Traveling can be a disorienting experience. After many hours in transit, you find yourself in a strange city with a landscape and street names you don't recognize and no friends except the ones you brought with you. But if you're lucky, your hotel will be full of people to comfort and pamper you and see to your happiness. Among those agents of comfort is the lobby restaurant.
Land & Lake Kitchen, LM Restaurant Group's new spot at the LondonHouse Hotel, was, says its website, inspired by "the classic mom-and-pop restaurants that dotted the midwestern landscape from Iowa to Michigan throughout the 20th century." Accordingly, there are brown leather booths. Most of the people who dine at there are hotel guests. The menu does its best to initiate them as gently as possible into the strange customs of our region, which it tries to portray as a simple, unpretentious place. Instead of a charcuterie plate, there is a "cold cuts board." (This conjures up an image of Oscar Meyer bologna and roast turkey rolled up with Kraft Singles on a plastic cafeteria tray, but really, it looks like a standard charcuterie plate, with thinly sliced meats, pickles, and olives.) Instead of chicken Vesuvio, there is "Chicago style baked chicken," although this version has fava beans instead of the usual peas. There's a "north side hot dog" (as many visitors are presumably unaware of the existence of the White Sox); a "north woods fish fry," aka fish and chips; and a "midwestern three-bean chili" with turkey that would break a Texan's heart.
"But where are the cheese curds?" asked my dining companion as we pored over the menu.
There are no cheese curds. Instead the fried-food spot of the appetizer menu is occupied by something called "the Loop Onion Rings." They're made with sweet onions, not the wild onions that gave Chicago its name. There's no deep-dish pizza, no meat loaf, no hotdish, no sweet corn on the cob, no pie under a plastic dome. There is just one casserole, cauliflower, served as a side. There is, however, Atlantic salmon (cured with Malort when it shows up on the Great Lakes Board) and, at brunch, avocado toast.
We decided to order the most stereotypically midwestern food on the menu. Or, rather, we tried to pretend we were people from the east coast who were pretending they were eating in a diner in Iowa City or Springfield, Illinois, although they had never been to either place. (If they had, they would order a loose-meat sandwich or a horseshoe in order to demonstrate their knowledge of local customs.)
The macaroni and cheese was great. It tasted the way you remember Kraft mac 'n' cheese tasting, with all the chemicals edited out. When you pull out a single noodle, it's followed by strings of melted cheese. I suspect the chef, Tim Davidson, knows it's his best dish because it shows up not once, but three times on the menu: served plain as an appetizer, with pulled pork as an entree, and with bacon, sausage, and a sunny-side up egg at brunch.
The rest of our meal just made us sad. The hamburger was Big Mac style, except without the third slice of bun, and with Thousand Island dressing instead of special sauce. The patties were overcooked but lacked the crisp edges of a really good diner burger, and the whole thing was unforgivably bland. (It also cost approximately three times more than a Big Mac.) The fries that came with it were soggy. The London broil somehow managed to be at once both tasteless and overspiced. Upon further analysis, it appeared that the meat had no flavor at all, and somebody had tried to compensate by putting a lot of overseasoned chimichurri on top.
As we picked over our main courses, my friend and I tried to figure out the logic behind the menu. It made us philosophical about the nature of midwestern food. OK, so the midwest is associated with humility and a lack of pretension. But why do these ideals, especially when applied to food, result in bland, boring dishes? Why can't midwestern food assert itself proudly, with big, juicy hunks of beef and pork and fresh vegetables, with some of the spices immigrants brought over? My friend was sad about this self-abnegation. She's from New Mexico. They are proud of their food there, even in the lousiest hotel restaurant. She decided to drown her sadness with a second drink. The drinks menu, by the way, is the most solidly midwestern part of the whole thing, with a lengthy list of regional beers.
The dessert offerings are brief, just two ice cream sandwiches: strawberry on shortbread and salted caramel pretzel crunch on chocolate wafers. This made it easy to order them both. They tasted as though they had been freshly assembled; the cookies were still crisp. There was nothing especially midwestern about them except that the ice cream came from Bobtail. They made us happy.
The brunch menu is also light on the midwestern theme. Bacon and eggs are universal in hotels across this great nation. The coffee is Big Shoulders and the pastrami in the beef hash comes from the Butcher & Larder. There are also Do-Rite Donuts, but those, the server reported, go quickly.
I'm not sure if it's fair to judge the brunch service because we showed up near the end, when everyone was tired and lackadaisical. The remains of a table for eight remained uncleared for about 15 minutes. The food, when it finally emerged from the kitchen, tasted like it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. This wasn't good for the scrambled eggs, or for the ham-and-cheese sandwich, which tasted more like Dijon mustard than anything else. The corn bread, asserted my dining companion, was the reason southerners look down on Yankee cooking.
Land & Lake Kitchen can probably best be summed up by the PB&J French toast, which tastes like an especially gooey peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glob of mascarpone on the top to add some sophistication. The menu promised "seasonal jam." The jam that arrived was strawberry. It is not strawberry season. When it comes to PB&J, I'm firmly Team Strawberry over Team Grape, so I wasn't upset about it, just puzzled.
After brunch, I went upstairs to the LondonHouse lobby to use the bathroom and then sat for a while because there are comfortable chairs and a gorgeous view of the river. Maybe it was the food coma, but I kept thinking about the not-seasonal seasonal jam. Did whoever wrote the menu throw in the word "seasonal" because that's what's expected of fine-dining restaurants these days? It was just as much a gimmick as the pretense of being a midwestern restaurant, and just as easy to see through. (Haven't you heard we midwesterners have great bullshit detectors?)
As it happens, there are quite a few restaurants in Chicago that serve excellent, thoughtful, proudly midwestern cuisine. The LondonHouse has a concierge who could presumably direct guests to any of these. If you settle for dining at Land & Lake Kitchen, it's likely you're a visitor who's too tired or overwhelmed or incurious to leave the hotel. In that case, get the mac and cheese. And an ice cream sandwich. Then go exploring. v