“I want to get beyond the chicken,” Lee Wolen of The Lobby restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel says. By which he means, he wants people to know that there are other things on his menu besides the $54 (for two people) roasted chicken, which David Tamarkin made famous in his five-star Time Out Chicago review (“none of these entrées compares to the chicken for two. The thing is a spectacle”) and which has dominated discussion of the restaurant since. Wolen is grateful for having been introduced to the city this way, and for the validation of a new chef with a hot-ticket item— half the room may order it on a Saturday night; the first weekend after the review came out, a cook had to run out to Whole Foods to get more chickens in the middle of service. But he wants people to see what else he can do, too, which is, not least, change the menu with the seasons— the chicken which came with carrots a month or two ago now comes with white beans and escarole. “Carrots were kind of the end of fall. White beans and escarole is winter winter,” Wolen, who tends to speak in short, precise bursts like that, explains. See our man Huge Galdones’ photos, and find out more about the new chef and his menu, below.
Wolen worked at Butter and Moto in Chicago before going off to Eleven Madison Park in New York. There’s a definite EMP look to some of his platings, like the stunning Arctic char dish, which just has way more color than you’d think anything in January could have. But at the same time, this is not food meant to be on anybody’s cutting edge. We’d call it comfort food, except that in Chicago at the moment that means mashups like Stephanie Izard’s reuben with kimchi in it. Wolen’s comfortable food is classically elegant; you can imagine his delicate lemon sole being made sixty years ago… well, by Julia Child for her husband Paul, maybe. (Though she wouldn’t have had the immersion circulator in which the exquisitely silky fish was poached.)
The Peninsula is the first hotel restaurant Wolen has worked for, but he has adapted well to the challenges, room service tuna salad sandwiches going out alongside his dining room creations; he also knows that there are advantages in being the new star at a big business with big resources. His boss, hotel executive chef Kai Lerman, stops by the photo shoot, observing wryly “I’m just here to make him look good” as his younger underling gets the media spotlight. A few minutes later, the hotel’s general manager, Maria Zec, also turns up in the kitchen to tell Wolen of the high praise the chef has received from one attendee at a dinner in the hotel— former Mayor Daley. “Yeah, we did his birthday party three years in a row at Butter,” Wolen says diffidently.
“We’re in a hotel, we’re not Alinea with a tasting menu that can have anything on it. We’ll always have a salad on the menu,” Wolen says. “But I’ve pushed it. We started out with a ribeye and a pork tenderloin, and now we have pork shoulder and lamb loin. We can have other fish besides halibut, and still make people happy with what we do with it.” On this winter night, snow falling past The Lobby’s three-story windows, being on the receiving end of Wolen’s comforting food is about as happy a place as we can think of.
See our slideshow below; Wolen is also the subject of this week’s Key Ingredient at the Reader, which can be viewed and read here.