Dan Scesnewicz used to drink only beer. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood on the south side, "I thought wine was foreign, too esoteric, snobby," he says. "I had no exposure to wine other than Mogen David." Then, in his early 20s, he got a job bartending at the East Bank Club.
"The GM, who was a really smart guy, kind of handed down orders that although wine tastings were optional [for other employees], I had to go," says Scesnewicz. "I was fast, I was friendly, I was one of the best bartenders there. But he said, 'You're never gonna be a really good bartender if you don't know wine.' He kinda hit me in the pride center."
Forced to taste eight to ten wines a week, Scesnewicz started to like it. But wine wasn't the only horizon that was broadening for him: "About the same time that I started drinking wine, I started reading Russian literature. That kind of opened my mind up."
Over the next ten years Scesnewicz worked at Como Inn, Stefani's, Trattoria Gianni, and Cyrano's Bistro. (He also briefly managed Zanies, "just for the experience.") These days he's a wine consultant and salesperson for Julienne Importing Company by day, selling to establishments like Bin 36, NoMi, Le Colonial, Geja's, and Rushmore; by night he's wine steward at Pangea, the eclectic restaurant on Irving Park Road just east of Damen. And this week he'll oversee the beverages at Pangea's second-ever wine dinner.
Pangea, which opened last November, is the brainchild of 1997 New Trier grad David Schoen and restaurant vet Rich McLaughlin, who met when McLaughlin ran the Levy Organization's food concession at Arlington Racetrack, where Schoen tended bar. Once a talented teenage tennis player who attended the same academy as Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Anna Kournikova, and Andre Agassi, Schoen hit on Pangea--the name for the theoretical landmass believed to have split apart in prehistoric times to form the continents--as a fitting moniker for a place where people of diverse ages and backgrounds could dine and drink.
The two put together a compact neighborhood place with comfy booths, a long bar, and walls hung with black-and-white photos. To run the kitchen they hired chef Sarah Pasick, a graduate of Kendall College who interned at Bistro 110 and refined her cooking chops as sous chef at the Outpost under Ted Cizma. Pangea is her third stint as a chef in the Ravenswood area.
Pasick and the owners conceived a menu of comfort food with a twist, from a beef tenderloin sandwich with red bliss potatoes to blackened tuna in a crab cream sauce. International inflections include a touch of prosciutto here, a kalamata olive there, sake-marinated salmon, and stuffed chicken set on Middle Eastern couscous. Around February, Pasick and Scesnewicz started planning the restaurant's first wine dinner. "We had a good rapport, and I liked the kind of food she was doing," he says. Pasick came up with five one-night-only, spring-themed courses that Scesnewicz matched with wines, and they scheduled it for April 22.
The event was enough of a success that they decided to do another one for summer. This time around Pasick's five courses will be a spring roll of mango, roasted red pepper, cilantro, and bean sprouts with a pineapple-habanero dipping sauce; sauteed soft-shell crab with a peach salsa, set on a bed of soba noodles; a salad of pink grapefruit, papaya, and grilled cantaloupe with shaved toasted coconut dressed in a balsamic reduction and mixed berry juices; squid-ink ravioli stuffed with crabmeat in a blueberry vodka cream sauce; and a white chocolate crepe.
Scesnewicz's pairings include a 2000 Baron Tuffier Vouvray, pressed from Loire Valley chenin blanc grapes, for the spring roll ("It'll match some of the sweetness of the pineapple and mango and will complement the sharpness of the habanero and cilantro"); a 1999 Foris pinot noir, from Oregon, for the ravioli ("The natural blueberry flavor of pinot noir will complement the blueberry vodka sauce but will not overwhelm the subtlety of the crabmeat"); and two wines for the crepe: a 1995 Heredias late-bottled port and a nonvintage Seaview sparkling shiraz-cabernet blend ("an offbeat example of a sparkling wine from Australia"). "Wine gives you the chance to go on cultural explorations without leaving the comfort of your environment," he says.
He plans to take the initial stage of his sommelier's test in the fall, a rigorous three-tiered affair that involves blind tastings in which he'll be judged by his peers. His preparation? "I've had 12 years of tasting on the job and off the job."
Pangea is at 1935 W. Irving Park, 773-665-1340. The summer wine dinner is July 22 and costs $65. Reservations are required.
On July 16 Cafe Bolero owner Barbara Gonzales opened Marysol, serving Cuban food and tapas, at 812-16 W. Randolph....Susan and Drew Goss abruptly closed Zinfandel last week due to a landlord dispute and plan to devote themselves full-time to their new venture, West Town Tavern.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.