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Review: Navy Pier finally has a good, original restaurant in Lírica

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 6/23/2021 Louisa Chu, Chicago Tribune
a plate of food with broccoli: Pollo Frito at Lírica. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune Pollo Frito at Lírica.

Nobody goes to Navy Pier in Chicago accidentally. You definitely don’t go for the food.

The best places there — with a thereness the whole nautical stretch otherwise strangely lacks — have long been outposts borrowed from across the city: Billy Goat Tavern, Brown Sugar Bakery, The Original Rainbow Cone and Garrett Popcorn Shops.

Lírica, however, opened as an altogether new concept in March at the also-new Sable Hotel.

By Navy Pier standards, the Spanish-inspired restaurant deserves four stars. By our ratings key, it ranks between good and very good. (That can be confusing with the widespread influence of other star systems. One Michelin star is celebrated, but the same on Yelp can be a sign something’s gone horribly wrong. We’re somewhere in between.)

a plate of food with broccoli: Pulpo a la Plancha at Lírica. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune Pulpo a la Plancha at Lírica.

I spent the whole day on Navy Pier, as tourists and local visitors tend to do. I was joined by WBEZ reporter Monica Eng, who’s also my “Chewing” podcast co-host. Brunch and dinner at Lírica were my first full-service dining out meals since before the pandemic.

Ultimately, the food at Lírica was so much better than it had to be, but the experience was, at times, as confusing as the funhouse mirrors still found on the older part of the pier.

Take, for example, the tortilla espanola ($15). As a pair known to be at odds, Monica and I absolutely agreed the brunch dish was not a traditional Spanish omelet. The deep-dish, potato-and-egg pie is one of the national dishes of Spain. (In fact, I had my first taste on the Costa Brava, at a miniature golf resort where Pepe the chef was also the magician, located within walking distance of my apprenticeship at El Bulli.)

a plate of food: Patatas Bravas at Lírica. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune Patatas Bravas at Lírica.

At Lírica, it’s a good omelet, but closer to a French technique, blonde and soft. Folded within, you’ll find a bellyful of spinach, arugula and roasted peppers, all topped with grated manchego cheese, plus unremarkable toast and those dish-defining potatoes on the side.

Chef Michael Shrader does know the difference between omelets Spanish and French, which made it all the more perplexing.

“I have about 15 Spanish cookbooks,” said Shrader, culinary director for Maverick Hospitality. The company owns Lírica; the hotel housing it; and Offshore, the thousand-seat rooftop bar also on the pier. Shrader was previously chef at Monnie Burke’s, co-owned Urban Union and has cooked in Paris.

“Being in the hotel, we have to do breakfast,” he said. “But people just want pretty simple stuff. They want it fast and they want to go.”

A lot of the menu leans Spanish, but I guess hotel guests aren’t ready to lean that far first thing in the morning. Some dishes draw from Mexico and South America; they offer chilaquiles, but also simple bacon and eggs.

The ceviche de pargo y camarones ($19) is available at brunch and on the all-day menu, which actually starts at noon. Pristine fish and shrimp, bathed in a verdant citrus pool, comes crowned with buttery avocado slices, crisp chile ringlets, sweet Cara Cara orange supreme segments, and a side of house-fried, togarashi-seasoned tortilla chips.

Shrader uses white Gulf shrimp and, depending on the market, red snapper or grouper. “The sauce is a puree of chive, cilantro and a little bit of the curing liquid that’s lemon, lime and orange juice,” he added.

Michael Shrader standing in front of a building: Chef Michael Schrader stands in Lírica, a new restaurant at Navy Pier, on June 16, 2021. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune Chef Michael Schrader stands in Lírica, a new restaurant at Navy Pier, on June 16, 2021.

Monica and I drank every drop of that Peruvian leche de tigre, milk of the tiger.

What we didn’t drink were cocktails. The brunch menu highlights classic mimosas ($10) and bloody marys ($12) and creative mojitos ($13) and margaritas ($13). When I asked our server if there were any nonalcoholic cocktails on the menu, he bluntly said no. I opted for functional iced coffee with soy milk instead, with the sense that I still needed to keep all my wits about me on the unpredictable pier.

Chicago beers are available on tap (each $7), including the Mexico Calling lager by Cruz Blanca Brewery, Anti-Hero IPA by Revolution Brewing, pale ale Daisy Cutter by Half Acre and the local-ish wheat ale Goose Island 312 (mostly no longer made in the city). They also have imported beer and wine, including some interesting and fairly priced choices from Latin America and Spain.

To accompany them, order the patatas bravas ($8). One of the world’s great drinking foods, these were some of the best I’ve had anywhere, including Spain, where some tourist traps try to pass off frozen fries drizzled with bottled sauce. At Lírica, they’re crisped chunks of roasted potato served with silky, smoked paprika aioli, of which you’ll want three times as much.

“I agree with you,” Shrader said. “We need like a chalice of sauce.”

The only sign of local flavor comes deliberately through a precise giardiniera spooned around the pulpo a la plancha ($18). The Chicago condiment lends heat and crunch to the tender tentacle of grilled octopus. Monica recently did a story on giardiniera (as did my fellow food critic Nick Kindelsperger), and she approved of the house-made relish.

a group of people sitting at a table in front of a building: Lírica, a new restaurant at Navy Pier, is seen on June 16, 2021. © E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune Lírica, a new restaurant at Navy Pier, is seen on June 16, 2021.

“When I came out here from San Francisco, I didn’t I didn’t know what the hell giardiniera was,” Shrader said. He has now lived here for more than 20 years. “We put habaneros in ours — not very much, so it’s not screamingly hot. It’s just a Chicago influence being here.”

Working our way down to the carne y pollo section of the dinner menu, I asked our evening server what has been the most popular entree among the meat and chicken options. Bistec de marinado ($25), he said, but I’d seen one of those skirt steaks go by, and while it looked fine, I opted for what looked like more interesting choices.

The jamon serrano ($16), though, sadly lacked the nutty and funky flavor I expect from Spanish ham. Lírica currently serves slices of 18-month Fermin jamon serrano, Shrader said. Thankfully, his house-baked focaccia, featuring delightfully zested olives and thoughtful tomato jam, more than made up for the meat.

His pollo frito ($24) stands out as the stupendous star of the show. She’s a main character billed as Spanish-fried chicken, presented on a Morita chile sauce spotlight, topped by a tousled salad of herbs, grapefruit and Marcona almonds, plus a sidecar of honey.

Remember I said nobody goes to Navy Pier for the food? This dish breaks that rule for me. You can’t find it anywhere else — certainly not Spain — and at such a shockingly reasonable price, especially for the pier.

“That dish actually was inspired by soul food fried chicken and waffles,” Shrader said. “I wanted crunchy, spicy and sweet. And the secret of that fried chicken is the breading: Kellogg’s corn flakes.”

The secret to his fried chicken is far more complex. They start by deboning whole Amish chickens for a breast and leg for each dish. The pieces are wet-brined for 48 hours in salt, brown sugar, fresh herbs and garlic. They’re then dried, dredged and breaded before their first cook at 310 degrees.

“That’s the magical temperature,” Shrader said. The chicken is then fried to order at 330 degrees. “They come out beautiful, nice and crispy.”

Chicken nuggets ($10) get the same treatment on a kids menu, which adults are welcome to order from, as well.

The churro con helado ($10), however, may be better appreciated by naive children than discerning adults. When I see a churro sundae promising chocolate sauce, I expect languorous lengths of fried dough, with dripping dipping chocolate sauce. Instead you get mini churros, drizzled minimally with a Magic Shell-type sauce, scattered starkly around vanilla ice cream. The two desserts, the other a caramel cheesecake, are the few things not made in-house.

“We don’t have enough labor to do it,” Shrader said. “If I can’t produce something in-house at a level that I need to, then I’m going to outsource it.”

What’s also not available, surprising at a prominent hotel restaurant, are any vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free main dishes. Be forewarned that, under the vegetable section, the only salad has chicken.

Typically you could call ahead to ask about special requests, but the restaurant doesn’t have its own phone yet. You can call the hotel front desk, but they rarely answer or return calls. The one time I reached someone, they did take the time to help answer questions, but that may change as the pier has fully reopened with the rest of the city.

Do note that on weekends, brunch is currently served by buffet only, which may be a challenge at what’s been the most-visited attraction in not only Chicago or Illinois, but the entire Midwest, with 9 million visitors per year.

Even on a quiet weekday before the pandemic reopening, service ran the gamut of emotions, from indifferent and defensive to polished and inviting. That inconsistency, and the feeling of a bit of menu bait-and-switch, left me feeling like random snapshots from a roller-coaster camera. One moment ecstatic, another upside down.

The restaurant seats 150 inside and 150 outside. You can reserve online for seating inside at tables and the bar, but I was sternly told by a host that the latter was a request only. The coveted outdoor seating is first-come, first-served.

The patio looks out onto a dock, so if there’s a big boat, your view of the water may be blocked. They plan to add landscaping to further insulate diners from the crowds, as well as an overhead outdoor cover within the next few weeks — which should help with avoiding an unfortunate situation I experienced.

When I arrived in the morning for brunch, a host showed me to a seat outside splotched with white. I wasn’t sure if it was seagull poop or white paint. I erred on the side of poop and swapped chairs. When I returned for dinner that night, a Hitchcockian flock hovered overhead, confirming my suspicions.

For now, Lírica at its best can shelter and sustain you with a lovely worldly presence unlike anywhere else on the pier, but how the winds may change remains to be seen.

Lírica

900 E. Grand Ave.

872-710-5750

liricarestaurant.com

Tribune rating: 1½ stars

Open: Sunday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m.

Prices: Entrees, $10-$32

Noise: Conversation friendly

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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