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Windy City Winners

With these three newcomers, Chicago is now an even better place to dine

John Mariani
Posted: February 21, 2001

 
 
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Windy City Winners

With these three newcomers, Chicago is now an even better place to dine

By John Mariani


Chicago is a great restaurant town, easily the nation's second best. New York City, by virtue of its number of restaurants and expense accounts, wins first place in a walk; and for its concentration of foodies, San Francisco takes third. But I think Chicago swings into second place with ease, especially now that diners there have three more new and original restaurants to choose from.

Led by Charlie Trotter's, Everest, Ambria, Seasons, Spiaggia and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago's high-end restaurants stock impressive wine cellars. There are 44 Wine Spectator award winners in town -- three of them Grand Award winners -- and no serious restaurant in Chicago would dare to open its doors without having put as much thought into its wine list as into its menu.

This year, three newcomers stand out: Bin 36, Nine and NoMi. Each is refreshingly original in approach, and a welcome antidote to the extravagant menus and plate presentations of so many Chicago restaurants. Their wine lists are not family-Bible thick, but instead are focused and designed to enlighten.

In this last respect, Bin 36 takes highest honors. Owner Dan Sachs, along with his partners, wine director Brian Duncan and general manager David Schneider, have set out to expand Chicagoans' wine savvy by giving them an educational experience as well as a good meal. "It's like a children's museum for adults," said Sachs, who also owns the esteemed Spruce restaurant. Visitors first enter a retail area called the Market, where they can shop for wine, wine books and wine-related paraphernalia, view viticultural exhibits and attend wine and grape tastings, as well as watch demonstrations of decanting and wine and food matching.

Next to the Market is the Tavern, where your seating choices range from a zinc-topped oval bar to small tables or couches, and you can snack on little pizzas, pâtés and steamed mussels. Wines are served by the glass or in flights, and each comes with its own information card. A flight may include five different sparkling wines -- say, a crémant de Loire, a non-vintage brut Champagne, a cava from Spain, a bubbly from Gruet in New Mexico and a rosé. Another flight may pit American and Alsatian Pinot Gris against Italian Pinot Grigios.

In the main dining room, called the Cellar, chef Bernard Laskowski offers a full menu that gives the wine list a good workout. With most appetizers at just $6 to $8 and many entrées below $20 (every one listed with three or more wine suggestions), the best way to experiment at Bin 36 is to dine with a bunch of friends. Order the mussels with smoked bacon, some gnocchi with a ragout of mushrooms and leeks, or try the house salad, chock full of blue cheese and spiced pecans. Then move on to main courses such as chili-spiced braised veal shank with fried onions and smoked cheddar grits, or skate wing with an assertive tomato-caper vinaigrette and haricots vert. "Assertive" is the operative word here, since the vinaigrette and the wine have to fight for attention. There is also an excellent selection of cheeses, although not quite as strong a selection of desserts.

You'll also have a novel dining experience at Nine, the hottest of Chicago's new restaurants. The restaurant is built around a huge circular granite bar in the middle of a sleek three-tiered room that resembles the inside of the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Make no mistake, this place is designed to bowl you over from the moment you walk across the platform bridge leading to the subterranean (or is it extraterrestrial?) dining room, which is bathed in an odd blue light. You'll half-believe Our Lady of Fatima will be dropping in any minute.

Owners Scott DeGraff and Michael Morton (who met at the age of nine, hence the name) are nightclub entrepreneurs, so they think in terms of dazzle and noise. There's plenty of both, especially in the upstairs Ghost Bar, where the drink of choice is a glow-in-the-dark Midori martini. The downstairs bar is stocked with gorgeous bartenders, culled from the city that gave us Playboy. There's also a lot of playfulness on the menu, which, at its most basic, focuses on steaks and chops -- including a fine 16-ounce New York sirloin and an even better 14-ounce veal porterhouse. But consulting chef and managing partner Michael Kornick has given executive chef Michael Shrader more than that to work with.

Chicago has long bucked a trend by featuring great restaurants in hotels, and one of the biggest success stories of the past year or so is another in this strong series: NoMi (for on North Michigan Avenue), set in the lavish new Park Hyatt. The hotel scored a coup when it landed chef Sandro Gamba, last at the superb Lespinasse in Washington, D.C. Gamba, born in France and trained under Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Roger Verge, works like a sculptor with his ingredients to bring out the beauty from his raw materials. He says that his food is very complicated to prepare, but he characterizes the end result as very simple, light and fresh.

Cold appetizers include a confit of foie gras with a gelée of Sauternes, mâche and pear jam. Among the hot starters are a cassoulet of baby vegetables with a warm balsamic vinaigrette, a Maine lobster tomato salad with cream of avocado and lemon foam, and a shellfish soup with a light coconut-milk broth. Entrées include possibly the finest roast lamb I've ever had (from Virginia), done with a Provençal zucchini cake, garlic confit and lamb tartine.

The wine cellar at NoMi is 3,000 bottles strong, with 250 labels listed on four long pages. By the glass there are fine options like Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino 1998 and Sokol Blosser Evolution No. 9 1999. The selection of Alsatian, Austrian, German and Loire Valley wines, which go very well with Gamba's seafood, is commendable, though a few more out-of-the-ordinary estates would make it even better.

These three new additions confirm my faith in the growing ascendancy of Chicago's chefs and restaurateurs. Once a copycat town, the Windy City is surely attracting imitators now. New York, watch your back.

John Mariani's new book is Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman Books).


For the complete article, please see the Feb. 28, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 94.

NoMi
Park Hyatt Chicago, Water Tower Square, 800 N. Michigan Ave.
Telephone (312) 335-1234
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Appetizers $11 to $24, entrées $24 to $35
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club, Discover

Nine
440 W. Randolph St.
Telephone (312) 575-9900
Fax (312) 575-9901
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Appetizers $8 to $12, entrées $15 to $34
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club

Bin 36
Marina City, 339 N. Dearborn
Telephone (312) 755-9463
Fax (312) 755-9410
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost In the Cellar, Appetizers $6 to $14, entrées $16 to $28
Credit Cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diner's Club, Discover

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