Free Rein is the Where's Waldo of Chicago restaurants, hiding in plain sight on Michigan Avenue, just south of the river. It lurks behind a wall of shaded glass - you can't tell there's a restaurant in there unless you walk right up to it - on the ground floor of the St. Jane Hotel (the former Hard Rock Hotel, remodeled and reconcepted), a new and unfamiliar name among Chicago hotels.
Chef Aaron Lirette is used to this sort of thing. His previous restaurant, GreenRiver, sat on the 18th floor of a medical building in Streeterville; to visit the place, you had to know it was there. Yet Lirette's cooking was good enough to earn a Michelin star (and three from me, incidentally).
Most of the GreenRiver kitchen staff followed Lirette to Free Rein, and they added pastry chef Evan Sheridan from Sixteen. That's a formidable team.
Past the entrance is a small, coffee shop-ish space for quick bites and grab-and-go. Things get more inviting farther back, with comfortable seating at wide chairs, gold-toned banquettes and raised booths in platinum hues. Soft illumination comes from chandeliers that resemble dueling light sabers.
The menu features a few nods to GreenRiver, including the fried chicken oysters (a seasonal presentation with charred corn and chile-lime aioli) and the spaghetti in sea-urchin sauce (now bolstered with king crab meat). And, as at GreenRiver, there's one steakhouse-quality hunk of meat (a Slagel Farm rib-eye, dry-aged 90 days).
Among the raw dishes, the madai carpaccio is a star, the slices of snapper warmed by drizzles of hot butter on their way to the table. Further supported by capers, lemon, ginger-spiced brioche crumbs and parsley chiffonade, this dish is alive with bright, light flavors. A somewhat similar approach is taken with the lime-cured fluke crudo, matched to green strawberries and diced kohlrabi.
I'm not a fan of the beef tartare; the scallion kimchi, carrot sauce and togarashi crackers provide persuasively spicy notes, but I thought they overwhelmed the poor beef.
There are oysters, of course, and seafood towers (dubbed "elevations") sized for two, four or six - pricey, naturally, but in line with what steakhouses charge.
Among the warm starters, keep an eye out for the cognac-cured, truffled foie-gras torchon, a special last month that's about to join the regular menu; it's a gorgeous composition. Smoked whitefish toast is elevated by ricotta and creme fraiche, both made in house; Epoisses, a smooth cheese baked and served with toasted sourdough, is going to be an especially enticing option on chilly days.
Lirette switches up the menu often enough that some of the dishes from my early visits have been replaced or modified. I loved the pork-belly roulade and its bacon-jus glaze, but its replacement - a sturdy pork-collar dish with guanciale-amaretto sauce and a sweet-potato-pecan puree so lovely I need to learn how to make this in time for Thanksgiving - is even better, finished off with amaretti crumble.
I bid a similar sad farewell to Lirette's ricotta tortelloni with black truffle and lemon zest, which has been replaced by ricotta cavatelli with morcilla-sausage ragout.
The roasted sturgeon is a star in the making; the fillet is poached in duck fat, then seared on one side, and it's a gorgeous piece of fish. It's supported, literally, by a bed of glazed cabbage and pickled apple slices. Minor flaws were the pretty but flavorless beurre rouge surrounding the fish, and some hen of the woods mushrooms that were knife-resistant tough.
I sampled only one side dish, but it was fascinating: broccolini with tuna aioli and a blanket of shaved pecorino. If you set out to cook broccoli tonnato, you'd be very happy if it turned out like this.
Between my first and final visit, Sheridan's dessert list has had a complete turnover, so I won't torture you unduly with paeans to his bygone pistachio financier with chopped nuts and poured-tableside black tea and raspberry consomme, nor his layered tower of carrot cake and goat-milk semifreddo.
Instead, I'll rave over the caramel apple tatin, really a roulade of apple sheets with brown-butter gelato, lemon verbena and torn pieces of cake, which struck me as a deconstructed deep-dish apple pie. Just as delicious is the sweet potato cremeux above white-sesame panna cotta and toasted-ginger pavlova, looking like an exotic bird nest.
The restaurant hasn't built a substantial dinner following yet, perhaps a consequence of its mid-July debut ("We opened in the middle of patio season with no patio," Lirette said) as much as its subtle-to-a-fault exterior. Breakfast includes grab-and-go pastry options by Sheridan, and at lunch, in addition to grab-and-go, there's an appealing menu of downsized dinner items and some very good sandwiches, including a shaved rib-eye sandwich with pickled peppers and cheese sauce (think upscale Philly cheesesteak) and a note-perfect lobster roll.
The beverage program includes more than 150 wine bottles, a smattering of craft beers (mostly from Chicago) and a cocktail list with classic drinks, a breakout list of aperitif cocktails and specialty drinks with such appealing names as What Would Jane Do (which includes a $1 donation to the ACLU). In a hotel that takes its name from Jane Addams, that seems like an appropriate touch.
224 N. Michigan Ave.
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily
Prices: Entrees $35-$38
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.