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Chicago Wine Bars
Visits to Bin 36 & The Hudson Club

While we were in Chicago we thought it would be fun to check out the growing wine bar scene. Here is our report... But first!

Linda's fashion notes: After 2 nights in River North, Linda had the following observations: First, don't worry about all the pink, pink and more pink in the store windows - everyone north of the river is still wearing black. And, we are assuming that PETA must have closed shop in Chicago and moved to warmer climes, since there was enough fur on the streets to film a remake of Dr.Zhivago.

Chicago Wine Bars

Wine bars are very hot right now all across the country. Trendy, upscale restaurants that specialize in offering flights of wine for tasting are all the rage in New York, Chicago, Boston and all points west. For us here in Indianapolis, this probably means that our first wine bar will open the day after the last one closes in L.A. (kind of like Planet Hollywood opening in Indianapolis just after everyone already had a tee shirt and just before they went bankrupt). Five wine bars were recommended to us by friends in the Chicago wine trade. We choose these two because both have been recently profiled in Wine Spectator and both were within walking distance of our hotel.

Bin 36
339 N. Dearborn - Marina City
(312) 755-9436

Our first stop was Bin 36, an eclectic hybrid wine store, restaurant and wine bar that bills itself as dedicated to demystifying the process of matching foods and wine. And, from our observation they seem to be succeeding on a number of levels. The concept is simple. They have over 50 wines by the glass offered in three ways, full glass (6 oz), half glass (3 oz) or arranged into flights of 4 tasting samples (1 1/2 oz) of related wines. The tasting flights are served with a card that describes each wine in the flight from left to right... unless the server inadvertently reverses a flight as Linda's was. Luckily another server noticed the mistake while she was still whiffing and was about to doubt her ability to tell a Rioja from a Shiraz!

The restaurant was done well, but a little stark and trendy for our taste. The entry way opens into a retail store offering a full selection of wine accessories, books and about 40 wines by the bottle, each with cards (a little like what we do) describing the wine and offering food pairing suggestions. The only drawback is the prices, which I am sure are fair given the rental rates in downtown Chicago. For example, the Coppo "Camp de Rouss" Barbera d'Asti that we sell for $18 was $24. Then again, if you can afford to live in downtown Chicago, an extra $6 for a bottle of wine should not be problem!

A large oval bar separates two dining areas into a casual area called the tavern, an atrium setting with small booths and tables, and the Cellar, a much more comfortable dining area with a low ceiling and comfy chairs and booths. We were a little put off at first by the lack of ambiance in the first two areas and the appalling fact that they allowed smoking in the bar area. Come on - it's impossible to taste wine in the presence of cigarette smoke!

However, once we settled into the dining room and the smokers at the bar left, we finally began to warm up to the concept and the very inventive menu. We began with glasses of very commendable Von Buhl Riesling that paired well with Linda's Thyme Roasted Diver Scallops and Sweet Corn Risotto appetizer, as well as my Gnocchi (tiny Italian potato dumplings) with Woodland Mushrooms and Leeks.

For the main event, we each choose a flight of 4 wines. Linda's "World Red's" featured a Spanish Rioja, an Italian Librandi, and two Aussies wines including a Grant Burge Merlot and the Yalumba Shiraz. And, while she enjoyed them all, she found none of them memorable. I went with the "Rhone Red" flight that included a "Gigondas," a "CDR Villages" and a Chateauneuf du Pape. As I would expect from 1998 vintage wines from southern France, all were quite good with the exception of the Domaine Guicharde "Cotes Du Rhone Villages" which was exceptionally rustic and disappointing (especially since you almost have to work to find a bad 1998 Rhone). Linda and I agreed that in the future, we would prefer to taste before dinner and choose a single wine to accompany the meal.

The food, on the other hand, did not disappoint in any way. My entree fell into the "Sounds Strange" / "Tastes Great" category. Think about this... a Southwestern, Chili Spiced, Braised Veal Shank served with Guacamole and Onion Crisps over Smoked Cheddar Grits. Luckily the Rhone wines stood up to this melding of Provence and Santa Fe. The tender, braised veal melted in your mouth and flavors were amazingly complementary! Linda choose Lamb Medallions served over Portabella Mushrooms and Artichoke Hearts with a bright green Basil puree that proved to be almost as good as my veal.

We finished the meal by splitting a glass of Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy to brace us for the brisk walk back to the hotel) and a piece of Pecan Taffy Apple pie with Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream and Apple Cider sauce. And, yes it tasted just as good as it sounds.

Our Conclusions: Worth a try! The food is creative and exciting and the wine is fairly priced and the list extensive. Do your tasting flight before dinner and be sure to request a table that is a good distance from the bar. Dinner for two with wine was $135 before tax and tip.

The Hudson Club
504 North Wells Street
(312) 467-1947

Opened in the shadow of the Merchandise Mart in 1996, The Hudson Club is the grandfather of serious Chicago wine bars. Since we had already decided on a visit to Zinfandel for dinner (see last year's review at our web site under email archives), we decided to try the Hudson Club for a wine flight and appetizer before dinner.

If Bin 36 was a little short on ambience, the Hudson Club simply overwhelms you with it. The web site says that the retro / deco design of the club was inspired by the 1940's Hudson automobiles. I think the architect saw one too many Buck Rogers episodes. Frankly, I would not have been surprised at seeing either Humphrey Bogart or Ming the Merciless at the bar. The huge, oval shaped front window sets the stage for an interior filled with sweeping deco curves, hanging light fixtures modeled after Hudson taillights (they look a lot like Buck Rogers' spaceship to me), oval shaped tables and bar stools that look like they came from the 1936 World's Fair "House of the Future." All this under and open ceiling supported by 100 year old clear span oak trusses and original brick walls of the same era. The room is dominated by a bar that consumes half the floor space. But, what caught my attention was the temperature controlled, nitrogen preservation wine system that spanned the wall behind the bar. There was room for 90 wines in six coolers with independent temperature control. Each group had a prominent digital temperature reading 63 degrees for Cabernets, 55 degrees for Chardonnay, 41 degrees for Champagne... This was my kind of place!!!

They are serious about wine and it shows. The quality of the wine selections for the flights were all so interesting that choosing just one was difficult. I opted for the California Cabernet flight at $16.50. It contained four 1998 Cabernets including BV, Regusci, Shooting Star and Justin. They serve their wines using special glass carriers that prevent the kind of flight reversal we had at Bin 36. Unfortunately, they don't prevent "is it left to right or right to left" problems. It is "left to right" as Linda pointed out after I commented on how much the 1998 BV Cabernet had improved since I last tasted it (it was actually the Regusci). My suspicions about the 1998 Cabernets continue to be confirmed. They seem to span the range of "decent" to "just ok." So, if you loved the 1997 Justin Cabernet like I did, you'll have to wait for the 1999.

Linda opted for the "Rhone Style" flight that included very nice 1998 Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape, along with a Qupe Syrah and a Fess Parker Rhone Ranger (neither that get into Indiana). The flight was an interesting comparison of French and California wine making styles that she really enjoyed.

While tasting, we enjoyed a very nicely prepared Maryland Crab Cake appetizer that made us regret not being able to try the rest of the menu. While not nearly as creative as Bin 36's menu, the Hudson Club's offerings included pretty standard upscale American cuisine like wood-roasted salmon, seared tuna or a bone in ribeye steak for two.

Our Conclusions: This is a spot for serious wine tasting and we will be back. Visit before dinner like we did or stick around and let us know what you think. The food all looked pretty good to us. They have a smoking section at the very front of the bar, so you may want to position yourselves away from the front window. And, we have been warned that after 10 p.m. it becomes horribly crowded with the sleek, young, fashionably late crowd.... or yuppie vampires as our Chicago expert, Veronica, describes them.