ISO Thoughtful, Interesting Mid-Priced Wine Lists In Chicago

I feel like wine lists have taken a hit lately as many restaurants shift their focus to cocktails and craft beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but after many years of drinking and eating, I firmly believe that (some foods excepted) nothing pairs with food as well as wine does. There. I’ve said it.

Now that I’ve either dated myself, made myself seem like a fancy-pants dilettante, or enraged a whole class of ardent beer and cocktail drinkers, hear me out. High-end tasting menus still seem to keep wine in good stead, but even that’s diminishing, as beer and cocktails are creeping into beverage pairings at restaurants like Next. Wine bars like Bar Pastoral, Rootstock and Webster’s certainly have interesting wine lists but they’re wine bars — they should.

In a mid-range context, wine lists at many restaurants that have opened in the past five years or so read like afterthoughts — a repetition of common or uninteresting bottles that appear almost everywhere else including on drugstore shelves and in grocery stores. I’m sure there are other factors that play into this phenomenon, but I can’t help believing that those concerns would be minimized if more diners appreciated a variety of wines as enjoyable, interesting beverage pairings or restaurateurs viewed wine lists as less a potential profit center and more of a unique expression of the soul of the restaurant. (A separate discussion: Wine lists that appear to be written for a narrow, dwindling sector of the population. I digress.)

Some restaurants seem to have broken with the trend, and that seems to be the result of the individual will of certain people involved in the restaurants — not to mention perhaps their deeply personal connection with wine.

6 Restaurant Wine Lists I’m Enjoying Right Now

(Omitting wine bars, and in no particular order):

  1. Telegraph. This almost goes without saying. Jeremy Quinn (sommelier at Webster’s Wine Bar) created this eclectic list. (He also offers his own private-label selections distributed by Cream Wine Company.) It’s interesting and fun, even if your palate is stretched to the bounds by some of the wines. Telegraph occasionally offers half-carafes of older vintage wines for the people who aren’t so committed to springing for a bottle. Also, their selection of beautiful and sexy stemware from Schott Zweisel shows a certain love of the drink.
  2. Vera.  Sommelier Liz Mendez is so enthusiastic about wine that the offerings are always changing. Although there is a distinct emphasis on Spanish wines, Liz ultimately goes with what she likes, so an offered rosé might be a beloved Peuch-Haut from France. Casual wine drinking is acknowledged in the form of on-tap bulk wines. Vera is a favorite place for a good wine-by-the-glass although every time I peruse the bottle list, there’s almost always something tempting that doesn’t approximate a mortgage payment.
  3. Nightwood. Go and check out their rosé-by-the-glass list right now before it leaves for the summer. Enough said.
  4. Fat Rice. The stemware might be too deliberately casual for my tastes, but I can’t think of another casual Asian restaurant at this price point that even comes close to their wine offerings. This is due at least in part to the input of Craig Perman who owns Perman Wine Selections in the West Loop. For many years, Perman collaborated with Fat Rice owners, Adrienne & Abe, on food-and-wine events when they were doing their underground dinners as X-Marx.
  5. Balena. Although aperitivos and bitter drinks are (rightfully) front-and-center on Balena’s menu, the Italian-focused wine list doesn’t read — like you’d expect — as a roll-call of nebbiolo and sangiovese. Instead, it travels to the far corners of Italy, and even includes brethren from Slovenia and distant cousins in other Mediterranean ports-of-call. Through their extensive by-the-glass list, I’ve been enjoying the overlooked refoscos and underappreciated nerello mascaleses. It’s a list that invites you to taste around.
  6. Farmhouse. It’s not the wine list per se, but Farmhouse’s approach to wine that I appreciate. Farmhouse is one of the few restaurants that approaches the “farm-to-table” trend by giving it more than lip service, and applying it in almost every available format beyond just sourcing from local farmers — they have a rooftop garden, they serve a panoply of local microbeers, and in a bold step, their wine offering is mostly fulfilled by tapping kegs of local wine from Domaine Berrien in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Is it the best wine you’ll have? Should you be comparing the style to the French masters? Probably not, but it is perfectly enjoyable and more interesting than the ubiquitous bottles of New Zealand sauvignon blanc served elsewhere. By turning wine back into the casual format it is enjoyed in many countrysides across the world, Farmhouse seems to understand the spiritual need to sip a locally produced table wine with locally produced food.

Lists are meant to be debated, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some very worthy contenders. If you like wine, though, these places deserve your support.

Lima in Chicago (Tanta)

It was only a matter of time before a Peruvian chef concept landed on our doorstep. Earlier, I blogged about the seemingly endless attention on Peruvian food and Limeño chefs. It’s probably premature to declare Peruvian food as the next it cuisine without also considering how vigorously the Peruvian culinary community has promoted it. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing going on. Probably no one has spread the gospel of Peruvian cuisine more visibly than Gastón Acurio, the chef behind Lima’s premier fine dining restaurant, Astrid y Gastón, which was recently ranked No. 14 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (surpassing Chicago’s pride, Alinea). Acurio is also behind several other restaurants in Lima, ranging from the sexy cebichería, La Mar, to the more casual, Tanta. Astutely, Acurio didn’t wait to be discovered, but replicated his flagship, Astrid y Gastón, in several other international cities, including Madrid, where European-centric “list-makers” would be more likely to discover it. (Lima chef Virgilio Martinez is even more flagrant in this regard, opening Lima London right at the home base of the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.)

Acurio has developed chains for his other Lima restaurants, La Mar and Tanta. There are two versions of La Mar in the U.S. in San Francisco and New York City. Acurio announced last year that Chicago would be his target for his third U.S. restaurant, but it wouldn’t be another La Mar (too inland? too carniverous?), but Tanta. I ate at two different Tantas in Lima, which is itself a chain there. Tanta was the sort of place where you seated yourself, the tables were bespecked with flecks of sugar and crumbs from previous diners, and you had to flag your tuxedoed waiter for service. When I heard that Tanta Chicago was opening, I was puzzled that anyone would take the trouble to open a U.S. version of these fairly indistinct cafes.

Tanta Chicago soft-opened last week, and it turns out that, aesthetically, Tanta Chicago is quite different from its Lima cousins, but very similar to most mid-priced River North restaurants. Tanta Chicago seems more Nellcôte than Lima. In all respects, Tanta seems like it’s running through the mid-scale, River North playbook with the obligatory bar, cocktail menu, dark lighting, and throbbing music.

But I wouldn’t discount Tanta Chicago as just another trendy restaurant or bar meant to appeal to the Eisenhower/Edens daytrippers or tourists (go to Siena Tavern for that). I also wouldn’t discount it as another half-baked celeb-chef import. I was surprised at how smoothly this operation was running only a few days in. Putting Jesus Delgado from La Mar San Francisco in charge as chef de cuisine removed any illusion that Acurio would be in the kitchen; also, there aren’t enough significant differences between Tanta and La Mar that the kitchen is testing and rolling out brand new dishes. It feels more authentic, permanent and earnest than other recent openings.

The menu at Tanta is a primer of sorts as to Peruvian cuisine minus any extensive exploration of the sub-cuisines (though Japanese Nikkei and Chinese Chifa are represented briefly). Also absent is the use of the exotic Peruvian pantry, such as Andean fruits like lucuma or seafood like Amazonian snails (no doubt due to their unavailability here). Quinoa figures prominently on the menu, but is trendy almost to the point of obliterating the crop entirely, so diners won’t necessarily connect the existence of quinoa on Tanta’s menu with its history as an essential Peruvian peasant food. Paiche, though, will likely not be familiar to many diners.

I don’t think anyone at the table who went to Lima detected any marked flavor disparity between the ceviches at Tanta Chicago and those served in cebicherias in Lima (except the superior seafood quality there, no doubt), and the leche de tigre (or tiger’s milk, the classic Peruvian marinating liquid of fish juice, lime, onion and aji) is proudly used. Compared to the hilariously awful, MSG-laden Chifa we had in Lima at Acurio’s Chifa restaurant, Madam Tusan’s, the chaufa (Peruvian-Chinese fried rice) at Tanta was better conceived and carefully executed — the rice was served in a sizzling stone bowl, and a shrimp omelet on top denoted a playful fusion with other cuisines, as well as added a more chef-inspired component to traditional fried rice.

A “street food feast” included the ubiquitous Peruvian purple potatoes with boiled quail eggs in a straightforward tasting version of hauncaina, the cheese and aji amarillo sauce served over potatoes. Antichuchos were much better than those I’ve had stateside. Empanadas won’t convert you from those served elsewhere, but the classic Peruvian pollo a la brasa will.

I was skeptical about this dish — priced at $19 for a half chicken/$32 for a whole — knowing that D’Candela does such a great job with this dish at half the price. Also, brined chicken cooked on a rotisserie over charcoal is inherently a very homestyle dish that doesn’t easily lend itself to chef-tweaking. In fact, the D’Candela version seems downright fancy compared to those in Peru, where the dish’s formulaic aspects has made it a fast food chain staple. But my doubts were assuaged — Tanta’s version was meant to honor the simplicity of this dish with flawless execution. The accompanying ajis and rice and beans could easily serve six with some other shared dishes — at $32, this might be one of the least expensive and most filling dishes in River North. Same with the monstrous lamb shank for $28, which could readily feed four.

Other dishes, such as the lomo saltado, were good representations to the breadth of this cuisine, but not likely to convert anyone into a Peruvian food addict. It bears noting that, although you’re likely to get the most authentic Pisco Sour in town at Tanta, theirs were notably more acidic than the, ahem, many I drank in Lima. (I find that the extra acidity masks the flavor of the Pisco.) That’s an execution misstep I hope they correct.

I imagine that anyone who eats downtown or likes to try new restaurants will not be disappointed by Tanta Chicago. At this point, the reasonable prices and approachable environment, as well as the broad, appeals-to-everyone menu, will likely make a lot of people happy. I think the harshest criticisms of this place will come from the people who see Tanta Chicago as a price-inflated version of neighborhood joints that offer many of the exact same dishes.  I raised this issue with the general manager (another Acurio vet) and he downplayed such concerns, citing how the neighborhood places were doing something different in serving homestyle versions of Peruvian food, and that Tanta was putting some twists on classic Peruvian dishes, and executing them at a different level. It’s true that they’re setting the bar higher. I think there’s always room for both. As with any imported chef restaurant concept (be it domestic or foreign), Chicago is more hesitant than other cities to embrace concepts that are not homegrown. But I think Acurio’s concept with Tanta is flexible and, dare I say it, humble enough, not to offend most Chicago skeptics.