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Phil Vettel reviews Free Rein

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CHICAGO, Ill. -- Free Rein is the Where's Waldo of Chicago restaurants, hiding in plain sight behind a reflective-glass facade right on Michigan Avenue. It's actually easier to see out of the restaurant than it is to see in.

The front room is a sort of quick-bite and carryout area overlooking the Michigan Avenue bustle; past the host stand, there's a two-tiered dining room, a long bar, and gentle lighting from what everybody calls the light-saber chandeliers.

One of the star dishes is madai snapper carpaccio, served raw with a drizzle of hot butter, and topped with lemon, capers and ginger-spiced breadcrumbs. More European in concept is the epoisses, a smooth cheese that's baked, topped with celery-walnut crumble, and served with toasted sourdough and a little honeycomb. Fried chicken oysters, referring to a cut at the back of a chicken thigh, are tasty little nuggets served with chile-lime aioli.

The pork collar, braised 24 hours and coated with an amaretto glaze, is a delicious piece of meat, served over a sweet-potato-pecan sauce I can taste in my dreams. The roasted sturgeon is almost as good, a great piece of fish with pickled apple, cabbage, mushrooms and beurre rouge sauce. Saffron spaghetti is an umami bomb, dotted with king crab meat and coddled in sea-urchin cream sauce. 

Pastry chef Evan Sheridan, formerly at Sixteen, produces memorable desserts, including a not-quite-traditional apple tatin, a roulade of super-thin sliced apple with cake pieces and brown-butter gelato, kind of a deconstructed apple pie. The sweet-potato cremeux, sitting on white-sesame panna cotta with toasted-ginger pavlova, looks like a gourmet bird's nest.

I give Free Rein, in the St. Jane Hotel at 224 North Michigan Avenue, two stars. This is a restaurant worth looking for, even if you have to squint a little.


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