When things like tomatoes, corn, blackberries, and asparagus appear on menus around this time of year, it's like spotting the Easter Bunny in August. By now most new restaurants within certain price ranges must at least pay lip service to the idea that they serve some in-season local food, perhaps produced with a measure of respect for the environment and/or animal welfare. Howells & Hood, a huge, copper-clad beer hall on the first floor of the Tribune Tower, is no different, but the group behind it has taken the extraordinary step of installing Scott Walton as executive chef in collaboration with their own corporate one.
Walton made a name for himself at the Doubletree's Markethouse for cooking seasonally and locally—he even had his own rooftop garden. That's no mean feat for a hotel restaurant where the exigencies of pleasing a diverse and indiscriminate dinership invite compromise at every turn. Superficially at least, Walton's name adds credibility to the proceedings here.
But Howells & Hood is primarily about the beer. Bottleneck Management also owns a handful of sportsy, beer-focused establishments around town, including the Boundary, Trace, and Sweetwater, none of which is particularly noted for its food. At Howells & Hood the owners have gone to extremes, installing 360 draft handles at three different bars totaling 114 different craft brews on tap, a number they claim is the largest in the world for any one establishment. A blogger for Guys Drinking Beer wondered if it was a good idea for H&H to house this much beer, given the constant effort of maintaining miles of tap lines connected to a large number of obscure labels that likely won't have a high degree of turnover.
Similarly, I wonder if Walton's style of cooking is compatible with this massive, 17,300-square-foot hangar. Named for the architects who designed the Tribune Tower, Howells & Hood commands a corner view of one of city's greatest architectural spaces. Its walls, lined with the same travertine stone tiles found in the tower's lobby, are chiseled with pithy and inspirational quotes from writers, athletes, gangsters, and philosophers—which can be disorienting when one attempts to contemplate Camus between a pair of giant flat-screen TVs (or vice versa).
This subverted grandeur can come across as a bit cafeteria-like, a sensation that grows when you survey the "globally-inspired" menu that spans shrimp and andouille, eggplant ragout, French onion soup, wedge salads, burgers, fish tacos, risotto, lamb chops, scallops, and tuna tartare.
An acquaintance squinted at the unfocused array online and said, "Have fun at Bennigan's!"
As for Howells & Hood's "locally-sourced product," as it's touted on the restaurant's website, let's look at the use of one ingredient in particular. Tomatoes aren't just any fruits. They're harbingers of high summer, a season we could pretend to enjoy right now if we could suddenly teleport to Mexico, where many of the tomatoes currently found in Chicago were born. I was served raw tomatoes in four dishes at Howells & Hood, and tomatoes are featured in at least two others, taking a starring role in an heirloom tomato salad. I ate halved cherry orbs bursting with flavorlessness in a towering duck confit salad and wan pink slices stacked on both an underseasoned burger (made from beef ground in New Jersey) and a dry, mealy smoked whitefish sandwich.
Asparagus season is right around the corner—but it isn't here yet. That's not stopping the kitchen from serving it with Oregon trout. And even that's not as astonishing as finding a smoked half chicken served with an entire grilled ear of corn. But the pinnacle of these expressions of phantom summer is something called a "lobster shortcake"—a cheesy biscuit covered in a creamy succotash of bell peppers, tomatoes, and corn kernels. It's like the southern hemisphere in your mouth.
If the boilerplate touting Howells & Hood didn't claim local sourcing, one could forgive the expedient use of preseasonal ingredients in an operation this size. Say what you are, not what you aren't.
There are ways to improve upon such produce. For instance, the kitchen smokes tomatoes in two dishes, concentrating flavors that are deepened by fermented black garlic and smartly paired with lemon ricotta and lamb meatballs, as well as with an eggplant ragout that's rich with gooey burrata (from Vermont) and briny kalamata olives. Whatever the provenance of the sweet English peas and earthy wild mushrooms found in the brilliant green, technically perfect risotto, they make up a dish that truly speaks of spring.
But most of the food at Howells & Hood comes out fast, in large portions and with a uniformly institutional quality far removed from the kind of thoughtful preparations Walton was known for at Markethouse. The vegetables in that lobster shortcake are watery and lifeless under their cream blanket; the tomatoes on the sandwich just vertical filler. The blackberries served with an orange buttermilk cake make the dessert taste as if it were delivered from an airplane galley.
This dreariness also plagues the execution of some dishes. Mini pork shanks glazed in maple mustard, lined atop a tart and vibrant beet slaw, were so cold on one visit that the serving temperature had to be a deliberate choice—not a good one. The meats in a brisket, pork, and strip steak chili are texturally interesting, but the bowl has no seasoning. The vibrancy of sweet-and-sour carrots can't brighten the dull mushiness of a poorly cooked octopus.
It's difficult but not impossible to serve good local food in a large restaurant operation—just look at Carnivale. (And look at what Walton accomplished in the past.) I also know it's impossible to serve an edible tomato in Chicago in April, let alone several hundred of them every night. Maybe when the season actually aligns with what's on the menu, the kitchen will live up to its dubious promises of locality and seasonality. Until then, let's not pretend Howells & Hood is anything more than an impressively stocked bar.