In Pursuit of Barolo and Barbaresco: Visiting Piemonte, Italy


People go to Florence for the Duomo; Rome, the Colosseum; and Tuscany, the art. As the home to Alba white truffles and world-class wine, most people go to Piemonte for food and wine.

Italy’s most treasured red wines are found in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, located south of Alba in Piemonte. Made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape, it is natural to compare Barolo and Barbaresco to single-varietal Burgundy. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the primary grapes in Burgundy, grow all over the world. By contrast, Nebbiolo only really thrives in cooler-climate Northern Italy, and is harvested after a long, nail-biting growing season when any manner of things can go wrong and kill a crop. To hedge against the possibility of disaster, Nebbiolo producers also make wine made from less temperamental and more humble grapes like Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis, Favorita, Freisa and Grignolino.

At first glance, the light, almost transparent, red hue of Barolo and Barbaresco is deceiving, and masks their powerful, complex characteristics of licorice, leather, hazelnuts, roses, violets, white truffle, high acidity and strong tannins. Many wines need to develop for at least 15 years. They are very reliable investments, though, as both regions have fortunately experienced multiple, consecutive high-rated vintages over the last decade.

A visit to Piemonte presents the opportunity to learn close-up about these exceptional, family-run wineries. Without any must-see tourist temples to distract, it’s easy to fall into a relaxed routine of scheduling winery visits around sightseeing and two-hour lunches in distinct, medieval towns. Though Michelin-starred restaurants are ample, it’s better to eat at the abundant local trattorie serving impeccable traditional dishes and housing extensive wine collections.

Sketching An Itinerary

The wines vary tremendously so it helps to understand a little about them before creating an itinerary full of winery visits. I scheduled visits based not just on favorite producers, but their use of different winemaking techniques and crus. I also veered toward smaller-scale producers.

My trip started in Serralunga d’Alba in the Barolo region. Serralunga is an ideal homebase for visiting the wineries of Cavallotto, Paolo Scavino and Vietti in nearby Castiglione Falletto. Later on in the week, I moved to La Morra, on the other side of Barolo, as a launchpad for visiting Barbaresco and La Morra producers.

By staying in two different places, it was easier for me to experience the various communes and restaurants that dot the region. Perched at the top of a steep hill, Serralunga is a sleepy pedestrian-only town with cobbled medieval streets and a castle. It is worth a brief stop for the castle, as well as a 12-table restaurant called Vinoteca Centro Storico, which is on the bucket lists of every visiting restaurant professional. (I’ll tell you why later.) The relatively more chaotic La Morra has a mix of modern and medieval buildings, and teems with mopeds, cars, tourists, shops and enotecas.

What Matters (or Not) About Barolo and Barbaresco

Differences between Barolo and Barbaresco

The soil. The climate. Barbaresco produces more approachable wines than Barolo because it benefits from a milder climate and shorter ripening season. The limestone soils of Barbaresco make more feminine, less tannic wines that require less aging. On the whole, Barolo is bigger, more tannic and acidic, and requires more aging to develop. Within Barolo, there are significant differences depending upon where the wine is grown. Calcareous marl soils in La Morra and Barolo commune produce lighter-hued, softer and more floral wines, whereas in Serralunga, sandstone yields grapes that produce more muscular, structured wines that need more aging. Castiglione Falletto wines are somewhere in the middle.

Blending v. Single Vineyards

Historically, Barolo, in particular, was made from blending wine from various sites throughout the area. The idea of producing a bottle that came from one cru, or designated site, is a relatively modern idea dating back to the swinging 1970s. Even so, placing the name of the cru on bottles did not happen until about the 1980s, and then it was viewed with suspicion. And even more so, the crus were not officially demarcated until 2007 and 2009 for Barbaresco and Barolo, respectively.

I do not intend to make these wine regions sound like the Wild West, though it does demonstrate how they are constantly evolving. By today’s standards, Maria Teresa Mascarello’s dogged adherence to the tradition bestowed by her father, Bartolo, to produce only blended Barolo, seems downright renegade. The vast majority of other producers make wine from specific crus and label them accordingly. Opponents claim that single-vineyard wines are marketing-drivel and pander to international consumer demands. They point to marketing abuses by certain larger producers in taking liberties with labeling crus on the bottles, thus rendering some crus undefinable and meaningless (as is arguably Bussia, which covers more terrain than it should and may be a dubious indicator of quality).

But, it’s hard to deny that many single vineyard wines are great examples of terroir. They are not going anywhere soon, so anyone who really wants to appreciate Barolo should not take a side about blending versus single vineyard wines. Both types are outstanding.

The Controversial “Modern” Techniques

People have strong opinions about this subject. What I’m referring to is the so-called modernization of winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, beginning in the 1960s.

Traditionally, Barolo was made using time-worn techniques constrained by harsh realities such as a lack of water and the devastation of war. Wines were aged in huge botti casks, passed down from generation to generation, that leaked and were rarely cleaned. When the younger generation took over winemaking in the 1960s, they, quite understandably, wanted to do things differently than their predecessors. Some of them did away with the big bottis in favor of aging wine in small barrels, known as barriques. Many of the resulting wines were bigger and consequently more palatable to Americans accustomed to big California cabernet sauvignons. It worked for awhile as critics like Robert Parker awarded them high scores.

Time cures all, and winemakers started to wonder if these new techniques really showed Nebbiolo in the best light. The new(er) practice of aging Nebbiolo in barriques can bring too many “foreign” flavors to the wine, like toast, vanilla and espresso. So bottis have reappeared (although they are cleaned, scraped and replaced more often). As fermentation and aging are now a combination of the old and new techniques, classifying a winery as “modern” versus “traditional” is misleading.

The Crus

Understanding the crus is the key to unlocking the varieties and complexities of Barolo and Barbaresco. Generally speaking, certain vineyards within Barolo and Barbaresco are regarded as producing more intriguing wines. It helps to schedule visits to winemakers, such as Scavino, Vietti, and Produttori del Barbaresco, who produce wine from a variety of crus. Just as important as where the grapes are grown are the farming practices employed in the vineyard. Canopy management, pruning, pest control and even planting grass between the rows, all impact the final product.

The Producers

By and large, wineries in Barolo and Barbaresco are proudly family-run. In this day and age, where wine is so often produced by corporate-owned estates, it is remarkable that major wineries are still passed down through the generations. As the wineries are inherited, they are occasionally passed down to daughters, so Barolo and Barbaresco possess an unusually high number of female winemakers.

These small(er)-production wineries are completely transparent about their winemaking, and will take visitors through their production facilities (or, in the case of Cavallotto, out to their vineyard) even on days when they are buzzing with activity. (When I was there in September, Vietti was harvesting Barbera right outside the door to our tasting room.) The families are welcoming, willing to talk in great detail about their wine, and will pour you an extensive tasting. Most of the time, they charge sweet little for this incredible experience or wave off any offer of payment. They are hardworking, smart and hospitable people, which is the primary reason why a wine visit to Piemonte is so rewarding and educational.

Next: My visits to winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco, the international treasure that is Vinoteca Centro Storico, and why they consume so much Champagne in Barolo.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Italian Village’s Wine Cellar (Chicago)

This year marks my 20th year in Chicago, when I arrived in August, 1995 to begin graduate school. It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that the city has changed a lot since then, but it really has. Although Marche and Vivo were thriving in the mid-90s, Randolph Street as we know it today did not exist. The West Loop was a crime-ridden wasteland of abandoned buildings, many of which were bulldozed or rehabbed into lofts largely in preparation for the 1996 Democratic Convention at the United Center. Wicker Park and Bucktown still retained some of their grunge vibe, and the legendary Busy Bee was still slinging pierogies.

Twenty years later, a lot is gone but some things still exist. One of the first restaurants I went to after moving here was Italian Village. It was only a few blocks from my law school, and was cheap enough for a student’s budget. We cared less about the quality of the food, and more about guzzling cheap chianti by the glass and devouring huge plates of food for about $10 apiece.

It has been easily over a decade since my last visit to Italian Village. At first glance, I was struck by how much it looked the same. The room is still decorated with sculptures of questionable taste and artistry, like the life-size Roman goddess hovering above the diners, and the nude nymph flexing backwards in what I can only assume is ecstasy. There are still blinking lights to mimic stars on the wall. The back of the bar has a four-columned rotunda (this is where the nymph lives) and a trompe d’oeil effect makes it appear twice its size. Far from being sophisticated and classy by 2015 standards, it is strangely awesome in that it is proudly frozen in time. Italian Village seems completely aware that it is out-of-date but doesn’t give a fig, because it knows that everything old becomes new again. And with the opening of Formento’s, which attempts to re-create on a classier level what places like Italian Village have always been, I think they’re right.

What brought me back to Italian Village not as a student on a budget but as a professional with a 401(k) was Italian Village’s 30,000+ bottle wine cellar. Easily one of the largest collections of wine in the city, it seems largely overlooked or even forgotten. There is almost nothing about the wine list or the restaurant that contains the modern indications of culinary legitimacy: there’s no hipster somm, widely-acclaimed chef or the backing of a hip restaurant group. It is old world at its heart and old school in its execution. The list of Barolo and Barbaresco alone, though, should be enough to draw serious oenophiles from far and wide. The bottle prices, while not cheap, are certainly not expensive either given the quality and early vintages of the wine offered. As New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov lamented late last year, Barolo is a cellaring wine, yet so few restaurants are willing to invest in wine that takes twenty years (or more) to mature. Which is why Italian Village, stodgy as it is, is a municipal treasure.

You have to speak a few passwords, though, to find your way to this wine “speakeasy,” if you will. First, you have to know it exists. (Now you know, although the website announces it as well.) And when you arrive, you can’t be deterred by the hordes of tourists and pre-theatergoers who are there for the food, or the loud, after-work crowd sipping Buds from the bottle and munching on free pizza (a happy hour snack). When you sit down, you have to ask for the wine list – the reserve one – not the by-the-glass list that comes with the menu. And once you show that you’re ordering the good stuff, the door figuratively opens. You are visited by the “captain,” who sets down towering Barolo glasses, not the small Libby cups. (Ryan Wichmann is listed as the wine director, but various “captains” do wine service duty.) Your wine is strained and decanted, and carefully poured in small increments into your glass. When we were there, we had a 1999 Ceretto Bricco Rocche “Prapò” Barolo for about $115/bottle. At 26 years old, it could have cellared longer but with decanting, it was hitting its stride with softer tannins, good acidity, minerality, menthol, leather, and most pleasingly, ground hazelnuts at the finish.

Beyond the wine itself, though, what makes this whole experience great — and quintessentially Chicago — is the crush of humanity in this establishment. Restaurants these days seem demarcated down to age, haircuts and political persuasions. Some cocktail bars seem to cater only to young men, and certain Logan Square restaurants seem to require a dress code. But at Italian Village, it’s come one, come all: young, energetic administrative assistants drink Jack-and-cokes after a day at the office; handsome financial traders splurge on $500 bottles of Italian wine while sharing the bar with tourist families in town to see Book of Mormon. I don’t doubt that New York has its own version of a place like this, but everywhere in this country, this sort of a melting-pot restaurant is a dying breed. Go now, splurge on an excellent bottle of Barolo, and take it all in while you can.

St. Kitts: Still Overlooked But Not For Long

You’re truly not prepared for the relative seclusion of St. Kitts until your 737 or propeller-driven regional plane lands at Robert Bradshaw Airport. There are no gates or jetways; you deplane in the middle of the tarmac and walk the windy 400 feet over to the terminal building, which is smaller than the average Costco. With surrounding mountains standing in as the airport’s natural boundary, the secluded Bradshaw airport looks the part of a Hollywood tropical destination.

After a short drive through neighborhood streets, the views of the mountains and sea reappear. As you approach your resort (probably in Frigate Bay), you’ll pass a few beach shacks, stores and restaurants, and that’s about it. Cruise ships drop anchor in Basseterre, the main port and commercial center of the island, but even on cruise ship days, the island feels uncrowded. And when the cruise ships don’t come in, you’re likely to share a gorgeous Caribbean beach like Cockleshell with only a handful of other people.

This seclusion on St. Kitts is not likely to last long. Though higher-end resort properties have been slow to develop–a planned Mandarin Oriental in St. Kitts was scrapped in 2013–a Park Hyatt is supposedly opening this year and Kittitian Hill, an upscale eco-resort, partially opened in late 2014. The latter, in particular, is poised to re-define St. Kitts’ reputation in the Caribbean, and it was one of the reasons the New York Times ranked St. Kitts No. 34 on its heralded list of 52 Places To Go in 2015.

For now, though, St. Kitts’ marooned-on-a-deserted-island vibe is still intact. The best way to enjoy St. Kitts is to go to a beach and grab a chair near a beach shack (a hut clad in corrugated metal painted with the name of the shack). When you’re hungry, take a table in the shack and order off the white specials board, and wait patiently for a full plate of Caribbean-inspired food made from fresh-caught seafood like Caribbean spiny lobster or snapper, or Jamaican jerk served with Caribbean rice and beans. Every island has its own signature hot sauce, and in St. Kitts, it’s Brimstone, made from local hot red peppers that is spicy with a tinge of sweetness. (Brimstone hot sauce is named for Brimstone Hill, the UNESCO heritage site built by the British beginning in 1690 that served as its fortress and military defense to protect investments in sugar cane plantations.)

In all their ramshackle glory, these beach shacks mask a culinary seriousness. They also serve an important purpose in providing clean bathrooms and sometimes showers when you’re at the beach, as well as keeping your beer or drink full.

Driving Around the Island

A car rental provides the important means to escape the resort for meals. It’s also the best way to explore the island. Taxis are expensive–even the shortest trip runs at least $12.00. It took me no more than 5 minutes to get used to driving is on the left side of the road, especially because traffic moves slowly due to liberally-potholed roads and hairpin turns around the mountains. The main roads run along the edge of the island, so there are spectacular views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic–sometimes at the same time on Dr. Simmonds highway, which bisects the narrow, winding Southeastern peninsula that splits the Atlantic from the Caribbean.

Beach Shacks

My favorite beach shacks are on the Southeast Peninsula. Jam Rock, located on South Friars Bay, was a particular favorite for food and sunsets. The beach at South Friars Bay is small and the chairs at Jam Rock are dilapidated, but there’s a lot of pride in this Jamaican-owned shack that produces faithful versions of jerk and island-inspired seafood. Through the spotless open kitchen, you can see the white-coated chefs proudly plating food on china and garnishing them with spices and finely chopped herbs.

I went three times to the Spice Mill, which is cradled in the bend of Cockleshell Beach on the Caribbean side and has a clear view of the island of Nevis. Calling the Spice Mill a “shack” is a slight misdescription, because its spacious, spruced-up interior distinguishes it from other shacks and attracts a more upscale crowd. It’s still a beach shack in spirit, though, even if the beach chairs are posher and the bathrooms are some of the cleanest in St. Kitts. The food is also good, and they make a mean rum punch (not red from grenadine, God forbid, or bright orange from too much juice). If you want to splurge on champagne on the beach (not admitting anything), they’ll bring it over in an ice bucket and give you glass flutes. All of this while managing to preserve a laid back, boho beach charm. The Spice Mill should be everyone’s first beach stop in St. Kitts.

At some beach shacks, it’s tough to distinguish between the food and the ambiance. Does the food taste better if there’s sand between your feet? That’s how I felt when I went to St. Kitts’ answer to Señor Frogs, Reggae Beach Club. Reggae Beach, which does a robust business in t-shirt sales, is located on attractive Cockleshell Beach. Despite the touristy vibe, it serves a decent plate of food. I gave a pass to their popular beach cookout on Friday nights (the only night they serve dinner), and opted for a more tranquil weekend afternoon lunch when the cruise ships haven’t docked. Unoriginal as it may be, Reggae Beach is still worth a visit.

Upscale Evening Dining

The few truly upscale dining options in St. Kitts are in new developments like Kittitian Hill or Christophe Harbor. The Pavilion in Christophe Harbor is a private club that is open to the public for dinner only. The cliffside “Pavilion” denotes the well-appointed bar and restaurant that serves carefully-prepared though conceptually-safe food, undoubtedly the result of The Pavilion needing to satisfy the tastes of its private club patrons.

Even more upscale and infinitely more ambitious is The Kitchen at Belle Mont Farm, part of the determinedly aspirational investment property on Kittitian Hill. Kittitian Hill is an eco-resort and working farm that was built by Asia-based architect, Bill Bensley, who has designed other Conde Nast-caliber resorts. Located on the Northeast side of the island, you’ll need either a car or driver to get here, but definitely get here before the sun sets on spectacular views of nearby St. Eustatius and St. Barths islands.

Getting here is an adventure in itself, especially if you’re doing the driving. As you turn off the main road onto Kittitian Hill, your car dips and bumps along a dirt, potholed road that is gashed every twenty feet or so by drainage ditches. After driving for a few miles past fruit orchards–when you really start to wonder if you’re in the right place–you reach a small security shack, and after checking in, continue on to what they’re calling the “potting shed,” a decidedly un-shed-like building. There, you switch out your car for a chauffeur-driven golf cart that takes you up to the reconstructed sugar mill where The Kitchen is located. (Because it was raining after dinner, the resort treated us to a posh black car ride back down.) Once at the top of the hill, you walk through a grand stone entry past what they call the “Great Wall,” an arcade canopied by stone archways that lead you past the hotel’s secluded pool and the largest, best-equipped gym you’ll ever see at a hotel. (When I walked by, there was nobody using either the pool or gym.)

Who is Kittitian Hill appealing to? A resort employee told me they get a lot of writers, as the seclusion allows them to work. I have a feeling it’s meant to appeal to the Gwyneth Paltrow Goop jet-set who are tired of simple luxury but want to commune with the locals who carefully farm the fruit that goes into their energy drinks for their cleanses. Time will tell, though, if this is a new model of luxury — certainly Kittitian Hill’s lack of beach access and 30 minute drive from the airport are downsides. (I understand that the owners have acquired another beachside property that will provide the resort with a Northern black-sand beach in the future.)

The Kitchen serves as the resort’s restaurant but is appointed like any four-star restaurant. No expense has been spared–tables are made of thick carrera marble, and the custom, saloon-style stall doors in the bathrooms soar over ten feet high. As only a few travel bloggers have ever written about the place, it’s no surprise that only five other tables were occupied the night I was there in mid-February. The restaurant has only been opened since December, so the service, which aspires to provide the sort of polished, team-style service common in the world’s best restaurants, is still a little rough around the edges. The menu is a flexible tasting menu where you can order four or more dishes from a selection of 12. (Why don’t more restaurants do this?) The dishes are listed on the menu from lightest to heaviest, so ordering down the menu means you’ll be served them in the proper order. The food focuses on seasonal produce and local fish and meat (even so, the menu is fairly vegetable-heavy). A seven-course menu ran about $95.

It’s odd that I’ve heard almost nothing about The Kitchen’s chef, because the food was uniformly delicious, elevated and focused on clean Caribbean flavors. The plating and preparation was flawless. The website touts its local suppliers, perhaps rightly so (there’s a video of an islander catching fresh lobster) but does not mention the name of the executive chef who was in charge when I was there. I learned this information by googling press releases issued last year (his name is Christophe Letard), which might denote an uncomfortableness the resort has either with Letard or an executive chef period. Anyway, according to Chef Letard’s online resume, his prior experience is at the government house in British Columbia and a few other high-end Caribbean resorts. Given the dearth of other upscale resorts in St. Kitts, there is no feeder system for staffing, so Letard seems to be taking on the task of training The Kitchen’s workforce for a more ambitious, refined operation. His presence in the open kitchen was forceful, often loudly admonishing the servers for standing around instead of attending to diners, and correcting the cooks for not firing up dishes more efficiently. As abrasive as he seemed at times, there is no doubt that St. Kitts needs someone like him to get the island’s service into shape.

Which goes to my last thought – as friendly as the people are in St. Kitts, the service can sour very quickly, as they are often slow, untrained, or lacking a clear understanding of what their job is. This is not to discourage anyone from visiting, but I think as more resorts come on the island, the training will be more clear and consistent. But with that refinement comes a chipping away of the unspoiled seclusion that St. Kitts currently offers. Go now before that happens.

Taking the Simple And Complicating It (Formento’s, Chicago)

My server at Formento’s began the night with reciting rapid-fire recommendations for dishes I should order off the menu. Had I listened, it would have resulted in enough food for an Italian-American army. When I asked him for guidance on how I should order off a menu divided into snacks, antipasti, soups and salads, macaroni, fish, meat and contorni, I received two incoherent spiels that devolved into a who’s-on-first back and forth that would have been amusing if Formento’s was going for cinematic comedic value:

Me: Is this to share or for one person?

Server: This is for one person or maybe two people. For two people, you want to order 1-2 appetizers, maybe you want to share a pasta, wait, you can share anything on the menu. I suggest the calamari, it is excellent (kisses his hand).

Me: So all of these plates are meant for sharing then?

Server: No, they’re individual, but I would share the crab dip, and maybe this calamari, but if you want the Caesar salad, which is excellent, that’s okay, it’s not too big, and if you want the Sunday Gravy, that’s okay too.

Me: So the pastas are entree-sized, for one person?

Server: No, if you don’t have an antipasti, then have the pasta and an entree, wait, maybe have a salad too. Yeah, that would be okay.

And on and on. We settled on a starter (eggplant parmagiana) and two pastas that we ended up sharing (the orecchiette and the Sunday gravy) with the caveat that we might order an entree depending on whether these dishes ending up being too big or too small.

Ordering wine proved no less complicated. The wine list is about four inches thick and weighs about ten pounds. The development of this varied, interesting, well-written list is an accomplishment in a city where restaurants seem to have pared down wine service to a minimum. But, I was left alone to navigate this list while the server disappeared and the sommelier breezed by my table three times, even made eye contact with me, but never actually stopped to assist me in making a selection. (Bewilderingly, we were the only table seated in our section at the time.) By the time the server came back, he began anxiously pressuring us for our food order (after spending ten minutes deciding on a wine, I can understand why he started to feel like the restaurant needed to turn our table as quickly as possible). So, I gambled and ordered a less common varietal from lesser known region; I say gamble because it was a bottle that I had never had, a vintage I was skeptical about, and it cost about $90–an expensive mistake if I didn’t love it.

As a side note, indifferent wine service in a restaurant that aspires to provide it can rapidly send a meal in the wrong direction. Terrible wine service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns–in which the sommelier disappeared to schmooze high roller tables and I ate 50% of my tasting menu without any wine–forever colored my experience even though the food was stellar. I can’t tell you how many sommeliers point me immediately to a California Chardonnay regardless of how inappropriate it is with the food, as if we are all Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Getting back to Formento’s, it’s a disservice to wine–which can be very intimidating to begin with– to curate a list the size of a Russian novel, and then not have the proper support to every table that wants to order wine. I hear many wine professionals complain that too many customers order certain rote wines by the glass (California Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons), and do not delve deeper into the more interesting, nuanced bottle lists they worked hard to put together. But if the wine service professionals leave customers to navigate a huge list, then the customers will likely default to ordering cocktails or less interesting wines-by-the-glass (which are accordingly marked up).

My experience with the less-than-welcoming service, unfortunately, didn’t improve with the food. The eggplant parmagiana was bland but was the least offensive dish of the night. The Sunday gravy came with overcooked canestri that was in a pretty-good pork neck “gravy” but served with spongy meatballs and mealy sausages. It seemed like the romance of the idea of Sunday Gravy got in the way of the reality. The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage was a total misfire–the ears of pasta were gummy and congealed to each other, it was oversauced with a salty, overly acidic liquid that didn’t marry the flavor of the fennel sausage with the bitterness of the rabe. A couple of bites and I was done.

I hesitated to post this because Formento’s opened recently and has had its share of opening hiccups, including a halt in Friday-night service due to a fire suppression system going off. But, on the other hand, since its opening and friends-and-family meals, the accolades have steadily rolled in (especially from people who attended the latter). I wish Formento’s the best, but I think the relatively simple, ubiquitous concept of Italian-American is proving too difficult to grasp. People eat at Italian-American restaurants, even mediocre ones, because they are simple, uncomplicated, warm, and welcoming. At least Carbone’s in New York–which is wildly expensive–understands the underlying nostalgic, comforting aspect of this genre of restaurants. Formento’s, which seems to shoot for the stars but misses the underlying premise, hopefully can settle down and make the necessary improvements to keep this ambitious operation going.

Oak + Char (Chicago)

Oak + Char is one of the few new restaurants that is getting consistent word-of-mouth praise. And after reading the review by Redeye’s Michael Nagrant — with whom I normally agree about restaurants — I knew I had to go. I’ve never had Chef Joseph Heppe’s food at Untitled so I had no preconceived notions walking in Oak + Char other than that the menu on-line looked interesting.

As for the pantaloon lights, aesthetics aside, I suspect they are there for one main reason — to help absorb the deafening noise in the restaurant. I could barely hear my server above the roar of the crowd and the loud club music, who despite telling him  I couldn’t hear him — never bothered to raise his voice. Just one of many service gaffes that took away from what would have been a much better meal.

In a way, my experience at Oak + Char exemplifies what is wrong with a lot of Chicago’s more ambitious restaurants — the front of the house is way out of step with the back. There is some talent here in the kitchen, and I can see why Nagrant classifies this chef as one to watch. I didn’t spring for the $100 32-ounce ribeye, but instead ordered the highly-touted rye-cured duck and cider-brined pork collar from the “large plates” menu. The proteins themselves were perfectly done — the rye flavors complemented an otherwise simply treated, perfectly prepared medium-rare duck with crispy, rendered skin. The cider-brined pork collar, while a tad over-salted, was explosively rich and tender. However, both proteins were marred by several messy garnishes on the plate that were overly sweet and complicated, and further, dated the dishes into the mid-00’s. (In fact, I went back and looked at the picture of Nagrant’s duck in Redeye, and that dish’s accompaniments were significantly simpler, so I don’t know if the kitchen has since changed the dish.) I think some deletions of the garnishes — or maybe reconstructing the plating — would give the well-prepared proteins their due.

We got the spiel in the beginning (or what I could hear of it) about shared plates. Unfortunately, I am so schooled in this spiel, common across Chicago, that I understood exactly was the server was saying about it, even if I could only hear his every third word. It boils down to whatever you order is shareable, and the kitchen will “try” to course it, but really everything comes out at once. And, yes, that’s mostly what happened.

Since the entrees were so generously portioned, we ordered a couple of snacks to complement the meal. (The highly-regarded ravioli was sold out for the night.) Almost as soon as we enunciated the order, they came out to the table, so I can only assume that the snacks are being held, pre-prepared, in the kitchen. The pecorino arancini was structurally unsound and broke apart with the slightest prodding; it was also missing the textural contrast of the chewy rice and soft cheese. The charred burrata was fine, but the portion was too small compared to the abundant portion of thick, toasted naan bread that was served with it. Both appetizers, though, were barely warm, and in the case of the arancini, poorly constructed.

Like a lot of Chicago restaurants, the wine list is an afterthought, and the brief by-the-glass list doesn’t label which wines are red, white, rose or sparkling, and arranges the reds at the top, and the sparkling wines at the bottom. Why confuse diners by setting up the BTG list this way?

The service, though, was indifferent to hostile, rushed and overall inexperienced. They seemed easily confused by questions, and not ready to recommend wines. When the food and wine came out, it was loudly and quickly thrown on the table, haphazardly (a wine glass placed square in front of my chest, another off to the far end of the table).  No matter how good the food may be, this level of service will always delete from the experience. Having said that, I think that Oak + Char is appealing to a younger crowd that is not as concerned with things like wine, plating and service–and I suspect, would be just as happy eating casual food from Hub 51 as they would the more finessed food of Chef Heppe.

Coming Full Circle: TRU

If you ask me to recommend one fine dining meal in Chicago right now, I’d recommend Grace without reservation. At Grace, Chef Curtis Duffy continues to hone his signature style, drawing on his prior experience at Trio, Alinea and Avenues. When you eat at Grace, you’re kind of getting a survey course in the evolution of Chicago fine dining over the last decade.

I’ve only been to Tru once, and that was shortly after it opened when then-married chef-couple (chouple?) Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand were in full control of the kitchen. My visit was so long ago that I had a hard time placing it in time, mentally searching for some clue on when it happened. (Was it when one of my dining companions was pregnant with her first or her second child? Was it post-tech bubble or in midst of real estate boom?). Finally, I found the answer on Rick Tramonto’s wiki page (I bet you didn’t know there was one, did you?) and, the answer to the question of when was the last time I dined at Tru is 1999. Yep, 15 years ago.

A lot has happened in Chicago dining over the last 15 years. I barely need to mention that, since then, we’ve had Trio under Achatz and its subsequent incarnation, Alinea; not to mention the influence of “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist” cuisine or whatever your preferred word is for making food more grounded in science lab techniques, which made fine dining more surprising and theatrical. Previously, the defining characteristic of fine dining was elevated service. Post-Alinea and its progeny, people expect to be wow-ed.

Not that Tru circa 1999 under Tramonto and Gand didn’t have its share of the Wow Factor. Remember the caviar staircase? Or the dish served in a bowl with a live goldfish swimming around in it that they gave to you (fish and all) at the end of the night? The Warhol, the synchronized service, and even the purse stand (which I think Tru pioneered in Chicago). Who could forget Gand’s deliberately playful dessert cart at the end of the meal, where diners could select from a variety of childhood favorites — lollipops, cupcakes, caramel corn, etc. — to take home for the night. It was intended to be grand, and, in my opinion, a distinct departure from the comparatively staid Charlie Trotter’s, Les Nomades and Everest.

Fast forward 15 years: Tramonto and Gand have divorced, and they’ve long departed Tru. Tru is still around but any word-of-mouth about it seems drowned out by complaints about Next’s ticketing system, continued Alinea accolades in the wake of earning three Michelin stars, L2O and its seemingly endless chef changes, and Grace in its steady ascendancy to the top echelon of the Chicago fine dining world. If it seems strange to be comparing Tru to pre-Achatz Trio, recall that Tramonto and Gand were at Trio before him, too.

Heeding some friends’ advice that their late meals at Tru under Chef Anthony Martin have returned it to its initial glory, I headed over there for my birthday this week. The restaurant looks pretty much the same as I remember it. The dining room on this Wednesday was only half-full — not terribly surprising for mid-week — but somewhat indicative of where Tru falls on the fine-dining rungs of the ladder. Unlike other restaurants that have concertedly upped their game, Tru seemed to have made a conscious effort to calm things down a bit from the opening glitz.

Overall, service was still pretty flawless, though the imperialistic flourishes have been toned down quite a bit. They still have the purse stand, and the servers are still dressed in black suits. They still offer a caviar course though the staircase is gone. (This is how it is offered now.) While it was unthinkable 15 years ago for a table to not order the caviar course, now I note that only one table did while I was there — perhaps a function of midweek restraint, or maybe post-recession sensibility — I don’t know. (In fact, it may be so out-of-fashion, that Grub Street asked this question in 2009.)

The food — not surprisingly given Chef Martin’s experience — is firmly grounded in French techniques, ingredients and flavors but strikes a balance between strict French food and sometimes-challenging modernist drama. There are no foams, no obvious over-reliance on anti-griddles, immersion circulators, or other modernist devices, and no plating of fifteen ingredients in a line. (I note there was an exploding truffle that was served in a container of dry ice, seemingly the only nod to modern techniques.) Although the plating is a little unorthodox, it’s hardly innovative. The execution and flavors of the food were adroit without hitting the overly rich point that many French restaurants reach one-third of the way through a tasting menu. Cream and butter were not overwhelmingly used, and every dish wasn’t topped with foie gras. Maybe you could ding Tru for the abundance of French truffles on the menu, but these truffles were pristine. There is also Midwestern seasonality to the menu — as evidenced by the red kuri squash soup dish — that was entirely absent in Tru 1999 if my recollection serves. I appreciated the fine selection of half-bottles — an alternative to wine pairings — which included 2006 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhone that drank spectacularly.

Some people may view all this as a fatal deficiency of excess or even originality — but unlike the hits-and-misses of Next’s menus, there wasn’t a bad dish in the entire repertoire of savory courses. Here’s the caveat, though: I suspect that the subtlety of Tru is likely to go right over the heads of many overstimulated diners who are accustomed to the theatrics of modern fine dining.

The one thing that distinguishes Tru is its easygoing approachability — many of the dishes and flavors will be familiar to most people. In that regard, Tru 2014 is a refreshing departure from a group of restaurants that are constantly trying to reinvent themselves and challenge diners. I overhead a solo diner at a nearby table tell the server how refreshing Tru’s food was after being mired in mediocre conference food all week. I took it to mean that it was just what she needed at that time. Which is kind of what eating at Tru is — a break from what is going on now to step back into what was going on before then, before-Alinea. As strange as it seems to be advocating going back in time, a reminder of pre-theatrics fine dining — when the meal was meant to be relaxed, enjoyable and delicious — may be just what we need now.

Places I like in West Michigan 2014 (Saugatuck-Douglas-Fennville edition)

I have been a part-time resident of this area for 8 years, mostly during the summer and fall months. Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville is the tri-town resort area located on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, with its New England-esque seaside town architecture, attracts the most tourists and has the worst restaurants of the three towns. Adjacent Douglas looks like a Midwestern Americana movie set,  and it’s less congested and has better food and drink options.

Fennville (where my house is) is the rural component of the three — its long agricultural history is apparent with miles of rolling farmland, orchards and vineyards. “Main Street” has become an ubiquitous cliché, but here, the main street literally bisects the sleepy downtown and a working freight train route cross-cuts it perpendicularly. It has only one restaurant of note — and a damn good one at that. When you approach downtown Fennville and see the cars lining the streets — they’re there for one thing and one thing only — Salt of the Earth, the farm-to-table restaurant that spawned from its brilliant progenitor, Journeyman Café, itself a farm-to-table restaurant, albeit more along the lines of Blue Hill in Westchester County, New York. It was the vision of Chef Matt Millar and served fine, ambitious food, and was even reviewed by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel. Alas, it was too ahead of its time to make a go of it. Its replacement, Salt of the Earth, is more casual and serves food that is more budget-friendly, standard-portioned, and the omnipresent pizza on the menu ensures that kids will do fine there, too. Voilà, it just celebrated its 5th birthday.

Some things to keep in mind when you visit the area:

  • You will not find Chicago-caliber restaurants here. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find great Southern BBQ in Thailand, why would you expect the same caliber of trend-setting, high-level dining in an area with a population of less than 10,000? In other words, it’s best to leave the city mindset at home.
  • Having said that, there are a lot of restaurants that are unspeakably — unnecessarily — bad. As in, you could make a better sandwich at home than the one they’re selling on their menu. Or the quality of ingredients is barely human-grade due to sourcing the cheapest stuff from Big Food Supplier. Some small improvements by lots of these restaurants would go a long way toward improving the food offerings.
  • If you like wine, there are several places that have excellent bottles on their wine lists without the mark-up of Chicago restaurants. Drink up.

where to go in Saugatuck

Phil’s Bar & Grille — the locals’ bar is still solid, especially if you stick with their broasted chicken. The secret here is the above-average wine list, which is reasonably-priced, and doesn’t gouge you on the by-the-glass prices.

Uncommon Grounds — go here for coffee and breakfast. They roast their own coffee, do a mean pourover, and their baked goods are fresh and genuinely homemade.

Marro’s *pizza only* Marro’s pizza is in style of Chicago Italian tavern, and it’s quite good. Italian entrees are hit and miss. It closes off-season, so go soon.

Clearbrook Grill *wine only* Go here only to have a good bottle or three from their respectable wine cellar and skip eating. The restaurant with its Colonial-inspired decor might invoke nostalgia in a good sense, and the view out to the golf course is beautiful on a nice day. Clearbrook once had a formal dining space with decent food along with a Wine Spectator-blessed wine cellar, but they were understandably the victims of economic-downturn retrenching. Clearbrook needs to overhaul its menu and charge more for its food and source better ingredients. (If you must eat, order a steak.) The wine cellar remains, the wine is still reasonably priced, and it’s a civilized place to watch a game on TV.

Where to go in Douglas

Everyday People Cafe  — Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, I still think this is the place to go for a “night out” in the area. The menu mostly plays it safe, but the food is generally well-executed by Chef Michael Bild, who oversees a kitchen that often puts out banquet-level covers on summer weekends. More than that, the vibe is fun, there is a verdant outdoor patio in the back, and it’s always crowded, so be prepared to wait for a table. Their burger is fantastic – intensely beefy and appropriately juicy, served simply with pickles and frizzled onions — it’s one of my favorites anywhere. On weekend afternoons, their Bubbles & Bites lunch — including champagne, raw bar and build-your-own-bloody marys —  is one of your best options for a leisurely lunch.

Pizza Mambo — The best pizza in the area — thin-ish crust, tavern cut, and high-quality ingredients. The antipasto salad is an embarrassment of riches with salami, prosciutto, grilled sausage, hunks of parmigiano-reggiano and provolone cheese, giardiniera and a variety of olives.

Farmhouse Deli — Caterer/chef Christine Ferris’ deli is doing a lot of great things in-house, including roasting meats, making soups and carry-out salads, and creating a global assortment of refined sandwiches. This is the area’s more modern version of the Hampton’s infamous Barefoot Contessa. Farmhouse Deli also stocks epicurean groceries, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s great for lunch or for supplementing dinner. Also, it’s one of two places for decent coffee in Douglas (Equal Exchange). (Don’t say I didn’t warn you not to go to Respite, where the default coffee is “flavored.” Last I checked “Cookies on Call” in Douglas was serving Intelligentsia, if you consider that to be decent.)

WayPoint Restaurant — located behind M&M Blue Star cafe, it is a decent option for a classic, diner-style fry-up breakfast in Douglas. Order carefully (don’t do eggs benedict or anything that strays too far from short-order diner fare), and you’ll do fine. I would get coffee elsewhere first and bring it with you to the restaurant lest you’d prefer to drink Gordon Food Service’s finest. No ambiance to speak of, unless you think eating in the waiting room of your dentist in the 1980s counts as adequate restaurant ambiance.

Petter Wine Gallery — go here to drink wine. Unlike most places that reserve their best bottles for their bottle lists, PWG opens bottles that retail between $18- $50 to taste or drink by the glass. The wine bar is located in an interesting art gallery–a unique setting for a glass of wine or two. The wine shop also offers some of the best retail bottles in the area — including a great selection of European and California bottles — if you want to splurge for a barbeque or picnic.

Where to go in Fennville

Salt of the Earth — pretty much the only game in town. Committed to responsible, quality, and local sourcing. Chef Matthew Pietsch — who has comparatively elevated kitchen experience for the area — is genuinely talented. Unfortunately, the pizza, which was once stellar years ago, has undergone so many changes that the most recent incarnation is not worth ordering (the crust is now too doughy). Lately, the best thing Salt of the Earth is doing is brunch — housemade sausage, farm-fresh eggs, and house-baked bread and jam made from local fruit ensure that breakfast will be a winner. Again, bring coffee with you — or better yet — have a breakfast cocktail, as the coffee served here by Contreras Coffee is bitter beyond drinkability. (The terrible coffee here is a serious deficiency that I wish the restaurant would correct.) Concerts on Tuesdays in summer and Sundays in the off-season attract some of the area’s best folk, country and bluegrass acts, and are well-worth attending even if you’re not sold on that type of music. Don’t forget to visit the garden off of Main Street that supplies the restaurant with some of their food.

Crane’s Pie Pantry & Bakery— Skip the restaurant in Crane’s Orchards and head straight for the adjacent bakery. Go here for their homey, decidedly non-fussy pie and ice cream (the apple butter version is particularly good), and freshly made and ridiculously cheap apple cider donuts (sixty cents apiece). I also recommend their Apple Butter bread (do you sense a theme here?). The orchards or Gary Crane’s farm across the street are both great places to pick tree fruits like peaches and more apples varieties than you can imagine.

Earl’s Farm Market — go here for U-pick or We-pick berries and South Haven’s popular Sherman’s ice cream. The on-site bakery carries good, unpretentious pies and cookies. These are the type of baked goods your grandmother would make (assuming your grandmother doesn’t give a hoot about the fat content of the butter and likes the flakiness given of shortening to a crust).

The Tasting Room at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery — La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen goats are raised here, milked at nearby Windshadow Farm, and between the two farms, they create some of the most fantastic goat cheese you’ll taste. Sample the varieties here on the farm.

Local Products Worth Picking Up

Palazzolo’s Gelato — once served in one form or another at the ultra-snooty former bakery Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago. The gelato is made in Fennville and can be found in grocery stores in the area, including Fernwood 1891, a general store/art studio in downtown Fennville that carries the most varieties. (You can also buy Evergreen Lane cheese here too.)

SeedySalt bread — One of the farmers/bakers at Kismet Bakery was purportedly the inventor of local cult favorite bread, SeedySalt, back when it was served at the Journeyman Café. It’s a sourdough bread topped with, as the name suggests, a variety of seeds and coarse French sea salt and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s really good. Available at Kismet Farm or Summertime Market on Blue Star Highway in Douglas. You can find the facsimile of SeedySalt made by Salt of the Earth at various grocery stores in the area or at the restaurant. The two are virtually indistinguishable, flavor-wise, but I think the superior bread-making skills at Kismet give it the edge.

Earl’s Farm Market 5-pepper hot sauce — Available at Summertime Market in Douglas and Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. Medium-hot and a little sweet, the variety of peppers suggest a Hungarian-style hot sauce rather than a Southern barrel-aged Tabasco.

Evergreen Lane Creamery cheese — Available retail throughout the area, including Farmhouse Deli, Fernwood 1891 and Summertime Market.

American Spoon Foods — Available lots of places, I know, but the shop in downtown Saugatuck carries some staples that should make it to your cottage or on to your picnic table: Whole-Seed Mustard is made with Michigan Sparkling wine, which sweetens the intense bite of the mustard seeds and causes them to burst on your tongue as you eat it; the concentrated, complex Dried Chile Salsa is a great accompaniment to eggs, meat and almost anything savory; and the Leelanau Apricot Preserves, made with Leelanau Peninsula apricots (the best I’ve ever had in Michigan) is more pleasantly tart than the cloying apricot jam made with California apricots.

BBQ wines at Fenn Valley Winery — It seems strange recommending reds from a Michigan winery, but a consistently reliable, non-vintage fruity red called “Capriccio” made by Fenn Valley (it is even sold by the liter box, it’s so unpretentious) will be a thousand times more enjoyable with your smoked barbeque meats than the high-alcohol, raisin-y, oft-recommended California Zinfandels. For something more substantial, I like the Meritage, a dry red blend of locally-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.