Feels Like The First Time: Lollapalooza's After-Party Dinner Was An Afterthought

On Saturday night, Lollapalooza and Esquire magazine hosted the first Lolla Late-Night Supper Club, in which four of Chicago's best chefs planned and served an after-festival meal to 125 or so music fans who purchased tickets for a reasonable-sounding $100 that included six courses and five wine or cocktail pairings. The organizers were kind enough to invite Food Republic and, as a Chicago-based contributor, I was really looking forward to it.

The line-up included dishes by the following chefs:

  • Jason Vincent (Nightwood), winner of 2012's Grand Cochon, and one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs of 2013.
  • Chris Pandel, chef of two of Chicago's best restaurants, Bristol and Balena.
  • Sarah Grueneberg, Top Chef finalist and Executive Chef of Spiaggia, a beloved, top-tier, modern Italian restaurant whose regulars include the President and First Lady.
  • Ryan Poli, chef and co-owner of Tavernita, the restaurant that hosted the event.

Sounds good, no? Well, it should've been much better.

I've enjoyed Poli's excellent cooking on several occasions. He served my favorite dish at 2013's Cochon 555 in Chicago. Little Market Brasserie, another Poli-helmed establishment, is one of the better and more original hotel restaurants. And Tavernita can be terrific. Though Poli's contribution to this dinner — a soft-shell crab with corn — was very good, he (along with Esquire and Lollapalooza) is the face of this event and was, presumably, in charge of the staff. A staff that was yanking plates and glasses away before people were finished, refilling water in not-yet-empty wine glasses, and often clueless as to what any of the dishes were.

For instance, Chris Pandel's salad course was described on the menu as a "summer squash panzanella with blossoms, farmers cheese, harissa and pole beans." What was served included watermelon, cucumber, mint, onion and a couple of different cheeses. It was tasty, but when I asked the server what was in it, he just pointed to the description of the panzanella, unaware that the dish had been changed.

Which leads me to the biggest problem of the night — there was no explanation of anything. It would've made sense for someone from Esquire, Lollapalooza or Tavernita to speak for two minutes in order to welcome people and explain the idea behind the event. If for no other reason than to make people feel as though they were wanted.

There were other problems too — all of the dishes were served at room temperature. They were also served to be shared, which is fine when there's an obvious way to divide the food. But not so good when one guest at a table of strangers is stuck with the task of cutting up two fatty slices of pork and three slices of bread to be shared between four people. This was Jason Vincent's dish and the one I was most anticipating. I might forgive the cumbersome plating but, sadly, it just wasn't very good. Due to the fact that it was served at room temperature, the typically wonderful fat had begun to congeal over the dish.

The only real highlight was Sarah Grueneberg. She was the one chef who came to the tables to explain her dish, showing a genuine interest in whether or not the guests were happy. And even though her dish suffered from being barely above room temperature, it still tasted terrific. Absolutely perfect, light gnocchi in a rich, slightly spicy tomato sauce with eggplant.

When there are so many great restaurants in Chicago, several of which are run by the chefs involved in this event, it's a shame that people spent their time and money here. By 12:30 a.m., when the meal was only three courses in, nearly half of the room had cleared out. Those who stayed seemed irritated that they had bought into this event, which had seemed so promising on paper. I really hope that the organizers make this a better one in the future. Just because it's "rock & roll" doesn't mean it has to be sloppy. Chicago may be the Second City, but its restaurants and chefs are second to no one. They're certainly capable of throwing a better after-party than this.