If you get the right table at the radically remade NoMI, you can still see across Chicago Avenue into the dining room and open kitchen of Avenues and watch Curtis Duffy spotlit in his whites, intently at work in his final days at the Peninsula. Apart from that and the more spectacular eastern view of the Water Tower and the lake beyond, a lot has changed at the Park Hyatt's signature seventh-floor restaurant. The white linen has been replaced by leather-accented wenge, a dark tropical timber. Some of the blown-glass Chihulys that hung from the ceiling like the spawn of Cthulhu have been relegated to a private dining room, while others have mysteriously disappeared, perhaps to some dark corner of the Pritzker empire. And most drastically, the highly refined, progressive, seafood-dominant French menu that established NoMI's Michelin-starred splurgeworthiness has been replaced by a prosaic something-for-everyone seasonal American selection.
That's not to say chef Ryan LaRoche, who worked under the old version's Christophe David, is slacking. NoMI's famed sushi program and raw bar, now more incongruous than ever, is the exceedingly sophisticated counterpoint to the minimalized dishes on the main menu. The lush smoked kampachi crudo, intricately arranged and delicately garnished with slices of green olive and bits of salty black garlic, or the floppingly fresh signature spicy tuna roll with a yellowtail and salmon sashimi duo accompanied by fresh grated wasabi are some of the few artifacts of the luxurious past.
Things are significantly simpler as the menu progresses. Chicagoans may yawn at the familiar sight of seared diver scallops, steaks, roast chicken, and token pastas and charcuterie, things they're offered in innumerable restaurants around town. But at least the NoMI team is operating at an elevated level, sourcing excellent products and preparing them ably.
The MO is to let the ingredients speak for themselves. A seared soft-shell crab comes with a light smear of sweet Meyer lemon confit and a sprinkling of favas. A walleye fillet glazed with honey-lavender vinaigrette sits atop a large slice of charred eggplant, while a sweet-and-sour face-off is provided by a few capers and red pepper jam. A perfectly rare New York strip with roasted tomatoes and a roasted half chicken are both dressed with glistening butter-mounted jus.
Most things are expertly executed, but a few dishes rise above the rest: A small side of tagliolini with grated bottarga and grape tomatoes was one of the most outstanding things I ate. A wild mushroom salad with a truffle vinaigrette sounded an almost fishy Thai note, while a clear artichoke soup swimming with root vegetables and a crostini on the side topped with Benton's ham hock and snails effectively linked the elegance of the past to the rusticity of the present.
But ultimately almost nothing was unforgettable, apart from a plank of crunchy phyllo topped with chocolate ganache and a light blueberry mousse from pastry chef Meg Galus.
Her ordered studio set of a station lies out in the open with almost every other aspect of the kitchen operation, down to the mounted haunches of cured ham. It could only get less formal if the dishwasher was visible. The atmosphere's as relaxed as the bar lounge with its candy-sweet cocktail list and the lovely outdoor garden, both of which share a shorter menu similar to the dining room's.
Nothing lasts forever, but it's a shame NoMI's no longer a truly unique restaurant. It's now more suited to its captive audience, yet we have plenty of unsurprising hotel restaurants. And given its real estate it's still rather pricey, making it a place I suspect far fewer Chicagoans will consider for any kind of occasion.
E-mail Mike Sula at email@example.com.