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Nov 24, 2012 10:03 AM

A truly remarkable meal at Sixteen, long, with pictures.

Full comments and photos in-line in the blog. Text as below.

The Gist:

The Why: With the Michelin Guide for Chicago an ever disappointing mess compared to those in other cities and three of the 2* locations closing during the past year I’d originally booked Alinea for a fourth visit during this trip to Chicago but in the months between securing that ticket and my first vacation from Arizona in four months my curiosity got the best of me – just who was this Thomas Lents and why was his cuisine garnering such raves on the sixteenth floor of the Trump tower…as much as I love Alinea this was a case of something new and shiny taking precedence over the tried and true.

The Reservation: Far less difficult than one at Alinea I simply used Opentable and with my flight to Midway arriving at 5:00pm I played it safe with an 8:00pm table for two while transferring my tickets on Halsted to a friend and his wife (they loved the experience, as I knew they would.)

The Space: To call Sixteen swanky would be an understatement – while opinions vary on Trump the man it would be foolish to assume anything but refinement and opulence in the spaces bearing his name. From the warm greeting at the front door to the chrome and marble elevators leading to the sixteenth floor each step of our trip through Trump International Hotel was met with smiles and “yessirs” and with a location in the center of downtown our emergency to the dining room was met with dramatic 30+ foot ceilings, a million dollar wine collection in dual glass wine rooms, and a million dollar chandelier hanging high above while the Wrigley Clock Tower and Lake Michigan stared back at us through the windows. With perhaps twenty tables in the dining room and all covered with fine linen, crystal, and polished silver throughout the night everything about the room drips with luxury – the thread counts high, the two-tops large enough for four, and easily six feet separating each table.

The Service: With a dining room manager circulating throughout the night and our captain, Rick, a beacon of knowledge the majority of our service at Sixteen was exemplary and neither myself nor my friend were ever left for want of anything but all things being equal the back servers and assisting waiters still need a bit of work to match the lofty goals of the restaurant and its chef – cumbersome descriptions often went on too long and bobbled ingredient names were not uncommon, but on the whole these are minor quibbles to which the average diner would pay no attention…and rest assured, there are many “average diners” at Sixteen as witnessed by quick turnover of businessmen asking for multiple dish modifications and single a la carte dishes as they “have a plane to catch.”

The Food: There are four menus – a 4-course, 8-course, and the 16-course – we opted for the 16 + optional cheese course and passed on the white truffle supplement. My friend purchased an excellent bottle of wine. Canapes, water, bread service, mignardises, and take-home gift were complimentary.

Canapes – Sweet Kettle Corn with black pepper and lemon, Lake Michigan fried smelt with tartar sauce, Mortadella Gougere with green tomato relish: An intriguing trio of bites, each quite savory and full of varying textures, but the second by far the most impressive as the crisp skin gave way to nearly liquid fish that when tinged with the bright tartar sauce reminded me of brandade.

1 Verjus – Grape, Ginger: With the menu divided into themes, ‘grape’ began with this amuse preceding bread service and almost immediately Chef Lents’ time with Joel Robuchon became apparent as a champagne glass filled with white verjus Jell-O, ginger beer foam, frozen champagne grapes, lime zest arrived in a lacquered box and with instructions to get “a bit of everything in each bite” the flavor profile was shockingly quite like champagne despite none actually being present. Sweet but also slightly bracing and altogether refreshing it was a great start.

California Goat Butter with Lavender, Cow’s Milk Butter from Normandy, Tuscan Olive Oil emulsification with black sea salt/French Baguette, Bacon and Stone Ground Mustard, Ciabatta with Sea Salt, Onion and Chive, Rye and Wheat: Second only to L2o’s bread service on my list of Chicago restaurants I’ll simply say the bread man visited our table frequently and the butter service was replenished twice – a lover of bread and carbs in general the Baguette was as good as many in France and the Ciabatta was crisp on the interior with heavy salting and a lovely moist crumb while each spread was superlative – the Cow’s butter reportedly the same as that used in the Robuchon empire and the goat butter unmistakably funky but slightly sweet.

2 Sole Veronique – Pressed Grape Sauce: The first of many tableside preparations, this plate featured tender sole roasted in butter along with lobster mushrooms, pearl onions, and raw grapes at its base with a lively sauce of roasted Thompson grapes with rosemary and garlic poured from a French press as the plate was described. A lighter take on the classic Veronique lacking both cream and flour this dish, like the one prior, would not have been out of place at Robuchon’s 3* location on the Vegas strip.

3 Trout Tartar – Crisp Skin, Bones: The dish of the night for my friend – and more surprisingly for myself – this plate nearly resembled Bao on arrival but what was instead delivered featured a tartar of Gravlax inside a light crème fraiche meringue alongside trout caviar, fried skin and bones, and a bit of chickweed. An entirely different take on serving the ‘whole’ fish everything simply clicked – the tastes, the textures, and even the plating all dramatic yet refined.

4 Cured Trout – Leek, Apple: The least inspiring course of the evening, though still quite good, featured a cut of Ruby Trout that was cold smoked and then confited served over sorrel puree along with smoked crème fraiche, sea beans, charred leeks, apple, and celery root. Another light and beautiful dish I think there was simply too much smoke and char in this presentation to properly appreciate the fish.

5 Trout Souffle – Beet, Horseradish, Rye: With a cured preparation and a smoked version already accounted for the last dish featured sashimi grade trout at the base of a horseradish soufflé served alongside a caraway tuille, sliced apples, Golden Beets, Purple Cuyahoga beets, and a “rye sponge.” Another light dish with each ingredient serving a purpose I was particularly impressed by just how well the horseradish worked to accent the trout without overwhelming while the beets and apple tamed the spice.

6 Kabocha – Cardamom, Chestnut: Moving on to heartier flavors this creamy potage featured a veloute of Kabocha squash along with roasted chestnuts, a touch of heat from espelette pepper, and plenty of aromatics from the ginger and cardamom foam. Large in portion and moreso in flavor with salty toasted pumpkin seeds tossed in for texture this was yet another highlight of the night.

7 Turbot – Salsify, Pumpkin: Perhaps the most interesting pairing of the evening the turbot was first presented whole and then plated in the kitchen over top of confit pumpkin, stinging nettles, and roast salsify before being bathed in a butter stock of lobster, capers, and sundried tomato. Rich but well balanced and drizzled tableside with pumpkin seed oil the fish itself was beautifully prepared but it was the stock that really shined – each drop sopped up yet another baguette.

8 Pumpkin and Foie Gras – Parmesan: Equally unique as the course that preceded it this parfait of “sweet and sour” pumpkin, foie gras mousse, Madeira wine, pumpkin gastrique, and pumpkin seeds baked with black pepper was a dynamic blend of flavors and textures that suffered only one flaw – the fact that it was only a few spoonfuls when I’d have preferred it by the bowl.

9 Truffle – Shirred Egg: Following one of my favorite ingredients with another the silver lining of Dave not enjoying runny eggs is the fact that I was able to enjoy this course twice. Quadruple plated in the style of Keller’s Oysters and Pearls and featuring brown butter roasted truffles and truffle sabayon inside the lightly poached egg this was a course you could smell from across the room – luxury in excess bolstered by accoutrements of truffle butter toasts and a frisee salad with truffle vinaigrette.

10 Pig Trotter – Pomme Puree: Answering his own question of “what happens when a truffle pig eats the truffles?” with the quip “you eat the pig” we were presented a simple and delicious preparation of Berkshire pork loin alongside a trotter stuffed with truffled sausage and buttery mashed potatoes drizzled with truffle pork jus. Hearty to be sure and interestingly placed on a menu with three savories yet to come this was another course where the bread service was put to good use, the plate retuning to the kitchen spotless.

11 Guinea Hen – Matsutake, Pine: Following pork with poultry the first course of three wild-caught options featured a moist pave of guinea hen breast served over Brussels sprout leaves, pine nuts, and an aromatic pine espuma along with confit leg meat. Intended by the chef to serve the hen in its natural habitat between the forest and the field I was most impressed by the finesse of the pine in this course, a note on the palate but far from the dominant and cloying flavor it can be when employed by less skilled hands.

12 Venison – Juniper, Cranberry: Locally shot, pan seared, and ash crusted my buddy’s eyes lit up at this presentation and although he was admittedly getting quite both of our plates returned to the kitchen empty. Rich and funky unlike so much of the farm raised deer seen on menus elsewhere and served with toasted Tuscan kale, sweet potato leaf, and cranberry blood-orange moustarda plus a drizzle of gin/juniper jus this was quite possibly the best deer dish I’ve ever had – so tender that it could be cut with the edge of a fork and exceedingly moist for something so lean.

13 Wild Hare – Civet, Risotto: Shot in Scotland just a day prior and cooked in mirepoix it seemed almost impossible that Chef Lents could find something bolder than the venison to serve as the final savory and yet here it was. Rich, nutty, and teaming with herbs and spices atop rye-berry risotto with a light bay leaf cream this was a perfect conclusion to a menu that effortlessly moved from something as light as champagne to a dish as hearty as stew.

Supplemental Cheese Course: Apparently something brand new to Sixteen the cheese was presented tableside first and with Dave quite full I decided to go with the $15 Epoisses course while he rested and although I generally prefer a carte to a composed cheese it would be hard to argue with a thick dollop of Epoisses served alongside white truffles, rye crisps, figs, and fig puree plus raisin toast and a small pour of Belgian Tripel Karmeliet that even to my beer-naïve-self proved to be a lovely counterpoint to the richness of the cheese and truffles.

14 Pink Pearl Apple – Walnut, Sorel: A simple palate cleanser of tart apples, nutty walnut hash, and herbal sorel infused verjus was a nice refresher after the hefty cheese course.

15 Cider – Goat’s Milk, Brown Butter: Titled after the warm glass of 5-apple cider arriving alongside the elongated plate the penultimate course of the Sixteen signature menu featured a vast array of apples in the form of a crispy fritter, apples sous-vided with caramel, candied apple skins, and apple butter alongside a brown butter sponge cake and fresh goat’s milk ice cream. Hot and cold, creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty – a deconstructed apple pie served a la mode and a different experience with each spoonful.

16 Chocolate – Bourbon, Wood: A dainty portion, but just enough given the hefty flavors within, the last proper plate presented vanilla ice cream aged in bourbon barrels stuffed inside bitter chocolate logs alongside maple syrup, condensed apple butter, and barley streusel. Rich and smoky, just a touch sweet, and perfectly paired with a bold French press of highland Chiapas.

Mignardises: Presented on a trolly and described at length by our server, Sixteen’s collection of candies and confections are entirely made in house and meant to focus on both local favorites and whimsical childhood classics including “Dots,” Cracker Jack, Andes Mints, Butterfingers, Tootsie Rolls, Baby Ruth, three types of cotton candy (pecan, coconut, and rose,) three sucker selections (green apple, cinnamon, and rootbeer,) plus a pair of truffles – one milk chocolate filled with pear and the other a dark chocolate praline. Plentiful and fun, both myself and my friend took the ‘one of each approach’ and although nothing was particularly wowing I personally enjoyed the cracker jack and tootsie rolls.

Apple Turnover: Along with a copy of the menu dated to the day Lents’ Sixteen received its first Michelin Star our take home gift was a buttery apple turnover and amongst the last to leave we were each given a pair – the first eaten on the spot and the second going home to my sister…to say the least this most certainly wasn’t your morning toaster pastry.

The Verdict: Having mentioned the impetus for my visit to Sixteen, the meal I gave up in its place, and the irony of dining on the day Lents cooking was recognized by the red guide all I can say is that I could not have been happier with my first visit to the sixteenth floor of Trump International Tower and I anticipate plenty more accolades and stars for the young chef over the coming months and years. From the beautiful room and glorious view to the colors, textures, and flavors on the plate there is little doubt in my mind that Sixteen has the ambition and capability to become a world-class destination restaurant and while it may never be the ‘best’ restaurant in Chicago I don’t think second place is unrealistic – or such a bad thing given the competition.

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  1. Just skimmed your review as I am heading their tonight and wanted some surprises; what I read definitely piqued my interest! Will read your full review on your blog after my meal.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Gonzo70

      Gonzo, I'd love to hear your opinion on your dinner tonight. I hope it's enjoyable!

      As I posted earlier ( ), I thought my dinner there was fairly good, but not in any way remarkable; quite the opposite, truly UNremarkable. Among our group, we tried most of the dishes described above. There were a few good dishes (notably the kombucha soup), but there were also quite a few that were only so-so, particularly the desserts, which were skimpy as well as disappointing. I'm not sure what the point is of serving uninspired amuses bouches like dreadful popcorn, or tiny smelt that aren't nearly as good as the ones at GT Fish or Piccolo Sogno Due, or mignardises like the candies that were no better than the mass-produced items they were supposed to emulate. (Contrast that with a place like Per Se, whose post-dinner chocolates are comparable to those from the finest artisanal chocolatiers.) The food might deserve a single Michelin star, but really falls down compared with places I've been that either have, or deserve to have, 2-3 stars (such as Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Manresa, TRU, Alinea, etc). I realize that they are shooting for more, and I certainly wish them well, and hope they improve the food to bring it up to that level.

      The service was better than the food, and merits two stars; there were lots of servers trying to please and accommodate, well beyond what you normally find at a one-star place. There were also some minor flaws - uneven pacing (a long wait for one course, bringing wine pairings too early), failure to offer refills on coffee/tea service - but they were relatively minor, the things that distinguish a two-star from a three-star.

      1. re: Gonzo70

        Looking forward to your thoughts - your Elizabeth advice was very helpful.

        1. re: uhockey

          My wife and I had a really great meal; I would say that overall I enjoyed it more than Nsxtasy, but not quite as much as you. As of right now I would rank them as a high one star and certainly feel they have a lot of potential to ascend to multiple stars in the near future, possibly as soon as next year.

          We ended up opting for the eight course menu (my wife has a lot of food aversions; they were able to accommodate us for the eight courses, but would have been challenging on the sixteen). The food was consistently very good to great, but there was not a single course that left me craving more or that blew me away like some of the courses at Alinea and EMP. I actually did really enjoy the mignardises cart; though the chocolate was certainly not the finest quality I enjoyed the whimsical play of taking you back to childhood and some of the goodies were excellent (I liked the dots, the cotton candy and the caramel apple sucker best). The bread service was outstanding (loved the bacon buns) and it was great that the server kept coming around offering more. I did enjoy popcorn amuse bouche, but agree with Nsxtasy about the smelts being on the poor side (was probably the only thing served that I did not care for).

          Service was mostly good; we had Jeremy as our captain who was friendly and attentive and we liked that he joked around a bit and showed a sense of humor rather than was stuffy. There were some gaffes though (i.e. I had relayed my wife's aversions at the time of our reservation, these were reviewed when the reservation was confirmed but when we were seated Jeremy was not aware of them). Also though dining at Sixteen is a special experience, as individuals we were not made to feel as special as at most of the two and three star venues where we have dined (i.e. at most of these venues we have received souvenir menus and at many received a kitchen tour). While I think Sixteen needs a bit of work if they want to aspire to multiple stars, they are already quite good (I would place them towards the bottom of my top ten current Chicago restaurants) and have loads of potential. It is nice to see some more high quality fine dining options becoming available in Chicago; between Grace about to open and Sixteen upping their game this is a welcome addition in an area where Chicago was lacking.

          1. re: Gonzo70

            Very nicely stated - and we were both given menus without requesting, though a kitchen tour was not offered. Glad you enjoyed it and I entirely agree on Sixteen and Grace, add in Goosefoot and I see fine dining bouncing back a bit after the closures of Bonsoiree, Ria, Avenues, and Trotters in such a short time.

            As previously stated - I need to get back to L2o and TRU.


            1. re: uhockey

              Thanks. I wonder if the menus are given when one does the sixteen course option, or if is it hit-or-miss. I do like keeping them as souvenirs and did not even realize we had not received one until we were home. I might do the sixteen course in a few months and will have to make sure I get a menu then. Definitely agree on Goosefoot; that is one of our favorites. Very, very different ambiance than Sixteen, but I feel the food is even better at Goosefoot. We had the privilege of being the first paying guests at Goosefoot; I think I remember you saying previously that you had the honor of having Chris' last meal at Les Nomades.

              One question; I am somewhat new to fine dining - I have hit a lot of venues the past 18 months, but prior to that had almost no experience. Until fairly recently my wife and I were kind of shy about requesting substitutions when partaking in tasting menus (and often avoided tasting menus not realizing that most venues will make substitutions). The past few dinners have started to speak up. My wife does not like game meat (the main reason we could not do the sixteen course option tonight), but I enjoy game. Our server had said he would have no problem substituting the venison for my wife but when that course arrived he delivered the substituted course for me as well; this was a brussel sprout and mushroom dish that was good, but I would have preferred the venison. Is this normal that when one person requests for a substitution that both members of the table receive the substituted dish or would typically the regular dish be brought to the person not requesting a substitution? It seemed a bit odd to me, but since the brussel sprout dish looked appetizing and I was not quite sure on the etiquette I did not speak up.

              1. re: Gonzo70

                >> Is this normal that when one person requests for a substitution that both members of the table receive the substituted dish or would typically the regular dish be brought to the person not requesting a substitution?

                I don't know for sure, but I suspect there is no standard answer to that question, as a default when you don't specify which is desired. Some places might bring the substituted dish for only one person, others might do it for both. I suspect it's more likely that it would only be substituted for one person when a party is more than two people (I'm not saying that's how it *should* work, only that that's what they *might* do.) A service subtlety, the kind of thing that would distinguish three-star service from two-star service, is that they could have asked you whether you would still like the venison, when you made it clear that it was your wife that wanted to avoid it.

                Regardless, I think it would have been perfectly acceptable in that situation - when you discovered they were making the substitution for you as well - to ask nicely, "Would it be possible for me to still try the venison?" Any high-end restaurant (including Sixteen) would almost certainly be happy to accommodate the request.

                1. re: Gonzo70

                  I've seen both so I'm not sure there is a correct answer here - only that at ANY Michelin Starred restaurant they should be willing to do either.

                  Interestingly, aside from my overall blah feelings about North Pond, one of my biggest gripes about them was the fact that my friend dislikes polenta and when he asked if a dish could have a different starch the server asked "are you allergic to polenta?" and he responded "no, I just don't like it" they suggested he order a different dish. In reality the polenta had nothing to do with the protein on the plate, but the substitution was refused regardless.


                  1. re: uhockey

                    I have had the same experience at North Pond as well. I LOVE the food there and beautiful view, but they are very stingy about even basic substitutions. I wonder if this is part of their being annually snubbed by the Michelin man. If it were not for the inflexibility and sometimes arrogant attitude at North Pond it would be among my favorite venues. Fortunately they do not use too many ingredients that my wife and I are averse to, so we always have been able to find plenty to order that we enjoy. Would love to see them become a bit more flexible though and amp up the friendliness of their service.

              2. re: Gonzo70

                Yes, very nicely stated, Gonzo. And I agree with almost all of what you have written, including your overall characterization of the meal. It was creative and fun, and an enjoyable dinner. I thought there were a few outright "misses" - we'll just have to agree to disagree about the popcorn :) - but as you stated so well on another website, if the food were indeed "a little more memorable with a couple mind blowing courses" (your words), it would have made up for the misses and (along with a bit more refinement to the generally-good service) pushed the meal into the multi-star pantheon. I especially agree with your comment about the restaurant having loads of potential to move up to that pantheon.

                Incidentally, one difference between your meal and mine is that, two weeks ago, there was no cart/trolley of mignardises, so this may be an improvement they've made during that time. We had a few small mignardises in addition to the "Chicago candies" but were not served what appear to be multi-colored French macaroons on the cart in your photo; they would have complemented the meal nicely and made up for the true desserts which, as you stated, "need a bit more work".

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Too bad they didn't have the cart when you went, it was a really fun end to the meal. No macaroons though - those were different flavored cotton candys. We tried two different colors and it was excellent cotton candy. Macaroons would be a nice addition to the trolley.

                  Edit: Just looked at my picture and it actually was probably the three colors of Dot candies that looked like the macaroons.

                  1. re: Gonzo70

                    Aha! No cotton candies at our meal. And there was only one flavor of what they called "Dots" on our plate of "Chicago candies". Incidentally, they were really more akin to another longtime Chicago-made candy, Chuckles, than Dots. :)

                2. re: Gonzo70

                  My wife and I returned to Sixteen tonight and again opted for the eight course menu. We had been debating whether or not to give Sixteen a little more time to gel, but had multiple friends dine here recently and rave about their experience, so we decided to pull the trigger. Very glad we did as the experience was far superior to our first meal here and am so happy we were able to enjoy the winter menu (the spring menu will reportedly be rolling out in a few days).

                  There were several areas of improvement; some of the dishes were outstanding with the beef course with Yorkshire pudding, bone marrow and roasted brussel sprouts, the smoked sturgeon with caviar and oyster and the raclette cheese (heated tableside) with perigord truffle, roasted potatoes and onion brulee being the stars (the cheese course was a $25 supplement to the eight course menu) - but every course was good. The progression of courses also did a wonderful job portraying the winter theme. We also enjoyed the wine pairings; not the best pairings we have had in recent meals, but good and reasonably priced at $75 (there was a sparkling sake, a few whites, a couple reds, a beer with the cheese course, a dessert wine and a cocktail with the final dessert).

                  Service also was vastly improved and on just our second visit we were made to feel like we were regulars. Sixteen did a wonderful job taking notes of our preferences from our prior visit and easily accommodated a couple of adjustments to the menu. We again had Jeremy as our captain and he on this occasion executed flawless service and really enhanced our dining experience. When my wife commented how much she loved one of the mignardises (mini Baby Ruth style chocolates) he surprised her by bringing by a bag with a box filled with a half dozen of them as an extra parting gift. Unlike the first visit, we did receive a souvenir menu on this occasion. The mignardises cart was as impressive as the first time and the bread service again outstanding and frequently replenished (I particularly loved the bacon buns). I felt dinner very full and satisfied.

                  After tonight's meal we will definitely be regulars at Sixteen; based on our experience as well as feedback from multiple friends who dined here recently I am comfortable saying that Sixteen has ascended to one of Chicago's best venues for fine dining. I really look forward to seeing what Chef Lents comes up with for the spring.

                  1. re: Gonzo70

                    Great to hear. Not enough time to make a return on next week's trip to Chicago, but definitely on my short list for future trips.


            2. uhockey, thanks for that great report. I'm so tempted. I just wish my own point of view about The Donald didn't influence my reticence to try this place.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chicgail

                I'm no fan of Trump - not at all - and especially not of the fact that he likely has not even visited most of the properties bearing his name but with that said, once you get off the elevator there is not a mention of him on the 16th floor.

                Clearly opinions on this place will differ - much like opinions on GT Fish or Spiaggia or North Pond - all of which were very disappointing and overpriced when I visited, but for a formal fine dining experience in Chicago there are not many restaurants doing when Sixteen is doing anywhere near their level.


              2. Great review, compelled me to make a NYE reservation, very excited to try it. I would have guessed most of the dishes would be more classical, and while some certainly are appears that they are more playful than I would have expected.

                1 Reply
                1. re: hoso

                  It feels very Robuchon in my opinion, appropriate to Lents' training.