The Gist: http://www.sixteenchicago.com/
The Why: With the Michelin Guide for Chicago an ever disappointing mess compared to those in other cities and three of the 2* locations closing during the past year I’d originally booked Alinea for a fourth visit during this trip to Chicago but in the months between securing that ticket and my first vacation from Arizona in four months my curiosity got the best of me – just who was this Thomas Lents and why was his cuisine garnering such raves on the sixteenth floor of the Trump tower…as much as I love Alinea this was a case of something new and shiny taking precedence over the tried and true.
The Reservation: Far less difficult than one at Alinea I simply used Opentable and with my flight to Midway arriving at 5:00pm I played it safe with an 8:00pm table for two while transferring my tickets on Halsted to a friend and his wife (they loved the experience, as I knew they would.)
The Space: To call Sixteen swanky would be an understatement – while opinions vary on Trump the man it would be foolish to assume anything but refinement and opulence in the spaces bearing his name. From the warm greeting at the front door to the chrome and marble elevators leading to the sixteenth floor each step of our trip through Trump International Hotel was met with smiles and “yessirs” and with a location in the center of downtown our emergency to the dining room was met with dramatic 30+ foot ceilings, a million dollar wine collection in dual glass wine rooms, and a million dollar chandelier hanging high above while the Wrigley Clock Tower and Lake Michigan stared back at us through the windows. With perhaps twenty tables in the dining room and all covered with fine linen, crystal, and polished silver throughout the night everything about the room drips with luxury – the thread counts high, the two-tops large enough for four, and easily six feet separating each table.
The Service: With a dining room manager circulating throughout the night and our captain, Rick, a beacon of knowledge the majority of our service at Sixteen was exemplary and neither myself nor my friend were ever left for want of anything but all things being equal the back servers and assisting waiters still need a bit of work to match the lofty goals of the restaurant and its chef – cumbersome descriptions often went on too long and bobbled ingredient names were not uncommon, but on the whole these are minor quibbles to which the average diner would pay no attention…and rest assured, there are many “average diners” at Sixteen as witnessed by quick turnover of businessmen asking for multiple dish modifications and single a la carte dishes as they “have a plane to catch.”
The Food: There are four menus – a 4-course, 8-course, and the 16-course – we opted for the 16 + optional cheese course and passed on the white truffle supplement. My friend purchased an excellent bottle of wine. Canapes, water, bread service, mignardises, and take-home gift were complimentary.
Canapes – Sweet Kettle Corn with black pepper and lemon, Lake Michigan fried smelt with tartar sauce, Mortadella Gougere with green tomato relish: An intriguing trio of bites, each quite savory and full of varying textures, but the second by far the most impressive as the crisp skin gave way to nearly liquid fish that when tinged with the bright tartar sauce reminded me of brandade.
1 Verjus – Grape, Ginger: With the menu divided into themes, ‘grape’ began with this amuse preceding bread service and almost immediately Chef Lents’ time with Joel Robuchon became apparent as a champagne glass filled with white verjus Jell-O, ginger beer foam, frozen champagne grapes, lime zest arrived in a lacquered box and with instructions to get “a bit of everything in each bite” the flavor profile was shockingly quite like champagne despite none actually being present. Sweet but also slightly bracing and altogether refreshing it was a great start.
California Goat Butter with Lavender, Cow’s Milk Butter from Normandy, Tuscan Olive Oil emulsification with black sea salt/French Baguette, Bacon and Stone Ground Mustard, Ciabatta with Sea Salt, Onion and Chive, Rye and Wheat: Second only to L2o’s bread service on my list of Chicago restaurants I’ll simply say the bread man visited our table frequently and the butter service was replenished twice – a lover of bread and carbs in general the Baguette was as good as many in France and the Ciabatta was crisp on the interior with heavy salting and a lovely moist crumb while each spread was superlative – the Cow’s butter reportedly the same as that used in the Robuchon empire and the goat butter unmistakably funky but slightly sweet.
2 Sole Veronique – Pressed Grape Sauce: The first of many tableside preparations, this plate featured tender sole roasted in butter along with lobster mushrooms, pearl onions, and raw grapes at its base with a lively sauce of roasted Thompson grapes with rosemary and garlic poured from a French press as the plate was described. A lighter take on the classic Veronique lacking both cream and flour this dish, like the one prior, would not have been out of place at Robuchon’s 3* location on the Vegas strip.
3 Trout Tartar – Crisp Skin, Bones: The dish of the night for my friend – and more surprisingly for myself – this plate nearly resembled Bao on arrival but what was instead delivered featured a tartar of Gravlax inside a light crème fraiche meringue alongside trout caviar, fried skin and bones, and a bit of chickweed. An entirely different take on serving the ‘whole’ fish everything simply clicked – the tastes, the textures, and even the plating all dramatic yet refined.
4 Cured Trout – Leek, Apple: The least inspiring course of the evening, though still quite good, featured a cut of Ruby Trout that was cold smoked and then confited served over sorrel puree along with smoked crème fraiche, sea beans, charred leeks, apple, and celery root. Another light and beautiful dish I think there was simply too much smoke and char in this presentation to properly appreciate the fish.
5 Trout Souffle – Beet, Horseradish, Rye: With a cured preparation and a smoked version already accounted for the last dish featured sashimi grade trout at the base of a horseradish soufflé served alongside a caraway tuille, sliced apples, Golden Beets, Purple Cuyahoga beets, and a “rye sponge.” Another light dish with each ingredient serving a purpose I was particularly impressed by just how well the horseradish worked to accent the trout without overwhelming while the beets and apple tamed the spice.
6 Kabocha – Cardamom, Chestnut: Moving on to heartier flavors this creamy potage featured a veloute of Kabocha squash along with roasted chestnuts, a touch of heat from espelette pepper, and plenty of aromatics from the ginger and cardamom foam. Large in portion and moreso in flavor with salty toasted pumpkin seeds tossed in for texture this was yet another highlight of the night.
7 Turbot – Salsify, Pumpkin: Perhaps the most interesting pairing of the evening the turbot was first presented whole and then plated in the kitchen over top of confit pumpkin, stinging nettles, and roast salsify before being bathed in a butter stock of lobster, capers, and sundried tomato. Rich but well balanced and drizzled tableside with pumpkin seed oil the fish itself was beautifully prepared but it was the stock that really shined – each drop sopped up yet another baguette.
8 Pumpkin and Foie Gras – Parmesan: Equally unique as the course that preceded it this parfait of “sweet and sour” pumpkin, foie gras mousse, Madeira wine, pumpkin gastrique, and pumpkin seeds baked with black pepper was a dynamic blend of flavors and textures that suffered only one flaw – the fact that it was only a few spoonfuls when I’d have preferred it by the bowl.
9 Truffle – Shirred Egg: Following one of my favorite ingredients with another the silver lining of Dave not enjoying runny eggs is the fact that I was able to enjoy this course twice. Quadruple plated in the style of Keller’s Oysters and Pearls and featuring brown butter roasted truffles and truffle sabayon inside the lightly poached egg this was a course you could smell from across the room – luxury in excess bolstered by accoutrements of truffle butter toasts and a frisee salad with truffle vinaigrette.
10 Pig Trotter – Pomme Puree: Answering his own question of “what happens when a truffle pig eats the truffles?” with the quip “you eat the pig” we were presented a simple and delicious preparation of Berkshire pork loin alongside a trotter stuffed with truffled sausage and buttery mashed potatoes drizzled with truffle pork jus. Hearty to be sure and interestingly placed on a menu with three savories yet to come this was another course where the bread service was put to good use, the plate retuning to the kitchen spotless.
11 Guinea Hen – Matsutake, Pine: Following pork with poultry the first course of three wild-caught options featured a moist pave of guinea hen breast served over Brussels sprout leaves, pine nuts, and an aromatic pine espuma along with confit leg meat. Intended by the chef to serve the hen in its natural habitat between the forest and the field I was most impressed by the finesse of the pine in this course, a note on the palate but far from the dominant and cloying flavor it can be when employed by less skilled hands.
12 Venison – Juniper, Cranberry: Locally shot, pan seared, and ash crusted my buddy’s eyes lit up at this presentation and although he was admittedly getting quite both of our plates returned to the kitchen empty. Rich and funky unlike so much of the farm raised deer seen on menus elsewhere and served with toasted Tuscan kale, sweet potato leaf, and cranberry blood-orange moustarda plus a drizzle of gin/juniper jus this was quite possibly the best deer dish I’ve ever had – so tender that it could be cut with the edge of a fork and exceedingly moist for something so lean.
13 Wild Hare – Civet, Risotto: Shot in Scotland just a day prior and cooked in mirepoix it seemed almost impossible that Chef Lents could find something bolder than the venison to serve as the final savory and yet here it was. Rich, nutty, and teaming with herbs and spices atop rye-berry risotto with a light bay leaf cream this was a perfect conclusion to a menu that effortlessly moved from something as light as champagne to a dish as hearty as stew.
Supplemental Cheese Course: Apparently something brand new to Sixteen the cheese was presented tableside first and with Dave quite full I decided to go with the $15 Epoisses course while he rested and although I generally prefer a carte to a composed cheese it would be hard to argue with a thick dollop of Epoisses served alongside white truffles, rye crisps, figs, and fig puree plus raisin toast and a small pour of Belgian Tripel Karmeliet that even to my beer-naïve-self proved to be a lovely counterpoint to the richness of the cheese and truffles.
14 Pink Pearl Apple – Walnut, Sorel: A simple palate cleanser of tart apples, nutty walnut hash, and herbal sorel infused verjus was a nice refresher after the hefty cheese course.
15 Cider – Goat’s Milk, Brown Butter: Titled after the warm glass of 5-apple cider arriving alongside the elongated plate the penultimate course of the Sixteen signature menu featured a vast array of apples in the form of a crispy fritter, apples sous-vided with caramel, candied apple skins, and apple butter alongside a brown butter sponge cake and fresh goat’s milk ice cream. Hot and cold, creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty – a deconstructed apple pie served a la mode and a different experience with each spoonful.
16 Chocolate – Bourbon, Wood: A dainty portion, but just enough given the hefty flavors within, the last proper plate presented vanilla ice cream aged in bourbon barrels stuffed inside bitter chocolate logs alongside maple syrup, condensed apple butter, and barley streusel. Rich and smoky, just a touch sweet, and perfectly paired with a bold French press of highland Chiapas.
Mignardises: Presented on a trolly and described at length by our server, Sixteen’s collection of candies and confections are entirely made in house and meant to focus on both local favorites and whimsical childhood classics including “Dots,” Cracker Jack, Andes Mints, Butterfingers, Tootsie Rolls, Baby Ruth, three types of cotton candy (pecan, coconut, and rose,) three sucker selections (green apple, cinnamon, and rootbeer,) plus a pair of truffles – one milk chocolate filled with pear and the other a dark chocolate praline. Plentiful and fun, both myself and my friend took the ‘one of each approach’ and although nothing was particularly wowing I personally enjoyed the cracker jack and tootsie rolls.
Apple Turnover: Along with a copy of the menu dated to the day Lents’ Sixteen received its first Michelin Star our take home gift was a buttery apple turnover and amongst the last to leave we were each given a pair – the first eaten on the spot and the second going home to my sister…to say the least this most certainly wasn’t your morning toaster pastry.
The Verdict: Having mentioned the impetus for my visit to Sixteen, the meal I gave up in its place, and the irony of dining on the day Lents cooking was recognized by the red guide all I can say is that I could not have been happier with my first visit to the sixteenth floor of Trump International Tower and I anticipate plenty more accolades and stars for the young chef over the coming months and years. From the beautiful room and glorious view to the colors, textures, and flavors on the plate there is little doubt in my mind that Sixteen has the ambition and capability to become a world-class destination restaurant and while it may never be the ‘best’ restaurant in Chicago I don’t think second place is unrealistic – or such a bad thing given the competition.