BYOB at Park Grill

One of the best places to visit for locals and tourists in the city is Millenium Park.  There's so much to see and do, from the Jay Pritzker Pavillion to the Cloud Gate (the Bean!), that can be enjoyed by families, loners, couples, etc.  This spot holds a special place in my heart because I proposed to my wife on the Ice Rink just over 3 years ago (obviously she said YES!). 

I also enjoy visiting the Park Grill, a cozy spot you can relax with good food, drink and a view of the rink.  We also ate there just after my wedding proposal and have sat in the same booth every visit.  I recently found out there is no corkage fee on Sundays and Mondays, making it a great BYOB spot on those days!

We decided to go to the Park Grill for dinner this past Sunday for our 2nd anniversary dinner.  So we called a babysitter for Liljana, grabbed a bottle of wine and headed out.  We normally have Dom Perignon for our anniversary drink, but I mistakenly forgot to stock a bottle, so it was time to dig into the stash.  Since Blagica was in the mood for red wine, I decided on Colgin Cellars Cariad, a Bordeaux style blend from Napa Valley comprised mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  It's not an easy wine to find (I bought mine from a liquidation sale), but you could try to get on their ordering list, though it's running 3 years behind!

The Park Grill was steady as always.  They have a very good menu featuring local fruits, vegetables, pork, beef and chicken, along with wild caught fish.  Service is very knowledgable and attentive, though they seemed thinly stretched as it took around ten minutes before we were initially greeted by our server.  They feature a very good cocktail list, beer selection and bar menu, along with $5 food & drink choices in the bar area every Thursday from 5pm-close.  Their wine list is a bit pedestrian, with many of your usual suspects, but I see alot of value choices like Newton Chardonnay ($50), Babich Sauvignon Blanc ($39), Peter Lehmann Shiraz ($36), and Chateau Labat Haut Medoc ($48).

All in all, another satisfying experience, made even better with our own wine.  Make sure to take advantage of their Sunday/Monday BYOB and enjoy the Millenium Park fun!

Windy City Wine Guy Featured on Chicagoist

I was just recently honored to be the first guest in a new series from the Chicagoist on getting to know your local wine guy.  The Chicagoist is a local website that keeps you "in the know" here in Chicago about almost anything- shopping, arts, events, food, pop culture, sports, etc.  I was interviewed by Carrie Becker, who came up with some great questions like what I'm drinking right now, my favorite BYOB and some of my most memorable food and beverages experiences.  Those subjects are perfect to get my taste buds rolling! 

Getting to know any expert is a wise thing, especially one who's in the know about your favorite beverages.  If you live in the Chicagoland area, I am your local guy- feel free to contact me anytime!

BYOB at Honky Tonk BBQ

 After a long day of moving couches with my brother, we were up for a big meal.  I've been meaning to try Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen, and since I live closeby, we were on our way.  Being on 18th Street, there was ample parking, and their entrance is definitely an eye catcher- a single door ensconced in red and yellow paint, flames, and bright light.  I had a feeling we were in for a meaty experience!

We immediately walked in on their carryout area, and I started to salivate with the smell of spicy barbeque.  They have seating in three rooms: a dining room with local paintings, a bar area with booths and live music, and there are a couple of booths near the entrance. 

Another great feature is they are BYOB- but you better hurry because they have applied for their liquor license!  We brought some Bohemia lager, a Mexican beer with a slight malty, hoppy flavor, and a lightness to not overpower the barbeque.  Your waitress will bring an opener and icebucket as soon as you are ready to start cracking them open! 

Next we were onto the food.  We decided on the Sampler Platter: half slab of ribs, half BBQ chicken, pulled pork, beef brisket, a hot link, 2 corn muffins, cole slaw and baked beans.  We also wanted to start with something, so the waitress talked us into their chili mac- this was actually our favorite!  The chili was thick, flavorful and beefy, with beans, tomatoes, and even some deliciously smokey beef brisket mixed in.  It was topped off with mac & cheese- curly pastas coated with sharp and tangy cheese sauce.  We loved it.  Not soon after, our combo came out.  We were in for a big meaty treat as we could sample all that they had to offer.  We could pair them with three housemade sauces: a garlic sauce, a tangy sauce, and sweet sauce.  I like to mix the garlic and tangy together.  The chicken was moist, but the dark meat was undercooked.  This can be tricky, as white and dark meat are better at different temperatures.  The hot link was excellent- a smokey, spicy sausage with crisp skin and porky presence.  Both the pulled pork and beef brisket were slightly smokey, tender, and full of flavor.  The ribs were a bit disappointing, as they were really dry and clinging to the bones, but the dry rub was really nice- the perfect blend of spice and flavor, though I like to make my home rub with a touch of sweetness.  I really liked the taste of the baked beans, as they had pork rich flavor, and the touch of sweetness I was looking for.  Overall, I think their barbeque is quite good, and I would like to give their ribs another chance.

I really want to go out and check out their space on the weekend when it's rockin' out to some honky tonk.  It looks awful cozy and I'll bet it's a great time!  Also, I think I came to the right place, as one of my old friends left his mark- Guy Fieri.  I will be sure to look for Honky Tonk featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives- it's great to see so many Chicago joints on Guy's radar.  Make sure to grab your kids, bibs, and boots for a smokey BBQ time!

BYOB at Caro Mio

WCWG outside of Caro MioThis past Wednesday, my wife and I teamed up with Chris and Kristina Caruso of Vine Times Chicago for a BYOB evening at Caro Mio Italian Restaurant in Lincoln Square.  We found ample inexpensive meter parking just across the street, and walked into a quaint and cozy little dining room.  We were then given water, which is served in pint glasses (great for holding alot of water), a carafe of water for the table, and menus.  Stemware was then presented, and it was time to open the wines!

For our Italian dinner, we both brought Super Tuscans from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany.  Super Tuscans are great wines made in Tuscany which rebel against Italian wine classification laws.  Wines from this region are traditionally made from Sangiovese, along with a blend of other local grapes (mostly white wine grapes).  They have a history dating back about 40 years, when the head of the Antinori family created one of the first.  Piero AntinoriTignanello wanted to add Bordeaux varietals to the mix, enhancing the body, texture, flavor, and aromatics to Italy's #1 varietal.  His creation, and my wine choice for the evening, was Tignanello.  I brought the 2001 vintage (retails around $85), a blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  I love this wine, as it has a great soil and barnyard aroma, mixed with ripe dark cherry, worn leather, and oak on the palate.  There was also small hints of tobacco and chocolate, which proved the complexity of the wine.  The tannins were supple and smooth, making it great with any food, especially Italian.

FlaccianelloChris brought 1997 Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve (retails around $70), made from single vineyard, 100% Sangiovese.  It has been produced since 1981 by the Manetti family.  This wine is weighty and big, with larger tannins, dark cherry and plum aroma and flavor, along with some cedar and rich earth.  It is a perfect partner for meat dishes and heavy sauces.

As far as the food is concerned, the menu has tons of options: fresh salads and soups, homemade pastas, veal, chicken, beef, and fish.  We went with a couple of fresh mozzarella dishes to start, one with green beans, and the other a classic caprese.  The mozzarella seemed local, as it was harder textured than the imported soft, rich version.  The green beans were large and delicious, especially when topped with the balsalmic vinegar.  The tomatoes were thick, but a touch less than ripe.  Both a good choice to accompany the bright acidity of the wines.

For dinner, everyone chose homemade pasta (most dishes priced around $20), which is hard to resist when offered.  I went with rigatoni bolognese topped with chicken parmesan- an odd combination, but great for meat lovers.  The dish was large enough to easily feed two, and needless to say, I had leftovers.  All of the pasta was cooked al dente, and tasted fresh, with unbelievable doughy, chewy flavor.  The bolognese sauce had a tomato tang accompanying the soft, salty ground meat.  All of this combined with tender chicken and melted mozzarella was outrageous!  My wife chose the porcini ravioli with chicken, which was an earthy, creamy blend of four monster ravioli and chicken breast topped with a creamy porcini sauce, which could double as a tasty soup.  I know the Caruso's loved their food as well, because we found ourselves doing more chewing, and less talking!

We left no room for dessert, but I will be back to try the tiramisu and more fresh pasta.  I highly recommend this spot, and hope you enjoy the food and BYOB experience as much as us.  Feel free to comment about your experience!Bottigliero/Caruso BYOB at Caro Mio

BYOB at The Grocery Bistro

m_f419a51a8c51453c9f7ca5adc5c80e97[1]A few weeks ago, after hearing so many good things about The Grocery Bistro, I made a reservation with my wife, and headed out to 804 W. Washington.  It is just west of Halsted, in the vicinity of both Greektown and Randolph Street.  After easily finding street parking just in front, we walked past their outdoor patio and inside.

We were greeted by a hostess and brought promptly to our seats.  There is a large communal seating table in the center, with smaller tables meant for two against the wall.  Against the opposite wall, you will see the chalkboard menu.  It is very cozy, and well decorated.  It falls in line with a new trend in the restaurant business- Bring Your Own Botte(s) (BYOB) and communal seating.  Smaller spaces can be used to fit more people, cutting the owner's rent cost, allowing them to pass it on to the guests.  The BYOB also allows guests to enjoy their favorite beverages at a reasonable cost, while the owner saves himself the initial opening costs that come with liquor licenses and inventory.

Staete%20Landt%202005%20Pinot%20Noir[1]Since they are BYOB, I brought a bottle of 2005 Staete Landt Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand.   I figured that it would give us the flexibility to go with either meat or fish.  It is an excellent bottle of wine with a pretty, floral smell accompanied by a hint of spice and licorice.  The taste was of rich red berries and peppery spices, with an extremely long finish.  They charge $5 corkage for a first bottle, $10 for each subsequent bottle.  If you forget to bring it with, Perman Wine Selections is located just next door.

After receiving our menus, we were informed that since we arrived before 7pm, we were eligible to try a three course dinner for $25 each.  That included our choice of a shared plate, entree, and dessert.  The price is available Monday thru Thursday from 5 to 7 pm, and has since risen to $29, with certain choices costing up to $5 more.  I went with the onion tart, lamb chops, and PB & J brioche, while my wife went with the potato leek soup, whitefish, and chocolate monte cristo. 

Our first course arrived after waiting about 35 minutes- way too long for any course, let alone the first.  But the food turned out great.  My onion tart was made with carmelized sweet onions, surrounded by flaky delicious phyllo dough, and drizzled with truffle oil- the best I've had.  I was told that Chef Andre Christopher's mother made them fresh every morning.  My wife enjoyed her soup, and it was very tasty.  It seems the vegetarian dishes were a natural for the place, since the chef was, in fact, a vegetarian.

Not long after we were done, our main courses arrived.  My chili crusted lamb chops came with yogurt cream spinach and curried cous cous.  The sides meshed well with the lamb and spices, but the meat seemed a bit lower quality, as it was chewy and somewhat dry.  Overall, a decent dish for the price.  My wife's whitefish was flavorful and flaky, and came with string beans and was topped with a delicious lemon butter sauce.  If she did not want to take some of it home, I would've eaten it all!

Dessert was unbelievable, even being a spoof on popular lunch sandwiches.  My PB & J was creamy and sweet, with soft, melt in our mouth brioche that was toasted on the outside.  My wife's monte cristo was soft brioche with an egg crust, stuffed with a layer of chocolate, and accompanied by a sweet raspberry dipping sauce.  They were both amazing.

Besides the long first course wait, the service was good, informative, and unobtrusive.  Our waters were constantly filled, but our server was a bit hard to get when we needed him- he seemed stretched a little thin due to the amount of tables in his station.  This didn't bother us, as it allowed us to have a good time and not feel rushed.

grocerybistroboycott[1]Since our visit, much has happened at The Grocery Bistro.  Chef Christopher has left, after not being paid for nine weeks, and is going up north to open Little Bucharest Bistro with owner Branko Podrumedic.  It will be opening in the old Continental Cafe spot, and we should be expecting great Romanian food with a bit of the Chef's twist.  The Chef's parents are also staging a boycott of  The Grocery Bistro, as I have heard they were vendors, and have gone unpaid as well.  Their van is parked in front with all details listed.  This also leaves alot of question marks with the cuisine, as the owner has now promoted sous chef, Monica Walters.  My favorite dessert sandwiches are gone, along with a few starters, but the entrees seem the same.  Let's hope Chef and owner can resolve their differences, and that both new places can give us great food.

Overall, the ambience is great, and the food is definitely worth a visit, especially if you go with the early prix fixe.  I will definitely be going back to check out the revised menu.

Wine Markup Taking Bite out of Diners

I am sure many of us have gone to a restaurant and, after recently browsing wine shop prices, were shocked after seeing the wine list.  I can hear it now- "Hey, I just saw that at Jewel for $8.99!".  Armed with that knowledge I am sure it not only turns off wine fans but also those willing to give it a try.  Well, there is nothing the WCWG can do to change it, but I can give you some tips (highlighted in red) on how to make wise choices, get the most bang for your buck, and even get around some of the rules.

Moving around a wine list is just like shopping in the grocery- get to know the products and the market.  I can tell anyone how much a can of beans or dozen eggs usually costs me.  Just a casual walk through wine aisles every time you shop can get you familiar with wines and producers.  Once you get to know the market you will notice many Chicago restaurants charge 250-400 percent of retail, though they pay wholesale.  That means a bottle which costs you $10 in the store will cost you $25-40 in a restaurant.  Wine lists are constructed to get the most money out of lower-end wines and a lower markup from higher-end ones.  Even then you may be paying $225 for a wine which retails at $100.  Plus by the glass prices are the biggest ripoff- most restaurants try to get close to retail price out of each glass! 

Now I'm not saying restaurants should'nt make money vending wine.  After all, they do provide all equipment, storage, training, glassware, etc. as well as some great food to go along with it.  But the prices are excessive and their biggest source of revenue and profit.  It is OK to pay the price but better (and more fun) to find deals.

Some restaurants will be offering wines at lower prices than usual markup.  This could be due to the restaurant wanting to eliminate inventory in order to sell a slow moving product or wanting to replace it for another.  When you know the market and find one of these you will enjoy it twice as much!

Look over the entire list.  You may find a varietal from an unusual place such as Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or an unusual varietal from a well known area, ie. Pinot Meunier from Carneros.  These wines could be the bargains.  Also check out restaurants which allow outside wine for a corkage fee but watch out- if they are charging $25 or more it is too much!  You can take that same $25 or more and apply it to one of their wines.  Also get a list of great BYOBs near your home.  You can enjoy their great food with your wine.  Some great BYOBs in the South Loop include Ma & I, Trattoria Caterina, and South Coast.

Have a great meal and good shopping!

(Image courtesy of Flickr)