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A Look Inside the Mag Mile Restaurant that Gives International Chef Free Rein

By Kevin Beerman / December 13, 2019

What people who aren’t from Chicago don’t realize about Chicago is that its charm is in its neighborhoods. In Chicago, for better or for worse, the block is everything. It’s not atypical (some locals rather say it’s the city’s unique charm) to find a mixture of different architectural styles placed side-by-side on the same street. Gleaming modernism next to turn-of-the-century bungalows. Neighbors who share common ground, but who don’t quite look alike.

Free Rein doesn’t look like its neighbors. Nestled among the office buildings and popular chain restaurants lining Michigan avenue between the Chicago River and Randolph Street in the historic Carbide and Carbon Building, this American brasserie in the St. Jane Hotel stands out with its neo-Art Deco window treatments and sleek modernist ambiance.

Free Rein is fittingly located in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, where visitors from around the world come to get a taste of the Windy City from its iconic shops, stores, and museums. It’s eclectic menu offers a taste of American cuisine, but with an international twist. At the center of its imaginative renditions of dishes from the eclectic American palette is Chef Kristine Subido’s bold reimagining of what American cuisine can look like.

Raised in the Philippines where her grandfather introduced her to the passion that is now her career, Subido has mastered a range of cuisines through her experiences in kitchens from Chicago to France. Influenced by her international culinary chops and her natural curiosity for how food shows us something about a community, the redesigned menu she’s put together tells the flavorful story of how Chicago’s diverse communities intersect.

So, given our interest in connection and what brings people together, we (i.e. your humble correspondent for Chicago Ideas) went to Free Rein the other day to get a taste of their new winter menu. We wanted to see how stories of connection can be told through something more than words—flavor, taste, and culinary panache.

The reconceived winter menu is meant to bring out bold flavors from items you can mainly get right here in Illinois. It’s seasonal and intentional. Some of the produce is even from right here in the city. All of the food, though, is meant to tell the story of one culture meeting another.

“I’m very thoughtful,” Subido says about how she brings her trips into Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, tasting different dishes and cuisines, into the menu. “It expresses the food that I want to prepare.”

The First Course

Was a rich excursion into subtle fusion dishes and incandescent combinations.

Where some establishments would bring a salad or something simply fried to start out, Subido serves a plate of thinly sliced winter greens, house-made potato chips, all served on a platter of crudite dip (your correspondent can confess that the umami flavor was powerful and rejuvenating, like discovering a previously unknown passion for running after committing to losing 10 pounds as your New Year’s resolution).

Our table was filled with other novel takes on traditional dishes: savory spring rolls filled with duck, carrots, and cucumber (a combination of so many personal favorites that it was as if Subido took recommendations from directly from your correspondent’s psyche), as well as a delectable multi-colored beet and orange salad topped with almonds and served on a bed of miso honey vinaigrette so rich (in nutrient and flavor) that both your mother and father would approve.

From the first course, paired with the Lake Effect cocktail (a riotous experience of cognac and fernet branca), it was clear that this meal was going to be something like riding the El through the city’s amalgamation of cultures. Different voices, different sights, different smells. All in one trip.

“My take on the restaurant is that it has different inspirations,” Subido says. “I take a lot of different inspiration from the different neighborhoods of Chicago, places I’ve traveled, and my heritage. Anywhere I’ve been and the dishes that have moved me are on this menu.”

The Second Course 

Came before your (at this point, culinarily overwhelmed) correspondent can finish their first drink, Subido is out with another round of cocktails (a Mag Mile Margarita, with orange-blossom water and apple-cinnamon syrup), as well as the centerpiece of the evening: two of the more inventive cornerstones of Free Rein’s dinner menu.

It started with something traditional (but not in Chicago): Kare Kare. This Filipino dish is usually reserved for special occasions, so intricate and involved is the process of bringing it to life. Introduced to her in her childhood, Subido has found a way to bring it to life in Free Rein’s kitchen every day, while putting it in conversation with the American tradition on which her menu is based.

A mixture of seafood, long beans, Chinese eggplant, and bok choy, this dish floats on a small pond of roasted peanut sauce and packs a flavor so profound that even on a seemingly unexceptional Tuesday, the occasion feels significant. Like something truly ceremonial is about to take place.

And while all of this is happening, Subido sets out a plate of ricotta gnocchi so tender, crispy, and savory that it becomes impossible to imagine gnocchi in any other form (your correspondent has yet to return to any potato-based pasta, and does not expect to in the foreseeable future).

You know those experiences where you encounter something familiar, and even though someone told you beforehand that what you’re going to experience won’t be like anything you’re used to, you are somehow still taken by such surprise when it happens that you look back at the long lineage of your decisions all leading up to the point of this unexpected moment, and you wonder: how did I ever do this any other way?

That’s Free Rein.

By the Time Dessert

Comes out (three flavors of creme brûlée), it’s clear that “typical American” isn’t something you’ll simply find at Free Rein. Sure, there’s a burger and short ribs to satisfy your hearty Midwestern palette. But even in the simplest concepts on the menu, Subido has infused every item with the experiences she’s had around the world to tell an inescapably flavorful story of connection, intersection, and collaboration. For locals and visitors alike.

“Chicago is about neighborhoods and that’s where I draw my inspiration,” Subido says. “Because Chicago is America.”