is a celebrity sommelier if there ever was one. And if you have doubts about how well known she is, a visit to her four-story restaurant on any day of the week will handily assuage that uncertainty. The place is outrageously big, a hulking brick building converted into two bars, an entire floor of private-dining space and a high-ceilinged dining room with a lofted mezzanine level. I’ve seen only the main bar and the dining room, and it’s these quarters you’ve likely seen, too, at least their much-photographed chandeliers, including one on the ground floor made of nearly 9,000 wine glasses. Given the attention surrounding the fixture, I was surprised how chintzy it looked close up, and I was disheartened how much that word kept coming to mind to describe the rest of the space, too. The scale of this place, however, is not what indicates Singh’s renown. It’s the fact that this steel mill of a space is full. I mean, I had to wait for a table…on a Monday. And the most awe-inspiring part about the design is that even when every seat in the dining room is full, the noise barely rises to a din. I could easily communicate across the table without straining my voice. In River North? Give this place a medal.
This crowd must be here for Alpana, right? Because I doubt anyone here had previously heard of the chef, Christian Gosselin, who cooked at the Sofitel and Bistronomic before Singh plucked him for this project. Nor does his menu immediately invite much interest. Gosselin hails from French Canada, which explains the menu’s Quebecois motif (poutine, smoked meat at the bar) but doesn’t really account for the rest of the dishes, which are a mélange of New American tropes (kale Caesar, hamachi crudo) and something that approximates Continental cuisine (lamb chops, chicken-liver mousse) with disjointed international ingredients thrown in (like cumin, or mango). If I’m flailing here in describing Gosselin’s style, it’s because as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have one.
And worst of all, his food is not very good. Each of the half-dozen Virginia oysters served was adorned with a parsley leaf (?), and the sauces served with them (a roasted red-pepper one and a mango mignonette) are the culinary equivalent of the turquoise frames that have been installed in the dining room: They muck up a perfectly good brick wall, or in this case, oyster. “Crispy cumin cauliflower” is actually soft, like the kind you’d find in an Indian curry, except here you’re expected to pick up each oily piece with your fingers and dunk it into one of the sauces, which include an overly thick yogurt and a dull pesto. There is a generous amount of lobster and crispy fries in the “lobster poutine,” but the dish is practically dry (lacking gravy), which keeps the elements from cohering. Housemade linguine has a pleasing texture, but—like much of Gosselin’s food, I’m sorry to say—it’s heavy, greasy and salty, and the only point of contrast within it is against the even saltier coins of housemade sausage. The herb-crusted rack of lamb wasn’t so much “crusted” as “caked” with the herb paste, rendering its exterior soft where I wished it had provided some textural contrast. Like the savory food, the desserts—a s’mores bombe, a heavy oatmeal-cookie sandwich, a slice of lemon cheesecake and a bowl of oily almondfinanciers—are devoid of charisma. They’re middling, lifeless, patisserie-like confections that feel straight out of pastry school.
That said, there are some dishes that, while not revelatory, are certainly better than these. The chicken-liver mousse is archetypal: smooth and dimensional and served with fresh-baked bread. The “Chicken Three Ways” is the best dish of Gosselin’s I’ve tried, particularly the roasted chicken-breast roulade, where juicy white meat is rolled up with a brioche-dried fruit filling, then beautifully browned on the exterior. I also had a good bottle of wine, which was poured by Singh herself. Her presence is presumably a big part of the draw for the clientele, and her persona, if celeb-driven trend spots like RPM are any indication, may be enough to keep this place buzzing. But at some point, she’s going to have to sleep. Hopefully by that time the Boarding House will have developed a personality of its own.