Cite Disappoints With Spectacular Views But Pricey, Mediocre Food

By Anthony Todd in Food on Mar 7, 2016 7:35PM

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The view from Cite. Photo via Facebook.

It's an axiom of dining that you can't get good food and a spectacular view in the same place. Critic Calvin Trillin once wrote "I never eat in a restaurant that's over a hundred feet off the ground and won't stand still," and the only thing we'd modify is to change the "and" to an "or." But secretly, we're always hoping for perfect food high in the sky, because it's just so darn glamorous. That's why, when I heard that Chef Martial Noguier was being brought in to fix up the menu at Cite, the restaurant atop Lake Point Tower, I got irrationally excited. Would this talented chef be able to turn things around?

Phil Vettel called Cite "the biggest white elephant on the Chicago dining scene." My more prosaic take? It's that spot that always shows up on OpenTable, seems like a good idea for about 30 seconds when you look at the photos, and then you come to your senses. I'd never been there (heck, I've never been able to afford it) but it seemed like now was the right time. I went in with an open mind, a heart full of hope and a hearty appetite.

Boy, was Trillin right.

Let's get the obvious part out of the way—the view is absolutely, undeniably spectacular. It's the only building with that particular perspective on the skyline, and the circular restaurant boasts views from every angle. Settling down into a chair and gazing out those big windows is one of the most awesome things I've ever done as a Chicagoan.

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Cite's Dining Room, complete with glare. Photo via Facebook.

As long as I didn't turn my head and look into the dining room. It's not entirely clear when the place was last redecorated, but there's something a little ... off about the entire room. During the day, it looks great (at least in photos) but at night, it's not as pretty. Orange gauze drapes cover the support pillars, greek pillars (that look like they were bought from the garden store) hide in corners and baskets full of christmas-tree draped branches sit on the banquettes. Plus, the attempts at dramatic lighting just cause glare that blocks the awesome view! They would have done better to save their money and simply make the room a blank slate, since no one is looking at it anyway.

The menu, which labels itself as French-inspired with seasonal twists, seemed vaguely promising. It checks all the fine dining boxes of the 2010s: caviar service, raw seafood platter, foie gras, endive salad, wagyu beef, amish chicken. There are some creative (and yes, seasonal-sounding) touches, like beets, celery root and winter squash).

But the prices are literally (ha) sky high, and there's no good reason for it. Noguier told Vettel that he'd actually lowered the prices, which makes me absolutely terrified to find out what they were before. There's a $25 vodka martini on the menu, lobster is $68, as is a New York strip and a veal chop (for some reason, $68 feels like a magic number on this menu). Think about that for a second—that's a $70 entree. For one person. Not a fancy sharable cut of beef or a table-side presentation. Just a single dish.

Ok, I told myself. Take a deep breath and think of some of your recent steakhouse meals. A steak at Swift & Sons isn't much less than that, so maybe this is OK. Except that the service at Swift and Sons is impeccable - and, frankly, you expect some pretty fancy server song-and-dance when the prices are this high.

Yeah, not so much. At most high-end spots at this price point, you have a team of experienced, knowledgable servers catering to your every whim. Our poor server (for there was just the one) had no idea what gins were on the menu, couldn't tell us anything about any of the overpriced wines by the glass, and when I asked about an incongruous-sounding ingredient (a salad features "hydrated tomato") he had no clue and didn't seem to know whom to ask. Martinis were taken away with gulps left at the bottom, water service was indifferent and there was little to no good feelings.

And before you call me a snob about service, remember—$70 entrees. You're paying for something, and it shouldn't just be the view.

What about the food? It's mostly fine. Just fine. A chilled seafood platter was attractive, featured two huge and delicious shrimp, two indifferently shucked and not super fresh oysters and an incongruous, if tasty, ceviche (aren't we at a French restaurant?). Escargot was correctly cooked, though the rounds of "puffy pastry" overwhelmed each bite.

Skip all salads at Cite if you know what's good for you. An utterly forgettable caesar (with the "hydrated tomato"—and I still don't know what that means. Editor's note: It's almost certainly a regular tomato.) cost $14 and came with a single white anchovy and a mess of dressing. An endive salad was huge but in complete disarray, and tasted like a large mound of crunchy blue-cheese flavored roughage.

What about that $68 lobster? Once again, it was fine. It didn't offend, but it was exactly like every other butter-poached lobster I've ever been served, and for the price, there should have been more meat on the plate. The venison strip served with a celery root puree is the only thing on the menu I can whole-heartedly recommend. It was correctly cooked, delightfully peppery and only cost $38. Only.

All in all, the experience was an expensive letdown. If Noguier is finished with his work, then I'm not sure it made enough of a difference to make Cite worth the money. If he's not done, maybe there's still hope. Until I see more changes, I might go to the bar at Cite and enjoy the view, but I'll pass on the lobster —and everything else in the dining room.

Oh, to add insult to financial injury? Valet parking was $32.

Cite is at 505 N. Lake Shore Drive.