At the Kennison chef Bill Walker picks up where Perennial Virant left off | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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At the Kennison chef Bill Walker picks up where Perennial Virant left off

Like its predecessor, the new restaurant from the Boka group makes an art of seasonal cooking

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We had a lovely summer, didn't we? The world was spiraling down a planet-size shit funnel of humanity's own making, but at least it was warm, breezy, and sunny in Chicago. During the last sweet breaths of the season I ate at the Kennison, the new restaurant in the Hotel Lincoln, and I took every opportunity to order the fantastic corn we were blessed with this year. It was the culinary analogue to Nero's fiddle.

I ate a heavenly bowl of cool corn soup the texture of a milk shake and as refreshing, surrounding a tiny island of cilantro- and chile-kissed shrimp ceviche. I crunched on golden kernels, tossed with mussels and chorizo, that popped with sugar and vitality. Corn played the leading role in succotash, standing out among beans, peppers, and tomatoes alongside thick slices of rosy pork loin. In late August, the Kennison was tossing out gold like a drunken leprechaun.

It's reassuring that this restaurant, whose tall windows look across North Clark Street to the grounds of the Green City Market, is taking up the mantle of seasonality that Perennial Virant shouldered for so many years. That, of course, was the long-running Boka Restaurant Group favorite that used to occupy this space. The Kennison (in addition to the hotel's rooftop restaurant, the J. Parker) is a partnership between BRG and the fledgling 90/94 Restaurant Group. It's named for David Kennison, who claimed (falsely) that he was the last surviving participant in the Boston Tea Party as well as a veteran of the Revolutionary War. There's a monument to him in Lincoln Park that says he died in 1852, so at least we know he wasn't a Confederate.

The chef here has a more wholesome biography. Bill Walker is a veteran of solid bets like Green Zebra, Old Town Social, Salero, Next, and Wood, but at the Kennison he's taken on the age-old challenge of creating compelling food that must meet the very broad needs of hotel travelers—who may or may not care very much about compelling food.

Let's see how he does. I zeroed in on a salad of purple beets, carved into perfect spheres propping up shards of rye toast and a creamy deviled egg bedazzled with salmon roe. The dish seemed to signal summer's end. How about a tuna tartare that unleashes the pleasant burn of aji chile, surrounded by dabs of margarita gelee, a swish of avocado mousse, and masa crackers? Or ribbons of pappardelle tangled in a shredded rabbit sauce made gently sweet by peaches and lavender honey? Walker isn't trying to coddle anyone with this beautiful, artfully plated food.

But then who looks at a list of appetizers and doesn't order meatballs? Here they'll get springy pork orbs in peppery arrabbiata sauce, powered by peak-season tomatoes and showered with Parmigiano snow. Syrupy raspberry dressing is plated to the side of a pile of sharp arugula and nutty farro; the salad comes mined with blueberries already bursting with natural sweetness. Travelers who visit Chicago and only want to eat steak could look to the short rib, a dense slab that almost assumes the form of a fillet thanks to the magic of sous vide. Parents who want to inflict vegetables on their children won't regret the leftover broccolini the little monsters leave behind; it's dressed with feta cheese, and conceals an understory of baba ghanoush.

This is the third hotel restaurant I've reviewed in a row, and like any of them, the Kennison's got a few duds. In a dish of squid ink tagliolini and charred octopus both elements perform admirably on their own, but a sauce made from the cephalopods' braising liquid and sherry vinegar takes up too much attention. Too-soft pastrami-spiced smoked carrots, served on a bed of overassertive napa cabbage kraut with dabs of beet and caraway puree, is the one dish capable giving even more intrepid eaters pause.

The dessert menu, by pastry chef Maree Rogers, late of Momotaro and Grace, will put anyone back at ease. It's a study in cake and ice cream, featuring, for instance, a rectangle of dense brown-butter cake finished with fat blackberries, blackberry sherbet, and dabs of lime gelee. A mascarpone cheesecake with a similar geometry has its richness cut by a gently tannic apricot-black tea sorbet. Meanwhile a wickedly seductive chocolate cake layered with caramel cremeux is sprinkled with house-made Cracker Jack (corn again), with a corner dipped in a stygian hot fudge sauce; a quenelle of roasted peanut ice cream begins to melt in admiration.

Like Perennial Virant, the Kennison, with its warm, inviting brown-leather booths, remains one of the loveliest dining rooms in town, a place that manages to make a ground-level view of a park interrupted by a busy street something worth gazing upon. The verdant patio, on the corner of Clark and Lincoln, is its own refuge. This is a multipurpose setting, worth settling in for brunch or just bending the elbow. To that end, the Smoke and Mirrors is a jolly good belt, deceptively dainty in a Nick and Nora glass, with ten-year-old scotch and a tobacco tincture. The mix of bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth in the Buffalo Nickel deepens in mystery as a big, melting coffee rock slowly dilutes its sweetness. If you're not driving the minivan back to Indianapolis, you'll want to order a follow-up pour of whatever brown liquor you favor, just to make use of the remaining cube. The 50-something-bottle wine list has a little northern California thrown in, but is dominated by France, with options available in the $50 range like a Vieille Julienne "Clavin" cotes du rhone. The two dozen wines by the glass are a bit more diverse, with showings from lands afar like New Zealand, the Finger Lakes, and Italy.

It's likely that by the time you read this, the corn will be running out at the Kennison, along with much of the other wonderful produce Walker put on the menu this summer. But hey, apples are here. Squash is coming, grapes and root vegetables are on their way. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with all of that.  v

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