The pandemic is receding, the sun is shining, and temperatures are rising. Slowly, people are venturing outside their homes, hungry for dining and other social experiences they used to enjoy in the Before Times. According to the data scientists at Zenwatch, foot traffic at bars and restaurants is up 41% for the year and 33% in just the past three months. Ready to respond to the increased demand for dining out, three Chicago restaurants opened in May, each offering welcome relief from our many months of enforced hibernation.
Mansion on Rush
1009 N. Rush
“People are ready to start dining out again,” says Mansion on Rush owner Rodrigio Ferrari Millicardi, “and we are ready for them.” Mansion on Rush is located on the second floor of a building that faces Rush Street, which during the summer months will be blocked off to vehicles, the better to encourage pedestrians to get the party started. From the restaurant’s glass enclosed patio (soon to have a retractable roof), diners enjoy a commanding view of one of the most active nightlife areas of the city. The interior has been carefully designed by Millicardi to be both luxe and comfortable, with tasteful appointments — “all Italian,” Millicaridi proudly adds — including two long dining rooms and an elegant bar.
Sitting down with Millicardi and Chef Chris Traynor, formerly of PL8 in Barrington, we sampled one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: caviar. For the luxury diners that Millicardi hopes to attract, caviar is perhaps the defining dish, and Mansion on Rush is stocking many caviars, selected and presented in collaboration with Rod Markus of Rare Tea Cellar, the city’s foremost source for exotic food and drink.
“People who haven’t enjoyed caviar before,” says Traynor, “might have a strange reaction to eating fish ‘eggs.’ For those people, I’d recommend our Golden Rainbow Trout Roe from Denmark: the eggs are very small and flavorful.” This trout roe is also just beautiful, all glistening and golden. At Mansion on Rush, roes and caviars are accessorized with Traynor’s delicate blinis and thoughtful sauces.
There is, of course, lots more on the menu besides roe and caviar. Mansion on Rush is billed as “inspired Japanese fusion cuisine with Latin flair.” In addition to Japanese sashimi, sushi and maki rolls, there’s an Italianate influence provided by Chef Alberto Padilla, who spent decades working in the kitchen at La Scarola, generally recognized as one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city. Together, Traynor and Padilla turn out such dishes as Spicy Kampachi (amber jack, served fresh and sliced, over a serrano chili salsa), Firework Salmon (fresh and torched, with ponzu and a splash of salsa roja), as well as Wagyu steak with Japanese sesame and chimichurri.
Predictably, there’s also a large selection of Champagne and sparklers — including large-format bottles that go for between around $1,000 to $3,000 — and a V.I.P. table at the back where you can enjoy them all.
For the late-night/early-morning crowd, the kitchen stays open until 1 AM, and a DJ will spin his tunes in a booth off to the side of the dining room, constructed of 24-karat-gold-plated tiles (what else?!).
120 E. Delaware Place
Though it did open, briefly, during the pandemic, Adorn had to close again, and it has just recently re-opened under the direction of Chef Jonathon Sawyer.
Adorn is located in the Four Seasons, and if you had always thought of hotel restaurants as being mostly just functional and pro forma, you will change your mind after dining at Adorn.
Phil Vettel wrote in the Chicago Tribune that “Since the creation of the Best Chef: Great Lakes award by the James Beard Foundation in 2007, a Chicago chef has won nearly every time. The last non-Chicago chef to win, back in 2015, was Cleveland’s Jonathon Sawyer… Adorn will not be your typical hotel dining room. Taking the space that was last home to Allium restaurant (where Kevin Hickey of Duck Inn was chef), Adorn promises to be more contemporary, taking maximum advantage of its massive east-facing windows and offering a contemporary atmosphere.”
Sawyer is recognized as a fine dining chef, though in the innovative tradition of other distinguished chefs like Grant Achatz at Alinea and the late Omaro Cantu of Moto, there will be a lot of fanciful fun and playful dishes served at his restaurant… and it all starts at breakfast. As a hotel restaurant, Adorn is charged with serving brunch and (soon) breakfast, and Sawyer has taken the opportunity to go way beyond bacon and eggs, with offerings like bowls of cereal unlike any you’ve probably ever had, to wit: a bowl filled with over 30 mini-croissants, destined to elevate your opinion of cold cereal. For those of us who are not immune to the charms of pizza or spaghetti for our first meal of the day, there’s a Breakfast Bolognese of tagliatelle, Emilia Romagna sauce, and a poached egg (it is breakfast, after all!). The Sicilian Stoner is fresh focaccia and cold pistachio gelato.
At dinner, the fun continues with an edible candle made of beef tallow, which you allow to melt down at your table before dipping pieces of Publican Quality bread into the melted beef fat — delicious. The Carrot Cooked Carrot is the root vegetable cooked in carrot juice (along with Yemeni spices, sorghum, and orange peel), for a very carrot-y, and delicious, dish.
Highly enjoyable are the chicken wings; Sawyer explains, “Wings prepared ‘our way’ were somewhat revolutionary in that they combined the French bistro practice of duck confit with the Americana of the Buffalo wing. We get the wings in, we cure them in a mix of juniper, black pepper, balsamic, bell pepper, bay leaves, sugar, and coriander. We pull the chicken out and let it air dry, so it forms a pellicle [a kind of cuticle over the skin]. When we drop it in the fryer, the fat crisps the skin, but it never really penetrates the interior, so the meat stays tender and falls off the bone, like on a confit duck.”
There are also, of course, many more of the serious standards you’d expect in a fine dining restaurant. The A5 Miyazaki Beef, served with Japanese tare ketchup (a mixture of soy, mirin, vinegar and spices), is considered by many to be the ultimate in beef-eating luxury, incredibly rich (looking at a raw A5 steak, you’ll see it crisscrossed with a web of thin lines of fat, all of which contribute to the meat’s famed moisture and flavor). Such rare and rich meat is best enjoyed in small portions; this is a good dish to share.
Together with the Four Seasons, Adorn is one of a formidable one-two punch for dinner and an overnight stay in the city.
224 N. Michigan
Located in the Pendry hotel in the Art Deco classic Carbide and Carbon building, Venteux brings the lively spirit of the French brasserie to downtown dining.
Heading up the kitchen is Don Young, formerly of Temporis, which scored a Michelin star in 2018; Young initially trained in the kitchen of Roland Liccioni at the legendary Le Francais in Wheeling.
With a solid background in traditional French cuisine, and as with Traynor, Sawyer and other rising Chicago chefs, Young has a playful attitude toward his food. I asked him what dish best represents his approach to cooking and he did not hesitate to say, “Eggs Five Ways, which I came up with, kind of accidentally, at Temporis. All I was trying to do was to make eggs more yellow, so I came up with this custard using a French cheese, Delice de Bourgogne, which is undergoing a kind of a craze in Chicago right now. It’s similar to brie, but sharper and creamier. This mixture of cheese and egg becomes a kind of scramble within the omelet, then I’ll be doing a hollandaise (that’s my third egg) and adding trout roe on top. Over that, I grate an egg that’s been cured with salt, sugar and herbs.”
Venteux bills itself, in part, as an oyster bar, and in the tradition of the French brasserie, the collection of oysters at Venteux is fantastic — and they’re served with a vinaigrette of blueberries (“my favorite fruit,” says Young) and cocktail sauce that shows the French influence with a lightly spicy kick from Moroccan harissa. Also, in the mold of the brasserie, there will be escargots and French onion soup; to the soup, Young adds ash from the onions, which contributes a very slight smokiness, though that ingredient is something you’d be unlikely to find in any French kitchen.
“I really love sumac,” says Young, and when I mention that sumac did not seem to be a traditionally French herb, he responded that it is nonetheless “traditionally Mediterranean, and we’re not going to be 100% straight French; we have to pull away from that influence to keep our food new and interesting.”
There are many more solidly American dishes at Venteux, like the Braised Short Rib, which is also served with blueberries, a rather unconventional accompaniment, but the acidity of the berry works well with the incredible lushness of the meat.
Young believes that “French cuisine is coming back,” and Venteux as well as Mansion on Rush and Adorn represent a return to the French tradition, which has traditionally been a big influence on Chicago culinary culture.
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.