Order the saganaki wings at Travelle, the restaurant in the Langham hotel, and you’ll be treated to a display that will evoke, depending on your mood, either a grease fire or Greektown’s stock expression of celebration.
Your server will place the small bowl of six fried drummettes at your table, drizzle them with ouzo, and set them ablaze. He won’t, however, completely inhabit the role, declining to shout “opa!” lest the business travelers in the dining room abandon their caviar service and lunge for the fire exits.
Still, it’s one of a few moments at the Mediterranean-inspired restaurant from former Tru and Paris Club chef Tim Graham that reveals an intent to break from the staid predictability on which hotel restaurants all too often depend. You can find another example on the cocktail list, where the $17 “Madhattan” is garnished with a skewered foie gras-stuffed cherry, a move arguably more reckless than playing with fire on a bare wooden table. My little blob of mousse escaped into the cocktail the instant I disturbed it.
All this is to say Travelle still struggles with a sense of fun restrained by formality. Chairs are pulled out, napkins are refolded the instant one rises, warm hand towels hydrate on fresh lemon slices, and a server distributes a selection of three breads on which you can smear gobs of glycerin-stabilized olive oil gel that performs like something I used to sculpt my pompadour with when I was rioting with the Teddy Boys.
This is fine dining with options to go lower. Eat with your hands all night with a $135 seafood elevation, then mussels and frites, and finally a crispy merguez sausage and olive flatbread. Or obstinately stick with your utensils with a delicate yet aggressively piney and funky-tasting snapper and anchovy crudo, and great boulders of gamy, fried confit suckling pig nestled among slabs of squash and fig.
The menu is nothing if not customizable to any appetite. But as with any this varied and long you face a minefield. Graham’s bright, gleaming, glassed-in kitchen, where a handful of cooks scurry like lab rats, produces an inconsistent array of dishes from the 11 categories on the menu (which is printed just finely enough to enrage the myopic). Among the salumi and cheese boards, there’s a clever (if not cleverly named) selection of “seacuterie” that includes things like whitefish rillettes, thinly sliced octopus carpaccio topped with a bracing dollop of briny kalamata olive tapenade, and a stiff “bouillabaisse” aspic bombe in which bits of shellfish are suspended—and that’s too cold to glean any flavors from.
Among the crudo, spicy harissa-spiked beef tartare fills the trench of a ceremonially perched marrow bone and is meant to be spooned atop toast plotted with chunks of quivering marrow. It’s one of the more satisfying bites on the menu, in good company with a smooth white gazpacho (since removed from the menu), given body by pureed and strained almonds and bread crumbs, its garlicky essence tamed by sweet green grapes and balls of cucumber. Among the three flatbreads is one smeared with a white bean puree that dries and cracks unpleasantly in the heat and is topped with sweet nuggets of shrimp, guanciale, and parsnips.
Seafood plays a prominent role across the menu, but none of it carries the essence of the ocean more than the quartet of toasts topped with creamy crab salad and sea-foamy urchin (also eighty-sixed since this review). But the kitchen can get clumsy. Even a wonderfully tender grilled octopus is spoiled by mushy, oversalted eggplant caponata, and a thick halibut fillet can’t be rescued by its drizzle of ginger-orange puree if it’s overcooked. This extends to other proteins like piri piri pepper-spiced quail bits accompanied by a charred half lemon that requires the manual dexterity of a needlepointer and the mandibular strength of a rottweiler to process (enter hand towels).
More than anything I was looking forward to trying the desserts by pastry chef Scott Green, but I was discouraged by soggy slabs of Nutella baklava and an almond olive oil cake whose dryness was matched by the mealiness of a roasted white peach and its accompanying strip of pasty gelee. A deep tumbler of fudgy chocolate layered with salted caramel and a pretzel-like biscuit—more than enough for two—showed promise, though.
The pursuit of variety all too often comes at the expense of focus in many restaurants, but it’s a particular challenge in hotel dining rooms, which have to satisfy all sorts of incompatible tastes and appetites. Travelle at least shows consistency by sticking to one region. But the Mediterranean is too deep and wide to sustain it.