Restaurants: Fruit of the Vine, September 18, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: Fruit of the Vine, September 18, 2008

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Fruit of the vineWine bars

Bin Wine Cafe1559 N. Milwaukee | 773-486-2233

$$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Small Plates, bar/lounge | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

As at its parent restaurant, Bin 36, offerings on the seasonal menu here are annotated with recommended wine pairings, and if you can't choose just one, there's always the easy out of a flight, available by the whole or half glass. Under executive chef John Caputo there's lots of good stuff. Tempura green beans, delivered in a little brown paper bag, had a delicious side of aioli. A hanger steak and pommes frites were expertly prepared, and what may just be the best monkfish I've had in my life came with tasty mushroom gnocchi and a whole-clove garlic confit. The roughly two dozen cheese offerings, American and European, are between two and four bucks a slice, opening the door to a huge range of flavors. On weekends, along with Bloody Mary and mimosa flights, brunch offerings include huckleberry-ricotta pancakes and a brunch pizza with spinach, frisee, and a poached egg. —David Hammond

The Bluebird1749 N. Damen | 773-486-2473

$$Bar/Lounge, Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Friday till 2, Thursday till 1, Monday-Wednesday till midnight, Sunday till 11:30 | Reservations not accepted

Want some bacon with your porchetta? On the menu at the Bluebird, a late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar, it's hard to find anything not spiked with smoked pig. An otherwise relatively sane addition to the nightlife corridor stretching up Damen from the Wicker Park crotch, Bluebird's a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great—lots of cured meats and funky cheeses, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. Heartier main plates were a mixed bag. There's a satisfying bowl of beer-braised rabbit with shallots, mushrooms, and (surprise) bacon over fettuccine. But the brined, smoked "baconed pork chop" tasted of just smoke and salt—though by this point maybe my taste buds were numb. By-the-glass options we tried from the wine list were excellent, and the extensive beer list is sophisticated and heavy on the Belgians. —Martha Bayne

Cru Cafe & Wine Bar25 E. Delaware | 312-337-4001

$$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Small Plates, bar/lounge | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till midnight | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Outfitted with fancy chandeliers, cozy fireplaces, and lots of dark, pretty wood, Debra Sharpe's reincarnated Cru Cafe & Wine Bar exudes all the elegance and luxury you'd expect of the Gold Coast—and at a commensurate price. Not surprisingly, the wine list is the centerpiece, with more than 50 wines, ports, brandies, grappas, and sakes available by the glass or in flights of three, plus 30 half-bottle options and another 400-odd bottles in the cellar. The menu offers a range of well-executed nibbles, from charcuterie and cheese plates to some substantial sandwiches and entrees, including a "Cru club" of Maine lobster, beef tenderloin, and avocado with chipotle mayo. Taken as a whole the scene at this space (next door to Sharpe's gourmet take-out shop the Goddess and Grocer) screams class, and it passes a critical test with flying colors: the warm hospitality the smooth staff showed this couple of scuzzy-looking journalists was downright gratifying. —Martha Bayne

Cyrano's Bistrot & Wine Bar546 N. Wells | 312-467-0546

F 7.2 | S 7.0 | A 8.0 | $$$ (6 reports)French, bar/lounge | Lunch: Friday; Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

At this cheerful River North location, chef and co-owner Didier Durand (Le Perroquet, Le Francais, Gordon) brings his classic French cuisine down a notch—to casual dishes like duck a l'orange, steak au poivre, and coq au vin. The number of French-speaking patrons vouches for its authenticity and adds to the atmosphere. Framed mirrors and mounted press clippings decorate the warm mustard-yellow walls. Durand's wife, Jamie Pellar, runs the front of the house, and the francophone staff is courteous and attentive. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Eno505 N. Michigan | 312-321-8738

$$Bar/Lounge, Small Plates | Lunch: friday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Monday-Thursday till midnight

For a wine bar—not to mention a wine bar specializing, for God's sake, in cheese and chocolate—Eno is blessedly free of frills. In fact, it's downright manly inside this Hotel InterContinental hideaway, with dim lighting, dark wood paneling and red leather walls, and comfy leather-backed bar stools. Wines, cheese, and chocolate are all available a la carte or as flights of three; you can make up your own or pick one from the extensive menu. With the help of a friendly bartender/cheese pusher as refreshingly low-key as the decor I sampled a sinful truffled Gouda and two cave-aged Wisconsin cheeses, one of which—Willi Lehner's Lil' Will's Big Cheese—was on special that month, and a charter member of the stinky-foot cheese club. There's also charcuterie. Wines range from $9 to $110 a glass, and of the more than 700 available by the bottle, around 75 are under $30. —Martha Bayne

Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar3358 N. Paulina | 773-248-5222

F 8.7 | S 8.0 | A 7.6 | $$$ (5 reports)Bar/Lounge, Pizza, Small Plates | Lunch: saturday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

At Frasca our youthful server enthusiastically raved about each of our "great choices." We wisely chose the olive oil flight, three extra virgins served with semolina bread for $5, and discriminatingly sampled the prosciutto-wrapped fontina. From the "Farmer's Table" menu, a selection of cheeses, meats, and bruschetta to mix or match, we selected three tasty bruschetta for $8. Brick-oven pizzas are the rage all over town these days, but it isn't often that there's a build-your-own option in addition to the traditional standards; Gorgonzola, fennel sausage, and arugula are among the ingredients. Entrees come in the form of roasted meat, fish, and fowl, but I'd have been all over orecchiette with soppressata, cannellini beans, and olives if I hadn't stuffed myself on appetizers—not such a great choice there. Frasca's mostly Italian wine list offers a good selection, including red and white flights with choices ranging far from your typical Chiantis and pinot grigios. —Kathie Bergquist

In Fine Spirits5420 N. Clark | 773-334-9463

$$Bar/Lounge, Small Plates | Lunch: friday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Monday-Thursday till midnight, Sunday till 11

This sleek but cozy wine bar, from the owners of the adjacent In Fine Spirits retail store, is a hot spot on an Andersonville strip known for its lambics and glogg. The ample menu of accessibly priced glasses and flights is dominated by New World wines and augmented with classic cocktails and a choice selection of craft beer. There's an abbreviated rotating menu of cheese, charcuterie, and heftier plates like salmon poached in Unibroue 17 or seared lollipop lamb chops. And, of course, should you fall for a particular juice, you can always come back when the store's open and make it your own. —Martha Bayne

Jack's Bar & Grill/404 Wine Bar2852 N. Southport | 773-404-5886

$Bar/Lounge, American Contemporary/Regional | Lunch: Saturday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days Open late: Saturday till 3, Monday-Friday till 2, Sunday till midnight | Reservations not accepted

This multipurpose place in west Lincoln Park has a classic dark wood bar with a fireplace, a big-screen TV, and a lively neighborhood clientele. Beyond that is a billiards room, followed by an intimate wine bar with deep mulberry walls, dark oak wainscoting, and two more fireplaces. There are two menus, both available in either room. Jack's features ambitious American comfort food—a potpie studded with chicken and vegetables and an ample pork chop dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, sauteed fresh spinach, and a mustard cream sauce—plus basics like sandwiches, burgers, and pizzas. The abbreviated wine bar menu has a few upscale appetizers like caramelized baked Brie with roasted almonds and artichoke cheese dip, more gourmet pizzas, seasonal cheese flights, and desserts from nearby Bittersweet Bakery. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Joie de Vine1744 W. Balmoral | 773-989-6846

$$Bar/Lounge, Mediterranean, French | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Monday-Friday till 2, Sunday till midnight

There weren't any wine flights listed on the menu, even though all of the food (just snacks and desserts-cheese, charcuterie, olives, chocolate truffles) is offered in grouped tasting portions. But when we asked the bartender, he said, "Sure, pick any three wines you want off the menu for $15." The tasting pours were generous, making this a great deal. Joie de Vine doesn't have the deepest wine list, but they do have a reasonable selection of both old- and new-world wines, most bottles between $20 and $40. The sound was off on the flat-panel TV showing a Bulls game, but it still seemed out of place amid the ambient grooves and sleek decor. —Kathie Bergquist

Juicy Wine Company694 N. Milwaukee | 312-492-6620

$$European, Small Plates, Bar/Lounge Lunch: Monday-Friday | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Monday-Thursday till 1, Sunday till midnight | Reservations accepted for large groups only

From the name you'd expect Juicy Wine Company to be all about the grape, but the instant you walk in the door it's clear the place is just as much about the cheese. A "retail plus" wine bar from Rodney Alex (formerly of Wicker Park's Taste), Juicy offers five "cheese experiences," a selection of cured meats, and even a butter "experience" that pairs three artisanal butters with various sea salts. Charcuterie includes salumi made by Seattle-based Armandino Batali (Mario's pop). Wines served in-house are marked up a flat $15 over the retail price, making even the swankier bottles, like a seriously complicated 1994 Davis Family Russian River pinot noir, relatively accessible. Any bottle for sale in the shop is available at this "chill-out price"; there are also a dozen reds, whites, and bubblies by the glass. Downstairs the wood-trimmed, minimalist space is split between a wine wall and deli case in the front and a low-key seating area of tables and banquettes in the rear. Upstairs is a bar and lounge complete with DJ booth and a rooftop patio. The staff is casual and helpful—Alex pressed a shaving of a rare Swiss something on us as we were halfway out the door—and in all it's a pretty pleasant (er, "chill") scene. —Martha Bayne

Pops for Champagne601 N. State | 312-266-7677

$$Small Plates, Bar/Lounge Dinner: seven days Open late: Every night till 2

I'm happy to report that in my long life I've now had a much stronger bash at what Dorothy Parker called "sufficient champagne," thanks to a stop at Pops for Champagne in the old Tree Studios. The extensive menu of more than 125 champagnes and sparkling wines is served in "real," French glasses—they're shorter—that make the champagne-drinking experience much more pleasurable. (I've never liked tipping my shoulders back to tuck a test tube under my nose while twiddling its flimsy stem between my fingers.) The glassy downtown locale provides the giddy sense of being a champagne bubble yourself, floating in a glowing flute: glamorous low lighting warms every corner and is reflected over and over in the old curved windows, and there are cozy banquettes and squashy stools. Pops serves smart, salty little nibbles to encourage imbibing—oysters and salami and cheese, plus more substantial selections—and there's a jazz club in the basement. In a nutshell: lovely, fizzy fun. —Elizabeth M. Tamny

Red Rooster Wine Bar & Cafe2100 N. Halsted | 773-929-7660

F 7.8 | S 7.0 | A 6.8 | $ (8 reports)French | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30

Around the corner and up a few steps from the venerable Cafe Bernard, chef-owner Bernard LeCoq has hatched a second, more casual and affordable cafe and wine bar. It's a cozy little room with only 12 tables (plus a few outside in the summer), and the unfinished wood walls are hung with copper pots, dried herbs, and miniature lights. A chalkboard lists specials that supplement the menu's bistro standards like grilled salmon with cabernet sauce, braised lamb shank, and confit of duck; for starters I recommend the Brie en croute. Many reasonably priced wines are available by the glass and bottle. —Ellen Joy, Rater

Swirl Wine Bar111 W. Hubbard | 312-828-9000

$$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Small Plates, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3, Tuesday-Friday till 2 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Tucked in next to an adult bookstore, Swirl seems to be taking cues from its neighbor's tactics, teasing with promises but rarely delivering satisfaction. The long, dim room is handsomely outfitted with low banquettes and sofas in tasteful neutrals; a small stage at the rear showcases live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Wines by the glass are extensive but hit or miss, and in one instance apparently scant hours from vinegar. The menu covers perhaps a dozen hot and cold global-fusion appetizers (think watermelon-tuna tartare and panko-crusted chipotle crab cakes) and a selection of "pizettes," little pizzas, but even something as simple as a dish of mixed olives fell short. As for the pizza—topped with an intriguing blend of caramelized pears and onions, garlic aioli, and fontina and mozzarella cheese—there's not much to say, as by the time we signaled for the check it still hadn't materialized. —Martha Bayne

The Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars1415 W. Randolph | 312-942-1313

$$European, Small Plates, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Saturday till 2, Friday till 1, Monday-Thursday till midnight

This sleek two-story bar is stocked with a large selection of spirits and more than 300 wines available by the bottle (about 100 by the glass). The contemporary space has exposed brick walls, natural-wood floors, high ceilings, and huge windows that showcase a dramatic skyline view. The cheese selection is remarkable and very reasonably priced. On your own or following the recommendations of the knowledgeable staff, you can pick from dozens of offerings such as fresh French chevre, mild Spanish iberico, and a sweet, nutty Italian piave. Or opt for a preassembled off-the-menu board that's amply garnished with fruits, nuts, and bread. The menu also includes "flights" of seafood and charcuterie, plus small plates like beef tenderloin skewers and a variety of thin-crust pizzas. Much of the seating area is outfitted with comfy couches, so you can relax for hours. Through October the Tasting Room is offering free passed appetizers between 6 and 8 PM. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Vintage Wine Bar1942 W. Division | 773-772-3400

F 6.5 | S 6.4 | A 8.4 | $$ (5 reports)Bar/Lounge, Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, Sunday-Friday till 2

This unpretentious sipping room has loungey armchairs, a cozy fireplace, and walls hung with graffitilike paintings. More than half of the wine list of about 80 bottles is priced between $30-$100; 35 or so wines are available by the glass. The menu is comfort-food oriented, offering dishes like mussels with pommes frites alongside pizzas and plates meant for sharing. "No snobbery or looking down one's nose because you don't know the details of a particular wine," the menu promises; Raters tend to think this holds good. There's live music on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar2008 W. Roscoe | 773-348-4600

F 7.5 | S 7.8 | A 7.1 | $$ (9 reports)Bar/Lounge, Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2, Monday-Thursday till midnight

Talented executive chef Stephen Dunne executes a constantly changing menu of small plates: sweet, plump mussels steamed in white wine and butter and flecked with parsley, spicy-sweet steak tartare made with Kobe beef and topped with shards of sesame flatbread. There's an artisanal cheese plate offered every night—it changes frequently but might include French favorites like Epoisses, Valencay, and Sainte-Maure or domestic selections like Humboldt Fog and Point Reyes blue. Wine from an impressive global list comes by the glass, carafe, flight, or bottle, and the large outdoor dining area is pretty as a picture. The kitchen stays open till 11 PM on Friday and Saturday, 10 PM Monday through Thursday. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Webster's Wine Bar1480 W. Webster | 773-868-0608

$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Small Plates | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

Across the street from the Webster Place movie theaters, this cozy wine bar offers an extensive variety of vintages from around the world. The dark room has comfortable couches in the front window, and there's an upstairs room for crowded weekends or private parties. The wine list is divided into bottles and by-the-glass pours, including two-ounce servings that can be combined to create personalized tasting flights. The list, more than 600 strong, is reasonably priced, with decent midrange options between $26 and $40 as well as splurges to the tune of $500; by-the-glass prices range from $6 to $15. The wine-friendly food includes artisanal cheese plates, thin-crust designer pizzas, tapas for sharing, and entrees such as New Zealand rack of lamb. About twice a month Webster's offers casual, innovative wine tastings for between $30 to $50. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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