The underground dinner scene in Chicago is not new. Nowadays, most of us foodies – and non-foodies – can find an off-the-radar dinner happening in many neighborhoods throughout the city. The challenge has now become finding a dinner that is truly unique not only in its cuisine, but also in its atmosphere. Last month, I had the privilege of experiencing a dinner that is setting itself apart in both style and class. Culinary Speakeasy, a joint venture between business partners Valerie Bolon and Rachel Winpar is a true gourmet experience. Not only does the menu compete with any fine dining restaurant in the city, its setting offers an intimate, swanky Chicago experience. Each dinner is served to thirty guests in Rachel’s River North apartment equipped with five balconies which cater to stunning views of the Chicago skyline. Her kitchen, which she designed to replicate that of a professional restaurant, is breathtaking…for the novice and inexperienced cook alike. Switching careers after eighteen years of service in entertainment law, Rachel pursued a degree in culinary arts and became a recognized personal chef in Chicago. After an article was published about Rachel in Today Chicago Woman’s Magazine, where Valerie Bolon had also recently been featured as a certifiable top chef (all jokes aside, she was a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef) in her own right, she reached out to Rachel and their partnership began. Having worked together for over eight years, Culinary Speakeasy was born in 2009.
The idea, according to Rachel, was “to provide a fabulous meal in a lovely and relaxed atmosphere”. What sets them apart from other underground experiences is their food. Everything is made in house using local and organic ingredients when possible and both Rachel and Valerie create the menu each month. Hors d’oeuvres are always served first followed by a seasonally themed five course meal.
For October’s fall inspired menu, bright and silky seared scallop with pear compote was served as an amuse bouche followed by crisp and tangy vegetarian egg rolls. A pistachio crusted salmon filet served on top of roasted garlic braised escarole topped with a smoky yet sweet mustard demi-glace was the mouthwatering first course followed by a zesty curried carrot soup crowned with a dollop of horseradish/chive cream. Next, and probably my favorite of the evening, was a braised brisket ravioli served with creamed spinach and fried sweet potatoes.
If that wasn’t enough, the fourth course knocked it out of the water- a spiced pork shoulder, purple twice baked potato, and glazed turnips enveloped my palette with all of the sweet joys of fall. Roasted crab apple served with maple ice cream and oozing with a Gunniess butterscotch and marshmallow cream topped with spied pecan clusters was served for dessert. I mean… seriously.
Wine is always brought in by an outside vendor and is available to be purchased for dinner that night. This past dinner, Dean from Cellar Rat Wine Shop in Bucktown opened the event with a Q&A about his wines offering an educational and interesting start to an elegant evening. While getting a behind the scenes view from the kitchen, it was clear that although there was a seriousness about what was happening, there was also a sense of community and family. Rachel and Valerie’s staff worked together seamlessly to provide an exquisite meal to their eager guests.
Outside, the conversation was food focused as well. As the night grew on and guests lingered into the kitchen, the atmosphere turned into a more familiar scene where strangers became friends. Rachel and Valerie greeted guests as if they had known them forever. Hugs and more wine were given generously as guests peered out onto the balconies and lingered over conversation, licking their spoons and beaming over an excellent meal. “If its not fun, its not worth it”, said Valerie as the night came to a close and the duo recovered after another successful dinner. Most exciting is that Valerie and Rachel are planning their first ever New Years Eve dinner this year. You can find details on their website or by signing up for the Culinary Speakeasy newsletter.