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Chefjw.com :: Critic's Choice :: Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 14, 2003

Chicago Sun-Times, February 14, 2003
"The "culturally inspired" element is quite powerful--flavors, accompaniments and seasonings so varied that it becomes a virtual culinary United Nations."
--Pat Bruno, Sun-Times restaurant critic
"These are some of the best potatoes I have had in quite some time."
"Aria gives new meaning to eclectic dining"
Chicago Sun-Times, February 14, 2003
By Pat Bruno

Aria n. 1. An elaborate solo vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment; 2. An elaborate new restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel.

The word "new" in the preceding definition comes with some qualification; Aria replaces Entre Nous, the Fairmont Hotel's stab at fine dining. The space has been retrofitted quite handsomely: a new separate entrance, the upbeat Aria bar, and the restaurant itself, which is casual and approachable in every way.

In some respects, I hated to see Entre Nous go. It was high on my list of romantic restaurants around town, and in the grand scheme of hotel dining rooms, it was quite good. Time marches on, however. The Fairmont gurus, seeing the "casual dining" writing on the wall, decided it was time to throw in the towel and get out of the ring of fine dining before a knockout punch was delivered.

Hotels have deep pockets, so it is always exciting to see what money can buy. The first thing you get is a top-notch design team: Marve Cooper of Lieber Cooper Associates (the force behind a number of notable restaurants around Chicago). Excellent work.

The decor has pizzazz without being pushy. For example, as you enter the dining room, the first thing you see on the left is food being prepared in a small exhibition kitchen, complete with built-in wall oven (gas-fired) and a cook slapping dough into one of the tandoor ovens (a basket filled with that bread--hot, puffy and terrific--hits your table the moment you are seated). More seating winds back and through into space that is more intimate and less bustling. (Note: If you end up at one of the tables as you first enter, those sandwiched between the "library" of wine and the tandoor ovens, you might want to be re-seated. The slapping of the dough for the naan and servers digging out bottles of wine wears thin after a bit.)

Now about the food. Blend a well-traveled, experienced chef--James Wierzelewski--with a menu that is "culturally inspired, comfortably American" and you have quite an interesting array of dishes.

"Culturally inspired, comfortably American" is fancy prose for dishes such as carpaccio of smoked Angus beef, French onion soup, ravioli, black cod, steaks, rack and leg of lamb and apple crisp. But all is not what it appears to be. For example, the carpaccio of beef appetizer is paired with tender baby arugula and spicy Stilton, which, along with a smoky-tasting mustard, makes for a quartet of flavors in perfect harmony.

French onion soup gets socked with pieces of chicken and apple, which alone moves the traditional onion soup into a different flavor lane altogether. Now bring in the Camembert, with its truffle and mushroomy aroma, and you have a soup that is running at full throttle when it comes to flavor.

The ravioli appetizer is billed out as "free form," and it is that, indeed. Resembling manicotti, the rolled pasta (obviously made in house) was stuffed with spinach and ricotta, topped with two delicious chunks of tender, braised veal, and surrounded by cannellini beans. All of this was moistened with a brawny meat jus. Talk about twisting some traditional ideas into a knot of enjoyment.

Here's a salad for you. A sophisticated fluff of frisee, arugula and "peppercress" was mixed with the likes of haricots verts, Roquefort and pecans (laced with cinnamon). Toss in a few nibs of apples (Braeburn) and you have a salad that zings (the peppercress, a k a pepper grass, has a nice peppery, mildly hot taste).

Entrees are no less interesting and innovative. That black cod that I alluded to earlier was quite delicious. The fillet of cod (billed on the menu as "Osaka black cod") was pan-seared to within a millimeter of perfection, glazed with a mixture of soy and sweet mirin (rice wine), and escorted by roasted spring onions and "fork-smashed" snap peas (a few of them left whole for effect). It gets better as it goes.

There was the roast special of the day one night--suckling pig. OK, not the whole pig, but slices of savory and tender pork with flavors that hit more than a few high notes. In the center of the plate was a whole peeled, spiced apple, and snuggled up to the pork were aromatic braised cabbage and tender nubbins of housemade gnocchi.

And here's a good idea: a trio of potatoes in three small dishes set into a tray. These delectable spuds come with most entrees. Sweet mashed were served with a light and silky vanilla-accented cream that is so darn good you want to eat it all. Not to say that the spinach-smashed or the herb-roasted didn't take care of my spud fix for a while, too. Never mind the fact that the potatoes are gratis. These are some of the best potatoes I have had in quite some time.

Earlier, I mentioned the naan. Besides the fact that it is replenished without even asking, and the bread baked by the tandooriya (a person skilled in using a tandoor) is as good as you will find here or in India, it is served with dipping sauces that kick up the enjoyment even more. Somebody did his homework, because the dipping sauces are quite authentic. Three are curry-based and served warm, one is a cool coriander-and-yogurt affair, and all are terrific.

I dwelled on the Indian part a bit there, but there is a lot more than that going on at Aria. The "culturally inspired" element is quite powerful--flavors, accompaniments and seasonings so varied that it becomes a virtual culinary United Nations. Harissa here, garlic sausage there. Lemongrass and Thai basil show up with steamed black bass. Beef short ribs get the Zinfandel treatment and pair up with a crayfish ragout. Good stuff.

Featured steaks are New York strip, ribeye and filet mignon. I would suggest, however, that you give strong consideration to the "Signature roast" selections.

The lunch menu in the main dining room has markings similar to the dinner menu, but for the fun of it, check out the bar lunch menu. Oven-baked flat breads get toppings that range from Italian sausage and roasted peppers to smoked barbecue chicken with red onions and blue cheese. "From the wok," I would recommend the delicious orange peel chicken, and chicken and shrimp pad thai (laced with basil, bean sprouts and peanuts).

Desserts are interesting and the presentations are, well, elaborate, but not in the same league as the rest of the menu. The caramelized lemon puff is a little dessert on a really big plate. The puff is quite lemony and is a free-standing version of creme brulee (kind of). It comes with a lemon confit and sweet basil ice cream. Speaking of creme brulee, the dandy here is accented with lemongrass and accompanied by a cooling passion fruit granita.

© James Wierzewlewski 2010