Understanding CLAUDIA

Trevor Teich's "bento box" is one of the chef's signatures from his pop-up days.

CLAUDIA (stylized, comme ça,  in all capital letters) offers Chicago’s newest tasting menu. Chef Trevor Teich boasts local experience at L2O, NoMi, Sixteen, and Acadia along with a sojourn at Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. Though Chicago–knee deep in the national obsession with fast casual food–suffers from a dearth of upscale dining openings, Teich’s is a weighty resume that shows a clear commitment to applying modern French technique to American ingredients. And, at $185 for a 10-course menu, CLAUDIA is clearly competing with “big dogs” like Smyth and the aforementioned Acadia.

Teich garnered praise years ago with a pop-up rendition of the restaurant, serving seatings of 16 diners at a time for one or two weekends a month. This iteration ran from 2015 to 2018, earning two stars from the Tribune,  before a deal to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant fell through and the chef absconded to Sin City. Teich announced his return in March of this year, raising some $38,000 via Kickstarter over the course of a month to secure a “dream” location “nestled between Lincoln Square and the…Chicago lakefront.” The chef then returned to Chicago in late August, with CLAUDIA opening its doors just two months later.

Well, the doors weren’t exactly “open” upon my visit this past weekend, the restaurant’s second night of service. You see, that hallowed location near Lincoln Square seems to have disappeared, and the space has been substituted for a conference room on the second floor of a corporate building at 540 West Madison in the West Loop. Yes, the restaurant is actually a conference room by day, catering to tenants like BMW and Caterpillar with projectors and multimedia setups galore. A space is merely a space: just one part of the hospitality equation and certainly one that is hardly disqualifying (should food and overall hospitality excel). I do not know where CLAUDIA’s previous pop-ups were held, but I imagine that location was not nearly as nice as the one at 540 West Madison.

An opening bite of lightly dressed oysters.

However, the restaurant’s location within a secure corporate building did present several hiccups that might rub customers expecting Michelin two-star comfort the wrong way. As previously alluded, the doors to the corporate building do not open without a keycard. This is understandable, given our reservation was on a Saturday evening. Nonetheless, we were left pulling on a revolving door that wouldn’t budge and standing outside until a member of security sauntered over and opened the two sets of doors leading into the lobby. Once there, we followed the e-mailed instructions to ride up the escalator and approach the desk in front of the elevator banks. Each of us handed over our IDs, as the full names of each dinner guest needed to be confirmed 24 hours in advance so that they may be logged with security. Thankfully, they did not feel the need to print nametags for us to wear.

Around the time that the last of us had our identity confirmed, CLAUDIA’s G.M.-cum-sommelier made his way to the lobby from the restaurant space. He stood on the other end of the automatic gate, greeting us each with a handshake after we stood in file for the doors to whir open, then close, then open again. I do not mean to express that dealing with building security was a particularly torturous affair, yet it felt good to finally be in the restaurant’s hands and led towards a more curated, luxurious space. That space, as you already know (but we, of course, did not at the time) laid up one more escalator in the conference room. One diner in my party saw the room for what it is almost immediately, remarking that he’d been in such faceless places plenty of times during the course of his work.

A rather attractive pumpkin panna cotta with the deep sweetness of gourd.

There were four tables draped in white tablecloths at the far end of the room, overlooking a brightly-lit wall of abstract glass “bubbles” in greens and blues. No doubt, it looks pretty, but the wall was meant as an anonymous backdrop for business events and does not necessarily connect to anything CLAUDIA is doing. It is vaguely “contemporary” and prevents the space from seeming much more sterile. Still, the tables at which we were seated comprised no more than a third of the room, with acres of space unused between us and the entrance. The chairs were comfortable but clearly still, my chum pointed out, of the stackable office variety native to such a building. At the opposite wall from us, counters and cabinets were used as a staging space for the front-of-house staff, surfaces (one imagines) more typically used to lay out boxes of bagels and donuts.

With the setting established, I will mention two more gripes. The building was cold, quite cold. The staff explained that they were at the mercy of a massive corporate building, caught (as they often are) during the transition from the last rays of warmth into the deep chill of Chicago’s autumn. The restaurant was ready to offer pashminas to whoever needed them; however, the chill certainly only worked to call even more attention to the unorthodox space. Such was also the case with an announcement made near the start of the meal that the men’s bathroom was being serviced and would be unavailable to us during the course of experience. Again, this was presented as consequence of the building. Nevertheless, should we need to relieve ourselves, a member of the team would lead us to the ladies’ room and ensure it was empty. This, thankfully, was not necessary, as the men’s bathroom would be reopened by the time any of us needed it.

This is all to say that we, as guests, were more focused on CLAUDIA’s location and its “quirks” than anything to do with food, wine, or revelry. Posting a member of the staff at the building’s entrance would have no doubt made for a smoother, more luxurious lead-in to 540 W Madison and all its charms. Otherwise, when confronted with unexpected difficulties, the team offered solutions and did the best they can. This was admirable, and I certainly cannot criticize the nature of their response. Rather, I question how desperately this dining room was chosen, how permanent a home to the restaurant it will be? Just what exactly is gained from calling this place a “restaurant,” rather than a new extension of the pop-ups Teich made his name with? At its price point, CLAUDIA cannot afford to abandon any attempt at offering a proper ambiance. Lacking it, they must lean heavily not just on the quality of food, but on the ability of the small service team (two servers, along with the GM/sommelier) be both mechanically perfect and able to brighten up the space. It is a tall order, but we generally found CLAUDIA to be up to the task.

The “lasagna of crab” sounded enticing but served as little more than a palate cleanser.

As previously mentioned, the restaurant’s general manager doubles as its sommelier. To that point, CLAUDIA is currently “BYO,” and so guests must rely on the sommeliers suggested pairings. They also have the option of dropping off their bottles a day or two before dinner to ensure proper wine service. This was all handled exceptionally well, as the recommended wines spanned a range of regions and price points but centered around stylistic expressions like “oxidative” or “mineral driven & high acid” that made the pairing logic clear. The handling of the wines, also, was clearly at a fine dining level. The sommelier used his own judgment in opening and decanting bottles before dinner and expertly managed the temperature and ordering of the wines throughout our meal. For this service, customers are made to pay a $35 corkage, which, nonetheless, I think is a fair price. A proper wine pairing is slated to be added in the near future, and all signs point towards it being just as well-managed are the “BYO” process is now.

In his role as general manager, the sommelier also exceled. Though I wish he had met us–rather than a security officer–at the building entrance, I can see how there is simply not enough staff to justify him being so far away from the dining room. Rather, he met us at the elevator banks with a firm handshake and bright eyes. Well dressed, he whisked us to the dining room and welcomed us with profuse thanks for joining them on opening weekend. And it did not end there: he took our water order, poured our wine, refilled glasses, and whisked plates to-and-fro the table as necessary. The G.M. led from the front, and the two other servers working the room rose to the same level. Nobody seemed rushed or panicked; everyone was unmistakably present, always making eye contact and smiling and responding to even the most hushed words of thanks as they waited our table. This positive energy made the various building-related issues much easier to swallow and worked to build a sense of luxurious service in a space that did them no favors.

“Snails in the Woods” with “truffle dirt” that tasted more of dirt than truffle.

As to the food, it was imaginative in its concepts and combinations but focused in its execution. Owing to his experience in fine French restaurants, Teich’s technique was close to unerring during the course of the menu. His “Bento Box” of tuna-foie, salmon-liquorice, scallop-cracker, and squid ink madeleine bites was a worthy holdover from CLAUDIA’s pop-up days (Phil Vettel remarked that Teich will likely never be able to stop serving the tuna and foie gras combination). A pumpkin panna cotta that followed was wonderfully smooth and deeply flavored, forming the perfect canvas for sprigs of seaweed and orbs of smoked trout roe and melon. A “lasagna of crab” caught my eye when surveying the menu and proved to be a far more refreshing, palate-cleansing, citrus-forward dish than expected. Not that it wasn’t well-made, but the flavor of the crab could have featured more primarily against the passion fruit and pickled lemon.

A dish of eel was impressively cooked, though accompanying flavors of grapefruit and ginger seemed to mirror the citric notes of the previous course a bit too much. “Snails in the Woods,” with its evocative title, tantalized us with the crispness of the snails’ tempura breading. Nonetheless, the shaved Burgundy truffles and “truffle dirt” were not aromatically or flavorfully expressive (a problem that has surely dogged many of the Chicago restaurants serving truffles this fall, so I cannot fault CLAUDIA too much). In contrast, a dish of butter poached lobster with butternut squash, coconut, and vanilla was a real stunner that even impressed one of my lobster-hating companions. The final savory courses of grouse and American wagyu filet were like the ell and snails: perfectly cooked but lacking just a bit more refinement and intensity of flavor from the accompanying ingredients. Bread service came by way of an admirably crispy baguette paired with salted butter. Much to our enjoyment, both bread and butter were replenished multiple times during the meal.

The butter-poached lobster formed one of the highlights of the meal.

The desserts–a beet-and-olive popsicle, pulverized goat cheese with bacon ice cream, and a ginger custard–were well-made and inventive in their combinations of flavors and textures. Nonetheless, their appeal was dulled just a bit by the frigidity of the room–surely a circumstance that will not likely be repeated on other occasions.

Overall, CLAUDIA excels in turning an unconventional, at times uncomfortable space into a bonafide fine dining space. There’s no question that some of the quirks will be a turn off to customers expect the polish that such a price tag entails. However, there is also no question that Teich and team are talented, they’re putting their all into running the restaurant, and the food, ultimately, can give one-star establishments like Temporis a run for their money. It will be interesting to see how Teich’s menu changes over the course of the season (the G.M. said we can expect changes in about a month’s time) and just how permanent the spot at 540 W Madison will be.

There are legions of Kickstarter supporters the team will have to accommodate in the weeks and months follow last weekend’s opening. How they will react to the “restaurant” where their money went is a question I cannot answer. Yet, if they give Teich’s food a taste and give his team a chance to soothe them, I think they might just leave pleased.

One Pineapple: good hospitality in line with expectations, a restaurant that operates competently as a business but little more, fine food lacking nostalgia or soul.