Thomas Lents is a chef with a mission, to convince his many followers simply to let him cook whatever he wants, four courses, eight courses. You choose the number and he does the rest. And what he does is very special – the picture on the left shows the second of two pre-meal amuses that he sent out, a concoction that certainly features black lentils and black rice soil and spring vegetables and turnip, even if they are not immediately identifiable. Yes, many come to the luxury Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago for the food, and to be in this stunning 92-floor building. The gal only got as far as its 27th floor…
The Chicago Sun-Times had its headquarters here, at the junction of Wabash Avenue and the Chicago River. Then along came Donald Trump and the rest is history. The exterior is a pale blue glass spire, by Adrian Smith – when you know he was the lead architect on Burj Khalifa, Dubai, and he is doing the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, you can guess what this tower looks like. Not surprisingly the hotel’s restaurant, 16 (for its floor), reflects the building’s height. The space soars up, with total-height glass on one curvilinear side. There are clear crystal chandeliers. Colour comes from the printed menu, sealed with real wax, that sits at your place setting.
Inside the open menu, you might find listed ‘Field 8 course’, listing Life springs, On a field of grass, Spring between raw and cooked, Offerings from the garden, The jewels of Spring, Out of Winter – the gift of a thistle, First harvest’s sunset, Along the riverbend…. You get similar artistic names for dishes featuring Stream (includes Offerings from lily and pond) and Pasture (includes From the orchard offal…) and Spring (includes A gift of the haystack and barnyard…). You choose which of the four themes you like, and then see what happens. If you prefer, you can go à la carte. Say you choose a slow-cooked veal cheek main course. First comes a shallow bowl, its rim already decorated with what looks like gold leaf. You know the chef, Mr Lents himself, has lots of talent – his mentors include Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux in England, and his last boss, Joël Robuchon. Here, my veal arrives in a casserole with pastry lid, but first the base of the bowl has a carpet of foam put on.
The veal is taken out of its pie-crust wrap, and put into the bowl. The veal, I am told by a waiter in a pale gold tie and a Savile Row-look grey suit, comes from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, once partly owned by the late Jean-Louis Palladin – it is now run by his long-time business partner Sylvia Prygant. I am also told that the frog legs and snails that I started with came from Washington State (both were tempura-ed, with green garlic and other goodies). We drink a Pinot Noir from Russian River in Sonoma, Domaine Serene 2008, made by winemaker-owner Kathleen Inman.
My meal is to finish with an ode to Japan – sorry, its name is ‘Spring from the field of Japan’, which includes sakura, quinoa, apricot kernels and sake and other ingredients, all resulting in a palette of off-white and pale yellow and pale orange one-bites. To go with this, dried pink leaves (Japanese cherry blossom, Prunus serrulata, here called sakura) are put into coffee cups, boiling water is poured over what I am told is liquid gas is blown in, to perfect this cherry blossom ‘tea’. Mr Lents is busy cooking-designing for other guests at other tables so I cannot say goodbye. I repair to my lovely bedroom, with its working fire. Ivanka Trump has her influence everywhere in this 339-room hotel – rooms are dark champagne and dark mushroom-cream. I have a selection of big bottles of waters, to buy. One is a bottle of Bling Super Luxury, another is Evian’s latest art-series, to honour Courrèges.
From 2792, the top floor of the hotel part of the tower, I face south. Far below I look over the Chicago River to Wacker Drive, where the traffic looks like Dinky Toys. I wonder yet again why Chicago has the USA’s most magnificent architecture, old and new, and some of the cleanest streets and most welcoming people, but some of the ugliest taxis imaginable. Think of every ugly car currently in production, say the box-like Kia Sol, and you find it here, as a taxi. But the good things abound. Chicago now has some of the best luxury hotels in the country – and some of the best fun things to do and watch. Here, on March 17th, look down and see the Chicago River turned green, for St Patrick’s Day (coincidentally, one of Ireland’s best, Colm O’Callaghan, runs this particular Trump).