Restaurant Reviews

Hitting the Mark

The Landmark Restaurant has been in the Melrose Hotel for a long time, so it's easy for it to tumble out of your dining awareness. Perhaps you spend most of your Melrose time in The Library bar, trying out different martinis while women of varying abilities croon to piano (put some currency in the tip jar, preferably the valuable kind--the Euro, for instance). The Library is a dark, leathery room of swarthy lumber and an incubator for cognac and facial hair. Spend an hour in The Library and you'll learn what it feels like to live in the core of a fine cigar. The heady aromas are strong, but they're all in your head because if you fire up your Romeo y Julieta with a useless 10 spot you'll be swarmed by Mayor Laura Miller's Puff Puff Red Guard.

That's why it's better to park in the Landmark. It's lighter. The walls are white and richly paneled in wood planks of hoary styling. Mirrors clad the pillars. Votives dot white tablecloths. The Landmark is polished. Still, you'll squint like a shrunken apple witch doll if you get seated in a dusky corner, of which there are at least two. Here menu reading brings on optical muscle burn, and there's a lot to read. Plus, servers don't have penlights. Why would they in a room as blond as Jessica Simpson? Instead, our server went to the back to search for the dimmer switch only to discover that the lighting panel was more bewildering than the menu.

But the menu isn't bewildering at all, really. The servers seem to know it; they seem to have tasted most of the dishes, which makes it a bit less of a gamble if you have an intuitive tableside trust at the outset--admittedly a rarity.

We didn't plumb for opinions on the roasted pheasant broth. We just dove in, intrigued by its nakedness. Like all great episodes of minimalism, this begins with a ceremony. The broth is poured slowly into a clean white bowl with shiitake mushroom slivers and specks of Roma tomato, placed there mosaic-like in a tight mound in the center. The server raises a white teapot above the bowl, positioning the spout just aft of the mound, and tilts. Clear pheasant broth (at this point it's important to note that when plugging "broth" into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Thesaurus it regurgitates entries for brothel--our favorite broth substitutes are hookshop, sporting house and stew) flows from a white teapot, the stream flowing at just the right velocity so that the hot run doesn't rush and slap the sides of the bowl, hitting the diner with concussive spray.

When the pouring stops, before steam can billow and fog your nostrils, the server returns with a plastic bottle and squeezes out a few drops of tarry pumpkin seed oil. The drops spread into yellow-black slicks. The oil gives the broth's gentle earthy richness a delicate backbone. The earth gets damp when the shiitake slivers are chewed. This dynamism is explosively compounded when matched with a glass of Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir. This wine is sown with a few stray threads of barnyard stench that grab and wrap the shiitake, highlighting their pithy grip before swaddling them in fruity silk. The wine drags them along for its long-winded finish.

No ceremony is needed for the jumbo scallop and wild boar Napoleon. This is not minimalism. The tower is sturdy. Stiff singed skin clings to the thick scallops, which are as white as new tooth enamel. Between the scallops are pads of black pepper polenta, almost mortar-like in their posture. Pinches of shredded wild boar blended with black bean accent the architecture. This makes a stunning counterpoint to the scallop, the light sweetness of the shellfish playing off the rugged salty intensity of the boar mash. Yet the polenta seemed extraneous, an unnecessary, almost debilitating component as it erased the compelling boar-scallop finish that spread across the mouth. Around the plate are four dabs of sweetened yellow tomato preserve: a masterful stroke. What if this paste were transformed into a coulis puddled at the base of the tower? The tongue dreams.

The menu is the work of Joel Harloff, a chef of considerable seasoning that includes a Culinary Institute of America degree and sous chef spots at Nana Grill and Mi Piaci Ristorante Italiano before taking hold of the chef de cuisine slot at the Melrose. After Executive Chef Doug Brown left the Melrose to found his gourmet fast-casual spot Beyond the Box, Harloff was left with a pair of substantial executive-chef loafers to fill.

Harloff's food is notable for what it doesn't do. It doesn't dazzle; it doesn't shock; it doesn't do exotic dances on the plate with rhythmic steps from barely explored cultures. It kind of eases you into its orbit and slowly works you over until curiosity gets the better.

Like this: pan-seared Chilean sea bass with mizuna (a feathery Japanese mustard green), and caponata (a Sicilian relish of eggplant, onion and tomato), threaded with pommes frites and resting in a blood orange buerre blanc. Richness lies planted in the shadows. You may think nothing more could be done to the ubiquitous and drowsy sea bass, but you'd be wrong. The engaging elements are in the contrasts. The blood orange buerre blanc sets up an ingenious velvet-gloved duel between fruit acid and butterfat. The blood orange is gentler than vinegar burn, hence its butter marriage seems more promising. Thin pomme frite threads work another angle, combing the gentle sweetness of the fish flakes with intense savoriness. Fish itself is what you'd expect from a well-prepared Chilean sea workhorse. The elements hugging it simply add volume, and maybe a few little ripples of sweet vibrato.

Yet if you find it difficult to stand bravely against what appears to be a fortress of fussiness, there's beef. Only the kitchen ruins your simple bloody-slab-with-salt-and-pepper-pinches expectations by making it fussy too. Try this on: Grilled 8-ounce fillet of beef with goat cheese and truffle raviolis, cognac demi-glace, hedgehog mushrooms and French beans. Hmm. Plus there's a fried basil leaf resting atop the beef, which is akin to putting lavender in Skoal Bandits. Not that any of this is bad, and there's a crispy piece of cured pork over that to blunt the lacy demeanor. The meat rests on a stick raft of green beans and it's delicious: rosy red, juicy, yet a little grainy--not as silky as you might expect. Raviolis are good, too, but the specific purpose is a mystery.

Lobster and sea scallops come with shaved fennel, red onion, orange, basil and olive oil crostini thrown together in a natural jus bath. It's a maelstrom in a bowl with spindly twists of severed lobster tail. Scallops rest in all of their pregnant sweetness amidst fennel shavings and floss-thin half rings of red onion. Despite the visual mess, the flavors mingle with orderly precision.

One surprising thing about this menu is it illustrates in explicit detail how well seafood works with orange, bloody or otherwise. Be promiscuous with this, please. Other things tease, too. There's an amazing salad with housemade mozzarella, speck (salt and cold smoke-cured ham), artichoke and zucchini frites, proving that frites can be skillfully employed more than once.

Vanilla crème brûlée was less than skillful. It was cold. No heightened contrast between warm torched crust cocooning cool custard. No doubt Harloff can figure out a way to make frites work with this.

3015 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-521-5151. Open for breakfast 6:30-11 a.m. Monday-Friday, 7-11 a.m. Saturday & Sunday. Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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