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A few months back I wrote about the spring menu at Sixteen in the Trump Tower—if only there were an easy way to identify which building that is—and one of the things that was most interesting to me was how chef Thomas Lents, pastry chef Aya Fukai, and wine director Dan Pilkey are reacting to the desire for a higher degree of conceptuality and theater in fine dining. Restaurants like Alinea, Moto, and Next make fine dining a show as much as a meal, and Lents is at the forefront of chefs trying to tell a unique story through food—without, as he put it about a menu that was inspired by Chicago architecture, making it so literal it's like you're "eating Legos."
Ironically, it's one of the oldest things high-end restaurants have to offer that often makes this work: superior service. It takes a server with a warmly welcoming demeanor to pull off some of these conceits without making them seem overbearingly pretentious. When they're done with a bit of a smile, though, the result can be a lot of fun, brain tickling and palate surprising in equal measure. OK, at fine-dining prices it's a rather rarefied kind of fun, but you can spend as much on a big hunk of steak and some overblown California cabs at a steak house in this town with nothing more to show for it than a testosterone overdose, so it's all about what you're into.
I went to the opening night of Sixteen's summer menu, "Inspirations From Where Land Meets Water." As Pilkey acknowledged, that's another way of saying one of the oldest ideas in dining: surf and turf (and given that title, I'm kind of surprised the soundtrack of beach and surf tunes didn't draw on this classic album from around the same cultural moment). But from the moment they start laying out the menu as a series of Plexiglass blocks on a map of the Chicago shoreline, and explaining how each dish represents a particular place where land and sea meet, from Japan to Liguria, you know you're in for more than just steak and lobster (though both will appear as the evening goes along). Without giving all the jokes away, here are a few examples of the coastal journey this latest menu takes you on.