RPM Seafood is the long-awaited third concept in Lettuce Entertain You’s chain of high-end RPM eateries, which includes RPM Steak and RPM Italian in River North as well as an RPM Italian location in Washington DC. When you reviewed RPM Steak (which opened two years after “Italian” in 2014) last year, you paid special attention to the seafood on offer and said, rather unambiguously, that Bavette’s has RPM beat both in terms of beef quality and, more especially, in the quality of their king crab and shrimp. While comparing the quality of the oysters at the two restaurant was a wash, RPM Steak could claim to serve better lobster as well as a more pleasing selection of desserts. Otherwise, the crown jewel of the LEYE empire is just too middle-of-the-road, aiming to please throngs of socialites and an expense account crowd for whom dining is a matter of style more than substance. The service, while competent, did not surpass expectations, and you wondered whether RPM Seafood’s claim of featuring “the truest expression of the world’s best fish and seafood” would amount to anything more than window dressing for another quasi-steakhouse concept.
Throwing yet another wrench into the gears of the new property, you learned last fall that RPM Seafood would be without its “P.” While the “R” in “RPM” stands for Rancic (Chicago’s closest thing to a “celebrity couple”) and the “M” for Melman (the esteemed family who owns LEYE), the “P” once stood for Doug Psaltis. Psaltis worked for chefs like David Bouley, Alain Ducasse, and Thomas Keller–earning stars from both Michelin and The New York Times–during his time in the Big Apple. Upon being lured to Chicago, he would open Bub City, Paris Club, Three Dots and a Dash, Il Porcellino, and Ramen-san for the Melman’s restaurant group. He also founded the annual Windy City Smokeout (also put on by Lettuce Entertain You), but, clearly, the RPM restaurants were home. Psaltis is said to have used his experience in top kitchens to draw better talent to Chicago and keep the city at pace with vapid coastal trends (like pricy Japanese beef). To his credit, Psaltis never, you think, had much of a celebrity chef “presence.” Nonetheless, the chef/partner was accused of verbally accosting and assaulting one of his employees at RPM Steak and quickly shown the door with a sterile, terse statement in early November of last year.
Truth be told, while the Chicago of 2012 (when RPM Italian opened) or 2014 (when RPM Steak opened) may have needed inspiration from without, the RPM restaurants haven’t exactly reinvented the wheel. Their opening menus were strong, and they’ve stuck to those strengths without much dynamism or excitement. They’re “institutional,” “establishment” restaurants now where patrons might very well order the same dish each time and expect it to arrive unmolested, unchanged by time, no matter what might be fashionable elsewhere. Thus, in that respect, Psaltis’s departure could have been a blessing: not just for those colleagues forced to endure abuse, but for diners eagerly awaiting a burst of new blood and creativity that might build on the foundations the former chef had set during the course of nearly a decade here.
Nominally, then, RPM Seafood has its “R” and its “M” but no more “P.” Leading the kitchen, instead, is Bob Broskey. His is a name you were unfamiliar with, but the 2015 Zagat “30 Under 30” Award winner (an award you loathe to reference) was chef de cuisine of L2O under Matthew Kirkley, then the executive chef of Intro, and–most recently–the executive chef of Beacon Tavern. These are rather impressive credentials for a chef of Broskey’s age, and you firmly believe that L2O–in its first iteration–set a high standard for seafood in Chicago that has never again been matched. Could “RPM” become “RBM” one day? The chef is clearly young and talented enough to put his stamp on the restaurant–but will LEYE let him? Given the circumstances surrounding Psaltis’s departure, you think Broskey’s first job is to “right the ship” and oversee a smooth opening. RPM Italian and RPM Steak were never exactly hotbeds of culinary innovation, but the breadth of the seafood category and the chef’s experience within the group might someday enable him to express himself through the “RPM” format.
The truth is, while that “P” originally signified a chef, it was no more than a piece of trivia. (There’s only room for one “celebrity” when the RPMs are concerned, and it’s sure as hell not going to be the chef!) The restaurants, rather, have the institutional feel of a well-oiled hospitality machine. Ultimately, the star of RPM Seafood’s opening is the massive four-floor renovation LEYE undertook to revivify Chicago’s Riverwalk. It began with the opening of Pizzeria Portofino– the dockside spot with spritzes galore and a “marina” menu–on the “ground floor” last summer. One floor above that is RPM On the Water–LEYE’s private events space extraordinaire where they can finally host weddings, banquets, and special events (like a St. Patrick’s Day fête) overlooking the Loop. At street level (well, just a few steps above it), you will find the entrance to RPM Seafood proper. That third floor is home to the main bar, the main dining room, and the kitchen. Finally, the fourth floor contains a lounge space overlooking the bar, as well as additional space for private events or larger parties at the restaurant itself. Building a four-floor riverfront restaurant into the bottom of an existing skyscraper must have taken a herculean effort, but it’s no surprise the city came on board. The Riverwalk is criminally underdeveloped, and there’s no better opening to form the lynchpin of a new dining and commercial district downtown.
You have visited RPM Seafood three times since its opening about three weeks ago, taking consistent notes. Thus, as is customary, you will condense the totality of your experiences into one, all-encompassing narrative. Then, let us begin. You think it was on the Monday or Tuesday of opening week that you visited the OpenTable site and saw a new restaurant–RPM Seafood–had something like 1,200 bookings made in one day. Of course, you had been tracking the development of the restaurant’s website, had signed up for the newsletter, and had been keeping tabs on their social media. The e-mail blast announcing that reservations were open would not arrive for another day, and you count yourself lucky to have made a half dozen or so reservations (spanning months into the future) at that time. Could LEYE have handled this better? It is hard to think of a system that fairly accommodates such a mass of otherwise indistinguishable customers. (There’s Tock, of course, but you find that site better suited towards securing bookings on a specific date rather than at a restaurant in general). You are sure that the company’s own VIPs were taken care of, and, barring that, it’s perhaps best to let dumb luck and word of mouth drive the first, frantic rush for reservations.
That being said, you did have a spring in your step as you strode through the revolving door that first Saturday of service. Chicago simply does not have many openings like this, or perhaps many restaurants at all which are “fashionable” for the fashionable types and still relevant for those who are culinarily-inclined. Upon entering, you find yourself face to face with the host’s stand, a set of stairs lying to your left and the entirety of the bar and dining room stretched before you. There’s not much room to linger, so keep your eyes peeled for a bar stool if the rest of your party is running behind. On that first visit, as is typical of openings, the restaurant was running about 30 minutes behind. You do not think the delay was particularly well-assuaged by the staff, but you knew that other parties would happily take your table and, thus, bit your tongue. On subsequent visits (with reservations closer to the beginning of service), you were told to wait for the rest of your party at the bar. This incensed you, as it always does. You went on to waste five minutes at the bar ordering a $20 dark ‘n’ stormy only to be seated immediately thereafter. Those are five minutes that could have been spent browsing the wine list at the table and getting bottles prepared prior to the others’ arrival (which, ultimately, would allow the restaurant to turn the table more quickly). Thankfully, on your most recent visit (and with some show of recognition from the host), you were immediately seated.
The dining room–which features the usual RPM tones of light and dark wood offset by off-white chairs and walls–is split into two zones. The first, which borders the far end of the bar, is set up as a 4×4 grid of four-tops with booth seating butting up against the northern and eastern walls (allowing guests to peer southward towards the river). Behind the set of booths at the far (eastern) end of the front dining room, a couple steps lead up to the second space: a 3×4 grid of four-tops with booths running along the same walls. You have come to prefer being sat in the latter area due to its slightly better view of the Clark Street Bridge. You also find it to be a bit more quiet compared to the area closest to the bar. However, in truth, there is little difference between the dining rooms. What matters more, you think, is how close one sits to the south-facing windows (should taking in the view be important). Otherwise, the tables are spaced similarly in both zones, and any parties of two are simply seated at four-tops (booth or not). Aesthetically, there is not much more going on. The space features some artificial trees and hanging foliage (as can be seen at Pizzeria Portofino and Aba), which merely function to break up the neutral tones. The younger generation of Melmans seems quite fond of these fake plants as a sort of decorative panacea, and they look fine so long as one is unaware of its repetition throughout the latest LEYE properties. As impressive as the building project itself was, RPM Seafood won’t be winning any design awards. However, the elements are all understated enough to ensure the view is the “star” (and, perhaps, that’s the point).
Having been seated, you now turn your attention to the menus, beginning with beverages. While you rued ordering that dark ‘n’ stormy at the bar, it did taste quite good, combining rum, ginger, and falernum (a lime, almond, and allspice syrup from the Caribbean). The cocktail selection, in general, errs towards the tropical and refreshing (as any seafood-focused restaurant should). You have yet to try any others, but diners can expect a full range of spirits paired with fruits like lemon, grapefruit, pineapple, raspberry, or watermelon. The “Weston” (a blend of bourbon and espresso flavored with pipe tobacco) is the one exception, but the bar can surely put together any other classic cocktail that is requested.
The wines by-the-glass feature some 28 different selections ranging from $11 to $45. For example, in the sparkling section, patrons can sip on a $12 prosecco, a $15 sparkling rosé, a $29 non-vintage Champagne, or a $38 ’06 vintage Champagne. Likewise, the white wines range from riesling, Rías Baixas, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc (for $12-$19 a glass) to Chablis and Napa chardonnay (at $21-$22) and, finally, a 2013 Corton-Charlemagne (at that eye-popping $45). At least they’re not using a Coravin! The reds, surprisingly, all stay below $30 and feature a mix of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon with oddballs like Barbaresco, Saumur, Saint-Joseph, and Haut-Médoc thrown in for good measure. As a white wine drinker, the by-the-glass selection is superb in its diversity. The full wine list is even better. Though it is no longer available online (upsettingly), you had the chance to pour over it extensively. While the other RPMs are rightfully focused on red wine, LEYE’s seafood concept has provided the group an opportunity to feature the most expansive selection of rare and allocated white wines in Chicago. At long last, you may imbibe bottles from Dagueneau, Miani, Keller, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Lafon, Roulot, and Coche-Dury all in one place. There are plenty of champagne selections–plenty of magnums too–and, yes, the red wines being offered are nothing to sneeze at either. There’s plenty of value on the list–like the Hubert Lamy wines–too. Simply put, RPM Seafood is a wonderland for white wine drinkers, and you have already ordered bottles at the restaurant you are unlikely to ever find again.
After just a couple minutes browsing the wine list, the server appears. They bid your party welcome, ask which type of water you’d prefer, and feel out any potential drink orders. As at the other RPM properties, the staff is clad in white jackets, lending them a crisp, professional, “classic Chicago” look. All this without devolving into the hulking brutes that work at Gibsons (you kid). The servers’ bedside manner lacks some of the easygoing charm of a place like Bavette’s, but they do transmit warmth and recognize repeat patrons. That being said–and this is particularly true during the first months of opening–it’s “all hands on deck” at RPM Seafood. The focus, as it has always been at these properties, is on giving each party a well-paced, precise, and enjoyable experience rather than reinvent the wheel hospitality-wise. There are too many tables filled with too many “important” people to linger or inject too much of one’s own personality into the service. To say that the service is consciously “faceless” is not an insult, for it means that LEYE has found a set of best practices that can be applied across just about any party successfully. You do think the service is expertly executed; it’s just not memorable unless one is used to being let down by steakhouse staff. If that is the case then, surely, you can be glad that the team at RPM Seafood will transcribe your order properly, deliver the dishes in a timely manner, and avoid making you feel rushed (despite the restaurant’s popularity).
With the beverage order settled, you can now turn to the real “meat” of the menu–the promise of the “truest expression of the world’s best fish and seafood.” At this point, you have tried about half of the items on the menu, having ignored the meat options altogether (that’s what RPM Steak is for, no?). Thus, you will proceed category-by-category, speaking to your past experiences and surmising what any unsampled dishes may promise other customers. Nestled into the upper left corner of the menu is a selection of three crudos and two tartares. The former category features tuna (prepared as a Niçoise salad inspired carpaccio), salmon (citrus-cured with Thai vinaigrette), and Japanese hamachi (or yellowtail, served with ponzu, salmon roe, and crispy garlic). While some of these fish–like the tuna and hamachi–are offered at RPM Steak, the accompanying flavors, to the restaurant’s credit, are totally different. Still, in a post-omakase “boom” Chicago, such crudo preparations simply cannot hold a candle to what esteemed chefs like Otto Phan do night after night with raw fish. They’re pleasant enough dishes, but LEYE has not sourced any fish that’s truly superlative. Given the (standard) portion size for crudo, most diners would be happier (and better served) putting their money towards other sections of the menu.
You have not tried the tartares firsthand but appreciate how RPM Seafood’s “grassfed steak tartare” (with truffle toast and capers) distinguishes itself from the “hand cut steak tartare” (with blue cheese toast and quail egg) at the steakhouse. For, if you insist on eating raw beef at a seafood restaurant, the flavor profile should indeed display at least some passing resemblance to the environment. Lastly, the tomato tartare (with watercress, soubise, and basil) reminds you of Momotaro. You haven’t tried it but can only assume the same textural trickery is afoot. This is the sort of dish that needs to prove it doesn’t belong under the “salad” category, the sort of dish that should not simply be a concession towards vegetarians (not vegans, for soubise has a béchamel base). To that point, you’re actually motivated to try the tomato tartare next time, as the restaurant cannot afford to have customers start their meal with something simple like this that does not impress.
Directly below the “crudo & tartare” selection (but above one of the lines that trisects the menu into separate, broad categories) are the “seafood cocktails.” Here, you can order shrimp ($5 per piece), king crab ($30 per half pound), and lobster ($30 for half, $60 for whole) for prices that are right in line with those at the other RPMs. Adjacent to these cocktails are listed the two varieties of “chilled oysters,” a “rotating selection” from the East Coast and the “RPM Prestige” oyster cultivated in Lilliwaup, Washington by the Harna Harna Company. Both cost $18 per half dozen and come served with a yuzu granita instead of the typical mignonette. Just above the “chilled oysters,” a bordered box highlights RPM Seafood’s “seafood towers,” an assortment of prawns, lobster, king crab, and both oysters available in both petite ($90) and grand ($180). By comparison, RPM Steak’s seafood “platter” comes in just one size (“grand”) and is priced at $165. Both Seafood and Steak’s towers generally share the same proportions (one dozen oysters, one half pound of king crab, one pound of lobster, and a handful of shrimp). However, you think the difference in price can be explained.
You see, while RPM Steak serves “colossal” tiger prawns, RPM Seafood prefers “shrimp” (which, of course, are simply smaller prawns). Both menus use the terms “prawn” and “shrimp” interchangeably, but–suffice it to say–customers receive a greater quantity of smaller, sweeter shrimp at RPM Seafood compared to the rubbery monstrosities served at RPM Steak (which you have criticized before). The oysters from both coasts–plump, pristine, and perfectly-shucked–seem to taste better at RPM Seafood as well, with the yuzu granita easily besting the jalapeño and cucumber topping used on Steak’s platter. The king crab and lobster remain at about the same quality in both establishments; that is, you think Bavette’s king crab easily beats anything LEYE can source but still find the quality of their lobster to be admirable (and perhaps the city’s best).
In some sense, this tower represents a signature item for the restaurant. That being said, its presentation is identical to the “platters” served at RPM Steak. Sure, it’s a neat enough way to offer customers a mountain of shellfish. The lazy Susan style swivel at its base (also seen at RPM Steak) is a real innovation that improves the manner in which such a large set piece gets eaten. But, at a certain point, seafood sourcing hits a ceiling and there’s simply no greater flavor that can be attained (that is, without somehow overshadowing the “meat”). RPM Steak already hit that ceiling, and RPM Seafood–save for some marginally better shrimp and oysters–does little to surpass it. You would still recommend either the petite or grand tower for certain parties. You, surely, will end up ordering it again. But patrons already skeptical of the price point are better served saving their money for some of the menu’s more distinct offerings.
Above that bordered box advertising the “seafood towers,” at the topmost midpoint of the menu, are the “bread service” and “spreads” sections. The former features two or three loaves at a given time like Parker House rolls, a “cheese-baked” focaccia, and a sesame baguette. You have tried the Parker House rolls a couple times with great pleasure. They are ethereally light, fluffy, buttery, and made all the better via the bite of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, onion, and salt in the “everything bagel” seasoning which adorns their tops. Given the historic Parker House Hotel’s location in Boston, you think this bread is particularly well-suited to a seafood setting. The added reference to lox and bagels is a playful, subtle twist on the classic recipe. While the focaccia, you think, was discontinued from the original menu, you did have the chance to try the baguette. It’s thinner and crispier than most you will find in this city–that is to say, it is better made. The incorporation of sesame into the dough adds an enjoyable depth of flavor (without being too forceful, as whole wheat might be). You would suggest enjoying the Parker House rolls during the cold portion of the meal–owing to their softness–and letting the baguette play off of heartier fare like the warm appetizers and pastas. Of course, there are the spreads: a warm brandade (made from salt cod, olive oil, and potatoes) and a salmon rillettes. Though both are veritable classics (as far as fish-based spreads are concerned), they have not caught your eye yet. It’s just too tempting to devote one’s bread to mopping the sauce up off of plates.
RPM Seafood’s salad selection might be the most bare of all categories on the menu. There’s a “classic Caesar” (featuring aged Parmigiano and anchovy), a “Greek tomato salad” (with feta and olives), an “RPM chopped” (featuring green beans and avocado), and a “Simple Bibb lettuce” (with fresh herbs and a vinaigrette). Surprisingly, one does not find the same Caesar salad at RPM Italian or RPM Steak. One does not find the chopped salad at the steakhouse either. Only that “simple” Bibb salad finds its doppelganger in the “soft” Bibb lettuce salad offered at RPM Steak (and also featuring fresh herbs as well as a vinaigrette). You have only tried the Greek salad and found it serviceable. You think, strangely enough, that the tomato salad at Aba blows it completely “out of the water” (pun not intended). Nonetheless, you do think these salads are well-priced and well-sized to either be eaten as one’s midcourse or shared with the table. The “classic Caesar,” much to its credit, features a lone crouton “twinkie” you last spied at LEYE’s now-defunct Booth One / Pump Room revamp. You believe Graham Elliot is credited with the recipe, and it’s nice to see a contemporary classic being preserved within the city.
“Warm bites” form the last category of the menu’s appetizer section–and they might just be, pound-for-pound, the best of all of RPM Seafood’s dishes. First, there are the “Prawns in Olive Oil,” a plate featuring four of those same shrimp from the cold seafood section that are cut in half, cooked to a blush red, and served with petite basil, lemon, and that titular olive oil. At $16, it’s a small plate, but you actually get cost savings relative to the $5 per shrimp rate in the cold section. The crustaceans, too, taste just as plump when served warm and possess an added undercurrent of sweetness owed to the enveloping richness of the olive oil and the cut of the lemon.
The second of five “warm bites” is a $15 serving of truffle scrambled eggs. “Fifteen dollars,” you thought to yourself upon first seeing this dish on the menu, “just how many shreds of truffle–or worse, drops of truffle oil–does one get at such a cut-rate price?” The answer: customers receive four to five full bisections of a small-to-medium-sized Tuber melanosporum (that is, the black Périgord truffle) over a puddle of soft-scrambled eggs endowed with plenty of chives. Now, you often turn your nose up at dishes which seek to deliver a small dose of a “luxury” ingredient to those who would otherwise be unable to try it. Not that you don’t wish to “share the love,” but such dishes often bastardize the ingredient, confuse customers as to that ingredient’s actual merit, and cheat those same customers out of a lot or a little money for the pleasure. However, RPM Seafood’s truffled eggs are well-priced, fairly portioned, and portray black truffles at their best by ensuring the subtlety of its aroma, texture, and flavor is not overshadowed. You think this dish is a nice bonus item–have everyone at the table get it (in lieu of a salad)! It represents LEYE using their economy of scale to indulge the customer, and you will eagerly await white truffle season to scope out this same dish’s pricing.
Next in line is the “peekytoe crab de Jonghe,” an ode to one of Chicago’s unabashed classic dishes: the Shrimp de Jonghe. The preparation–which comes from the former De Jonghe Hotel on Monroe Street–is dated to the late 19th century and features shrimp that is boiled then baked with a mixture of melted butter, sherry, garlic, shallots, parsley, and breadcrumbs until golden brown. RPM Seafood’s variant adds espelette pepper for a mild dose of heat but, otherwise, all the constituent elements are there. Patrons receive a bowl replete with lump crab meat, garlic butter, chives, and crispy breadcrumbs. The accompanying wedge of lemon helps cut through some of the richness as customers spoon the concoction onto crostini. The end result is a sort of “perfect” buttery crab bite that brings together herbs, peppers, acid, and additional texture to accentuate the sweeter meat of a smaller crab. As far as you are concerned, who needs the brandade or salmon rillette spreads when this is on the menu?
The “bay scallop escargot-style” is another winner that underlines just how imaginatively the kitchen approaches the blank canvas of fresh, well-sourced seafood. In this dish, the bite-sized scallops are tucked into a classic ceramic escargot bowl (as one might, perhaps, see at LEYE’s Mon Ami Gabi) with an airy, not-overly-decadent lemon Hollandaise. This sauce does a good job letting the soft chew of the scallops shine, as a thicker, more traditional Hollandaise would stand up to a snail but overshadow the mollusks. Like the crab de Jonghe that came before it, this dish features a handful of crostini to sop up its constituents. Their added crunch provides the perfect contrast to the smoother textures being offered, and the arrangement–overall–looks shareable, accessible, and fun. This is a classy, imaginative dish that gets to the heart of what RPM Seafood–at its best–should offer customers. The last of the restaurant’s “warm bites” is a familiar combination of grilled Spanish octopus and potatoes. While the RPM Steak variant features a jalapeño crema, this version relies on a tomato chimichurri to drive flavor. Both octopi are brilliantly charred, just slightly chewy, and pleasingly rich, and both dishes enhance and extend the eight-limbed mollusk by way of the tubers. Costing $6 more in price, RPM Seafood’s octopus is easier to share and more eye-catching. Guests receive two proud lengths of tentacle, and the chimichurri ensures they are amply seasoned (without any threat of capsaicin).
With the conclusion of this category, your eye now crosses that trisection point and peers at what might be considered the “entrée” section of the menu. Still, there is a bit of a natural progression between the sort of items offered, and, thus, you will continue addressing these sections sequentially. Listed first are the “seafood steaks,” three different thick cuts of fish prepared (be it by butchery or garnish) in the style of–you guessed it–a beefsteak. There’s tuna, served au Poivre (with peppercorn vinaigrette); swordfish, cut to resemble a bone-in ribeye; and turbot in the style of a T-bone with lemon, capers, and fresh thyme. Generally, you are skeptical of dishes that repackage their central ingredients in the trappings of some other, more beloved creation. Trying to turn a fish, for example, into a “steak” only serves to deny the former a means to express its natural flavor while, at the same time, bastardizing the latter by reducing its preparation to an assemblage of sauces and butchery techniques. To that point, you have not tried RPM Seafood’s fish steaks. However, you must admit that they look rather appetizing. The swordfish is truly thick-cut, and the accompanying topping of coriander and herb oil can hardly be said to obscure or deny the fish’s flavor. The tuna, too, is amply crusted with peppercorn but otherwise delicately flavored, benefiting from a side of hen of the woods mushrooms that forms a fitting accomplice for the beefsteak “ruse.” You think you might like how the restaurant has approached these dishes–which is, to say, simply. The only way a fish preparation will ever approach that of a steak is by pure textural achievement. Any overlap of flavoring–while fine as a “wink” or a “nod”–threatens to unravel just what makes the distinction between fish and animal protein special. Ultimately, you think the kitchen succeeds by actualizing these dishes as interesting cuts of seafood distinct from the whole fish offered under the “delicately grilled” category. Thus, they avoid creating any saucy monstrosities masquerading as meat.
Underneath the three “seafood steaks” are three preparations of “crab & lobster” to choose from. At $84, the “grilled king crab” should weigh (going off of the $30 per half pound price in the “seafood cocktail” section) close to 1.4 pounds. You think this dish clocks in closer to one pound but must assume that any premium paid goes towards the selection of the longest, plumpest limbs for what amounts to the “entrée” version of the crustacean. That being said, what the king crab lacked when served chilled it will surely not find on the grill. Yes, a touch of char–not to mention the warm temperature–provides a pleasing contrast. The accompanying garlic butter and curry aioli are there to amp up the natural flavor. Yet, there’s the rub. The crab was not particularly sweet when served on the seafood tower, and there its flavor remains. Patrons may appreciate the pleasant texture of the deep-red nuggets, but they will ultimately be tasting only lemon, butter, and aioli. Just as–when eating crab cold at RPM Seafood–they will mostly be tasting cocktail sauce. Thus, you hesitate to recommend either rendition of king crab at the restaurant. Chilled or warm, the dishes will do a job for those who seek desperately to try them. However, when placed opposite other crab preparations in town, LEYE’s sourcing can only be called underwhelming.
The coal-roasted lobster tells much of the same story. In the “seafood cocktail” section, $30 bought you half of a Maine lobster and $60 bought you the whole thing. Here, as with the king crab, a premium is placed on the act of cooking: that same crustacean weighs in at $39 for a half and $78 for the whole lobster. And what does one receive for the additional tax levied? A squeeze of lime, a few sprigs of parsley, and a soy glaze. Yes, you said that the quality of RPM Steak/Seafood’s lobster might be the highlight of its entire shellfish selection. Chilled, it does avoid the chewiness and the undercooked sinew that plagues most other preparations. However, cooking and serving warm lobster is a whole other ballgame. Texture, of course, is essential, but chefs need also find just the right dressing to squeeze that tiny bit of natural sweetness from the crustacean. As creative as they might intend to be, you always think (in the back of your head), “why not butter poach it?” Of course, that demands technique, time, attention, expertise, mastery, and confidence. (Of course, then, even Thomas Keller’s esteemed kitchens have sent out inedibly chewy lobster before). This is all to say, you think the kitchen has shown nice restraint by limiting its saucing to the rather subtle lime-soy glaze. It lets the pieces of lobster–which are well cooked and plump–shine. Well, it lets them shine as much as they can. Lobster simply has very little to offer beyond its texture, and you imagine anyone who orders this as an entrée will grow woefully bored without ample side dishes. This is still probably a better dish than the grilled king crab (because crab, you know, could actually taste sweeter than is offered here), yet you hesitate to recommend it to all but those who have never tried a “good” (not “great”) lobster tail before. The price one pays does not make sense otherwise.
The whole “crab & lobster” category would be a wash if not for its last offering: Maine lobster tempura. Ironically, this was the dish you were most sure you would dislike. For frying lobster, you would think, has no utility outside of a carnival setting. Yet, when provided a product that possesses an exceptional texture and little assertive flavor of its own, why not double down on that texture and find some other way of flavoring the mystery meat inside. I guess you should call it the “McNugget” approach, but appearances be damned, it really works. The plate arrives at the table with fifteen to twenty morsels of tempura-fried lobster hiding in and around an overturned shell. They are small- to medium-sized so that one never needs to the pieces in half (or shove more than one at a time into his or her piehole). The outer layer of batter is thin, perfectly crisp, and all-enveloping in its coating. It yields instantly to that familiar, gushing chew of the lobster’s own texture. Accompanying sauces of ponzu and dijonnaise provide a more powerful flavor than the lime-soy glaze served alongside the coal-roasted variety. Principally, they flavor the breading and impart a more measured amount of sweetness by the time one’s teeth strike the “meat” inside. As with all your favorite dishes at RPM Seafood to this point, the lobster tempura is both technically impressive and playful. It works against any image of “celebrity” or stuffiness the RPM restaurants have cultivated over the past decade.
Moving on, the “delicately grilled” section forms the exact midpoint of the menu. In many respects, it represents the restaurant’s ethos–that is, the celebration of a lighter, purer kind of cooking compared to the heavy pastas and steaks being slung at the other RPMs. The text under the section’s title states that the items therein are “grilled over glowing embers of charcoal and served with single-estate Iliada olive oil, fire-kissed tomatoes, and Amalfi lemon salt.” That certainly sounds romantic, but you must sadly admit that you have neglected the dishes in this category. The offerings include Ora King salmon, giant tiger prawns, and Spanish branzino. (A Mediterranean dorade was offered on the opening menu but has since been discontinued, perhaps only seasonally). While you did not find the olive oil that accompanied your warm bite of prawns particularly impressive, its flavor was in no way overbearing and, rather, served to enrich the texture of the small halves of tail. Here, you think, it serves much of the same purpose: staying out of the way so that the “product” can be the star of the plate. The lemon salt, surely, works to the same effect while those fire-kissed tomatoes are a bit more assertive (but hardly going to interfere with what else is going on). It should be noted that the seafood which appears under the “delicately grilled” category does not appear elsewhere on the menu. Thus, the section is very much a conscious decision to earmark those ingredients which merit the least obfuscation and serve them as simply as possible. That, as you stated before, is right in line with the establishment’s mission, and it allows other, more colorful categories of seafood preparations to shine all the more.
Speaking of which, you think the “globally-inspired” section of the menu is the strongest of all. It’s the place where the kitchen can take its product and draw on any number of techniques or ingredients to tell a story. For example, the “char crusted otoro belly” is very much an ode to Japan. Ginger and wasabi root the dish in the omakase tradition, while the tuna’s light sear and an accompanying wedge of lime bring it back towards a Western style. Thus, it’s a good compromise for people who would otherwise hesitate to try raw fish. As with the tuna carpaccio, you do not think LEYE has access to any particularly exceptional fish. However, it’s a serviceable dish and a decent portion size that pushes the kitchen out of its comfort zone. The dover sole “fish & chips,” in contrast, is a surefire winner. While you have never seen dover sole–that most regal of fine dining fish–fried before, it apparently exists as a more expensive option at some of the chippies in London. For good reason too. The flesh holds well to the slightly-puffed batter and possesses a luscious, meaty, and altogether homogenous texture that is simply the “tops” when it comes to fish and chips. The “chips” themselves are nothing short of a revelation and better than the fries served at RPM Seafood, RPM Steak, or (even!) Bavette’s. In terms of size, they are somewhere between “thick-cut” and “wedge,” but they possesses a golden brown crispness and a deep crunch that could only come from a double- or triple-cooking process. The dish only errs in not offering malt vinegar or ketchup as condiments. Nonetheless, the sauce gribiche (sort of an herbed mayo) is tasty enough (if a bit one-note), and the ketchup can be furnished by your server upon request.
The “spicy miso black cod” is somewhat of a classic preparation for the fish and, you think, one of the most pleasingly umami dishes that can be made with any fish. Broskey does not err in his execution, which is incredibly buttery in texture and pleasing nutty–even sweet–in its flavor. A garnish of crispy kale forms a fitting contrast, while a sprinkling of sesame seeds serves to underline the savory notes you so enjoy. Forget “delicately grilled”–this is the simplest and most satisfying preparation of fish on the entire menu. The remaining three dishes in the “globally-inspired” section–which you have yet to try–generally seem strong. The “RPM bouillabaisse” clocks in as the category’s most expensive item at $52. Other than a saffron broth and a garlic rouille, it is hard to discern what seafood features in the classic fish stew. You think a half lobster is likely to appear and that the broth, most of all, really needs to impress if the restaurant is going to trot out the “RPM” signature label. A “charcoal-grilled black bass” seems the most adventurous of the fish preparations, featuring Moroccan spices and a salsa verde. The “roasted John Dory,” in contrast, is a fish that’s generally hard to like and, one imagines, receives little help from the heirloom carrots listed with it. “Champagne” is listed as the only other constituent of the dish after the carrots (and you’d be surprised if its presence was anything more than mere gimmick).
Having toured RPM Seafood’s four categories of seafood entrées, the menu now turns towards dishes that are a bit more substantial. First, forming a transitional section, are the “signature pastas.” While the “Amalfi lemon linguine” aims to satisfy cravings for seafood pasta (sans the seafood), the “rigatoni Bolognese” is more of a consolation for those who demand a bit of meat with their noodles. Neither dish, if you are being quite honest, has caught your eye, for Pizzeria Portofino, downstairs, has never really won you over with its expanded array of pasta selections. RPM Italian remains, in your mind, the rightful domain for the restaurant group’s attempts at pasta. Still, you could not help yourself from ordering the “golden spaghettini” on each of your visits. This dish, which carries more than double the price tag of the other two pastas, begs comparison to Gibson Italia’s highly-touted gold-extruded pasta. However, the “gold” here is not in reference to any piece of equipment but, rather, to its luxurious components. The first rendition of the dish, as far as you can remember, featured orange-tinged strands of spaghettini with king crab, caviar, and uni in an uni butter sauce. Now, in its current form, the dish has ditched the crab and caviar to pair noodles, uni, and uni butter sauce with slices of black truffle. You were a bigger fan of the former dish, which struck you as a more decadent (but ultimately well-designed) take on the “seafood pasta.” The textures and flavors were a bit muddled, yes, but the all amounted, at least, to a transcendent level of seafood-tinged fattiness. Shoehorning black truffles into the mix strikes you as odd, both because they already appear on the menu (atop those excellent soft-scrambled eggs) and hardly ever are paired with seafood. Caviar (roe) and sea urchin (roe) are far more kindred spirits, but, perhaps, LEYE saw little point in keeping caviar on the menu only to use it in this one dish. Neither version of the dish, mind you, is worth its $49 price, but you will give the kitchen some points for creativity, for bringing more luxury ingredients into the fold with some sense of boldness and finesse.
After the pasta section, the menu really starts to fall apart. “Signature cuts”? Of steak? Of the same Japanese beef served at RPM Steak and the same Bistecca Fiorentina found at RPM Italian? Get out of here. You hadn’t the slightest interest, across all of your visits, in trying the same cuts of meat prepared at the other RPM restaurants. Sure, it is probably a good idea to put them there to appeal to the more carnivorous customers who found themselves at this, the “seafood” RPM, by mistake. But you cannot view the category as anything more than a “greatest hits” roadshow of meat that would be lucky to meet the competent (yet unimpressive) standard set when being prepared in LEYE’s most steak-centric location. The prices are consistent across locations–you’ll give them that–and it might be true that the “Cape Grim grass-fed NY strip” has never been served at another RPM location. But, insofar as RPM Steak’s steak did not impress on your last visit, you do not see any reason to order the beef here. The same, too, can be said for most of the items under the “classics” category, like a “Yacht Club” burger, a double-cut lamb chop, and an “RPM Surf & Turf” (which pairs a petit filet with a broiled–rather than coal-roasted–half tail of lobster).
A “heritage chicken paillard” and a “veal chop milanese” are both relatively novel creations for the RPM kitchens to take on, but they hardly reinvent the wheel. Instead, like all the items in these final two categories, the dishes represent a peace offering towards those who read “Seafood” on the menu and think “by golly, I have quite the hankering for animal flesh.” On the same note, sides like “hen of the woods” mushrooms, “sea salt fries,” “green beans amandine,” “spicy broccolini,” “whipped potatoes,” and “wood-roasted cauliflower” would be right at home on the other RPMs’ menus without anybody blinking an eye. The “Greek lemon potatoes,” however, are a triumph. They’re approximately the same as the “chips” that accompany the “dover sole fish & chips” but, seemingly, possess an even greater golden-brown crunch and the added tang of citrus. Don’t waste your time with the “sea salt fries” if these are being offered. The “ratatouille,” too, deserves some credit for originality. Yet, while the dish is tasty, it amounts to little more than a vegetable casserole (missing, in your opinion, the depth of flavor that characterizes the signature stew).
Those who read your review of RPM Steak will remember that dessert, of all things, is where LEYE really outclasses its competitors. If the group’s tendency is to get a bit lost in its salesmanship (when it comes to the quality of the restaurants’ seafood and steer), then the dessert menu represents nothing less than total supplication to the whims of its most sweet-toothed customers. Simply put, the selection does not try too hard to impress but, rather, to satisfy. Yes, the frozen soufflés–which have only been added to the menu in the past month–are a bit daintier, but the lemon and raspberry renditions both surpass any form of sorbet. They are ethereally light, not too cold, and benefit from contrasting textures of shortbread, meringue, fruit jam, and curd. The crème brûlée, too, is a bit lighter and aims to satisfy less-sweetly-inclined customers with a garnish of citrus granita (swapped for Fabbri cherries in the RPM Steak rendition) and candied pistachio. In contrast, the warm “vanilla sugar doughnuts” dipped in a raspberry and lemon curd are pure pleasure. You do not mind seeing them pulled from RPM Steak’s list (where they are instead filled with Boston cream) at all, particularly because the switch to a citric flavoring is thematically appropriate. Likewise, the “RPM cheesecake” that, at the steakhouse, comes topped with blueberry compote, here boasts some tart cherries and a dollop of cinnamon cream.
The “banana cream Napoleon” has seemed fairly popular among patrons, being composed of a layer of crispy phyllo dough, the titular cream, more phyllo dough, more cream, and more dough with sliced bananas and warm caramel. The three-tiered design (with middle “bun”) is reminiscent, in some sense, of a Big Mac. Yet, this may be the most texturally nuanced of all the desserts, and the pastry chef pulls off the crisp-soft-chewy combination without a hitch. The “platinum coconut cake,” priced at $15, is also one of the most popular desserts. It represents RPM Seafood’s answer to RPM Steak’s “14K chocolate cake” (also priced at $15, which is a dollar or two more than most of the other options). While the latter features a dusting of gold leaf on top of a rectangular cake, the former makes use of equally luminescent platinum leaf. Structurally, the coconut cake comes hidden under a layer of icing with an array of circular meringue “petals” thrusting outward from every direction. It looks a bit like a pine cone, but the visual flourish serves the dual purpose of capturing all the platinum like a snowswept tree. In this respect, the gaudiness of the garnish can be forgiven, for it works to lend the dish a thematic effect that goes beyond “look at this precious metal.” The cake itself is a devil’s food, and, while you think that forces the coconut flavor into the background, it ensures customers will feel the cake is rich and chocolatey enough to stomach the platinum surcharge.
Those craving chocolate will find, still, a few further options on the dessert menu. There’s the “hazelnut praline,” a sort of hard-shell “Ho Ho” looking thing whose interior contains, rather than cake and cream, a crunchy, nutty sweetness married with warm, oozing caramel. The “chocolate mousse torte,” similarly, seeks to itch that chocolate craving a bit more directly than the coconut cake. The impossibly slender, rectangular piece spans the radius of the plate; however, each and every bite strikes you with the depth and power of its dark chocolate. The cake is helped by a bit of candied orange and a sprinkling of pistachio, which provide just enough of a contrast to unlock further nuances in the chocolate. For your money, the torte easily outclasses the coconut cake in its complexity, making the latter seem a fairly simple, inoffensive dessert that is merely made “desirable” by its platinum dressing. The “peanut butter pie” is the newest addition to RPM Seafood’s dessert selection, and, while you have yet to try it, the form looks similar to the cheesecake. That is, a smooth filling sits atop a brittle crust (made from chocolate rather than graham cracker) with a topping of whipped cream and crushed peanuts. All in all, a rather comprehensive and pleasing assortment of options that look to indulge rather than impress. An ethos, you think, that the RPM restaurants needs to better apply to the savory sections of their menus.
Therein, you think, lies the problem with RPM Seafood. The group, as a whole, has never sought to be the best in the “Italian” or “steakhouse” dining categories. Streamlined? Sure. Accessible? Of course. But, rather than reinvent their respective genres, the restaurants contented themselves with being shining examples of those forms. They are friendly places–more than willing to put the “training wheels” on for inexperienced guests or, rather, to step aside and let the high rollers take command of the wine list. Yet, friendly as they are, the RPMs are institutional restaurants first and foremost. They are vehicles for the restaurant group–as it stretches its tentacles ever-further throughout the city–and its celebrity proprietors–as they stretch their shred of fame as far as it will go. Though a chef once made up the three-letter triumvirate, his presence was hopelessly lost in the shuffle. He brought “trends” (like expensive beef, oh goodie) to the city, yet the menu was never chef-driven. Nor is the menu at RPM Seafood today. Some rays of creativity shine through, but so do just as many “greatest hits” offerings straight off of the other restaurants’ menus. As always, the chef’s task is to lay a foundation of formidable, classic dishes sure to please the vast majority of customers with only the slightest dusting exotic ingredients and preparations. The hospitality staff, too, are there to keep everything moving at a pleasant pace. As is always the case with LEYE, they are mechanically precise and unerringly personable. Yet they miss that bit of magic–that bit of flourish–that makes the best of the best hospitality professionals flourish.
Ultimately, RPM Seafood amounts to the same old song and dance in a gorgeous space. It’s the “springtime RPM,” the “summertime RPM,” the “yacht club RPM.” It’s an opportunity to anchor LEYE’s event space in the heart of downtown and supplement it by way of a thriving “new” concept. Yet, even if the ingredients are new, the palette of preparations strikes you as similar, as “safe,” ultimately, in the way you just described. While, at Beacon Tavern, it seemed like chef Broskey punched above his weight, here–at RPM Seafood–it seems like he has one arm tied behind his back. A few bright spots shine through–showing a capable combination of comfort food and finesse–but the customer base seems to want one of two things: uber-healthy seafood or a fat steak. Classic canonical techniques like salt-baking or deboning tableside are nowhere to be found. RPM Seafood is not a celebration of “the world’s best fish and seafood.” It’s a celebration for Chicago’s see-and-be-seen wannabe glitterati. You would recommend that any interested parties pick a few tempting bottles off of the wine list, indulge in the most decadent dishes, and move on to support local businesses that better push the boundaries of American cuisine forward.