Cheers to Chicago’s Wine Restaurants
By Amy Lively Jensen
There are two new wine restaurants in Chicago that are unique and worth exploring: El Che and Chicago Winery. After experiencing them, passing along these recommendations feels like a moral imperative.
El Che features wood-fired Argentinian fare and has America’s only 100% South American wine list. Chicago Winery is a urban winery, tasting room and restaurant.
The sprawling 24,000 square foot Chicago Winery is the newest addition to Chicago’s urban wine scene. It is distinctive for making small batch, boutique wines on site; a tasting room; tours of the winemaking facilities; private event space and a fine-dining restaurant. At their River North location, the design and architecture are inspired by Chicago’s history of being a national transportation hub in the 1800s through the early 1900s and the Golden Age of passenger train travel. Warm wood, black and gold details, deep jewel tones, archways and fireplaces create a cozy setting. Chicago Winery is the third and largest winery helmed by 1st Batch Hospitality Group with other locations in Brooklyn, New York and Washington, DC.
On the first floor, you’ll find the tasting room, production and barrel room, a 25-seat wrap around bar and lounge and the excellent restaurant Liva. A winding staircase connects the public settings to the opulent private events space. The glamorous area is already popular for weddings, corporate events and cocktail parties. Up to three hundred guests can enjoy a party here. It has a huge skylight and floor to ceiling windows to bring the outside in. The second-floor terrace has retractable windows so it can be used year-round and it offers Chicago skyline views.
As the first winery in downtown Chicago, visitors can tour the wine making areas and try the impressive wines in their tasting room where walk-ins are welcome. Executive Director of Winemaking Conor McCormack explained their winemaking process: “We received our first fruit in the fall of 2022. We bottled 1546 cases (18,552 bottles) of wine. We bottle some wines within 10 months, while others take 22 months to age. We produce exceptional wines, allowing them the proper time to age and not cut any corners.” Some of the wines that caught our attention were an off-dry Alsatian-styled Riesling, a brambly and silky spice-infused Zinfandel along with an earthy crafted Merlot.
In 2022, they brought in Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Mourvedre, Syrah, Graciano, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. You can soon taste the first Chicago Winery wine to be released: the 2022 Sauvignon Blanc. “We always strive to craft dynamic wines with the balance and versatility to accompany and improve the meals, events and all other occasions in life that bring people together,” said McCormack.
Chicago Winery’s restaurant Liva has cuisine that accents the wines they feature. The shared plates are the culmination of the experiences of Chef Andrew Graves. His recent kitchen credentials include the world-renowned restaurant Alinea. While some describe Liva’s cuisine as midwestern, Chef Graves says he applies his classical training to bring a European sense to food production. The cuisine is centered around the winemaking process.
The restaurant seats 175 where guests can see into the wine fermentation room. The menu is divided into three sections: vegetables, seafood and meats. Some notable dishes include the venison tartare with huckleberry, pumpernickel and wild rice; a whole branzino with celery root slaw, mussels, clams and saffron broth; and the 52-ounce steak Florentine with Calabrian chilies and charred peppers. Chef Graves has a favorite dish, although he says “it’s hard to pick a dish because I’m personally invested in each of them. Currently I think it is the short rib with black garlic sauce. I love the tender, comforting braised short rib dusted with everything umami sitting in a silky smooth, sweet and funky black garlic sauce. Then the pickles on top add a nice bit of acidity to cut through everything to keep the palate from fatiguing as you eat it.”
The creative menu offers “The Chef’s Whim.” This is a mix of everything on the meat and cheese menu, along with pickled vegetables and fruit compotes made in house. My favorite on this board was the smoked fish dip. “This is a deeply rooted dish in the upper Midwest where I grew up,” explained Chef Graves. “My Dad had an affinity for smoked chubs. The fish is often bony, so it’s not good for nice portions to grill or pan fry. The best thing to do is smoke it, pick the meat off the bones and mix it into a dip to be served with bread or chips.” It is irresistible.
“Having a winery attached to the restaurant gives us many opportunities to get involved with the winemaking process, especially during harvest and crush. We take every opportunity to find uses for the byproducts we come across. We have taken some of the pressed grape juice and leftover pumice to make saba, which is a reduction of those byproducts into a syrup that pairs well with many things like roasted meats and cheeses.”
El Che Steakhouse
El Che, which is in the West Loop opened in 2016 and closed during the pandemic, as most restaurants did. They used this time to rethink their menu concept and wine offerings. When they reopened in April of 2021, dramatic changes greeted their customers. They showcased Chicago premium beef with South American flavor, plus grilled seafood and more; all are cooked over an open fire. Their wine portfolio now includes a list of over 400 South American wines, in addition to retail wine sales. They came out of Covid on top and are busier than ever.
When you walk into El Che at night, the notable ambience of the South American-inspired décor is welcoming. It is mainly lit by candles at the table and the fire from the grill. The mouth-watering aroma of grilling beef foreshadows the sumptuous meal which awaits you.
The essence of the restaurant is a 12-foot open fire grill. Use of the custom-made wood-fired grill is incorporated into every menu item. Executive Chef and partner John Manion is also known as the Chief Fire Watcher. He was born in Brazil and traveled to Argentina often, growing up in the grilling culture. He brought the tradition of the Asado to El Che. An Asado is a gathering of family and friends for a backyard barbeque. Using an open fire or grill, they expertly grill beef, pork, chicken, organs, sausages and more. This fun-filled feast takes several hours to prepare before serving.
Chef Manion’s creations have earned accolades, including the Open Table Diners’ Choice award, being named in the Chicago Tribune’s Top 50 restaurants and Conde Nast Travel’s Best Restaurants in Chicago. It’s not a surprise that Michelin star restaurant chefs love to come here. This is a serious gourmet experience.
For our visit, we chose the 10-course culinary adventure with wine pairings. I must admit that having eaten beef in Mendoza, Argentina, Chef Manion’s grilled beef equals the ultimate quality, tenderness and flavors there. Steaks at El Che range from eight ounces to 48 ounces. Other favorites include the apple sweet, seared scallops, empanadas with truffle, smoky flavored oysters with bacon, cauliflower gratin, delicately seasoned Wagyu steak tartare and the molten lava cake with coconut ice cream. My hands-down favorite was the grilled quail with 27 spices. It was spicy, sweet and savory. This small bird is notoriously hard to cook since it dries out quickly; their quail was extremely moist and mouth watering. Many guests have declared this the best meal of all time. Add impeccable service and exceptional hospitality to their wow-worthy fare, and you have a top-notch restaurant.
They will be opening a new restaurant in late fall in West Town. It will still feature South American wines and live fire cooking, but with a more Brazilian bent. In addition to their steaks, they will feature more seafood, especially shellfish.
Food is not the only thing that is noteworthy at El Che. They have developed a 100% South American wine list. It has not gone unnoticed by national critics. El Che received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2021 and 2022. They have been lauded as the World’s Best South American Wine List. General Manager and wine connoisseur Alex Cuper curated the 400-bottle wine list over the past three years. “We showcase the smaller producers who produce unique wines. I like to watch a diner’s facial expressions change to delight with the first sip of a remarkable wine they never before tasted.”
“This is an underrepresented wine region,” continued Cuper. “We showcase wines from small, family-owned wineries. Our staff has extensive education on these wines so they can recommend ones to suit our diners’ tastes.” Included in the well thought out wine list is an extensive selection of red and white wines by the glass, in addition to a section titled “Wine director selections.” The wines were all affordably priced, which can be rather unusual in this market. We were thoroughly amazed by the pairings including an exotic Albarino from Uruguay and an unusually, decadent Barbera from Barreal, Argentina. Before departing, we purchased a bottle of each to reminisce over dinner at a future date. For a deeper dive into South American wines, El Che has monthly wine dinners and a curated wine club.
Both El Che and Chicago Winery are wine and food lovers’ destinations. You won’t be disappointed