One of the many things I enjoy about Chicago is the vibrant restaurant scene. Mrs. Tiedemann and I are always on the lookout for a new place to go for dinner or brunch and are constantly building lists of places to try.
Several years ago Mrs. Tiedemann and I brought son Ben and grandson Noah to Chicago for a weekend of sightseeing and just hanging out. Grandson Noah wasn’t very enthusiastic about going to any “fancy restaurants” as he put it, and was quick to inform me he only liked and ate certain foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, burgers, etc. I was given the challenge of figuring out what restaurants we could go each night that met all of our expectations. On the list of restaurants was the Luxbar. Since that first visit we have been back many times and it has become one of our favorite brunch spots on Saturdays and Sundays.
Over time we have gotten to know General Manager Michael Avella and his staff. He has been a great source of information on the Chicago wine scene. He even helped us get our current Chicago-based wine distributor: Wein-Bauer Wines. After many wine discussions I asked if I might do a wine blog article on Michael and the Luxbar’s wine list…more on that in a bit.
First, let me share some information on the Luxbar. The restaurant is part of the Gibson Restaurant Group, which is anchored by the Chicago landmark Gibson’s Steakhouse. Once Michael and I had made arrangements to do an interview I was contacted by Dana Pontarelli, Public Relations Specialist for the Gibson Restaurant Group. She has been so gracious in providing photos, background information, etc. Her assistance has save me a lot of time and energy.
Luxbar opened its doors to Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood in 2005 as the quintessential neighborhood bar. This checkerboard-floored restaurant serves classic, hand-crafted cocktails to complement the kitchen’s all-American feel-good food. The menu makes use of fresh, natural ingredients, thoughtfully sourced from local farmers, expertly prepared and professionally served. The restaurant offers USDA Gibsons Prime Angus beef, which is breed specific, Black Angus, and raised on sustainable farms in the Upper Midwest. Luxbar was named one of the “Great Bourbon Bars of America” in 2014.
Now let me tell you about the restaurant’s General Manager, Mike. In my judgement Mike has all the necessary skills and personal traits to run a successful restaurant. He is personable, focused and knowledgeable and has a great presence with people. He is married and the proud father of two children…the youngest is about seven months. He will quickly pull out his phone and show you pictures of the kids. There is a lot of pride there that I suspect flows over into everything Mike does, especially in the operation of the Luxbar.
After a couple conversations with Mike and watching him in action, I figured he had been trained in hospitality management or trained at a culinary school. When we sat down to chat about the wine list, my first questions were about his background.
Mike comes from a family of cooks and started washing dishes in a restaurant in 1991. He said he knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business from day one. His mother wanted him to be either a chef or an English teacher. She got part of her wish. He teaches at DePaul University where he is an adjunct professor teaching classes on food and beverage. I was amazed to learn that Mike has an undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa where he majored in journalism. He has a graduate degree in fine art.
His restaurant and beverage training has come from personal studies, great mentors and personal experience. Mike believes in the education of his staff as well. When a new server joins the Luxbar team the person must undergo one week of vigorous training, and complete and pass a daily exam and a final test in order to be employed. The staff at Luxbar is young so mentoring and education plays a big role in having a successful restaurant staff. When it comes to wine, the staff goes through a monthly training session. At these sessions list wines are tasted and discussed to further educate the staff on the wines and other wine topics.
Q: What makes a great wine list?
“A really good wine list must first and foremost complement the chef’s food and be a good representation of the style and cuisine of the restaurant. It should have options for many different types of wine drinkers, both in terms of price point and style. It must be presented clearly and so it is easy to navigate for the customer. It must feature wines that are craft products and are not made industrially. We want our customers to come in and explore, to enjoy something new and have fun. Our wine list is made up of smaller, great quality producers who are true to their land and with the importance being placed on the quality of the wine and not on the name of the producer or if it is trendy at the moment.”
Mike says the Luxbar wine list is designed in response to its customers. His theory is that the list must be a “Zero wine intimidating wine program.” What follows are Mike’s thoughts on the design of the Luxbar wine program. When you examine the list (clicking this link will open the document in a PDF) you can see how he has implemented his theories.
Q: How is the wine list designed?
“What you find on the label of most quality wine sold in restaurants is the name of the grape variety used to make it. Wines identified by the grape are called varietal wines. They are most common in the United States, in southern hemisphere wine countries (such as Australia and Chile), and in the south of France. The more popular ones include Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, etc.
“There are hundreds of wine grapes, but I like to focus on just six of them: the three white and three red that we refer to as the ‘Big Six.’ The white grapes are Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The reds are Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“What’s so big about the Big Six? They are the guts, literally, of about 90 percent of the quality wine sold in this country. The Big Six are everywhere because they can be grown successfully in almost every winemaking country in the world. They are consistently great and they offer something for everyone in terms of style.
“Tasting the Big Six grapes has two purposes. First, you get to know what the wines made from these important grapes taste like. When you taste the Big Six grapes side by side, you will see they are quite distinctive from one another, just as a pear tastes different from an apple. Second, you get to experience body, whether light, medium or full. ‘Body’ is a textural sensation, the feeling of weight, richness and thickness in the mouth. I ask every waiter I teach to learn about wine and to talk about wine in terms of body, whether light, medium or full. People quickly grasp differences in body, weight and intensity in reference to wine, because they have experience in those differences.
“How does body factor in to your Big Six tasting? This simple chart is the bottom line when it comes to teaching waiters. We use this structure and navigate the customer through our wine list:
There are two wine lists utilized at the restaurant: a by the bottle list and their very popular by the glass list. The by the bottle list contains six sparkling wines, ten white wines and 16 red wines. The by the glass list contains a total of 21 wines: three sparkling, nine whites and nine reds.
Mike indicated the most popular wines on their lists are:
- Grayson Chardonnay: Brilliantly ripe and shows bright, brisk acidity and good minerality
with notes of pineapple and apricot.
- Wild South Sauvignon Blanc: Fresh and lifted aromatics with lemongrass, fresh cut chives
with hints of fresh root ginger and citrus zest.
- Pali Pinot Noir: Bing cherry, red raspberry with bright acidity, firm tannins and excellent
- Gomba Barbera D’ Alba: Deep ruby red, fruity scents with a leading note of ripe cherries.
- The Prisoner Red Blend: A blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petite Sirah. Persistent flavors of ripe raspberry, pomegranate and wild berry linger harmoniously for a smooth and luscious finish.
I sampled several of the wines on the list and would recommend these wines:
2011 Grayson Cellars Sonoma County Chardonnay
On the nose there were hints of pineapple and apricot while on the palate flavors of green apple and vanilla. The finish was crisp with good acidity and minerality with a nice length and good after taste. I paired this wine with the week’s featured appetizer: a Brandade de Morue and the jumbo lump crab cake. The Chardonnay was a perfect pairing.
2011 Hunt & Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine is a Cabernet blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot. On the nose there were hints of red fruit and herbs. On the palate there were flavors of cranberries and raspberries. The mouth feel was textured and slightly dry. The finish was balanced and of good length.
2013 The Prisoner Red Wine
This is a blended red wine comprised of 44% Zinfandel, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Sirah, with the remaining 20% being Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay. There is a lot going on with this wine. On the nose there were aromas of red fruit, vanilla and oak. On the palate there were hints of blueberry, expresso and spice. This was a full-bodied red wine with tight tannins, a little spice and a lingering finish with a textured mouth feel.
The Luxbar offers a well thought-out wine list that is a direct result of customer desire and the neighborhood’s wine tastes. The staff is knowledgeable on the wines available and eager to assist. I highly recommend Luxbar for its good food and creative wine list. On your next trip to Chicago be sure and try the restaurant for yourself. You’ll want to call ahead for a reservation (312-642-3400) or go online www.Luxbar.com.
As a side note, Mrs. Tiedemann and I always enjoy the Luxbar mimosas when we are there for brunch.
Upcoming Wine Events:
May 22 – Wine Dinner at Elcona Country Club, Elkhart, featuring White Oak wines
June 11 – Summer Tasting Event at Chalet Party Shoppe on CR 17 in Elkhart (6 to 8 p.m.)
June 23 – Lucchese’s, Elkhart featuring craft beer from Iechyd Da and wines from the Tiedemann Wines portfolio (TiedemannOnWines Sponsored Event), 6:30 p.m.
July 11 – 13th Annual Charity Tasting Event & Silent Auction at Chalet Party Shoppe on CR 17 in Elkhart (2 to 5 p.m.)
Until next week,