chef james samson chicago

Halfstack Fall Issue Sneak Peek: Great Street Restaurant

Thursday, September 18, 2014 HALFSTACK MAGAZINE

Written by: Thom Olson for

If you haven’t visited Great Street at the Renaissance Hotel for a while, you might be in for a treat. Yes, the Renaissance Hotel at One West Wacker Drive has been kicking around for a while, but the restaurant on the second floor has received a much-needed facelift. Yet, that is just the beginning of the story. It really starts with an ownership change this past January. 

The Great Street Restaurant occupies the end of the hotel that over looks the river and North Michigan Avenue Bridge.  As the hotel faces the river, it seems to have been designed to look vaguely like the front end of a river boat with a gracefully curved front. The entrance opens out with Great Street overlooking the activities on the 2nd floor. The hotel tackled the dining room redesign with much needed finesse. The restaurant has always had a wonderful view at night. The city glow has always made this space quite lovely and sparkling — however, the sheer size of the dining room made it impossible to feel comfortable. It was massive and even when it was full and busy, one always felt a little alone like the only customer in a circus tent.

What was once a truly cavernous room has now been divided up to make a more intimate space. A room that was once considered a ridiculous waste of space with a horrible layout has been transformed into something functional yet beautiful. The remodeled restaurant has a more intimate feel with better traffic control. It still feels spacious but not cavernous.  The interior is a tad more contemporary and modern without feeling cold. The columns have been covered in mirror to enhance the view and reflect the city lights at night and the view. The warm wood still remains. The neutral color palette enhances the wood and make the room feel spa like and calm.

This place is such a nice improvement over the last reiteration. And it will only get better. The hotel has plans for a redo of the rooms. The downstairs bar (Novo) will change around the holidays and become a new concept. Eight new concepts have been presented for the new bar, so stay tuned. The really big news is a new roof top bar slated to open around May of next year. Their roof top area above the restaurant currently has a terrace only accessible by the conference rooms, but it will change. The goal is to expand and make it more accessible to the new roof top bar overlooking the Chicago River. It will be launched in May and I have marked my calendar to make sure and visit the new space. It is indeed a perfect location and the view is killer.

A sensible approach — private dining rooms.
This idea of private dining rooms truly made sense from many points of view. The Renaissance Hotel is a first class business hotel. It’s neighbors with 35 West Wacker’s Leo Burnett and links to it by a pedestrian mall area. The hotel is easily accessible by way of the city Pedway System. The private dining rooms are a wonderful spot for business meeting and presentations when there needs to be a more celebratory tone or a meeting that needs to be out of the office and not in a boardroom. They are exquisitely perfect for SMALL wedding receptions or banquets of 12 to 25. YES, believe it or not, the kind of space that can accommodate a small reception for intimate friends and family is extremely hard to find anywhere in the city. Most reception rooms start at about 50 people, thus making seating for smaller events really difficult. Some rooms in the city have a very kitschy feel and focus less on the guests and more about making the business identity of the restaurant part of the event. They can make a wedding reception feel strange or similar to a theme wedding. The private dining rooms at Great Street offer a lovely view and are very comfortable.  I would have no hesitation of booking a wedding in this space. These rooms have been very well received as they have been booking up quickly so plan ahead for your holiday festivities.

The Food Concept

The menu and concept of the restaurant has received a facelift as well and offers interesting flavor combinations. Hotel food can be a bit mundane and perhaps a bit of a snooze when dining out with little variety from hotel to hotel. This menu has variety and more. Chef James Samson is responsible for new concept. It is a new take on the farm-to-table food trend. He explained it quite simply as a walk through the neighborhoods of Chicago. The restaurant sits on State St. If someone were to walk through the various neighborhoods in Chicago, what food ideas and creations would percolate up? Which is exactly what he did. Chef Samson is a transplant from Phoenix and has worked in a number of places across the country but had only been here a year. He wanted to see what Chicago food was like so he toured the neighborhoods and came up with some mouth-watering dishes for just about every palate including the finicky traveler. The menu is cohesive as well as flavorful. It is very health conscious. All but two of the dishes are nut free. All but one dish can be prepared gluten free. Fresh is the key word as well as made from scratch as much as possible in the kitchen.

With the modified farm-to-table concept, Samson took liberties with what is considered local but emphasized the idea of small farm. Much of the food is pulled together from small farms with many locally produced including the beers offered. This version of the concept utilizes very small mom/pop farms that offer unique blends of veggies, fruits and meats. He also utilizes a firm called FarmLogix. This Evanston-based company is the brainchild of Linda Mailier. It connects restaurants with small independent farmers and offers tools for sustainability all the while helping farmers market their produce without adding additional cost to them. The food gets picked up by Testa Produce and distributed. He also utilizes Urban Till — a Chicago grown source for microgreens and specialty herbs. Samson’s food vision doesn’t stop with how he gets his ingredients, but become a source for his experimentation. He likes to play with his food.  He is currently playing with Anson Mills Grits — an artisan mill that uses organic heirloom grains and course grinds to produce a unique texture. The Grits are made from Antebellum varieties that were bred for flavor, not shelf life or transport. They are a giant step away from Monsanto and GMO foods and a throwback to real food. Samson is a big fan of Big Fork Sausage — a Chicago product that is minimally processed with no preservative, MSG, nitrates, hormones or any artificial dreck.

- For the full article, check back Wednesday Sept. 17, 2014 to read the complete story in Halfstack’s Fall 2014 Issue. You can download the latest copy of the magazine HERE.

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