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The saganaki wings

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by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | September 26, 2013

It can’t be easy opening a restaurant in a hotel these days. While in the past hotel restaurants were, more often than not, afterthoughts, they’ve now become destinations all their own. The catch? They still have to please the sophisticated traveler and picky Aunt Betty, as well as the food-savvy local. Plus, their location in a hotel dictates breakfast, lunch and dinner are a given, which means the space has to look just as pretty in the morning as it does at night.

Not an easy task, mind you, but Travelle, in the just-opened Langham Chicago, manages to do all that. I imagine its location in an iconic 1960s skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe—the first 13 floors of the former IBM building, to be exact—doesn’t hurt. Nor do the lovely views of the Chicago River and surrounding downtown buildings. Personally, I love that Travelle’s location on the second floor makes you feel like you’re in the heart of the city—watching the cars wind around the lower-level parking garage of Marina City towers across the street is mesmerizing—rather than looking down on it from a lofty perch.

For the River North restaurant’s decor, hot-shot designer David Rockwell opted to follow the sleek, clean look of the building. Smart move. In the 124-seat dining room, you’ll find a mix of custom and vintage midcentury modern pieces, including a semicircle freestanding banquette and buttery beige leather-topped chairs (just try to resist running your fingers over them). In the neighboring lounge, the vibe is a bit hipper, with a 30-foot digital art display and mod curved couches. Two floor-to-ceiling wine walls separate the spaces—clever and functional.

The same can be said of the glass-enclosed kitchen, headed up by chef Tim Graham, who previously worked at Tru and Paris Club. Two other Tru vets are also onboard: General Manager Serge Krieger and Wine Director Richard Hanauer, whose global wine list offers plenty of interesting by-the-glass options (I particularly liked the crisp, fruit-forward 2011 Domaine Fouassier Clos Paradis Sancerre). “Without getting too hokeypokey about it, there’s an energy transfer that can happen between the cooks and the guests that doesn’t happen when there’s a wall between them,” says Graham. “We get to see the guests enjoying the food, and they get to see us cooking it.”

And enjoy it I did. For food inspiration, Graham looks toward the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. (The restaurant’s name, after all, is a play on the word travel.) Rather than limit himself to well-known areas—say, Spain, Italy and the South of France—Graham expands his horizons, tapping into the ingredients and dishes of Turkey, Greece and Egypt too.

Take, for instance, his saganaki wings from the Diminutive Introductions section of the dinner menu (a bit overwhelming, the menu also includes sections dedicated to caviar, seafood towers, charcuterie, crudo, soups and salads, flatbreads, fish, pasta, mains and sides). For the dish, the six plump poultry pieces are first sprinkled with fennel liqueur before they’re lit on fire tableside. A squeeze of lemon douses the flames and adds a nice acidic balance to the juicy meat.

As showy as that dish is, the hamachi crudo, on the other hand, earns my nod of approval for its simple preparation; the five slices of raw fish sit in chilled grape-ginger water and are decorated with bits of marcona almonds for texture.

For the Seacuterie, Graham’s riff on charcutuerie, the flavors of the sea come through loud and clear (non-fish-lovers, you’ve been warned). On my visit, the rotating selection included a rich 10-layer salmon-and-herb-butter terrine, smoked whitefish rillette and a bouillabaisse “dome”—think pieces of lobster, cod and clams suspended in a fragrant gelee. Weird, sure, but delicious, too, as were the tangy pickled red onions and baby squash that came on the wood cutting board it’s served on.

Nothing weird about the plump discs of short rib ravioli, which are paired with an earthy Moroccan-inspired herb sauce.

And how’s this for crossing culinary preference lines? My 6-foot-4 dining companion, known around the office for his expertise in smoking large pieces of meat, cited the dainty dish of cumin-flavored beets and goat cheese mounds dusted with crisp quinoa as his favorite. Or, more specifically, “There was just enough cumin to leave me wanting more,” he says. As for me, someone who eats salads more often than I like to admit—at 5-foot-2 it comes with the territory—it was the suckling pig from the Mains menu section that I can’t stop thinking about. Coming from famed gourmet purveyor D’Artagnan, the pig meat gets a flavor boost from two days of brining in duck fat. Its ubercrispy skin topping the thin layer of luscious fat is courtesy of a quick dip in the deep fryer before serving.

Desserts at Travelle from Pastry Chef Scott Green follow the same culinary direction as the main menu, which makes for a lovely segue between the two. Options include Nutella baklava with balsamic pearls, almond olive oil cake and, my favorite, Moroccan baked apple with pieces of spiced cake and a refreshing lemon verbena essence.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, comes at breakfast. Rather than sticking to boring staples, Graham gets creative, offering six versions of eggs Benedict. Even poached eggs feel the love with the addition of a terrific housemade savory olive-studded biscotti. “There’s a lot of fun stuff I’ve had stored up in the memory banks that I never had an outlet for,” says Graham. We, for one, are glad he has one now.

Travelle
300 N. Wabash Ave.,
312.923.7705
travellechicago.com

Hours: Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly, and brunch Sat.-Sun.

Menu: First courses $8-$17, mains $17-$55, desserts $9

You’ve Been Served
Don’t be surprised if one of the chefs brings out your food. “Who knows the food better and who’s more excited to talk about it?” says chef Tim Graham.

Top Chef
Those looking for a more personal dining experience can book the 10-seat chef’s table next to the glass-enclosed kitchen for a specially curated meal.

Bar None
Besides offering terrific river views, the lounge area features a separate menu and gratis bar snacks, like spiced fried chickpeas and marinated olives with cured feta.

The Need for Speed
Those strapped for time will appreciate the Wabash Express three-course lunch—chanterelle risotto, perhaps?—which guarantees a 40-minute dining experience.