If you’ll recall, my wife and I got drunk on a heady mixture of MasterChef and the Food Network, and decided to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants this year. A Michelin Star is like every other award in existence – which is to say that it claims to reward “the best,” while covertly defining “the best” to be a narrow range of tastes. (If “the best” movies are Oscar winners, then comedies and horror movies apparently suck.)
Michelin defines “the best” to be expensive, hard-to-prepare food with attention to detail and impeccable service. Which generally implies pretty good food, but it leaves out, you know, that clam shack down at the beach that serves perfectly-steamed mussels taken straight from the ocean. Yet still, when we dined at Babbo (one star), it was still one of our top ten restaurant experiences ever, and La Terrazza del’Eden in Rome was also very good, so…
…we had to upgrade. Enough with these paltry one-star restaurants. Let’s see what two Michelin stars gets us! And so we booked a meal at Sixteen in Chicago.
Now I will walk you through our meal, which was overwhelming on every level. Thirteen courses of food.
Sixteen clearly set out to dazzle from moment one, wherein they laid out a map of Chicago’s waterfront and laid out the menu in little plastic blocks. The menu, which changes seasonally, is a very upscale version of surf and turf, and each course was a melding of seafood and the meat district that Upton Sinclair helped make famous. This was all to hide the reality that when you came to Sixteen, you ate what the chef damn well felt like making from you, but it did lend a festive Lego-style atmosphere to the dining.
Now, the surprise appetizer course was utterly adorable, in that they said, “We’re at the beach now, so we’re having a picnic” and laid out all sorts of little picnic foods for us. This was a great start, because every mini-food on here was quite above the cut:
- The mini-sandwich was tomato, Italian ham, and mozzarella, if I recall, and it was perfect. Every bite brought out the tomato and the meat and the cheese and the toasted bread in a different combination, a little tooth-inspired dance of flavors and textures interplaying with each other, so this was good right up through the last swallow.
- The quail legs were dark meat, and I usually don’t like dark meat because it’s monotone and oily… but this was firm, cooked well, and seasoned so that it had a wonderful texture between the crispy skin and the salted meat.
- The potato chip had a tiny piece of smelt actually woven into the chip, which was a piece of starchy sewing that we could only admire, and what that got us was a slightly soggy potato chip that melded quite nicely with the salty fish taste of the smelt, so what you got was kind of a crunchy fish with a sharp burst of salt around the edges. Awesome.
- Finally, there were sangria popsicles. Which were the disappointment. They weren’t like sorbet, as we’d expected, but rather creamy, which I suspect was some sort of chemical adhesion so they didn’t melt instantly while we were eating sandwiches. But the cream in the center completely obliterated any sangria flavor – if you hadn’t told me, “Hey, this is supposed to be sangria,” I would have thought it to be some sort of bland fruit pop. Still fun, but meh.
This came with a tiny glass of sweet peach tea and whiskey, and boy did that work well. The only complaint I had about that drink was the glass was very small.( The remaining eleven courses, with photos, cut for your mercy )
So Was It Worth It?
Look, Sixteen was worth a mortgage payment and then some. We’ll be paying for this sucker for some time.
The relevant questions are: a) was it the best meal we ever had? and b) was it significantly better than the one Michelin star meal we had?
The answer as to the Michelin star question is unquestionably no. When you’re paying as much as a used car to get your meal, you want flawless service, and there were a couple of significant bobbles – the wrong foods being given to the wrong people, the forgetting of a drink, and unforgivably, giving us the wrong check.
It is very hard to be moral when someone gives you a check that is worth several hundred less than you actually owe. It’s even harder when they go “Whoops, our bad” and bring you the full check, with nothing written off on it, no discount for this honesty. Hey, the cheese tray was $35, you coulda given that to us for free and we would have felt moral and frugal. As it was, I don’t exactly mind paying full price, but the restaurant really hit home just how much this cost, leaving a tremendously sour taste on the way out the door.
But that aside, I was of two minds: I personally don’t mind a bobbled check, or having to switch plates with my wife when the wrong dessert arrives. But when I’m paying premium price for what is, literally, world-class service, getting elementary mistakes becomes a weird question: Should I let this slide? I mean, I could buy a large portion of a woodworking workshop for what I paid for this meal, and part of that cost was the promised flawless service. And what I got was very good in many ways, but world-class?
Now, it could be that Sixteen no longer deserves its two-star rating, and we’ll see them slide down to one star next year. (Ratings are dynamic things, you see.) It could be that they had a bad night. Either way, though, I paid about $200 above what I paid for Babbo, and Babbo was not exactly cheap.
As for the food, Gini rates it the best meal she’s ever had. Me, I’d rank two above it: Victoria and Albert’s in Disneyworld, and Babbo in New York City. This was a very good experience, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if Michelin was correct on this one. There’s also the fact that, frankly, both Victoria and Albert’s and Babbo tend to be conservative in their meal choices, whereas obviously Sixteen had some playful experiments that were aiming higher and fell harder. (Agnolotti is hard to do, but you have a clear idea of what the perfected state of it should be; more difficult to find the perfect porktopus.)
So I liked it. Very much. But the expense really carved the edge off. Were this the same price as a Babbo meal, well, I woulda said this kicked the crap out of Babbo. But value enters into the equation, and with that much on the line, well, I’d probably go with Babbo again.
Still very good. Memorable. Awesome. But spendy. Let’s see how other restaurants compare, once we’ve grown back our meager savings.
Oh, as an extra bonus, here’s how I looked in The Suit that day:
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.