Albert Einstein + art + American-Italian cuisine + books + snug environs = A happy, satisfied stomach and soul.
By: Soumya Jain Agarwal
Posted on: March 23, 2023
LF Says: ★★★.5
Chef Steve Chiappetti is in the food business. Or in the business of food. It runs in his DNA. Chef Chiappetti’s family, that settled in Chicago more than 80 years ago, is behind the city’s oldest slaughter and packinghouse, Chiappetti Lamb and Veal. It has now moved to Wisconsin. Then there are the seasonings by Chiappetti Foods. Chef Chiappetti himself has worked with Chef Fernand Gutierrez at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago and Chef Paul Bartolotta at Spiaggia. He has defined the kitchens of many well-known Chicago restaurants, including Mango, Grapes, Rhapsody, Café le Coq, J. Rocco Italian Table, and more. Can a person like this go wrong with food. Turns out, not.
His latest culinary adventure is at The Albert, a chic restaurant with The Big Bang Theory vibe, housed on the first level of Streeterville’s Hotel EMC2. Expect books, art, globes, caricatures, and beakers full of herbs and grassroots to inspire your eyes.
Low lighting, marble tables and comfortable leather seating give it a lounge feel. If I was alone, I would have curled up on the seating, picked a tome from the shelf above and started exploring it. There is a private dining area right next to the kitchen. The music is just the right volume, other tables are full, and then there is Adam Jennings, the Dining Room Manager, who is hovering everywhere, attentively, in his sharp suit.
The chemical base
The Albert’s cocktail list is matched by its nerdy atmosphere. “I had great fun naming them,” says Mr. Jennings, with a straight face. With names like ‘Easy as Pi’, ‘Hola Dali’ and ‘Espresso Patronum’, you will be compelled to read the cocktail list line-by-line, even if just for a laugh. But even Sheldon Cooper wouldn’t have been able to resist our cocktail order – Quantum Fizzics and Mezcalculations.
Mezcalculations – a combination of mezcal and chile liquer – had a delightful kick to it, coupled with a slight smokiness that only hits at the back. Quantum Fizzics (sparkling wine, grapefruit and lime) was a simple drink which I sipped leisurely during the entire meal. Vesuvius (whisky, sugar, bitters, smoke) and Mona Lisa Smile (rye, ginger beer, basil and balsamic) are on my list for next time.
Chef Chiappetti, who joined The Albert last year, and Mr. Jennings, have revamped the menu and service since opening after the pandemic. “It was almost like starting anew,” Mr. Jennings said. Blessed with an innovative interior, The Albert was soon transformed into an American-Italian restaurant under the aegis of these two men.
Under the microscope
We started our journey with Crudo (seared Ahi Tuna and Calabrian chili aioli) and fried Artichoke. The tuna was seared to perfection, and the accompanying olive tapenade and chili aioli, again, had a kick to it. Chef Chiappetti has a generous hand with giving a flavorful, spicy zing to his dishes.
The artichoke was flash fried – just enough to have the sides crispy, while the ‘meat’ was tender yet cooked. It was placed prettily atop an almond sweet pepper emulsion with tomato, sherry vinegar and oregano (prepared especially for me as I am a vegetarian). The dish had a delightful play of textures (crispy, meaty) and flavors (tangy and sweet).
Crudo - seared Ahi Tuna and Calabrian chili aioli.
After swiping off these dishes right off the plate, Mr. Jennings bought out the star of the show – Chef Chiappetti’s Polenta board. As he poured the polenta delicately, deliberately slowly, on the board, he launched into a narration of how the polenta was cooked carefully so that it is creamy and melt-in-the-mouth – something that I have never been able to achieve in my kitchen – while my companion concentrated on the rich buttery aroma of the polenta. Accompanied with three different toppings – tomato garlic sauce, pesto and braised mushrooms – we carefully, reverently made our portions. “This is taking me back to Charleston,” my companion said while savoring a spoonful. The polenta was warm, homely, cheesy and just what you need on a winter night.
The Albert's fried Artichoke toed the delicate line between crisp and tender.
Chef Chiappetti has an Italian-French heritage, which he fondly remembers, especially his memories with his grandmother. “She used to put this big pot of polenta at the center of the table, surrounded by all the different toppings, and we kids would just dig into it!” he smiles and speaks. This homely legacy is what he is trying to reflect at The Albert, albeit in a quirky way.
Scientifically, our stomachs were full by now. Our hearts? No. We eagerly looked forward to the next course. The Mushroom Risotto was every bit as comforting as the polenta. The chili flakes gave it a kick (I am quite tired of using this word, but nothing else describes it better!). The veal reduction gave a distinct flavor. Devoid of the usual creaminess you see at other Italian restaurants, it felt easy on the stomach. After all the wonderful flavors, the risotto felt like familiar territory.
The Polenta Board is a signature at The Albert - and a must-try.
The 3 Cheese Ravioli with white truffle cream sauce was again, simple, beautiful and something you can heartily tuck away in your already-full stomach. Taking care of my vegetarian feelings, Chef Chiappetti drizzled it with balsamic, instead of his usual marsala glaze.
Chef Chiappetti is known for his meats – which comes as no surprise considering his heritage. So make sure you try Albert’s Cut, which is served with those deliciously sweet cipollini onions, Pork Chop, and the Ribeye.
What followed next was the hook. The desserts. Our table was flourished with three desserts – each absolutely unique.
At first glance, Emmy’s Torch looked like Baked Alaska, but it couldn’t be more different. Under the fluffy, toasted marshmallow was a layer of hazelnut gelato and chocolate cake. You needed a strong knife to cut it through. But by now, I have learned that Chef Chiappetti has a penchant for layering of flavors and textures. The firm gelato, mixed with sweet marshmallow, and a pick of slightly bitter-sweet luxardo cherries was wonderful.
The Chocolate Mint Bundt Cake is a dream come true for a chocolate lover. It was rich with 54% dark chocolate, mouth-melting and simply amazing with the infusion of mint in it (not added, infused). The mint, therefore, is not overpowering like the many chocolate-mint desserts you can find anywhere. The mint just hits you pleasantly at the back of the mouth. It was accompanied with prosecco infused strawberries which tasted “just like Christmas” according to my companion.
Chef Steve Chiappetti's Olive Oil cake turns around the notion of regular cakes beautifully.
The crown, however, goes to Chef Chiappetti’s signature Olive Oil cake. And I can very well understand why it’s his signature. It’s out of this world. And honestly, I’ll come back again, and again, and again, for it. The heavenly block of cake was made from olive oil instead of butter, and flowered honey instead of sugar. The pistachios give it a Mediterranean touch. The sweetness was balanced by the whipped cream and orange curd on the side. I ate it the next day too, and the softness was intact! It was pure love. The Olive Oil cake, too, is Chef Chiappetti’s family recipe. It’s the perfect nighttime rendezvous with a cup of coffee.
Italian cuisine is a wide umbrella. Chef Chiappetti, however, is specifically influenced from Calabrian cuisine. And its spicy connotations are quite discernable in his food. Even then, Chef Chiappetti likes to call The Albert an American-Italian eatery. “We are not a pure Italian restaurant because I don’t believe in getting ingredients shipped from Italy. Yes, Italian Parmigiana Reggiano is great, but getting it transported here loses its essence. I can get the same quality of soft Parmigiana Reggiano from Wisconsin, so why not? So that’s why we are an American-Italian restaurant. Simple Italian food with American influence,” he explains. Fresh local produce with a core of sustainability defines fine dining for him.
Chef Steve Chiappetti.
Besides the food, the service was impeccable. Our table was swiped after every course. Cutlery was replaced. And Mr. Jennings had a joke to share. His witty one-liners, funny banter with the chef, and inartificial demeanor made the evening just that much more pleasant.
Was the food exceptional? No. But The Albert is not just about the food. It’s about the comfortable ambience, affable staff, and the nerd feeling that will make you keep going back to it. Simple ingredients were used to whip healthy yet delicious dishes that were plated as beautifully as a Michelin restaurant. Don’t say anything about the Olive Oil cake though – it’s my favorite.
LF Says: ★★★.5