It’s fair to say that Kevin Hickey saw the writing on the starched white tablecloth.
Hickey was the longtime executive chef at Seasons, the award-winning fine-dining room at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel. “But the more accolades we got at Seasons, the fewer covers we seemed to do,” he says. Even with a coveted Michelin star, the restaurant had difficulty drawing diners.
Meanwhile, the chef noticed “the food sales in the bar and lounge were going through the roof.” And thus the concept for the “more casual, more approachable” Allium was born.
“We wanted to get away from the tablecloths and the silver and the Old World, old-school feel,” Hickey says. “We wanted to stop being an occasional or an occasion restaurant.”
Some things remain the same at Allium, which opened in February and fills Seasons’ former lounge and bar areas. Hickey still runs the show, and the menu emphasizes fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
But instead of fancy composed plates, the affable chef is serving the likes of soft pretzels, deviled eggs and Chicago-style hot dogs. Bear in mind that the pretzels may come paired with foie gras and Medjool date mustard, the eggs may include miso and pickled ramp, and the hot dog is a house-made gourmet sausage with from-scratch toppings.
“We’re still putting a good deal of effort, time and technique into the dishes,” Hickey says. “But they are simpler. And they showcase the ingredients rather than the technique.
“I find it easier to be creative when I’m given more restrictions…. The tighter the box, the more focused I can be.”
Allium offers an amalgam of what the chef — who grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood near Chicago’s Greektown and Chinatown — perceives as American fare.
“When I think of American food, I don’t think of pot roast and meatloaf,” Hickey says. “I think of dim sum and Polish sausage.”
The menu of (mostly) regionally and ethnically diverse small plates also features a section curiously titled “mine.” Hickey, who has a love-hate relationship with the “small-plates movement,” explains that these entrée-sized portions were designed for those who don’t necessarily play well with others.
“We’re still American, and every once in a while we want our own plates and we don’t want to share. Sometimes I just want my food — my steak, my chicken, my fish.”
The Husband and I are big sharers (so much so that we purposely never order the same entrée) — so we split our “mines.” But not before we split a few other things as well.
At our server’s suggestion, we started with fresh-from-the-oven bacon-and- onion buns ($4). Served in a buttered casserole, the yeasty rolls were topped with crisp bacon strips and served with tangy goat cheese butter. True finger-lickers, they made me glad that Allium was all about the casual.
From the “smaller” section we sampled airy gnocchi ($12) prepared with an unconventional toss of crumbled spicy lamb sausage, mussels and rapini. The sausage and mussels worked together harmoniously with neither overpowering the other. And the anise-tinged, stocky broth made me wish I had saved a bit of that bun for sopping up the rich liquid at the bowl’s bottom.
Hickey’s “big bowl of urban greens” ($12) balanced out the earlier decadence. Simple, basic and super-fresh, the fall mix featured a toss of lettuce, crunchy apples and mild radishes lightly dressed with a cinnamon-laced hard-cider vinaigrette. Grilled blue cheese sandwich croutons brought a touch of naughtiness to the healthful salad.
From there, the husband and I rolled into “bigger,” and checked out lobster-hominy “chowder” ($17). I see why Hickey uses quotation marks around the word “chowder,” as the hearty soup — with its mirepoix of aromatic veggies — was more a seafood minestrone than a traditional chowder. Firm bites of hominy provided a welcome change from conventional noodles or pasta.
Moving into “mines,” Wisconsin walleye ($25) with buttercrisp corn succotash, chow-chow relish and ham broth turned out to be a tad too similar in concept to the aforementioned chowder. And the mild fish was shouted down a bit by its lowland accompaniments. Conversely, the obscenely tender wagyu skirt steak ($24) was a flavor powerhouse that stood up to its deliciously sweet-sticky, hoisin-like glaze.
The Four Seasons has always done an outstanding job in the sweets department, so it became an overwhelming task to pick a dessert. There are teasers — lemon bars, pretzel caramels, red velvet cupcakes and more — that can be purchased by the piece ($3-$6) or in a grand tower ($20). There are also “signature plates” ($10 each) that include such tempters as black walnut carrot cake and s’mores.
After several polite rounds of, “You choose.” “No — you choose,” the husband and I wound up with a perfectly pleasant peach cobbler tart with silky butterscotch ice cream and the desire to come back and sample something a bit more daring — say, a miso-butterscotch malt or a PB&J float.
Hickey says he’s enjoying his role as a purveyor of upscale comfort food. And at this juncture he’d rather be serving bratwursts and doughnut holes than fussing over fancy- schmancy plates for a half-empty house.
“I miss the intensity [of fine dining] a little bit,” he says. “But I prefer having a full dining room with happy diners who are there to have fun.”
Four Seasons Hotel Chicago
900 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60610