When The Architect’s Newspaper weighed in on the design of the new J.W. Marriott, it noted with not a little bit of eye-rolling that the dramatic staircases that ascend from the lobby “scream: ‘Take your wedding photos on me!’”
It’s so true. And it’s so apropos that those staircases lead directly to the Florentine, where all manner of wedding reception food—Short ribs with polenta! Tiramisu!—beckons. Or rather, doesn’t. Ordering off this menu is like checking “meat” or “fish” on a wedding RSVP card. You do it blindly, because you know it doesn’t matter—whatever you pick, it probably won’t be good.
Maybe this lifeless-at-first-glance menu shouldn’t be a surprise. The Florentine is the first Chicago foray of NYC–based BLT Restaurant Group, which means that at its core, it is a corporate endeavor. That they should come up with a list of dishes that appear to have been focus-grouped to death—maybe that’s de rigueur for the company. Or perhaps it’s de rigueur for chef Todd Stein, who, when you think about it, never had anything too shocking on his menu when he was at Cibo Matto, either. (That both Cibo and Florentine are hotel restaurants probably doesn’t help.)
Whatever the reasons, the Florentine’s menu ends up working in its favor. It keeps expectations low. So when the food finally arrives, and you taste it, and you find that it’s been executed perfectly and tastes better than most restaurant food you’ve had lately (and certainly better than any wedding food)—it’s a slap in the face. The good kind.
It should be noted here that much of the joy of the Florentine comes from the staff, which must have had some serious corporate training. They’re all smiles, particularly at the host stand. Servers smile a little less, but it’s only because they’re serious about knowing the menu, getting you your drink, describing the dishes and, ultimately, upselling you whenever they can. Other than when they tell you you need a full pasta portion to feed two people as a primi course, they’re trustworthy guides.
Of course, if you’re planning on eating that pasta all by yourself, as an entree, you’ll need the whole portion. Not because the half isn’t big enough, but because Stein’s pastas have an addictive quality. The texture of his tagliatelle is unmatched by any other in the city, and the sauce he pairs it with—a tomato sauce with ricotta and tiny meatballs—is simple and flawless. His spaghetti has bolder elements—briny squid ink pasta mingles with sweet crab meat, fresh mint and chiles—but the spaghetti itself is far less revelatory. In fact, it was so al dente one evening it could hardly be chewed.
So everything is not perfect here. Those short ribs are the opposite of exciting, and the marscapone polenta it’s plated with gets Play-Dohish fast. And the swordfish, a steak sliced lengthwise into two filets, arrived a little dry. But Stein cooks his trout beautifully, and pairs it with buttery chanterelle mushrooms. His massive pork chop has a caramelized crust that Stein deftly achieves without drying out the meat within. Crudo exhibits the clean, pure flavors of great hamachi, and the mozzarella fritti—though a little greasy—matches the robust flavor of buffalo mozz with sweet-tart pickled raisins.
As for desserts, they are unremarkable across the board: fluffy but boring doughnuts, a sweet but otherwise characterless rum baba. The real sweetness comes on your way out, when you pass those beacons of cheerfulness at the host stand. So friendly, so charming, you’ll want to call out to them: Arrivederci! And when you step through the doors and find yourself at that staircase, you may even find yourself compelled to run back and propose.