There's something about getting seated in Siberia for no logical reason that really allows you to let down your guard. That's what happened one evening at Remington's, the new Michigan Avenue "American grill" from the 4 Star Restaurant Group (Dunlays, Frasca, Smoke Daddy, etc) and the Chicago homecoming of the immensely talented chef Todd Stein, who spent the last year and a half working in Atlanta. With barely a quarter of the restaurant's 250 seats occupied, my pal and I were escorted to a booth hidden behind a private dining room, just above the stairs leading to the restrooms. It was so remote and peaceful nobody noticed that we ate the entire meal in the comfort of our foundation garments.
I haven't seen Remington's fill up totally, though I'm sure it does. But I did see plenty of corn-fed tourists ambling through in their sandals and shorts. "I want a veggie burger," said one who was seated next to me on another visit. "Well done."
Veggie burger? What the devil is a veggie burger doing on a Todd Stein menu? Stein, I hope you recall, first rose to prominence as executive chef at MK before becoming a forefather of the current Italian wave at the late Cibo Matto, the Florentine, and Piccolo Sogno, producing some of the city's best house-made pasta in the process. You'd suspect that 4 Star's acquisition of such a well-respected chef is an attempt to raise the profile of a group with heavy menu overlap and restaurants that subsist on a general reputation for mediocrity. But in fact, Remington's reproduces at least 15 menu items from at least one (if not more) of the group's seven other restaurants, including the soon-to-open Windsor, which will feature—just as each and every one of its other restaurants does—the Wrightwood, a salad of chicken, tomatoes, dried cranberries, avocado, goat cheese, corn, almonds, and corn-bread croutons in a citrus vinaigrette. At Remington's it's a sodden mound of unchopped greenery, dried-out croutons, and dull shredded white meat. On paper it's a composition that's remarkably similar to the vaunted Macho Salad served up the street at Bandera, which actually does it well.
I can't believe Stein approves of the menu's sole pasta offering, a dish of stiff cheese-filled ravioli with starchy peas and peeled grape tomatoes that's so far below the chef's standard for handmade pasta it could have come out of Crosby's Kitchen (where it's also on the menu).
The scope of Remington's menu seems designed, quite logically, to appeal to undiscriminating appetites, the same sort of demographic that once made the erstwhile Bennigan's down the block a popular place to rest your barking dogs after a long day at Navy Pier. And even in an upgraded milieu where neighbors such as Seven Lions, Acanto, the Gage, and the Cherry Circle Room have significantly stepped up the game without frightening away unadventurous eaters, Remington's is trafficking in familiar (mostly) American classics like wedge salads, burgers, crab cakes, rotisserie chicken, and barbecue ribs, the latter of the much-maligned fall-off–the-bone meat Jell-O variety that taste as if the kitchen were afraid of violating the no-smoking ordinance (hello, Smoke Daddy). Similarly, on one evening a half rotisserie chicken arrived with its skin sloughing off of wan white flesh that tasted more boiled than roasted.
It's not as if these iconic dishes are inherently bad, but the level of execution doesn't seem to be very high, to the point where grilled artichokes with remoulade dipping sauce (D.O.C. Wine Bar, Frasca, Dunlays) appear without a hint of oil or salt, a skillet-cooked chocolate chip cookie arrives nearly raw, and a minimally charred octopus takes tenderness to the point of mush.
Even in the few instances where the menu goes into uncharted territory for 4 Star things tend to go wrong. Sushi, say hamachi and avocado or tuna and spicy mayo, pressed onto dessert-sweet mushy coconut rice, is served too cold for one to get even a sense of the seafood's character.
It's not all hopeless. There's a perfectly decent slab of rare, peppery prime rib, as good as any Wisconsin supper club's. The lightly fried crab cake is one of the more delicate interpretations I've come across. And a cool, nutty tres leches cake, for some reason unappetizingly named "almond wet cake," is tasty enough to temporarily wipe clean some of the bad feelings you might have about what you've eaten previously.
If your menu lacks originality, then you need to make up for it in execution. Remington's doesn't, failing to clear the low hurdle set by unadventurous Mag Mile tourists and suburban day-trippers that will be its core audience. Instead it offers joyless takes on safe American classics ripped straight from the ownership's other restaurants. Todd Stein, send up a signal if they're holding you hostage. v