Drink, Eat and Discover

By Odyll Santos

You’ve had Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots with your fill of French, fusion and other cuisines. You think you’ve left no bottle uncorked, no food-and-wine combinations untried. But it’s likely that there’s something you haven’t seen yet. Ever heard of the Gruner Veltliner, much less had it with Thai food? In Chicago, you can take your pick of enlightening experiences. Here are a few places that present unique wines, many times paired with innovative food, in interesting surroundings.

The Royal Thai experience
In the melting pot that is Chicago, hundreds of neighborhood restaurants serve Thai food, but less than a handful offer upscale Thai cuisine, with wines to match. For years, Arun’s, the acclaimed Northwest Side restaurant of chef/restaurateur Arun Sampanthavivat, was the only one. But another restaurant, Erawan, has garnered attention.

Opened in November 2001 in Chicago’s trendy River North, Erawan is the creation of Anoroth "Noth" Chitdamrong and Chef Art Lee, and restaurateur Ken Lim, who established Malaysian restaurant chain Penang. Erawan offers Royal Thai cuisine in a traditional Thai setting, its interior modeled on Bangkok’s palaces and shrines, a contrast to its plain exterior. The seating area boasts imported teak wood décor and 24-karat gold leaf paint.

Bangkok-born Chef Lee, who won praise for his previous restaurants, Thai Touch and River Kwai, is a veteran of Arun’s. At Erawan, he infuses Thai dishes with European touches, using ingredients like foie gras not found in Thai cuisine. Noth, who was born in Laos and lived in Thailand, is a collector of wine. He was the wine director at Arun’s for six years.

Pairing fine wine with Thai food may sound unusual. But Noth aims to change people’s perceptions of Thai food and hopes to encourage wine lovers to go beyond the familiar Chardonnay or Merlot. Erawan’s wine list, with over 100 bottles, changes constantly as Noth finds new wines. Austrian and German wines dominate, as they work well with Thai cuisine, but there also are bottles from France, Italy, Australia and the U.S.

Dinner may begin with a flute of light, clean-tasting Rene Geoffroy champagne. Then the Gruner Veltliner 1998 from top Austrian producer Nigl is poured. Made from Austria’s most important wine grape, it is a delicate, fruity white wine for an equally delicate, savory first course of snowbird, Siamese and purple rose dumplings. In the shapes of white birds, and purple and orange blossoms, they are filled with herbed chicken and shrimp.

Another Austrian white, the Kracher Cuvee Beerenauslese 1999, accompanies Erawan’s foie gras and chanterelle shumai with caramelized shallot balsamic reduction and chili sauces. Its lush sweetness balances the flavors of the dish, particularly the heat of the chili sauce. Heavier courses like the crispy whole red snapper with a chili-shallot sauce and prawn and pork in a creamy, sweet red chili curry – dishes that mix textures and flavors – call for a versatile wine, Noth says. He pours the Los Carneros Pinot Noir from Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa, California, a pleasing red marked by a natural acidity and pleasant cherry and blackberry flavors.

It’s Thai food taken to grand heights, with wine selections that encourage exploration. Erawan, 729 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL, 312-642-6888

Wine by appointment
Serious about enjoying and learning about wine? Then make an appointment with Gabriel Viti. That’s the way to get into Gabriel’s Wine Cellars in Highwood, Ill., for a one-on-one chat with owner Viti, also chef/owner of nearby Gabriel’s Restaurant. Viti seeks to satisfy clients’ thirst for knowledge of the grape and their search for rare bottles. In the Cellar, he also gives them a place to enjoy wine and the conversations that come with it.

That’s a mouthful worth savoring. At the Cellar, visitors have been known to smoke their cigars and drink wine into the wee hours of the night, sitting by a huge antique Irish wake table at the reception. From time to time, you’re likely to spot a serious client, having descended two flights of stairs, searching earnestly for that $5,000 bottle for his collection.

While the Cellar offers rare bottles, it also stocks many of the finest wines from major vineyards, with classics like Mouton-Rothschild, and small-production wineries, such as Kistler in California. Powerful wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux dominate the more than 7,000 bottles, though more whites have entered the selection. While this may be a collector’s haven, prices aren’t always up in the stratosphere.

The Cellar itself is neatly organized, with rows of wine meticulously maintained. The temperature hovers in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, the optimum level at which to store wine. And speaking of proper storage, Gabriel’s also custom builds home cellars, even stocking it with wine. The fee, usually in the thousands of dollars, depends on your extravagance.

There’s often a prelude to a Cellar visit. Appointments are usually scheduled around dinner at Gabriel’s Restaurant, whose wines are sold at the Cellar. The waitstaff, which undergoes blind wine tastings and weekly educational meetings, pays attention to the smallest details (bringing fresh bread throughout the meal, folding napkins neatly when a guest is away from the table). Guests receive excellent service in the mahogany-trimmed dining room.

The food is excellent, too. Viti has worked with French culinary icon Joel Robuchon and Carlos Nieto of the classic suburban French restaurant Carlos’. At the Restaurant, Viti blends Italian and French cuisines, with a style of cooking that he describes as earthy and welcoming.

Dinner may start with a lobster martini, a refreshing appetizer with mango, avocado, Osetra caviar and crème fraiche with lime juice and cilantro. With light, dry Pommery champagne, the dish shines. Pastas include the rich Crespelle, stuffed with taleggio cheese and spinach. It’s a rich dish that has become a favorite for many diners.

Entrees present delicious combinations. Soft fillets of black bass come with capers, olive oil and zucchini flowers, served over fennel, with mashed potatoes. Lamb medallions are seasoned with tarragon and olive oil, a hearty dish paired wonderfully with a glass of zinfandel.

That all makes for a very full evening, and all of it worth the satisfaction of a hearty meal with fine conversation, fine wines and perhaps a cigar or two.

Gabriel’s Wine Cellars, 4 Temple Avenue, Highwood, IL 847-433-0031
Gabriel’s Restaurant, 310 Green Bay Road, Highwood, IL 847-433-0031

Finding fun in wine
At Bin 36, in the House of Blues hotel, it’s all about having fun while getting to know wine. Proprietors Dan Sachs, David Schneider and Brian Duncan, who won praise for their previous restaurant Spruce, opened Bin 36 in 1999. Its motto: "Drink wine – Live longer – Have fun." And guests have many chances to get into the fun of wine, taking classes under "Bin School," buying wines from the Bin 36 Market, and of course, sampling various types at tasting events.

At the relaxed café-style Bin 36 Tavern or the casual fine dining space of the Cellar, guests have the opportunity to try flights of wines, from the Bordeaux varietals flight to Rhone reds, sparkling wines, American and Australian wines, and world reds and whites.

The dining menu isn’t to be ignored. The man in the kitchen: Executive Chef John Caputo, who’s as enthusiastic about wine as Sachs, Schneider and Duncan. Caputo, who arrived in late fall 2001, seems destined for the job, having spent four years as executive chef at Jordan Winery in California. Cooking for a world-class wine producer, with a dining room set in a vineyard, gave Caputo the chance to study the nuances of food and wine pairing. Besides that, Caputo’s 20 years in California included work at restaurants like Ondine and his own renowned Socca.

Chef Caputo takes his experiences with Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired food in California to bring new dishes to the Tavern and the Cellar. Dinner features appetizers like Prince Edward Island Mussels steamed in a coconut milk-lemongrass broth and house smoked salmon with ruby beet and goat cheese terrine, horseradish cream and watercress. The menu provides several wine choices for each dish. For the mussels, suggestions include fruity whites, like the Von Buhl "Armand" Riesling 2000 from Germany and the Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc 2000 from Australia. For the smoked salmon, choices include European sparkling wines and the Icardi "Tabarin" Barbera d’Asti 2000, an Italian red with cherry and plum flavors.

Entrees include soy-braised black cod with shiitake and glass noodle spring rolls with black bean sauce, both also paired with the Von Buhl Riesling. Zinfandel spiced rotisserie pork chop with chestnut and butternut squash hash and grain mustard chantilly, is recommended with the silky red, J. Lohr Bramblewood Zinfandel 1998 from Lodi, Calif., or the Vega Sindoa "Cuvee Allier" 2000, a Spanish white with tropical fruit flavors.

Of course, diners don’t have to stick to the recommendations. There’s no hindrance to having the kind of wine you like. Bin 36, 339 North Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL, 312-755-WINE.





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