Friday, March 4, 2011

Kendall College Dining Room: Review

The experience to be had at the Kendall College Dining Room can be likened to that of going to see a symphony performance. Upon entering, the atmosphere is dark and plush and the air is alive with a certain thinly-concealed buzzing. A host whisked by to attend to our party at the entrance of the restaurant, offering eagerly to take our coats. The service was carefully orchestrated, and the food itself was a sort of climbing progression, with each dish building off the success and failures of the last. As with the symphony, occasional moments gave way to a certain lull; a momentary lapse of interest during the (extended) wait between courses—only to be renewed once the next course was swept in front of you. However, the experience was an overall pleasant one, with a highlight on the creativity and seasonality of the dishes.

The restaurant itself, located inside the campus of Kendall College—a prestigious culinary academy located in the heart of Chicago—seems to have a difficult time shaking off a certain air of feigned elegance. In such stark contrast to the bright colors and warm lighting of the rest of the campus, the dim, polished atmosphere seems a bit put on. The Dining Room, also offering a full bar, serves both lunch and dinner on both a prix fixe and à la carte basis. The ample menu features seasonal dishes that are rotated often, with many ingredients grown right in the campus’ very own student-maintained garden. One of the main features of the space, and one of the most memorable aspects of the experience, was the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows offering a glimpse of the men (and women) behind the curtain: the kitchens are made fully visible to curious diners, who are given a rare peek into the tightly organized (or, sometimes, not) workings of a professional kitchen.

The prix fixe menu allows diners to choose one appetizer, one entrée and one dessert (or two entrées in the place of a dessert) for under $20 at lunch and under $30 at dinner. On the Tuesday night that we dined, there was also a half-off deal on wine bottles. The appetizers that were brought to our table varied noticeably in size: the Jersey milk ricotta gnudi (described to us by the server as “pasta-less ravioli”) consisted of only three snug little balls in a deep bowl, while the roasted market beet salad with ladyfinger popcorn arrived on a dish that nearly spanned the entire length of one side of the table. However, the small portion size of the gnudi and its brown butter-truffle sauce helped to keep its deep richness from overwhelming. The garnish—delicate, crisp pieces of fried sage—broke up the creaminess of the dish in a welcome gesture. The beet salad was a more entertaining experience, with unexpected bursts of earthy popcorn complimenting the tartness of the beets.

The entrée course brought more surprises, but hit slightly lower notes. The smoked tofu with black kale and white beans was sweet and lush in flavor, with a sharp tomato purée adding some spark to the dish. However, it was a dish that began to underwhelm as it progressed, with the tofu growing one-note in flavor and increasingly tough in some areas. The pan-seared arctic char also had an implacable “fishiness” to it, with its plating lacking a little in thought: the whipped mashed potatoes had cooled considerably upon reaching the table, as they were spread in a sweeping line over the surface of the plate. However, dessert was not to disappoint. Pleasantly simple in both its design and presentation, the cocoa chestnut crêpe dish was a perfect ending crescendo: one crêpe filled with chestnut cremeux, the other with a housemade ricotta cheese; they complimented and contrasted each other beautifully. Other desserts included an extravagantly-colored chocolate beet cake and an expansive “study of apples,” including a mulled apple cider frappe, apple fritter, and candy apple.

The Kendall Dining Room certainly has a lot to offer, and returning guests will be kept entertained by its clever and evolving menu. Although not all symphonies can be executed perfectly, the value of the performance lies in how much heart is put into it—and if food can abide by the same rules, then the Kendall Dining Room is most certainly worth a visit.

Kendall Dining Room
Service: 3/5 (Students serve, so there are some hits and some misses)
Taste: 4/5 (Especially great considering the low-ish price!)
Veggie-friendliness: 2/5 (Usually only a few vegetarian options per course...but there's always at least one)

The Kendall Dining Room is open for lunch Monday-Friday from 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm; and for dinner Tuesday through Friday from 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm and Saturdays 6:00 - 8:00 pm.

It is located at 900 N.North Branch Street, Chicago, IL 60642.

Reservations can be made at 312.752.2328 or online.

Dress code is business casual.

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