When we last checked in with Alpana Singh, shortly after the 2012 opening of her first restaurant, the Boarding House, she'd built a wonderful space with an inclusive and populist wine list but not much of a menu to match. At the time the former Check, Please! host and master sommelier vowed to do better—and she did. The Boarding House's current chef, Tanya Baker, is in contention for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
At the very least that looks good for Singh's second effort, Seven Lions, a large dining room and bar space on Michigan Avenue almost directly across the street from the Art Institute's iconic bronze cats. Much like nearby Acanto and the Gage, it's in prime position to reel in the hordes of tourists collecting in the vicinity of the museum and Grant and Millennium Parks, a stretch of real estate other talented restaurateurs should be taking advantage of.
What's more, Singh and her partners have tapped Chris Curren as chef. Previously Curren assisted the Fifty/50 Group with Homestead and the Berkshire Room, but before that he'd introduced himself to the city at the late, great Blu 13. In this neighborhood Curren's job isn't to shock and awe, so he's presented a vaguely steak-house-like menu with plenty of familiar options. In terms of basic proteins, there's quite a bit of overlap between this menu and the one at the Boarding House—and at dozens of other places around town (it features token items like half chickens, burrata, seared scallops, seared salmon, and pork chops). Nothing to be frightened of here, tourists.
Well, maybe those fried chicken skins and pickles will startle some. Among the appetizers it's the single nod toward the predatory, leave-nothing-behind brand of carnivorousness that's come to dominate our restaurant scene. And they're delicious—the skins light and crispy and served with honey sriracha for dipping, the pickles' exteriors as sweet as if they'd been fried in doughnut batter. Another interesting wrinkle is the relish tray, a nod toward the old-school midwestern supper club staple with an Edwardian twist: tiered old blue china plates loaded with an assortment of nibbles, blue cheese and honeycomb, elk sausage and lamb ham, and deviled eggs and olives. Servers refer to this as "teacuterie."
From there the menu explores recognizable territory: a spring pea salad with fresh green favas, which herald the season in a few other dishes; half a poached peach stuffed with blue cheese mousse riding a heap of romaine; sweet, fresh shrimp drizzled with mild cocktail sauce and resting on warm grits; a jar of creamy salt cod brandade garnished with crunchy fried capers.
For the most part the kitchen executes Curren's dishes remarkably well. It's hard for me to glance twice at black cod anymore, but here, served among squishy ricotta gnocchi and meaty maitake mushrooms, the fillets are fall-apart silky, the delicate flakes of fish flesh held together only by a thin, crusted sear. A thick bone-in wild boar chop, lightly glazed with barbecue sauce, bears none of the rangy aridness associated with a wild beast. And the ample serving of charred leeks and country ham it sits upon was perhaps the very best thing I ate at Seven Lions (it's also available as a side). Squid ink spaghetti tangles with thinly sliced octopus in a mild red broth that took me back, not unfavorably, to Chef Boyardee. Roasted green peppers add a novel vegetal element to steamed clams, bacon, and fried bread. About the only hint of a botched execution was a terribly oversalted salmon fillet that obliterated the tiny young morels they'd been plated with.
Pastry chef Karianne Soulsby's approach doesn't parallel Curren's somewhat conservative one. Her most inventive dessert is a send-up of Kellogg's Corn Pops: sweet toffee-tinged puffs in a bowl of panna cotta tossed with sliced bananas and raspberries. It's intensely sweet, but you'd need the strength of Sugar Bear to stop eating it. She also offers a bureklike circular filo pastry—filled with custard and garnished with a duo of maraschino cherry and an orange slice—that's meant to evoke a mai tai. Perhaps her best effort is a deceptively simple bowl of tapioca custard with lemon curd and a pitcher of limoncello-infused cream. Something approximating a lemon snickerdoodle comes with it, but it could ably stand on its own.
So how does this menu line up with Singh's wine list, an impressive but approachable document with more than 200 strictly domestic bottles (and two lonely champagnes)? Beginning with 14 crowd-pleasing wines by the glass—including a respectably dry Michigan Riesling among a majority of Californians—its discipline and consistency are admirable but seemingly at odds with Curren's scattered approach. Still, chosen, I'm sure, to represent the great diversity west-coast vintners are capable of, it's (mostly) accessibly priced, bottoming out at $40 for a New York Riesling and peaking at $490 for a Napa Valley cab.
For all its differences, Singh's more casual new restaurant shares some similarities with her first: a huge wine list and a diverse menu that have the potential to appeal to a broad demographic, just the sort that likes to hang out, however briefly, on Michigan Avenue. v