Recently joined a couple of friends for a wine dinner—in vogue these days with many Chicago restaurants—at Geja’s Café, 340 W. Armitage. Getting out of the cab I felt like I was on a trendy New York street. The restaurant itself is situated below sidewalk level, but it has a spacious patio at that level so you don’t feel like you’re going underground.
Once inside, however, you definitely get the feeling of a dark, Spanish wine cave. The place is divided into lots of little spaces with dark dividers and heavy curtains. In fact, even the wine diners were broken up into a dozen different intimate areas with low lighting glowing orange inside black latticed fixtures. There’s a very small and cozy bar in the midst of it all where you can wait while your table is prepared. We enjoyed our pre-dinner glass of chardonnay for a few minutes—weren’t there long, but the bartender seemed friendly.
After we were seated, the host explained why it was so chilly in the place. If we’d never been to a mass fondue event, we wouldn’t realize that we’d soon be getting quite warm from the heat of all those flaming sterno burners. And indeed we did. And we could still hear the sound of the live flamenco guitar player softly strumming in the other room.
First we had a salad of crisp greens with a flavorful vinaigrette dressing. Good! Then came the cheese fondue. A creamy, melty mass of Gruyere cheese, deliciously flavored with white wine, Kirsch cherry brandy and spices. We speared and dunked chunks of assorted breads as well as apple wedges. I wished I didn’t know how fattening it was—and that we had more courses to go—or I could’ve happily made that dish my whole meal.
Meanwhile, we were poured small glasses of Kim Crawford wines throughout the meal. Their Marlborough sauvignon blanc with the cheese and their Marlborough Pinot Noir with the main event—beef, chicken and shrimp in generous quantities along with fresh vegetables. The place was really warming up now as they brought out the fondue pots full of simmering oil, two for the three of us so the oil wouldn’t cool off too much from cooking too many bites at once. No one mentioned it at the time, but I see on their website we could’ve requested simmering vegetable broth instead of oil. Nice option.
Everything was good quality and tasty, though the eight different dipping sauces didn’t do as much for the food as I’d hoped. I couldn’t remember what all the flavors were so I called and checked: barbeque, dill, apricot, dragon sauce (like a spicy aioli), garlic butter, teriyaki, chili garlic, and horseradish.
Lastly we had their chocolate fondue for dessert served with the KC Central Otaga Pinot Noir—nice pairing. We had little mounds of strawberries, apples, bananas, pineapple, and pound cake for dipping, plus marshmallows we could roast in the flames and eat with the chocolate and some graham crackers. Again, the chocolate was good and the fruits and so on were fresh and tasty.
This is a romantic spot, and the fondue-ing is fun. First date. Something different. Our dinner with all the wine pairings was reasonably priced at $55 (including tax and tip). But if you go a la carte, the prices can add up—here’s Geja’s regular menu. And don’t fail to experience the cheese pot when you go!