A Chicago-Toronto Adventure

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I recently found myself back in one of North America’s coolest cities – Chicago, on my way to a friend’s wedding in Toronto. Along the way I spent as much time as possible sampling Chicago’s great restaurants and discovered a few wine gems along the way.

Wicker Park’s Taxim, a greek restaurant, offered solid, though not transcendent, food. That said, it cut well above most greek restaurants, and the all greek wine list was fascinating to explore. I chose a 2012 Greek rose from Gaia made from Agiorgitiko. It was a simple, food friendly wine that was yet geeky, with streaks of minerality underlying the peppy berry fruit. It was also bone dry and very well balanced. At $32 restaurant price, it is an astonishing value.

As prelude to a superb play at Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf theatre, we dined at James Beard best new restaurant nominee Balena. The food was truly exceptional and Balena made the best pasta’s I’ve had outside of Italy, focusing on simplicity and noodle texture. The wine list is fun and geeky and the Tedeschi Spungola Bellaria Pignoletto Emilia 2009 was one of the best orange wines I’ve had in a very long time. It paired superbly with the wide variety of courses we ordered from sardines, spring pea bruschetta and tuscan kale caesar salad to squid ink sea urchin tagliolini and sage and brown butter hen egg tajarin (a type of pasta). I give Balena my highest recommendation as a must stop in Chicago.

Following Balena was a good but not great dinner at The Publican, which I feel did not live up to its 2011 James Beard award. The Champagne I brought to dinner, however, was a stand out blanc de blanc made in the austere, very dry style. The Marie-Amelie Fleur de Vigne 2006 blanc de blancs had extremely expressive and interesting aromatics and an impressive long finish. While a bit young now, I think this is a producer to seek out for those desiring geeky, vinous Champagne.

The crown jewel of my trip to Chicago, however, was 2013 James Beard best chef nominee Andrew Zimmerman at Sepia. Sepia’s food was some of the most innovative I’ve had in quite some time, with a profound understanding of texture and precise, consistent execution. The wine list is fantastic, innovative and geeky, with pages devoted to passionate discourses about the Jura and other geeky regions. In fact, it is the best wine list I’ve seen in quite some time. The sommelier successfully met our challenge to pair a white wine with chicken and duck with the Knoll Ried Kreutles Gruner Veltiner Smaragd 2008. This was elevated white wine and proof that Gruner can rise to great levels. Peaches, pepper and minerals, with viscosity but freshness along with tremendous depth and length. It may have been the wine of the trip and it deserves an Excellent+.
In Toronto I managed to squeeze in a dinner at Black Hoof, which was superb. The wine selections, presented by Vancouver’s own Jake Skakun, were some of the best I’ve seen in a Canadian restaurant. I started with the Conceito Bastardo from Portugal’s Douro valley (recommended by Jake). Bastardo is also known as Trousseau, and this wine tasted awfully similar to a top notch example from the Jura. It also paired extremely well with Black Hoof’s masterful house cured meats and small plates. The second bottle was the 2010 Jimenez-Landi Sotorrondo, a superb Spanish blend of Syrah and Grenache from the producer of my 2012 wine of the year. If you think Spanish wine is all about extract without balance, this entry-level wine is a perfect counter-example. Great stuff and I can’t recommend Black Hoof more highly.

Sepia Wine List's Jura Page

Balena's Mind Altering Pastas

Jimenez-Landi courtesy of Black Hoof

Conceito Bastardo - the Portugese Wine that defies all expectations


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