Sixteen Skyrockets Under Thomas Lents
by ari bendersky
From Donald Trump’s point of view, Sixteen, like everything else he owns, was always the best restaurant in Chicago. But the refined dining room overlooking the Chicago skyline and Chicago River on the 16th floor of the Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago went through somewhat of a transitional period last year. Following the departure of Michelin-starred executive chef Frank Brunacci in June of 2011, the restaurant—despite maintaining a steady flow of moneyed diners, celebrities, and the politically connected, including Drew Barrymore, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, The Donald, and his daughter, Ivanka—struggled a bit with its identity. This resulted in the restaurant being excluded from Michelin’s 2012 star listing, leaving foodies to question the status of the fine-dining spot.
Today, with gleaming silver on the tables set below 30-foot ceilings, Sixteen looks anything but dull. In January of this year the restaurant announced it had brought on Thomas Lents to serve as executive chef and had high hopes that Lents would return Sixteen to its glory. And those hopes come with good reason: Lents has a world-class pedigree, which includes time as executive sous chef at Everest and chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Quince. But he most recently worked in the kitchen at Las Vegas’s three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon at the MGM Grand.
Lents had always planned to return to Chicago and was waiting for the perfect reason to jump. Trump gave him the impetus to head back East. “It was really the opportunity at Sixteen that drew me more than anything else,” Lents said. “I looked at the restaurant and the team they wanted to build. I looked at it as an opportunity to build a new version of a modern restaurant.” Lents didn’t come to Chicago fists clenched, ready for an aggressive fight. Instead the accomplished chef, who also honed his craft in restaurants in Ireland and the UK, quietly entered the kitchen in the famed glistening tower and started making changes—and upping the ante. While many Chicago restaurants in the last few years have shied away from expensive tasting menus and white tablecloths, Sixteen is heading in the opposite direction.
With a nod to detail and attention to service, Sixteen, along with Lents’s new menu featuring gorgeous dishes including a crudo of diver scallop accompanied by osetra caviar and roasted Maine lobster with green and white asparagus and gratin of ziti with truffle sabayon and a light asparagus jus is not only making it acceptable to eat formally again, it’s inviting you to the table.
With this notion of a new version of a modern restaurant, Lents suggests it’s about the attention to detail, a sense of warmth and comfort, and a focus on the best possible ingredients you can source that deem the term “fine dining” somewhat meaningless. “There needs to be a great restaurant that is different that brings out more of the ingredient-driven elements,” Lents said. “It won’t happen overnight. It is a journey. It’s a progression, like any dining experience. You go in and work every day to change something to make it better. You wake up in two years, and a lot of things are better.” Fortunately for Lents, early reviews point to strong improvements already.
photography by katrina wittcamp; (hotel, interiors, plate, Lents, menu); Gregg DeGuire; (d. trump); George Pimentel (i. trump)
Michigan Avenue toasted December/January cover star William H. Macy with a 150-guest gathering at Hubbard Inn on December 9, 2014.