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Wine and Dine

This week: Lebanese

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Matching wine to cuisines it isn't traditionally drunk with--Caribbean, Latin American, Asian, etc--is the focus of this periodic feature, in which we pick a BYO restaurant, sample a few dishes, and recommend some wines.

One of the cheaper spots on a stretch of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants in Albany Park, Al-Khaymeih feels more like a fast-food joint than a fine-dining establishment. The menu is limited to the most familiar Lebanese dishes, but the food is always fresh and tasty. The smooth, flavorful hummus goes light on the tahini and is drizzled with olive oil; the grape leaves are tightly rolled and bursting with lemony rice and vegetables; the lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs are nicely seasoned and generously portioned; and the pita bread, served warm, is homemade. Brothers George and Pierre Mounsef, who also own the market next door, recently brightened up the dining room to better match the food, painting the walls two shades of blue and adding an exposed kitchen to the formerly drab space. Al-Khaymeih's aromatic spices, generous use of lemon juice, and abundance of fresh herbs made wine pairing exciting, and dry whites with just a hint of sweetness worked as well as full-bodied red Syrahs and grenaches. The consulting wine expert on this trip was Vivian Levine, assistant wine coordinator at Arun's.

Al-Khaymeih

4758 N. Kedzie

773-583-0999

Hummus (mashed chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil) 1

$2.95

Baba ghanoush (mashed char-grilled eggplant with tahini, garlic, and lemon) 1

$2.95

Grape leaves (brined grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables) 2

$3.95

Tabbouleh (chopped parsley salad with tomatoes, green onions, mint, and cracked wheat) 2

$2.95

Fattoush salad (toasted pita triangles mixed with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, parsley, and mint with olive oil and lemon juice) 1

$2.95

Kibbeh (cracked-wheat-and-ground-beef balls stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts, onions, and spices) 3, 4

$8.95

Shish kifta (charbroiled ground beef with parsley, onion, and spices) 3, 4

$8.95

Shish chicken (charbroiled cubes of marinated chicken breast with lemon, garlic, and spices) 2

$9.95

Shrimp scampi (jumbo shrimp cooked in butter and garlic with cilantro and lemon wedges) 2

$9.95

Lamb kebab (char-grilled cubes of marinated lamb) 3, 4, 5

$9.95

1. Nonvintage Mumms Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine (Napa Valley), $14-$15. This sparkling blush wine is lively and fruity, due in part to its youth and in part to the pinot noir grape that predominates (there's a touch of chardonnay added for power and structure). Nonvintage sparklers like this don't age well--they're intended for immediate consumption. Because they're so young, their fruit flavors are fresher and their acidity stronger. That acidity cuts the richness of the baba ghanoush and the hummus and pleasantly highlights the smokiness of the former. The spreads in turn bring out the wine's strawberry and raspberry notes. This sharp-tasting wine also works harmoniously with the vinegar and lemon juice in the fattoush salad--a dish that's generally difficult to pair with wine. (Binny's, Sam's, Wine Discount Center)

2. 2003 Nobilo Icon Marlborough Pinot Gris (New Zealand), $17-$20. Pinot gris--a versatile white-wine grape--isn't widely planted in New Zealand, where sauvignon blanc is much more popular, but this Marlborough producer uses it to good effect. The wine's crisp, lemony acidity gives away its cool growing climate, and herbal notes signal its youth. The mildly seasoned shrimp scampi calls for just these characteristics. The pale yellow wine has enough zip to lift the dish, brightening the flavors of fresh cilantro and mitigating the saltiness. It also highlights the poultry's flavor in the shish chicken, toning down the mild bitterness from the charbroiling and cleansing the palate after each bite. It complements rather than competes with the briny grape leaves and their lemony filling. But most impressive is its ability to work with the tabbouleh, which is difficult to match with wine because of its combination of lemoniness and green herbs. (Binny's, Galleria, Sam's)

3. 2002 Santa Julia Malbec Reserva (Argentina), $9. This wine's deep violet color hints at its intensity; it's full-bodied with forward flavors of sweet berries and plums, finishing with a good dose of vanilla and cherries. The Maipu Valley winemaking region in the Mendoza province of Argentina is widely planted with malbec vines, which originate in Bordeaux. But here they're subject to a dramatically different growing environment--high altitude, long hours of sunlight for full ripening, and cool evenings, which together make for a long growing season. Eight months of aging in French oak barrels gives the wine enough structure to stand up to the strong flavors in the lamb kebab and the shish kifta. Its fruitiness brings out the hints of cinnamon in the kibbeh's lamb-and-pine-nut filling and accentuates the meat's mild sweetness. And while the tannins are palpable, they're not overpowering. (Sam's)

4. 2001 Chateau Grande Cassagne Costieres de Nimes (France), $8. It's always a pleasant surprise to find a bottle this complex for eight bucks. Produced in a region just west of the Rhone Valley from a blend of the same Syrah and grenache grapes indigenous to that area, this inky, spicy wine is a natural match for lamb. The concentrated but integrated dark fruit flavors mask any gaminess, while the assertive meat smooths out the strong earthy notes in the wine. The moderately tannic wine also works well with the shish kifta, brightening the meat flavor and diminishing its saltiness without tasting bitter. Lovely lavender and violet aromas cut through the kibbeh's greasiness and complement the dish's nutty flavor. (Binny's, Sam's)

5. 2001 Eneas La Universal (Montsant, Spain), $16. This region of Spain, just southeast of the famous Priorat (which exports pricey wines) and with a similar climate, soil, and landscape, is becoming known for its affordable high-quality wines. Grenache, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot are widely planted in the region, and this wine blends all three. It's as big bodied as they come, with intense blueberry and blackberry flavors and notes of vanilla, licorice, and tobacco. Two years of aging in French barrels gives the wine structure, but its assertive fruitiness and vanilla notes make it taste like a New World wine. Robust food is in order, and here it's the lamb that works. The wine acts almost like chutney with the meat, rounding off its earthiness with a fruity highlight. And the hearty meat smooths out the wine's moderately long finish by softening the tannins. (Sam's)

Binny's Beverage Depot 213 W. Grand, 312-332-0012

Galleria Liqueurs 1559 N. Wells, 312-867-7070

Sam's Wine and Spirits 1720 N. Marcey, 312-664-4394

Wine Discount Center 1826 N. Elston, 773-489-3454

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