Saganaki wings at Travelle (Hilary Higgins )
330 N. Wabash Ave. (inside The Langham, 2nd floor) 312-923-7705
Rating: 2.5 (out of four) Take it or leave it
Chef Tim Graham (Tru, Paris Club) was inspired by his grandmother's National Geographic collection--spanning from the 1890s to the late 1980s--to explore the culinary diversity of the Mediterranean at Travelle, a new restaurant inside new River North hotel The Langham. "I'd sit on the couch in my slippers with a beer and flip through books and magazines," Graham said. "In the late ’60s and ’70s [National Geographic] had so much about Egypt. There were these beautiful photos that had me traveling vicariously." I set out on my own journey to discover the execution of Graham's inspiration, hoping Travelle would be an exotic and refreshing respite. What I found was a bit of a strange trip.
Hey, good lookin'
The Langham, situated in the former IBM building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a den of luxury. The common areas of the hotel are some of the most beautiful I've seen since the Coco Chanel-inspired environs of the Waldorf Astoria (formerly the Elysian). The first-floor lobby of The Langham features a glinting gold-bead curtain backing a giant stone bust: It's a stoic Roman head, elongated so it looks thin and drawn like a funhouse mirror reflection—slightly disorienting but nonetheless cool. The dining room at Travelle feels like a sort of updated mid-century modern "Mad Men" aesthetic, with its freestanding semicircular banquettes perched on stainless steel spindles and Scandinavian-style dark wood and white leather dining chairs. I loved the repeating geometry of the Marina City parking garage arches offered through the western-facing windows.
Shooting for four stars
The luxe design isn't the only thing that signals fine-dining ambitions at Travelle. Dinner begins with complimentary amuse bouche and ends with mignardise (tiny sweet post-dinner snacks), but unfortunately, the amuse was a flat watermelon juice lacking punch and seasoning. As expected at a high-end restaurant, servers bring new napkins if you go to the restroom and the red wine is served in elegant Riedel glasses. The servers share a lot of knowledge when you inquire about a particular wine, but those same servers also removed plates too quickly or fumbled as they set them down. And mine made promises to gets answers about ingredients in certain dishes … and never returned with those answers. Four-star ambitions, two-star execution.
The spirits are spendy
The cocktails (and their prices) echo the upscale vibe. The Madhatttan cocktail (Rittenhouse rye and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth) was spicy, woodsy, balanced and topped with a foie gras-stuffed cherry, but the foie added nothing to the drink and felt like a gimmicky attempt to justify the $19 price tag. A cool and bracing Russian Standard vodka martini garnished with a truffle- and caviar-stuffed olive was also a poor investment at $22; while the few salty pearls of caviar added a nice seasoning, the rich perfume of the truffle shavings was drowned by the liquor. With master mixologists such as Paul McGee (Three Dots and a Dash) or Mike Ryan (Sable Kitchen & Bar) charging $13 for their cocktails just a few blocks away, the drinks here felt incredibly overpriced.
The menu that goes on and on
Chef Graham has moved away from the emulsions and fancy food stabilizers he used at Tru in favor of classic, unfussy techniques such as baking red snapper en papillote (wrapped in parchment, $26). The fish steamed in its own juices is incredibly flaky and wafts a tempting thyme vapor when the packet is presented tableside, almost perfect, except the tiny whole peeled tomatoes served with the fish could have used a touch more salt. Graham creates silky ravioli stuffed with tender rich short rib sprinkled with slightly bitter and fruity currants and crispy pita crumbs ($21). While there are many simply prepared and reasonably price dishes, the menu--clocking at more than 50 items when I dined--also included $135 seafood towers, $300 portions of Russian golden osetra caviar and four steak dishes. I understand why: The dining room is full of pearl-wearing older ladies and suit-clad men with expensive watches. There's clearly money to be spent. Yet when I dined, not one single table ordered those towers.