I’m still speechless from the magical menu tasting I had at The Florentine this week. And possibly still full from all the food I ate while I was there.
The Florentine is a modern Italian restaurant located at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Chicago. Their space is large, accommodating a bar area, a wood burning pizza oven and plenty of seating including a private dining room. The décor is high end, yet there is a comforting feeling right when you walk in.
The restaurant's philosophy is to offer classic Italian fare with modern twists using fresh, readily available ingredients. And they are committed to staying true to seasonal elements by rotating their menu every few months.
I attended the tasting with their PR manager who had invited me in to try the seafood on the menu. Although our dinner came with a wine pairing carefully picked out by their very knowledgeable sommelier, we decided to commence our tasting with one of their Chicago-inspired specialty cocktails, named The Maggie Daley. If you like your drinks on the sweeter side, like I do, this one’s for you! The vodka, lavender, fresh blended rasberries and lemonade couldn’t have been more fitting for the hot summer day.
Before our first course, Executive Chef Zach Walrath sent out a gorgeously plated serving of a mini crab cake (not on the current menu, but a crowd favorite). This was just the perfect start as we each took a couple bites of the most succulent little fish patties from a soup spoon filled with saffron aioli, breadcrumbs and herbs.
For the primo, they brought out the Calamari Alla Griglia and the much talked about Gnocchi. The food was so attractively presented that it made me want to dive right into it, but first… pictures. When I was ready to eat, I began devouring 4-ounce, sliced pieces of grilled calamari served alongside a watercress salad with cannellini beans, Fresno chilies, cured tomatoes and the yummiest lemon vinaigrette. When Chef came out to greet us, he explained how he tries to incorporate in his dishes a Mediterranean theme, as much as possible.
The truffle infused gnocchi was in a league of its own. The pasta (house made) came with charred corn, heirloom tomatoes, pecorino and more black truffle. What exquisite flavors enhanced by the buttery, soft gnocchi. I didn’t want to fill up before the rest of the food arrived, but I did bring the leftovers of this dish home!
With such a phenomenal start, I was wondering what could top this. That is until the Whole Mediterranean Branzino (Sea Bass) was brought out, with a summer vegetable Caponata and sundried tomato puree. While traditional in flavors, the quality of the fish and the manner in which it was filleted added to the sheer brilliance of this dish.
The Halibut served also as Secondi was undeniably my favorite dish of the night. It came in a corn saffron broth, buttered leeks, Chanterelle mushrooms, charred corn and….middleneck clams! Tender, medium size pieces of halibut were braised in a creamy broth; thin enough to be a soup and thick enough to serve as a dipping sauce for the fresh bread at the table. This one’s a real treat for seafood lovers! Note: this dish is rich, so if you’re looking for a light summer meal, you may want to order accordingly.
We were then surprised with an Intermezzo, which actually came from the Antipasti section of their menu. I had been eyeing the Insalata di Anguria all along, so I was happy that I got to try the watermelon salad, topped with ricotta, pistachio vinaigrette, mint, and olive oil. I literally felt invigorated after a few bites and its cooling taste. Absolutely delicious!
I’ll admit that by this point, I was full, very full. Yet, you know by now that I don’t skip dessert. We graciously accepted our next course of the Semifreddo (Semi Frozen) Coconut Mousse with cocoa nibs, toasted coconut, and chocolate ganache, as well as the Limoncello Dolce, a sweet lemon cake with Limoncello zabaglione (sauce), ricotta and mixed berries. I don’t think the desserts require descriptions, except that you need to try this for yourself. Our wonderful sommelier also paired our sweets with a Marchese Antinor 2000 Chianti and a Crème Limoncello and both went perfectly with our Dolci.
The people at this restaurant including Chef Walrath were such gracious hosts. Everyone was aiming to leave you with a memorable experience and a true understanding of the food being served at the restaurant. The restaurant has a difficult task of keeping their regular hotel patrons happy as well as please outsiders who are looking to experience good, contemporary Italian cuisine. But The Florentine manages to to do both very well. I will certainly be returning, and bringing both friends and family to experience what I did.