(Since this post, sadly, Vera, has closed. It really was a favorite of mine but I think probably better suited for a New York City mentality than Chicago which is why I loved it. But Vera was a wine and food community and that spirit will live on. Look for where Liz and Mark Mendez-currently now at Arbor with Leonard Hollander, go. They are 2 highly talented people.) 8/16/17
When it comes to wine bars, I immediately think of Paris, which is full of them. I miss places like Semilla (a restaurant started by 2 wine shop owners). Or I miss New York and the variety of wine bars like natural wine bar Ten Bells, which I felt a bit not hip enough to be in but the variety of wines offered BTG was incredible. Wine bar is somewhat of a misnomer. For me, a wine bar is a place where you can get wines BTG or BTB, serves small plates, is small and is wine centric, there is a wine culture. A wine bar is a place that is versatile, elegant but relaxed, where you can have a date night, a rendezvous with old friends or dine solo. Wine bars can be restaurants but not all restaurants are wine bars. Two places that fill the bill for me in Chicago and I would go to once a week if they were closer are Vera Chicago and Autre Monde in Berwyn.
It is hard to recreate the small nooks and crannies of Paris or New York. In Paris, small places are just part of the culture.
And it is hard to attract a large enough following in Chicago to offer so many different wines BTG including sherries like the amazing selections at Ten Bells. New York has the concentrated population that will cram itself into small spaces.
In Chicago everything is bigger, the neighborhoods are spread apart and there is space, which is great for quality of life but it makes small restaurants extra neighborhood centric. Vera and Autre Monde are both places worth getting out of your neighborhood for and visiting or just checking out if you are in town and want a place with a great relaxing yet sophisticated wine vibe.
Vera has been noted as one of the best Spanish restaurants in the US by Timeout. Liz Mendez, owner and sommelier has received numerous awards including the 2016 Jean Banchet Best Sommelier, she knows her wine (still and fortified) cider and beer, too. I sometimes think of Vera as sherry central. Her husband, owner and Chef Mark Mendez was previously the chef of Carnivale and has an eye for ingredients.
You notice it in his Instagram or Facebook posts. He has the appreciation, the experience and the contacts for sourcing really good ingredients. I know this first hand through one of my other blogging activities, the sustainable food blog, The Local Beet Chicago. Mark has been a huge supporter of the farmers and farmers markets in Chicago. But quality ingredients go hand in hand with good wine. He has the deft of hand and craft to make a kale salad really tasty that you could eat it all the time and to create really crusty, delicious paella which changes all the time depending on the ingredients of the week. I could go on about the plates that I love, it just depends on my hunger at the time, budget, and will power: boquerones (anchovies), the tomato bread, the steak, the kale salad, the cheese plate…
But for me the thing that differentiates Vera is that it has a relaxing, welcoming yet at the same time, highly polished food and wine vibe. The entire FOH staff know their wine, they are studying it, they love it and it shows. So when I am missing New York or missing Paris, that feeling of having a plate of tasty food and a really good glass of wine, I go into Vera.
As mentioned previously, I consider Liz Mendez the sherry ambassador and she does offer a wide range.
When I traveled through Spain during college I didn’t have my wine goggles on so I wasn’t as aware or focused on the local beverages. I always find it fun to try things that I don’t know that much about and sipping at Vera offers an experience to be wine curious and learn and taste new things. If you can’t go to Jerez, Spain you might as well let Jerez come to you and then you can determine for yourself if a fino does taste fresher than an amontillado or oloroso.
I would rather be sipping fino in a tapas bar in Jerez but dining at Vera is the next best thing in Chicago. As one of my dining companions did, sherry was not her thing so she ordered port. Liz recently held a Portugese wine dinner. Wines (from all over the world), beer and some spirits are on the beverage list as well. The overriding factor is that if you have never eaten octopus you will love their octopus. Christy Fuhrman, sommelier at Vera will steer you towards a beverage that you will love, that is for sure!
Autre Monde, coincidentally, meaning “another world” in French is a place you walk into and think “I’m not in Berwyn/Chicago anymore”. It’s helmed by 2 highly experienced husband and wife teams: owners, John Aranza was a sommelier at Spiaggia and Christine Tully Aranza had been a manager at Tony Mantuano’s Tuttoposto, partners, Chefs Dan Pancake and Beth Partridge had been chefs at Cafe Spiaggia and Spiaggia.
I went to Autre Monde recently on a media outing to try out their new Spring menu celebrating their 5th anniversary. I had heard great things about Autre Monde over the years from my sustainable food doings at Edible Chicago and the Local Beet. They were featured on an episode of Check, Please. I knew they were very dedicated to farmers and farmers markets and word of mouth was raving about their food. I had been meaning to go for a long time. It is about a 20 minute straight shot drive/uber/taxi from downtown Chicago west on Roosevelt Road to Berwyn. In fact, they periodically host a farmers/craft market in their outdoor space.
Autre Monde is another world. The food and beverage focus is Mediterranean based which brings up thoughts of Spain/Barcelona, France/Provence, Greece and Italy.
For me thoughts of warm places and beautiful beaches make me happy. It makes me conjure up fresh seafood, vegetables and fruit. Well, the Spring menu by Chefs Dan Pancake and Beth Partridge and Chef de Cuisine Andrew Kerns evokes those thoughts.
I WILL get to the wine by the way. But the menu offers a variety of size plates that you can make a small or large meal depending on your appetite, budget and will power. Plates like the fluke crudo were fresh, crisp and said spring.
We tried the shrimp dolmades and the battered hake. The amish chicken with housemade merguez sausage, spinach, quinoa and harissa was really, really good. I did not try the lamb below or take the picture (which is why the picture is lovely). I will have to order the lamb next time.
Okay, the wine at Autre Monde. I had no idea before visiting how wine centric Autre Monde was. They are cocktail centric as well with Becci Visconti West as their mixologist. It makes sense that John Aranza would have such an intriguing wine list given his roots from Spiaggia. I know from classmates in my WSET programs, that Spiaggia has a wine culture and every FOH person knows their wine.
Maybe it because I was in the middle of my French Wine Scholar program but I was thrilled that John had wines from the Jura and Northwest Italy, Alto Adige and Friuli on his list. It is not easy (I didn’t say impossible) to find these wines BTG in Chicago. Like this wine from Emilio Bulfon, Friuli made of the indigneous grape Piculit Neri. The beautiful label references a fresco found in a nearby church.
I find it fun and interesting to taste wines from the nooks and crannies of the French/Italian wine world. They are places I would love to visit at some point. So if you are wine curious, Autre Monde is a great place to checkout. Now that the weather is better, you can dine alfresco in their beautiful outdoor space and ponder over a great cocktail or intriguing glass of wine and delicious food, thoughts of happy places, trips to be taken with friends and family. Good food and good wine makes for happy people. If a trip to the Mediterranean isn’t in your near future, you can at least dine like you are there at Autre Monde.