On the elevator ride to the seventh floor of the Four Seasons, there's just enough time to react to the framed advertisement for Allium, the profound casualization of the hotel's erstwhile Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant: a close-up on a pair of pretty lips and set of straight white teeth about to chomp into a raw red onion. Allium is the genus to which onions and other perennial bulbous plants belong. "Chicago" is derived from the Miami-Illinois Indian word for "stinking onion." Even if it goes over your head, you want to reach into the frame and stop her; snatch it away and gently guide her to the onion tart on chef Kevin Hickey's menu, where the pungent properties of the bulb metamorphose in a 24-hour sous vide bath, lending sweetness to savory goat cheese and nutty apricot kernels.
In the context of the institutional stuffiness of the restaurant it replaced, the powers that be indulged a playful subversiveness in Allium's atmospheric details: father's-study-style dark wood, deep high-backed chairs, a cheetah-print sofa, showy and sometimes questionable artwork strategically bedecking the lobby.
That impression will be delayed if you first stop in the bar, where certain institutional practices haven't evolved: shaken martinis and manhattans with neon-red, fake maraschino cherries; bartenders who don't measure but pour straight from the bottle; a short, vodka-dominant cocktail list. It's puzzling that these qualities still get a pass in this age of spiritous enlightenment, though a healthy selection of bourbons and local brews is more current.
In mitigation, there's a lot of playfulness in Hickey's menu, with its allusions to the lowbrow eats endemic to his hometown. The signature dish, a house-made, deconstructed, Chicago-style hot dog—more of a highly emulsified Polish, actually, spongy and a bit shriveled by the time it hits the table—features compartmentalized portions of onions, sport peppers, and giardiniera, as well as squeeze bottles of relish, mustard, and—gasp—ketchup, giving out-of-towners a pass on the forbidden condiment. This is hospitality, after all.
There's a tip of the hat to our friends to the north as Hickey melts cheese curds in a classic, buttery French aligot, the mashed spuds lending a likable elasticity you can practically bite through. And then there's the puffy bacon buns, a tribute to the highly coveted original version at the Lithuanian Bridgeport Bakery.
There's another strong, if less conceptual, element at work at Allium. Hickey's been a quiet champion of local farmers since he took charge at Seasons in 2006, and he remains committed. But other than that, the menu is all over the place, with no consistent focus other than the typical hotelier's by-the-book motivation to be all things to all people: two categories of "smaller" and "bigger" shareable plates, individual entrees classified as "mine," as well as "snacks," vegetable sides, and a trio of expense-account hunks of red meat.
Among these, there are some clever and delicious things: deep-fried crab fritters come with a side of caviar and lobster-enriched tartar sauce that would be great smeared on toast all by itself. The obligatory seared foie gras is given a dessertlike treatment on a bed of sweet, moist pineapple "upside" cake. Sheets of pliable, cheesy lavosh are suspended from hooks over the table so eaters can break off pieces in midair.
More familiar dishes are winningly twisted, like a luscious, blood-red bison tartare topped with a dripping poached egg and served with waffled potato chips, or the ubiquitous pair of seared scallops atop vivid green garlic risotto glistening with butter.
But that sort of reliance on butter becomes a liability on other ambitious creations like a perfectly seared halibut filet in a lobster and hominy stew. I'm almost certain Hickey was alluding to Mexican pozole—or I wish he was—though whatever spicing was intended was subdued by an overrich, butter-mounted sauce. Loose casing sabotaged a conceptual yin and yang of house-made boudin blanc and blood sausage grits brightened by green streaks of acidic chimichurri. And a couple of house-made pastas were spoiled by unrefined technique: plastic-textured pappardelle with otherwise delicious shreds of chicken, and gummy mint gnocchi whose herbaceousness was overpowered by the bolder flavors of lamb Bolognese and soft sheep's milk cheese.
There's an equally broad and varied scope of desserts from pastry chef Scott Gerken, ranging from formally plated expressions of painterly ambition—say, black walnut carrot cake with geometric strips of two-dimensional carrot film—to dense scoops of inventively flavored house-made ice cream (pea shoot, caramelized parsnip), to a collection of malts and milkshakes such as a salty-sweet miso butterscotch concoction (thanks, David Chang) and a peanut butter ice cream and grape soda PB&J. There are also inexpensive smaller sweets ranging from lemon bars and doughnut holes to wonderfully moist house-made Oreos. Most of these will leave a good lasting impression.
Despite the few misfires there's no question Hickey is a technically skilled chef, and a creative force that I'd love to see unleashed in a less inherently restrictive environment. And if Allium's Chicagocentricity is lost on travelers unfamiliar with the local landscape, it's still a remarkably personal menu for a hotel restaurant. When you think of it, more hotels should consider it an ambassadorial duty to introduce visitors to the character and terroir of the region in this way.