Under Lee Wolen, the Lobby is a jewel of a restaurant

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Winter squash salad
  • Courtesy of the Peninsula Chicago
  • Winter squash salad
Waiting for my date outside the Lobby, a restaurant in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, I pondered some jewelry on display in a glass case. This one? That one? Turns out it was outside my price range. But the experience was a fun little preview of the meal to come, which was so opulent as to make a humble restaurant reviewer forget that he's not a vice president at Boeing.

Foodwise, the Lobby is the work of chef de cuisine Lee Wolen, who comes to Chicago from New York's much-celebrated Eleven Madison Park, where he was a sous chef. (Before that, in Chicago, he worked at Butter and Moto.) He follows Curtis Duffy, who's gone on to try to catch Michelin's eye at Grace, and Graham Elliot, who's gone on to name some restaurants after himself. Both those chefs cooked at the erstwhile Avenues, which the Peninsula closed in favor of the Lobby, which, again, is in the lobby.

It's a really nice lobby: high ceilings, chandeliers, tall windows that overlook a skating rink. It looks like the kind of place to have afternoon tea. (There's afternoon tea.) After we were seated, a cello somewhere started warming up. It was joined by an acoustic guitar. A classical duet? The pair opened with a cover of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," which is a country song about a jealous woman who fucks up her philandering boyfriend's car. (You know the one: "Right now, he's probably slow dancing with a bleached-blonde tramp / And she's probably getting frisky.")

The menu is arranged straightforwardly, with a list of starters and a list of entrees, and so is the food itself—Wolen isn't as audacious or experimental as his predecessors. His food is simpler, and it is wonderful. After a lengthy process of negotiation—in which, painfully, we eliminated the foie gras torchon with orange, gingerbread, and lemon balm, and a slow-poached "hen egg" ("Do they just mean 'egg'?" my companion asked) with Jerusalem artichokes, Serrano ham, and hazelnuts—we ordered appetizers. Smoked Arctic char, on a wide plate with roasted beets, little dabs of horseradish, and thin little bites of pumpernickel bread, was stunning in its complexity, a joke about a lox bagel that I didn't get until about a week later. At the time, I was too busy eating. As with a couple other dishes here, the winningest part was what was either underplayed or elided altogether on the menu: little strips of lemon rind, strewn here and there, provided an intense counterpoint to all the salty elements.

Ricotta gnocchi, with sweet potato puree, brown butter, and all-but-indetectable black truffle, were sweeter and richer; in texture and in flavor they were sublime, taut on the outside and just this side of molten within. Waiting for the next course, we were bestowed a bonus course from the kitchen: a winter salad comprising Delicata squash, toasted wild rice, Greek yogurt, and smoked paprika. It was maybe the best thing we ate, representing the achievement of an equation (best-quality ingredients, minimally manipulated) that lesser restaurants struggle with. Here Wolen meets the standard, exceeds it, and then stomps the hell out of it. The dish was beguiling: each bite tasted wholly familiar and completely surprising.

Scallops were perfectly cooked, served in a mildly spicy broth of fennel and lemongrass. It was the dish I found the least interesting, but that's faint damnation. I was happy to eat it while I waited for my date to hand over his duck breast, presented here as a solid block of meat—no fussy bones—blanketed by a thin-but-not-really-all-that-thin layer of fat. It's a magnificent specimen, unimaginably tender, served with braised cabbage and salty caraway streusel—another big-things-in-small-packages garnish that completely alters the nature of the dish.

The bread service is great—particularly the bacon brioche, and most particularly the salty goat's-milk butter served alongside. There's wine, of course, and a respectable selection of classic cocktails, including a perfect Negroni and a slightly-too-boozy manhattan (maybe not a bad thing if you rearticulate it as a classic example of getting what you paid for—in this case a $15 drink). At the end of the meal you might be surprised to find that the sparkling water you've been knocking back comes at $9 a bottle and, with highly attentive servers making sure your glass never empties, you've gone through two.

Well, to paraphrase Luke the Evangelist: of whom much is expected, to whom much is given. The winter salad wasn't the only freebie; after dinner there were little parfaits of intense chocolate mousse, peanut butter truffles, caramels, cinnamon macarons. And a little pound cake, one for each of us, to have "with coffee tomorrow morning"—I worried I'd somehow been made as a critic until I noticed the next table getting similar treatment. It just is what it is to be fake-wealthy for a night. You get stuff.

108 E. Superior, 312-337-2888, peninsula.com/Chicago/en/Dining/The_Lobby

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