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A New Course

Ariel Cheung | September 24, 2018 | Feature Features

Michelin-starred chef Aaron Lirette returns to the Chicago dining scene with untethered flair at Free Rein.
The Love Letter to Mexico ($13), a deeply flavorful pour of mezcal, charanda, blackberry and lime bitter

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.”


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