July 12, 2012
To appreciate the re-imagined NoMI Kitchen, which was unveiled last year, it helps to have known the original NoMI. Only then can one appreciate $16 salads and upper-$20s (and beyond) entrees as steps in the direction of affordability. The tab at NoMI Kitchen is perhaps 10 to 15 percent below what it was, but it remains a pricey proposition.
The more significant change is in mood. The staffers are less formal, and certainly more flexible. Ordering from the light, less-expensive NoMI Garden (the outdoor space) in the main dining room was once frowned upon. No more.
"The idea was to make it much more fun, not to dumb it down," says executive chef Ryan LaRoche. "We're certainly a quality ingredient-driven restaurant just like we were before. But we're speaking to a much broader audience now."
That still leaves room on the menu for creations such as the uni-avocado toast, a trio of tartines topped with sea urchin (uni), avocado, capers and Mangalitsa ham. The dish offers a well-balanced interplay between the sweet-creamy uni, salty-smooth ham and tart capers; LaRoche cheerfully acknowledges that it's his most controversial dish (i.e., some customers don't care for it). Put me in the "love it" group.
I'm in the love category as well for the sweetbreads, presented over a creamy onion puff-pastry tart alongside a lemony green salad topped with braised veal tongue; house-made black-pepper linguine, given a carbonara treatment of bacon cream, egg yolk and pecorino cheese; and the day's fish, served simply over a ravigote of capers and golden raisins.
There are some major indulgences on the menu (one night there was a special steak and truffle composition going for $90), but a more approachable option would be the lobster, served as two split halves stuffed with rock shrimp, brioche and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (grapefruit beurre blanc adds a much-needed touch of acidity).
Meg Galus' desserts alone justify a visit to NoMI. "Fromage blanc parfait" might sound impossibly refined, but this dessert-in-a-bowl is more or less a cream-cheese mousse (incorporating some vanilla-bean whipped cream) next to irregular pieces of spongecake, butterscotch caramel and a sprinkling of pralines made with cornflakes, hazelnuts and coconut. Her bittersweet-chocolate mousse is so intense in its chocolate flavor that my chocoholic wife practically swooned, and the blueberry-olive-oil fruit tart I had recently convinced me that the "NoMI kitchen tart," whatever its makeup, will always be a safe bet.
Galus, in fact, is about one-fourth into her "100 days of tart," in which the chef is creating a different daily tart for 100 straight days. This weekend, she's making a mint, raspberry and chocolate tart decorated with house-made lucky charms (for Friday the 13th), and a croissant bread-pudding tart with Valrhona chocolate and fraises des bois (strawberries) for Bastille Day. And Galus will make a birthday-cake tart Aug. 31, because that will be her birthday.
Park Hyatt Chicago: 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-239-4030
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $26-$39
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; discounted valet parking available
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.