Sixteen (Chicago 2017)
We recently took a weekend culinary trip to Chicago, with the sole purpose of trying some of the best restaurants the city has to offer. While we enjoyed many fabulous food experiences while there (Blackbird, Tru, and North Pond among them), one of the best was at Sixteen--a fabulous two-star Michelin-rated restaurant that occupies the sixteenth floor of the 98 story, 1,388 foot tall Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. Cameron had been there a few years back, and frankly couldn't / wouldn't stop talking about the restaurant whenever anyone brought up Chicago. And we don't just mean the city either. Whenever "Hard to say I'm sorry" came on the radio, he'd want to talk about Sixteen. If he heard "You're the inspiration" at a wedding, you just knew where the conversation was headed. God only knows what would happen if we ever ran in to Peter Cetera. To say he likes the restaurant is an understatement! So, when visiting Chicago, we simply had to go.
It was such a beautiful day prior to our evening reservations at Sixteen, that we felt compelled to sit outside and day-drink a bit. Come to find out, Chicago has some absolutely stunning rooftop bars. We tried out the rooftop bar at the LondonHouse Hotel. Absolutely gorgeous views from the 33rd floor of an absolutely beautiful building. And, about 200 people that were so loud and obnoxious that we literally left without getting a drink (mind you, we were there for 30 minutes looking for a table and anyone who would take our order). So, we headed back to our tried-and-true rooftop bar--RAISED, attached to the Renaissance Hotel. Great little bar, with wonderful views of the Chicago River, and wines on tap (which is just a fantastic option). BUT, it's only 3 floors up, so you still get a lot of street and other noise, and don't get as good a view of the city as elsewhere. Something had to be done. After a few phone calls, we got seats at the 16th floor Terrace at the Trump International Hotel and Tower. Slightly different from a usual bar, the Terrace usually charges $100 / person table fee to keep patron numbers to a manageable level, and because the views are simply that awesome. Trust us--being right next to the Wrigley Building after dark really has its benefits (see picture above)! When the weather is nice, there's a substantial waiting list.
After getting there and confirming we had reservations at Sixteen, we were immediately ushered to a fantastic table with the best views Chicago has to offer (and they comped the $100 / person fee). We ordered a nice bottle of wine to begin the evening, and were pleased at how quiet and beautiful the Terrace was. Built-in fire pits were everywhere, and you could even enjoy walking around Sixteen's rooftop vegetable garden if you wanted. If the Russian oligarchs next to us weren't so interesting, we would have done that. Instead, we stayed put, drank our wine, and had a great conversation with the really nice waitress. Come to find out, you can have dinner on the Terrace as well. Pricing isn't bad, and the food looked pretty gourmet. We happily finished our bottle of wine, took one last look around, and were excited to head inside for dinner.
Now, things have changed at Sixteen a bit since Cameron's last trip back in 2013. Then, the restaurant had just switched chefs and regained a one-star Michelin rating. Back then, it was shooting for a two-star rating with such tricks as presenting the tasting menu via four different-tasting egg custards (served in the eggshell). You picked which egg you liked, and that was your menu for the evening. Funky, and fun. Fast forward to present. The menu is a bit more conventional (it's presented on paper, after all), and it's an extremely solid two-star option--one of only 5 in Chicago. From all indications, Sixteen is aspiring to be a three-star restaurant. We think it's succeeding.
We were presented with the wine list upon being seated, and chose an older vintage champagne to accompany dinner (as we usually do). The Somm on duty--who recently passed the certified Master Sommelier exam--subbed in a slightly more expensive grower champagne to make up for the fact the restaurant had just run out of the vintage option we originally ordered. Nice move, and a delicious choice. Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Orizeaux Merfy Extra Brut. A single-vineyard wine from a specific, distinct (yet undeclared) vintage (we guess 2011), it was dry, with substantial chalk and limestone notes, yet not stark. Still rich and luscious, but without the heavy over-arching pretension of some competitors. A beautiful effort that we'd give 92 points to, for those that care about such things.
Immediately after the champagne was served, we were presented with 3 amuse bouches labeled as "summer snacks." Each of us received a basket that was beautifully crafted and playful. Herbs and wild leaves covered the bottom with fresh tomatillos added in for effect. The amuse bouches were interspersed within our personal vegetable gardens. We started with the basil flavored shaved ice, which was fresh and delicious --a great palate cleanser to get you ready for the meal to come. Next, we moved to the spherified tomato / balsamic bite. This tasted just like a caprese salad that burst in your mouth--extremely inventive, playful, fun, and delicious. Last, we tried the poached yellow tomato. It was the more savory bite of the three, and was a simple as it sounds. It really represented a bite of pure summer essence.
So, part of the whole two-star Michelin experience is inevitably being presented with the caviar menu. It's safe to say that long, long ago, neither of us knew such a thing existed--we grew up on meat, potatoes, and lasagna. But it does. And, the only part of us generally unhappy with that fact is our bank account at the end of the night. But we digress. Thinking rationally (of course), we realized we just HAD to have some caviar to go with our vintage(ish) champagne. I mean, we aren't savages. Even our dober-pups enjoy single-malt scotch, fine wine, and craft beer. So what do you expect??
For those who may not frequent the caviar section at your local Wal-Mart like we do, it's generally served with 5 accompaniments: diced egg white, diced egg yolk, diced chive, creme fraiche, and diced red or white onion. We were really pleased with what we received at Sixteen. Many times, restaurants serve caviar and its accompaniments with ratios that are simply off, and you always end up running out of one (or more) before the others. It's the law of limiting reagents. Sixteen was generous with their options, so the only thing we ended up running out of was the caviar (as it should be). The blinis were buttery and fluffy. The caviar salty and briny. The creme fraiche seemingly hand-made. We also really liked the caviar setup itself – it played off the look of the caviar and was a non-stuffy, very functional option. While Tru serves their caviar on the extended arms of a beautiful piece of white coral, their setup just isn't that functional. Although it would have been nice to be given a chilled vodka option to accompany the caviar service, we don't want to be too picky there.
After working our way through the caviar--which, if you haven't guessed, was awesome--we moved on to our first "real" course of the evening. Sake leeks, served with forbidden rice and shiso. Now, neither of us are huge sake fans, but this dish's sake flavors were subtle and bearable. We thought the crisp rice had a really nice crunch and reminded us of a grown-up version of rice krispies. The shiso garnish was exotic and not something you see very often. The dumpling had a nice texture and wasn’t too heavy. All-in-all, a nice dish.
The next course (the 6th, if you individually count the "summer snacks" and the caviar), was their poached oyster, summer squash and bronze fennel soup. This was simply a gorgeous presentation--so colorful and clean. The squash was presented a few ways, with the puree at the bottom of the bowl, thinly shaved on the edge, squash blossoms added in, and squash leaves included for good measure. All slightly different flavors, but very appropriate for the beginning of fall. The oysters were a bit cumbersome due to their size (and the fact they weren't chopped), but the flavor was still notably briny and fresh, especially when mixed with the earthy freshness of the squash.
The seventh course that arrived was what the restaurant termed "White Rabbit, Ground Berries, Ginger Mint." We literally had no idea what to expect on this. Was it an Alice in Wonderland take? Were we going to relive the early parts of the Matrix? Would we get rabbit in the shape of Neo that constantly repeated "whoa" in a 1990s stoner sort of way? Luckily, none of the above. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to see a lovely rabbit pate pie slice with creative forest berries presented to cut through the richness. The pate was smooth and wasn’t gamey at all, as you might expect from rabbit. The pie crust was buttery and flaky, and not too heavy or thick. A very thin layer of gelee on top of the rabbit pate made this a true winner. Earthy, unctuous, delicious, with good offsetting acidity to provide balance.
Our eighth course--"Corvina, Leche de Tigre, and Ossetra Caviar"--came out, and we certainly weren't disappointed. Once again, the plating was stunning on this dish, from the rolled fish, to the twills of red pepper, the light pomegranate "soup" and the wonderful surprise of caviar hidden under the foam on the right side of the plate. The fish was some of the freshest we’ve had, and the leche de tigre (byproduct of curing ceviche) and the pops of caviar gave the freshness of the vegetables and fish a well-balanced, citrus and briny counterpoint.
It was time for the ninth course--"Eggplant, Bok Choi, Black Garlic." To be honest, we weren’t really looking forward to this one. We both rarely enjoy eggplant, for various reasons, and Cameron tends to dislike bok choi. However, we were both very pleasantly surprised that this eggplant more so tasted like an excellent Korean short rib, rather than eggplant (we know, it sounds crazy). It was excellent! The black garlic and accompanying vegetables provided a much-needed cut through the richness of the eggplant / short ribs. We’d eat eggplant all the time if it were served like this! Simply an AMAZING dish, and one of the stars of the night!
The chef surprised us with an additional course--seared fois gras with kumquat puree and pickled onion--our tenth of the evening. It was such a lovely gesture, not to mention absolutely delicious. Even though it was off-menu, and just a small bite, it was one of our favorites from the evening. How can you say no to foie-gras we ask??? As we said, we aren't savages!
Our now eleventh course came out soon after we finished the foie-gras: titled "Sweet Corn, Chanterelle Past, Espelette." What they forgot to mention was the fresh-shaved truffle. You could smell the fresh truffles on this a mile away (not truffle oil, mind you, fresh truffles). Always a sign of good things to come! This was another wonderfully-executed dish that was beautifully and inventively plated. We were grateful that it wasn’t too heavy or too much pasta, despite the fact it looked like a sizable portion. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the corn cream sauce provided a buttery, slightly-sweet counterpoint to the richness of the truffle and mushrooms. The chanterelle mushrooms were fabulous, both inside the pasta and on their own. And, of course, the freshly shaved black truffle truly shined and made this dish so earthy and delicious that we barricaded ourselves in the kitchen until they gave us several more servings. OK, we didn't do that. But we seriously thought about it. Next time.
The twelfth course--"Fruits de Mer, Saffron Pici, Currant Tomato"--came out, and it was just as good as the previous course, just for far different reasons. We loved the buttery foam and the sour notes of the tomato. The saffron pici (pasta) was perfectly cooked al dente and it really soaked up the disparate and complimentary flavors. The basil gave a nice earthy note. And, the lobster, and mussels provided a salty, slightly-briny counterpoint to the rich and fresh flavors presented by the tomato, foam, basil and pasta, and balanced the dish with the perfect ratio of protein, providing bite, and oceanic essence.
"Rouget, Lobster-Bottarga Emulsion, Radish" was the thirteenth course, and was probably the most unique of the evening. It was probably Natalie's least-favorite of the evening, while Cameron would simply term it "interesting." While beautiful, and certainly unique, this dish will gain followers or detractors due to how the Rouget (red mullet) was prepared and presented. While many fine restaurants attempt to provide diners with a de-scaled crispy skin on fish options (which is generally lovely), Sixteen took this to the next level. They "turned it up to 11." Essentially, they left the fish scales on, cooked the fish to rare, then blow-torched the hell out of the skin/scales until the scales popped up like popcorn, and the skin curled back on itself like a potato chip. Neither of us had ever experienced a preparation like that. Cameron found it to be not altogether bad--certainly "interesting." Certainly tasty. A little bit of a strange texture as the fish scales rehydrated and you chewed through them as they crunched and popped in your mouth. Natalie was less excited. Many of them got stuck in her throat, and she ended up scraping most of them off, rather than endure that experience over a fairly significantly-sized portion of fish. We both admit that the fish was cooked very nicely, and the lobster-bottarga emulsion (which we'd never had before) was very flavorful, likely due to the dried fish roe. Certainly inventive. Certainly beautiful. Natalie just really couldn’t get past the popcorn scales.
"American Wagyu Beef, Bluefoot Mushroom, and Cauliflower" was the fourteenth dish of the evening, and was just a stunning effort. The taste and presentation were both very much on point. If you're in Junior High, you could even say it was "on fleek." The wagyu beef was clearly cooked using the sous-vide method, with a quick sear to provide color and texture. This was something Tru didn't seem to utilize for its protein options, to its detriment. We can affirmatively say that it really worked for Sixteen. The sauce the chef utilized was divine, and the dots of fruit puree/red wine gelee offered an acidic counterpoint to balance out the fatty richness of the wagyu. The blue foot mushrooms were a real treat, and we liked the fun use of the purple cauliflower florets, and the cauliflower puree, placed on the plate in two improbably-long quenelles.
At this point, the dessert courses started coming out. The first dessert, our fifteenth course of the evening, was a thin wafer made out of buckwheat and honey topped with a few dried summer flowers, all over an elderflower foam. It was sweet, delicious, and refreshing. It was a nice transition from the richness of the beef, and almost served as a palate cleanser.
Our second dessert was presented beautifully. A quenelle of raspberry-hibiscus gelato inside a shallow bowl, surrounded by crumbled sicilian pistachio sponge cake. The cold of the gelato, with a light crunch provided by a crumble added at the bottom of the dish, and the nutty richness of the sponge all combined to make this really satisfying. Very traditional for sure. Certainly has been done by lots of people before (we had something similar at our engagement dinner several years ago, for instance). And a bit of a "phone-in" from a dessert perspective. But still absolutely delicious. Hard to hate on a dish that tastes this good.
Next came a really interesting dessert: "cigars" of frozen custard flavored with Thai basil and cardamom, surrounded by thinly-molded sheets of very dark santarem chocolate, with a quenelle of cardamom gelato on the side. Even though it was savory and rich and delectable, it was really cut by the light fruity acidity provided by the raspberry gelee that was added to the plate in just the right amount. The dish provided a perfect ying and yang of sweet and savory that you really want in a well-balanced desert. This was a strong effort for sure.
Finally, out came a false apricot tart, with a ginger-almond "crust" and a lemon verbina gelato on top. This was nicely composed, very traditional, and frankly delicious. The apricots used to fill the "tart" were perfectly cooked (not too chewy, not too soft), and the mixture of the lemon verbina with the savory notes of almond and carmely apricot once again proved the pastry chef has balance in mind. Once again, this wasn't all that "inventive," but still extremely tasty. It may not deserve three-star style points, but I'd still eat this all night long if given the chance. Perfectly seasonal as well.
Finally, it was time for home-made chocolate truffles, and the candy cart. Nothing like a little bite of hand-made confections to finish things out nicely (along with some freshly-brewed coffee). There was nothing balanced about anything on this cart, but that's perfectly OK. Great to see the pastry chef's chocolate and candy work, and always good to enjoy this little perk of a high-end restaurant. Nice presentation too. You get this treat the world over in Michelin-rated restaurants, and it never ceases to be fun.
At this point, a small cheese course would have been nice to fill out the meal and cut the sweetness, but it seems that's more of a European staple. That said, offering one certainly wouldn't hurt Sixteen's chances to move up the ranks. An interesting cheese program never hurt anyone . . .
The meal was finally over. It clocked in at 20 courses and several hours, and was completely worth the dent it made in our wallet! We left extremely satisfied. We were really impressed by the quality of the ingredients, the general inventiveness of the cuisine, and the craft and artistry of the chefs that put it all together. Sixteen certainly gave us the experience we were hoping for, and the one Cameron remembered from all those years ago. Far from losing a step, Sixteen is still climbing, hoping, waiting to see if a third star is in the cards. With a few tweaks, and possibly a few more / different courses, it could well happen for them. This is a place we'll certainly come back to whenever possible, and we recommend you do the same the next time you're in Chicago. If nothing else, it's worth going just for the view!