I floated an inquiry about Zest, the new "mediterranean" restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel a few weeks ago and didn't get any replies, but I went anyway and thought I would post a review. It has recently been reviewed in both the Tribune and the Reader, which called it "Spanish, Moroccan, and Portuguese" but that must have been the publicist speaking, I couldn't detect anything specifically Portuguese.
That said, the food was very well prepared and the menu is interesting. They have about a dozen hot/cold tapas which also serve as appetizers, ranging from serrano ham with figs, which tasted like Navidul. Figs aren't at their best this time of year, but my husband has become a big fan of figs since they have dropped in price over the last few years. It was enjoyable. I also had what was described on the menu as "grilled scallops in shell with lemon olive oil over a pistou". It was one huge perfectly seared scallop and the pistou seemed to be olive-based. Regular california black olives, which makes it sound unexciting, but it was one of the best things I had. Perhaps it was the lemon olive oil--I've always steered away from flavored olive oils, partly by price, but if that's what it was, I'll have to rethink. We also had a zucchini, pine nuts and goat cheese cigar over caremelized onion and tomato puree that, again, was better than the sum total of the description of its parts. My husband described the sauce as being sort of like a tomato applesauce. I was concentrating on getting my piece of the cigar (a take on briout, I think, but perhaps a crepe instead of filo dough?). They also bring out a nice assortment of fresh bread and crisp flatbreads with some tzatziki sauce that we happily indulged in. Oh, and an "amuse bouche" which was a wonderful little kofta on more of the same sauce.
The most expensive appetizer we had was the scallop at $4.50. They had a beef tenderloin on saffron rice for 5 and baby lobster tails with orange truffle emulsion for 5 that I would seriously consider ordering, given the quality of their rice (more later) and what they seem to be able to do with infused oils, like the scallop. Portions were tapa-sized, but it's nice to be able to split 3 appetizers between 2 people and not feel overloaded and need to skimp on the rest of the meal.
We both had the mesclun greens with quince and goat cheese salad ($4) and it was perfect. They have obviously communicated to their purveyor that they won't stand for the standard mesclun with it's bruised, brown, etc. flaws. I was expecting a slab of membrillo, but the quince was dissolved in the vinaigrette, which was nice. The price was also right. The other salads were cucumber and tomato in a phyllo cup and a moroccan chicken over romaine. They might think of adding a couple of morrocan salads, I just won't order tomatoes at this time of year, and there are plenty of options--radishes, peppers, slightly cooked zucchini, etc. This would also make the menu more vegetarian-friendly, which, at this point, it is not. That's a serious downfall for a hotel restaurant.
Entrees: My roast duck breast with fig sauce ($14) and spinach rice came with fresh figs, a nice touch. The spinach rice was sublime, and salty (it IS an iberian-andalucian restaurant). My husband's lamb chops and merguez sausage with couscous and black olive sauce were awesome. At $20, rather than overload your plate with meat, he had two beautifully frenched, crusted with seasonings, double lamb chops, a nice chunk of sausage (it was a little dry), perfectly seasoned couscous, and a large mound of olive sauce that put it all together. The olive sauce was very similar to the "pistou" that came with my scallop, but tasted very different.
They comped us dessert, 5-6 items on a plate, all very good, I'm not a sweet tooth and don't remember much about them.
The space is beautiful. Apparently, they've enlarged the windows so you have a great view of N. Michigan Ave. We asked for a table by the side, not the front, windows, as the view was better there. They also are very friendly to single diners, I noticed that service to them was just as attentive, they got comped dessert, etc. There are a few kinks to be ironed out (one of the figs with my duck was refrigerator cold, but I suppose that's better than getting one that's moldy, and figs are out of season). Waitstaff is in the gonna be an actor mode, but very sincere and eager to please, well-informed about the menu. Bathrooms are across the lobby, through the bar, which is both annoying and unaccessible.
I almost never make it to North Michigan Ave., so don't really have any comparisons, but my guess is this is a good option for those there for holiday shopping or whatever. They have a lunch menu that looks interesting and also includes a hamburger and club sandwich for the unwilling. I'd jump on the lunch appetizer of clams with navy beans and chiffonade of Arugala (now that sounds at least Portuguese-inspired) or the grilled pizza with blue cheese and saffron poached pears.
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