You’re a restaurant patron, and you don’t do hotel restaurants. Unless it’s [node:148567 link=NoMI;], or [node:148451 link=Avenues;], or [node:149925 link=Perennial Virant;] (which doesn’t really count), or Longman & Eagle (which really doesn’t count). Because other than those places, hotel restaurants are—you hate to say it—just hotel restaurants.
But then some hotel restaurants do some chef-shuffling. They promote things like rooftop gardens and beer dinners. And you can tell that what they want, desperately, is to have somebody who doesn’t have a room at the hotel—somebody who in fact has a bedroom a few miles away—come in for dinner. And then that somebody could tell his friends that he ate at a hotel restaurant, and it was good, and Chicagoans shouldn’t be scared, they should eat there, too.
That somebody could be you, you think. So you go to Café des Architectes in the Sofitel, and you note how French it is. How the servers have accents. How they say bonjour and merci. And how the men all look a little bit like the French men who appear in romantic daydreams, only maybe a little bit older, and, of course, these guys are not whispering j’adore into your ear. They are whispering: “Try the truffle-poached halibut.”
Which you do. And it flakes apart in the bowl, and the truffle is gracefully subtle. The waiter’s other suggestion—you are helpless against his charms—is the tender guinea hen, executed with precision and plated with soft polenta and black garlic. You eat a scallop dish that is more about toothsome duck confit, and a sweet goat-cheese tart that would probably be better for the end of the meal than the beginning. And it all ranges from nice to very nice, and you j’adore, except it seems a little off-season. A little autumnal, a little heavy. Perhaps you have dozed off, you think. Perhaps you’ve slept all the way until September. But the sun is shining through the wall of windows, and tourists are walking toward the hotel doors in shorts and fanny packs and damp T-shirts. And you know that it’s not you. You know what season it is. And when you get your hands on Patrick Fahy’s interesting and summery almond cake with a jiggly blueberry top—sort of between pâte de fruit and Jell-O—you know Fahy knows what season it is, too. And then your meal is done, and hey, it went well, right? This little hotel experiment wasn’t painful at all. Why not try again?
Which is how you end up at Lockwood, to see what Phillip Foss is up to.
Wait, no, that’s not right—Foss was fired. Months and months ago.
You go to Lockwood to see what chef Gregory Elliott is up to.
Right away it’s clear that Lockwood is the opposite of Café des Architectes. There are no windows, just layers of dark colors: caramels, maroons, browns. The lights are dim, the booths are plush. It is precisely where you want to be during a snowstorm, and where you don’t want to be in the summer. Yet Elliott’s menu is all sunshine and herb fields. A sweet corn soup is sweet and corny, and balanced by tiny bites of smoky chicken. Squash blossoms—a hearty helping of them—are fried crisp in a cornmeal crust and are bursting with ricotta. Elliot’s chicken (from Slagel Family Farm) is crispy-skinned and paired with a summer bean panzanella and chorizo, which at first looks as if it won’t work (what a mishmash of beans, you think), but it does, especially the chorizo, the bite of which somehow makes the dish that much more summery.
So, once again, your hotel meal is going well. Your server looks like Mark Ruffalo, and he knows it (he also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the food). Even the sad-looking squash gratin that comes with the filet turns out to be better, fresher, livelier than it looks. But dessert comes and threatens to take the joy out of the meal. The brownie—the Palmer House will never, ever let go of its brownie lore—is standard-issue, might-have-come-from-Jewel quality. But the berry crumble is way worse. You think as you’re eating it: Is this crumble raw? And in fact it almost is. You are chewing raw-tasting oats and berries cooked to the consistency of jam. And it’s all you can do not to swear off hotel restaurants again. Except NoMI. And Avenues. And Longman & Eagle—oh, wait, that doesn’t count.
But you stop yourself. No reason you can’t add Café des Architectes and Lockwood to your list.