I experienced The Lobby at the Peninsula for the first time last year during Restaurant Week. They turned my head with the special touches – the incredible porcini soup amuse bouche, the bread service, the mignardises, the individual pound cake with the check – and the elegant surroundings. Since that first visit, I’ve returned maybe half a dozen times, unfortunately with somewhat mixed results.
After Chef Lee Wolen left, The Lobby made radical changes to the menu, largely simplifying to something closer to a more standard hotel restaurant than a fine dining destination. Judging by this year’s Restaurant Week offerings, they have also eliminated much of what I loved about the restaurant – no amuse, no mignardises, no individual pound cake as a little goodbye. Those are small touches, I know, but they really added to the luxurious, pampering atmosphere (and they were delicious, frankly more memorable than some of the proper dishes). That said, the Restaurant Week menu is also offered at a lower price point this year ($33 for three courses, instead of the $44 last year).
The meal begins with rolls – one brioche and two ciabatta. The butter, though properly spreadable, appears to just be regular cow’s milk butter (in the past, they’ve offered both cow’s milk butter and goat’s milk butter). The brioche is slightly warm, although it could have been warmer, but it is soft, and I always enjoy their combination of smoky bacon and buttery brioche. The ciabatta has a crispy crust, although it’s not as memorable as the bacon brioche.
For my starter, I chose the roasted beets, which are nicely cooked but unseasoned. The truffle vinaigrette helps the dish greatly, with the truffle adding a nice earthiness, although it could perhaps use a bit more acidity. The roast on the marshmallow adds a fun crackle. Unfortunately, it is hard to cut properly and quite sweet, even though the carbonized sugar of the crust gives a toasty note. The marshmallow isn’t as repellant as it could be with a savory first course, partially because beets have a natural sweetness, but the marshmallow is definitely too sweet for the dish. The leek adds color but doesn’t do much for the flavor, unlike the blanched scallion. I ended up actually removing the pieces of tarragon because of their unpleasantly strong licorice flavor. It’s a pretty dish, but it just doesn’t make sense in terms of concept or flavors.
I decided on the striped bass for my entrée, served with pickled honji meiji mushrooms and tempura fried hen of the woods mushroom. The tempura mushroom doesn’t bring a lot of flavor, but the fry on it is light and delicately crispy. The fish itself, the portion roughly the size of a deck of cards, is meaty and nicely cooked but not especially memorable. The fish skin, however, is supremely crispy, lightly salted, and delicious. Most of the smooth sunchoke puree clings to the tempura mushroom placed on top of it. The dish could use more than the two mushrooms, which bring a citrusy brightness. The very light fumet is not particularly flavorful, but it’s nice texturally.
The mandarin cream dessert is by far the most successful dish of the night. Granted, the swirl of tart raspberry sauce that gives it good color also visually reminds me of the sauce swirl used at chain restaurants across the country. That said, the flavor combinations work really nicely. The fresh mandarin segments are bright and juicy, yet sweet and almost floral. Though the cake – soft and a little denser than I was expecting, in a pleasant way – looks boring, the yuzu makes it memorable. The coconut ice cream doesn’t look very creamy, but the coconut milk flavor is there, and it’s not icy. There’s a cream under the cake with an almost pudding-like texture. It has a tang that reminds me of their passionfruit soufflé, but the servers reported that it involves coconut and yogurt. The dessert is finished with micro herbs and a tiny bit of salty crunch, reminiscent of a crushed Ritz cracker.
Although The Lobby no longer offers the cassis marshmallow or chocolate bonbon that I love – I could eat them by the plateful – a server with whom I’d been chatting (he recognized me from my previous visits last year) brought me a little extra something. The almond cookie is a little plain, somewhat tender but crumbly. The bonbon is overly sweet, with an almost grainy, fudgy texture broken up by raw shredded coconut. It was a very nice gesture, but the sweets themselves are entirely forgettable.
Overall, it was an enjoyable meal, but it was also a little disappointing. The Lobby is still beautiful – in decor and plating – and the musicians playing string version of pop songs make me smile, but there are so many restaurants in Chicago with more interesting, better executed food.
The Lobby at The Peninsula – 108 E. Superior St., Chicago