Date Visited: 6/22/16
Meal Length: 2 hours 15 min
“Never bending to industry trends, the dishes and service at Oriole give guests a thought-provoking and interactive experience, where the diner is the true focus of the meal.”
– Oriole, “About”
Why should you be interested?
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant open in Chicago with its sights so firmly set on offering a “fine dining experience.” New joints have been aiming for the “chef-driven yet casual” sweet spot, so for once I think it’s nice to sit down and explore the totality of a kitchen’s vision. Noah Sandoval, formerly executive chef of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Senza helms that kitchen. His pastry chef and partner is Genie Kwon, who recently plied her craft at Boka and GT Fish & Oyster. I’d never tasted either of the two’s food before (perhaps I’ve had Kwon’s work unknowingly) so deigned to visit based off the breadth of the tasting menu.
How easy is it to locate?
The restaurant is located near the intersection of Desplaines and Lake St. on a side street called Walnut. It’s a quiet little corner of the city (not far from Fulton Market’s other culinary heavy hitters) and you’ll likely be able to park your own car just a short distance away. Look for a black brick wall and stairs that lead the way.
How do you feel when you enter?
Confused. A hostess tells you to watch your step as you enter through the doorway into a dark, industrial space. We couldn’t clearly spot the hostess’s stand so stood around scanning the walls as our eyes adjusted. After a moment, we were told to watch our step yet again as we passed the threshold into the dining room. 28 seats—arranged in standalone tables and banquettes—are flanked by brick walls and accents of worn wood. The open, gleaming white tile kitchen serves as the mantelpiece of it all–with sprawling windows on both sides amplifying the view while effectively shielding noise. Those facing the kitchen will enjoy the view. I was on the other side of the banquet and found my chair to be plush and comfortable–about as much as I ask for.
How does the service make you feel?
Generally good–everyone we interacted with was pleasant–yet the staff’s desire to cater to the diner can be stilted at times. The folksy declaration that “we’re here to feed you”—though it looks to diffuse the pretension that sometimes lingers in fine dining settings—rang with insincerity. The staff often seemed in two minds and were quick to break eye contact. This isn’t to discount that they were, in fact, nice. Yet with such a lofty mission statement–and with so many of the flourishes of fine dining stripped away–you would think the team could better evoke the mood they spend so much time stating. Show it to us by slowing down and not looking to run to other tasks so quickly. Or just operate with cold efficiency and don’t bother trying to dress it up (because it’s nothing to be ashamed of).
How should you order?
Oriole offers one set menu each evening for $175–mine encompassed 16 distinct courses (with some containing multiple parts). Otherwise, diners are invited to choose between a collection of cocktails and wines by the glass or two distinct pairings with the meal. The $75 option combines wine, beer, and sake while the $125 is focused exclusively on wine (with one rather appropriate sake). We found the wine pairing to be thoughtful, and the staff took extra care to describe how each was intended to complement the coming food without ruining too much of the surprise.
What are the notable dishes?
Langoustine: White asparagus wrapped in torched Ibérico lardo would have made me happy enough, but tucking langoustine meat into that package had me giddy like Christmas morning. The lardo formed a subtle, fatty cloak for the interplay of the crunching vegetable and plump meat of the crustacean. The flavors were a bit muted—somehow dominated by the mild asparagus—but the bite was nonetheless vibrant and clever in its construction.
Hudson Valley Foie Gras: Hudson Valley foie gras with Hudson Canyon scallop. Though the former comes from up the river–and the latter about 100 miles east of its mouth (and deep into the sea)–the two are perfect bedfellows. The brown-bordering-on-black crust of the duck liver yielded to a creamy interior, not unlike the scallop’s own buttery mouthfeel. The accompanying pickled cherries are no stranger to foie gras but smacked with a tartness that dually complemented the scallop and had us scraping our plates like Dickens’s orphans.
Japanese A5 Wagyu: You come to expect a gemstone-sized piece of wagyu on most modern fine dining menus–and it’s become a little hard to get excited about it. Kitchens are content to let the well-marbled meat speak for itself, but the fetishization of its texture often inhibits the development of more complete and pleasing flavors. Not here. The beef bounces seductively against the teeth; harder chews bursting layers of fat to coat the mouth. The slice is slightly thicker than what I’ve seen in similar platings–and each bite feels like a proper mouthful. But it’s a dusting of furikake that proves key. The seasoning, typically a mix of dried fish, seaweed, sugar/salt, and MSG, amplifies the umami to levels of eye-rolling ecstasy missing in daintier beef preparations. And when it all seems too much to handle, charred little gem brings a pleasingly bitter sanity to the indulgent dish.
Lamb Belly: I thought I was happy with the wagyu (but knew deep down it had only stoked the flame of my carnivorous spirit). When the steak knife returned to the table, I knew lamb was a likely suspect. I couldn’t have imagined it would be lamb belly. Despite pork belly’s glamor as “foodie-nip” fading, lamb belly has never appeared on my table (though it seems such a naturally good thing). Here, it came cooked in a crisp, gelatinous slab with sweet/tart huckleberry and dripplingly-tender rapini in chermoula. Are there two stronger meat dishes on a tasting menu in Chicago?
Chicory Custard: The most substantial dessert of the evening took the form of frozen custard, so I doubted just how satisfying the cold treat could be. Yet the chicory–which is sometimes used to replace (or reinforce) the flavor of coffee beans—was robust; the accompanying flavors of whiskey, cinnamon, and Tahitian vanilla familiar and oh-so-satisfying. I can’t quite grasp how Kwon makes this so light and refreshing yet with such depth of sweetness.
THE BREAD BASKET
Sourdough: From the way the kitchen applied the butter, I knew I was in for a treat. The sourdough itself had a proud, dense crumb–the butter slick with milkfat. The bread course would have been stellar if it stopped there, but the crunch of local grains alongside a scattering of chives made for a complete and deeply satisfying few bites.
Pretzel Lavash: Technically the cheese course of the evening, the lavash (an Armenian unleavened flatbread) came adorned with gianduja, raclette, and black currant. I expected little from the brittle pretzel, yet it was ethereally crisp and a pleasant canvas for the assertive cheese and its accompaniments.
Almond Croissant: You can likely now tell that Oriole is a real treat for fans of baked goods. The croissant had an almost-candied crust from acacia honey that crunched against slivers of almond. Notes of cardamom and rose worked well to restrain the sweetness and add a bit of depth.
Was the meal satisfying?
Very. Oriole’s menu is thoughtfully crafted and engages an eclectic set of techniques alongside some rather luxurious ingredients. In fact, the menu you receive reads like a bingo card for fine dining: (caviar, check; oyster, check; langoustine, check; Ibérico, triple check; and crab and foie and even a little truffle). But, faithful to Oriole’s mission, the food is prepared with a rustic, flavor-forward sensibility that encompasses the new and the luxurious but tempers them with the familiar and playful. The kitchen isn’t cooking to show off; they want to make you happy.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
$175 for an extended tasting menu puts Oriole in competition with other contemporary fine dining in Chicago like Sixteen and Acadia. The service, as mentioned before, lacks some polish but does succeed in stripping away pretension. This will appeal to some guests just as much as the Trump International Hotel does others. Talking purely food–and though competitors might cater to wider tastes–Oriole offers very good value for its money. Diners are fed just about every eye or ear-catching ingredient they’d dream of in a fine meal, yet the plates remain ruggedly approachable–engineered towards impressing with flavors more than looks.
Would I go back?
While the service doesn’t quite set the comfortable mood they’re going for, the pacing was quite good and the little details can be ironed out with time. What matters is that the kitchen is firing on all cylinders–they’re cooking with that warmth and personality (and even a little irreverence)–and I will never hesitate to trust in a restaurant that evokes that mood.
How hard are reservations to get?
Given the small size of the space, reserve a month’s time for prime Friday/Saturday reservations. Those who are flexible on time/day of the week should be able to find seats with a week’s notice.
Reservations, current menu, and other information can be found at www.oriolechicago.com