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The Love Letter to Mexico ($13), a deeply flavorful pour of mezcal, charanda, blackberry and lime bitter

FEATURES

A New Course

By Ariel Cheung

Photography by Anthony Tahlier

09.24.18

Michelin-starred chef Aaron Lirette returns to the Chicago dining scene with untethered flair at Free Rein.

There’s a persistent notion that hotel restaurants, with their reliable flow of traveling patrons, lack the spirit of independently run spots. But in the case of Free Rein, the all-day bistro lodged alongside the newly christened St. Jane Hotel, chef Aaron Lirette has taken the soul of his shuttered Michelin-starred restaurant GreenRiver and given it new life. Much of his staff has returned to work under Lirette—and old friends have come by too. “It was a really humbling experience to have almost every other table for the first few weeks be regulars from the old restaurant,” Lirette recalls. “I didn’t realize how much everybody would be happy to see us back cooking.”

As a nod to the gone-too-soon Streeterville spot, two stalwart dishes from GreenRiver make their return at Free Rein: the saffron spaghetti ($28), an orange-hued mélange of spice and salty-sweet notes of crab and sea urchin, and the smoked whitefish spread on hearty rye toast and topped with discs of egg and pickled radish ($12). Beyond that is a seasonal menu of refined yet familiar American dishes, given twists that make them feel brand-new. Take the beef tartare ($15), which skirts the norm with a briny sweetness from pickled carrots playing against smoked yogurt and charred scallions. It’s got heat too. The sweet corn soup ($11), blissfully not chowder, is bright and, as one recent lunch guest noted, “pretty like a Monet painting,” thanks to kernels of crisp corn, delicate edible flowers and green scallion oil that swirls deliciously with every spoonful.

Entrees will delight a range of Midwestern carnivores, from the tender duck breast ($34) kissed with plum sweetness, to a ruby strip loin ($36) served with miso puree and rounded out with choice textural contrast from charred onions and turnips. The sole large-format dish to possibly win a permanent spot on the menu is a dry-aged ribeye sourced from Slagel Farm. “I’m from here, and something I always wanted to do was execute a really well-done, giant, bone-in ribeye,” Lirette says, and his homage to the city of great steak is appropriately detailed. Cut anywhere from 35 to 55 ounces (and priced accordingly), the ribeye is briefly hit with intense bursts of flame, then rested for 10 minutes for an even distribution of heat before it’s seared again; the process is repeated as needed, rendering a “wall-to-wall perfect cook, medium-rare from top to bottom,” Lirette explains. “It looks sous vide, but it’s not.”

Crispy-skinned duck breast ($34) is a standout entree.

A large wine list joins three sections of cocktails, starting with house-designed doozies like What Would Jane Do?, a light, citrus vodka-based drink sweetened by berries, elderflower and mint ($13, with $1 donated to the ACLU in honor of the hotel’s namesake, Hull House founder Jane Addams). Classic cocktails like a French 75 and aperitifs like the ubiquitous Aperol spritz expand the offerings.

It is Lirette’s first attempt at an all-day menu, and while I have not tried breakfast or the debuting-soon brunch, there are some fun lunch specialties. The farro salad ($12) is excellent, with the nutty grain coated in a creamy apple-cider vinaigrette and paired with grapes, burrata and marcona almonds. Lirette’s take on chicken pot pie ($21) is delivered with the filling served in a shiny, brick-sized baking pan with a savory rectangle of puff pastry on top. While I generally like a denser pie crust, it still ably sopped up lavish gravy redolent of wine and truffle.

Desserts are sculptural and satisfying, from the carrot cake-based goat milk semifreddo ($16) encircled by a thin brush of blackberry sauce, to the decadent marjolaine ($16), a French layer cake composed of nut-based meringue and chocolate buttercream, topped with smoked vanilla ice cream. For something lighter, Free Rein has an assortment of inventive ice creams—picture scoops of raspberry-violet paired with fresh berries.

This fall, watch for pan-roasted, seed-crusted venison bathed in smoked buttermilk with braised red cabbage, chestnuts and cranberries. The delicate turbot will replace the summer’s whole dover sole and be presented tableside after it’s baked en papillote to keep the fish supremely moist. “I can’t be someone who just creates a menu and that’s the menu forever. That’s not exciting for us,” Lirette says. “We’re cooking in the season with ingredients that are relevant and speak to a time and place, and if we excite ourselves, I think that translates to the dining room as well.”  

The marjolaine ($16) is a French layer cake composed of nut-based meringue and chocolate buttercream, topped with smoked vanilla ice cream.

FREE REIN
224 N. Michigan Ave., 312.345.1000

Mon.-Thu., 6:30am-10pm; Fri., 6:30am-11pm; Sat., 7am-11pm; Sun., 7am-9pm

Lunch entrees, $13-$28; starters, $11-$22; dinner entrees, $25-$36; cocktails, $10-$13; desserts, $14-$16