3346 N. Clark
Palm wine, made by fermenting the sweet sap from any of several species of palm tree, is common in tropical and semitropical regions of Africa and Asia, from Ghana to the Philippines. But it’s tough to find in Chicago, especially if you’ve got no special connection to an immigrant community from a country where it’s popular. In fact I know of only one place in town where you can try the stuff without surmounting a language barrier: Lakeview’s ambitious African restaurant Bolat. Their palm wine, imported from Nigeria, is pearly white and not quite opaque, like nigori sake or the unfiltered Korean rice wine makgeolli, and it shares some of the raw smell of the latter. It has a fruity, lactic tartness, almost like a lambic, and a very mild effervescence—there are no visible bubbles, but your tongue might tingle. Underneath subtle flavors of dark rum and pine resin is a distinctive note of boiled red dates, which you might recognize if you’ve ever cooked with palm sugar. The wine also has a surprisingly unctuous mouthfeel, leaving behind a silky coating like you’ve been drinking cashew milk.
Also worth a mention is Bolat’s house-made ginger beer. It’s not quite as hot as my longtime favorite, Blenheim, but it’s way more complex and does without the kind of aggressive carbonation that invades your sinuses and makes you cough. According to the server on my latest visit, it’s made not just from ginger and sugar but also from allspice, cardamom, vanilla, splashes of orange and pineapple juice, and a few other ingredients that must remain trade secrets.