Changing Flavors at City Winery

February 08 2013 - 12:00 PM

I recently had the chance to sit down for a chat with City Winery Chicago‘s Executive Chef, Andres Barrera. If you’re not familiar with City Winery, it’s the gigantic winery/restaurant/music venue located in the West Loop. The winery itself is beautifully housed in a former food distribution warehouse, hints of which you can see throughout the space in the reclaimed wood, exposed brick and century-old windows. The winery (the original location is in New York) opened back in August to some less-than-stellar reviews. Complaints about lackluster service and bland food quickly made the rounds in the Chicago food scene, putting a flaw in the venue’s reputation. After spending four years at City Winery New York, Chef Barrera was sent back to his hometown of Chicago in December to help manage operations and implement new menus at the winery.

One of the main challenges when Chef Barrera came onboard was the way in which Chicago patrons were enjoying the City Winery space. While the original  menu was based on a traditional three-course meal, people tended to use the winery as a space where they could relax and enjoy a leisurely meal. This meant changing the menu to a small plates or tapas-style format. The process of changing the menu included the Chef’s philosophy of encouraging his staff to exhibit their creative freedom; he even holds creative contests for new menu items. The culinary staff members at City Winery are either still in culinary school or are recent graduates. In fact, I learned the pastry chef is 19-year-old Hillary Grossman, who is finishing her training at Kendall College.

Chef Barrera’s focus for the small plates menu was to include food influenced by the wine-producing regions of the world. The menu itself is also split up according to the type of wine it is best paired with. One of the main differences between the New York and Chicago menus is a smaller focus in Chicago on seafood. Chef Barrera quickly learned just how expensive it can be to secure fresh seafood in Chicago versus New York. Working with other chefs in Chicago he crafted a menu with a focus on local seafood such as whitefish, and meat heavy dishes. Interestingly, Chef Barrera noted how Chicago patrons were less interested in vegetarian (e.g. tofu) dishes and vegetables and more interested in pork-centric mains.

While the average age of the kitchen staff at City Winery may invoke apprehension in most, I was able to taste the food first-hand.  I went in with an open mind and palate to enjoy the Chicago Restaurant Week menu. The four course menu included “the best of the best” from the regular menu and offered the ability to sample two small plates per course. From cheese and charcuterie plates and fresh burrata, to seasoned scallops and perfectly fork-tender short rib, I was impressed. Everything we had was delicious, flavorful and perfectly cooked.

My only complaint was the size of the physical plates we dined off. The miniscule plates meant my fork and knife would constantly slide off, resulting in sauces being splattered on the table. The wine pairings were generous; however, I wasn’t too pleased by the first two glasses, perhaps because they were very light in body. I also found them to be too acidic. I enjoyed the later Malbec and Pinot Noir pairings .

The $33 pre-fixe price tag was appropriate, however, the regular prices for food run on the pricey side, and a glass of wine from their tap will run you around $12. The restaurant quickly filled up to the point where nearly every table was taken, however, I’d be curious to know if it’d be just as crowded if it were a normal Wednesday night and not Restaurant Week.

Looking forward to the weeks ahead, Chef Barrera is already preparing a spring menu to be unveiled sometime toward the end of March, as well as a Passover dinner. Opening of the winery’s enormous patio space, as well as movie nights in collaboration with Music Box films, are also in the works for spring.

Have you checked out City Winery recently? What has your experience been like?