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Top 2 trendy ways to sample restaurant fare: Wine dinners and prix fixe menus

Wine Dinners

Doesn't it feel warm and welcoming at Wildfire?
Barbara Payne

Wine dinners are all the rage in Chicago. If you haven’t been to one yet, this is where the chef at a particular restaurant showcases his/her talents by creating a multi-course dinner and pairing each course with a specific wine, usually selections from a single winemaker.

The prize with wine dinners is that you normally pay a lower price to try more dishes than you might typically order for dinner. You also get to taste more wines than most of us are ever likely to order in whole glasses at one meal. So plan your transport home accordingly.

You’re likely to meet others because at wine dinners you’re seated with others. And not surprisingly, people tend to get friendlier at these occasions than at many others.

Here are a couple of examples of wine dinners to consider.

Wildfire and Petterino’s

The fireplace and dark wood walls at the downtown location of Wildfire, 159 W. Erie, make a very warm welcome when you walk in. But wine dinners here take place in their party room – a nice space on its own that’s designed to make you feel like you’re at a private party. A recent occasion was sampling the wines of Ferrari-Carano and featuring the chef’s admirable creations. Altogether a top-notch experience.

Appetizers included scallops with a ginger glaze nestled in tiny phyllo-dough cups – fresh and cleansing, plus mini Panini sandwiches – toasty bread with a tasty smoked-chicken-and-mozzarella filling.

OMG, that night they had the very best lamb chops I’ve ever tasted. I’m not normally a fan of lamb, but these were totally un-gamey – just very juicy with a rich meaty flavor. Beautifully rare loin chops encrusted with truffles and served in a small pool of green apple butter sauce (see pics). Excellent.

The cheese plate was creative – a couple of unusual cheeses and a nice mix of soft, hard, smelly and simple. And the delicious black cherry jelly that came with it could have gone just as well as a fruit topping on a decadent cheesecake. The sweetness of the jelly with the richness of the cheese was lip-smacking good.

My favorite of the Ferrari-Carano wine came with the cheese: Siena, Sonoma County 2011 (about $25). The Chardonnay, Sonoma County 2012 was pretty nice, too. N.B. The Ferrari-Carano rep told us that California had such fabulous growing conditions in 2012 that almost any vintage from that year would be excellent.

Petterino’s, 150 N. Dearborn, put on an Opolo Winery dinner that was a completely different experience. People at wine dinners are usually perfectly happy letting the wine serve as entertainment, but in this case the host treated participants to entertainment. Serenading us throughout the dinner, a roving four-piece group played and sang popular old songs – like Stand by Me – that had many of us singing along. The food was very enjoyable and came in generous servings (see pics).

My favorite wines at the Opolo dinner were their Sangiovese (can’t find it on their website) and the Opolo 2011 Maestro (each about $20).

Prix Fixe Menus

The second trend is for restaurants to offer a prix fixe (pronounced pree feeks – read Mike Royko’s hilarious article about the derivation and pronunciation of this term). Prix fixe dinners are typically designed by the chef to showcase his skills and may be created around a theme. Wine pairings are optional in most cases, and typically comprise wines from different winemakers and regions and chosen by the chef and perhaps the sommelier specifically to complement each dish.

Macku Signature, LM Gastro Bistro

To celebrate its grand opening at 2925 N. Halsted, Macku Signature (a second location of the original Macku on Clybourn) offered a prix fixe menu with wine pairings for a bargain price of $45 per person. This meal was an eye opener – contemporary Japanese cuisine (and a fusion surprise of roasted venison with curry sauce!) – and worth every penny and more.

Each course was more wonderful than the last. The optional wine pairings were interesting and delicious, though a little on the small side. Read my whole wildly exuberant Macku Signature review on the Chicago Restaurant Examiner blog.

You can try another prix fixe at a downtown restaurant with a completely different feel. LM Gastro Bistro at 111 W. Huron, attached to the Hotel Felix, is open for breakfast through dinner. Its chef Ben Reaves serves fine French-accented food in a richly warm set of rooms that glow with soft candlelight and city lights streaming in the big windows. I love the ambiance here, and the food was stellar. At $39 (plus $20 with optional wine pairings) the prix fixe was a bargain and a great way to experience the chef’s skills (he trained at Le Cordon Bleu San Francisco) at this excellent restaurant. Read more about the meal and the ambiance and how often I want to come back on the LM Gastro Bistro review on the Chicago Restaurant Examiner blog.

In short, if you want to get a real feel for a restaurant and pay somewhat less than if you ordered everything a la carte, try a wine dinner (average price $65 to $90 plus tip and tax, but it can run even more if it includes high-end wines) or a prix fixe menu (prices may range from $30 to $100 and up depending on the restaurant and the wine pairings). I highly recommend all of the above as good places to experiment.