You know that list you have in your head of the places to watch for in the next couple of months because people like us keep talking about them? The one that has Publican Quality Meats, and Balena, and Nellcote, and Trenchermen on it? Well, add another. After a preview dinner in the tasting room of Tenzing Wine Imports last night, in which chef Kevin Hickey served at least 2/3 of Allium's opening menu to an audience of longtime customers, suppliers (including Bill Kurtis and Jared Rouben of Goose Island) and media, there's no question the coming-soon restaurant in The Four Seasons belongs on the list. For years Hickey, a Bridgeport native, has been under the radar (as paradoxical as it is to say that of the Michelin-starred executive chef at a top hotel), comparatively few in Chicago aware of his skill or commitment to local suppliers as he mostly fed an audience of hotel guests at Seasons. But last night's dinner from the new, more casual Allium, opening later this month, showcased Hickey's unique blend of four-star-refined skills with deep love for the things he grew up with on the South Side. You can say something reminded you of Perennial Virant here or The Purple Pig there, but then you get a dish where exquisitely charred brussel sprouts are tossed with a coarse, garlicky, workingman's kielbasa, and there's nobody else doing that. It's farm to table by way of the Archer Avenue bus.
Since the Allium space is still under renovation, the dinner was held at the tasting room of Tenzing Wine & Spirits for about 50 guests, almost a dozen of Hickey's chefs crammed into the tiny kitchen space to turn out more than 20 different appetizers and courses ("All we've ever made here is paninis," Tenzing's Fernando Beteta said, marveling).
As dinner began, Hickey explained why the decision was made to close Seasons and create Allium. Over the last few years, he's watched as more and more, customers skipped the Michelin-starred, very posh Seasons restaurant and made themselves at home in the bar, perfectly happy with the snacks and the unstuffy atmosphere. Finally, he and the hotel decided to follow their customers and put all their attention on more approachable and casual food. (Allium will occupy the former bar; the main dining room is becoming a ballroom.)
Hickey has been buying locally for years, and has had a rooftop garden on the 9th floor of the hotel for the last few seasons, which Nick Nichols of Nichols Farm helped him plant. That commitment showed in the bright, almost summery flavors which showed up in every dish, many of them topped with housemade things like pickled cardoons or pancetta. A duck confit sausage, coarse and bold, with bright vinaigrette-dressed chicory; a lobster broth made taco-humble with hominy; steak with frites lightly scented by Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese from Wisconsin— that's what the meal was like. Check out our slideshow, which shows a few of the dishes you'll be able to enjoy beginning later this month, and serves as a tribute to Hickey's team turning out such a vast and varied meal in a space small enough to be a Top Chef challenge.