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From Day To Night At Sixteen

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Apr 23, 2014 7:00PM

"The White North Star" : butter poached escolar with sepia, lily and white asparagus, in a sake and coconut broth.

A plate black as a wilderness night with a lily flower gleaming out of the celestial darkness. It’s the north star guiding me on a sea of briny butter-poached escolar with coconut and sake. This came in the midst of the “night” menu, one of two intricately baroque menus that Sixteen is now serving.

The “day” menu evokes more conventional conceptions of spring - flowers, fresh grass, hay, new growth on trees and longer, warmer days.

I enjoyed the night menu at a complimentary media dinner and was intrigued enough to chat with Chef Thomas Lents about how he came up with these interesting conceptualizations of time and seasons.

Lents is one of many people with degrees in philosophy who find a place for it outside the ivory tower, turning out dishes that he hopes manifest “philosophical storytelling.”

“It’s important to us to share meaning with guests, and to educate them, but without being too scholarly,” Lents said about his menu. “We want guests to be part of a story.”

Image courtesy of Sixteen.

One of the most striking dishes is the “the fairy ring” on the night menu, a dish of decorative green lichens and moss surrounding a fairy’s dance of ferns, morels, elderflower, laurel, veal and sea buckthorn. Despite the fanciful name, it’s inspired by a real phenomenon of mushrooms growing in a naturally occurring ring.

A fairy ring in a forest (Matt Gibson/Shutterstock)

“I grew up in Michigan,” Lents said. “I used to go out in the woods, and this was something you saw in the middle of a clearing in the woods. I was fascinated as a kid by the patterns of nature, particularly this kind of symmetry a fairy ring represents, which is unusual in nature.”

Each of the elements in the dish is itself fascinating and part of a story. For example - the sea buckthorn, an intensely tart and even more intensely orange burst of a berry, which is rarely seen in the US. “I was exposed to it when I lived in England and Ireland,” Lents said, “but I also have some family that lives in the coastal part of Germany and I would get sea buckthorn jelly for Christmas. I recently found a farm in Northern Ontario that produces both it and the moss. It has a bright acidic flavor - it’s one of those ingredients that has me hooked.”

2014_04_sixteenwindows.jpg But it’s not just the chef’s own stories. “I try to incorporate a lot of people into the creative team and get them involved with the creative process,” Lents said. Eventually they move the process to a smaller team of cooks and the general manager, where they further refine and test menu ideas.

These menus were inspired by the expansive views from the Trump Tower Chicago’s immense windows. The working day makes it into their theater for the rising and setting of the sun. The dialectic of duality inherent in that process plays itself out across the menu: from land and sea to sun and moon. One dish, the “eclipse” - a blood orange and cocoa nib sorbet with a black cumin sablĂ© and poached fennel - brings the two menus together.

It’s a journey in food. And one that allow for discovery while still tasting good.

Sixteen is located at 401 N Wabash Ave. Reservations are recommended.