It has been a brutal three months for Chicago's restaurants. Beyond the Facebook Chiberia photos and scientifically illiterate global warming jokes lies the grim reality that the cold and snow of 2014 have kept Chicagoans in their homes and out of dining rooms.
Let us resolve to dine out more — in snow pants and boots, if necessary — in the coming weeks. And Travelle, the 8-month-old dining room within River North's equally young Langham Hotel, is a good place to start.
Devoid of exterior signage (the Langham is in the former IBM Building, a designated Chicago and historic landmark), Travelle does good weekend business (which will improve as word spreads about the sleekly attractive 81-seat river-view lounge) but is dragging during the week.
Tables are readily available; the only question is when to dine. There's a breakfast menu of considerable ambition, offering a half-dozen eggs Benedict variations with Burgundian, Moroccan and even Norwegian influences. Lunch features imaginative sandwiches and a three-course, built-for-speed "Wabash Express" menu ($29). And dinner — well, dinner is when Travelle really gets interesting.
Chef Tim Graham, formerly of Tru and opening chef at Paris Club, presides over a seafood-focused menu that makes much use of Middle Eastern spices. A carpaccio of raw snapper, for instance, is topped with bits of white anchovy (standing in for salt) and sprinkled with za'atar (an herb and spice blend); a duet of suckling pig with crispy pork belly sits over pieces of kuri squash, fig and green olives, surrounded by a pork jus seasoned with fennel and cinnamon.
Many restaurants offer charcuterie — it's practically a law these days — and Graham dutifully offers salumi and cheese boards. But he also fashioned an imaginative "seacuterie" of ocean-inspired creations that mimic the textural range of a good charcuterie board. They include a smoked salmon terrine with olives and mustard butter, a mosaic of octopus reminiscent of head cheese, sturdy chunks of pickled mackerel and spreadable whitefish rillettes. It makes a fine, shareable starter.
Further into the menu you'll find goodies like California spot prawns, split lengthwise and dressed with olive oil, diced chilies and mint; and crispy flatbread topped with crumbled merguez sausage and olives. Smallish pastas include house-made tortiglioni with wild boar ragu, and lemon thyme risotto topped with Parmesan crisps. (You can flesh out the risotto by adding lobster meat for an extra $18, and apparently quite a few guests do just that.)
The what-on-earth starter is dubbed "flaming saganaki wings," and, indeed, these meaty chicken wings, marinated in lemon and oregano, are flamed tableside (with 151-proof rum infused with fennel). What rescues this from utter gimmickry is the fact that they taste delicious, especially with the harissa-aioli accompaniment.
"It's a way to bring down the luxury-dining-room pretension," Graham says. "I can't believe they let me do (the dish)."
Main courses include some excellent fish dishes, notably arctic char with a tangerine vinaigrette, and a striped bass atop toasted cauliflower and hazelnuts, surrounded by a thin ring of pomegranate molasses. There also are a few steaks on the menu (it's a hotel dining room, after all), of which the hanger steak, a flavorful slab of sliced beef that's accompanied by fries and bagna cauda, is the most affordable and interesting (though serious beef lovers might take on that $62, 28-ounce porterhouse for two).
Pastry chef Scott Green marries the Middle East to the Midwest with goodies such as the Nutella baklava, a nut- and Nutella-filled pastry served with cocoa nib crisps and orange gelee domes topped with gelled balsamic droplets. A pithivier cake, sitting on a puff pastry base, includes bruleed grapefruit and honey ice cream and pink bits of Campari gel. Salted caramel makes the dark chocolate terrine a memorable sweet, and poached apple in caramel with vanilla ice cream is pure Midwest.
Travelle is well equipped to provide a luxury dining experience (see my story on the Seafood Elevation, above), but pains have been taken to keep the restaurant down-to-earth. This leads to some mixed messages, though. Luxurious napkins and table appointments and wide, cream leather chairs speak to high-end dining, but the lack of tablecloths and white-on-beige palette suggest something far more casual. But it's a very comfortable space, and for visual interest there's the glass-enclosed display kitchen that Graham dubs the "chef-quarium."
But it's nice to see a restaurant this well-appointed offering its entrees (those few luxury items aside) below the $30 mark. The same holds true of the 1,600-bottle wine list, which has all the indulgences one might expect but includes budget-friendly bottles as well.
One thing I wish would go away is the feedback card, which arrives with the check. A card that invites diners to rate "enthusiasm and genuine service" and "beverage quality and variety" on a poor to excellent scale is something I expect to encounter at a chain restaurant, not a dining room that is striving to be so much more.
330 N. Wabash Ave.
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday (brunch Saturday-Sunday)
Prices: Main courses $24-$45
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended weekends
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking ($14 with validation)
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.