There’s a huge difference between the concepts of contrast and clash. Uncorking a bottle of tannic Cabernet Sauvignon to serve with Lake Superior Whitefish would produce the latter (although Chicago Budget Wine Examiner has seen it done before). But contrast is something with a little more nuance.
Restaurant Benjamin, a new restaurant in north suburban Highland Park, has taken the subtleties of contrast to a whole new level. A hip, urban-inspired décor welcomes guests who have spent the last few minutes (or even most of their lives) in the conventional nest of Chicago’s North Shore. Lanterns imported from Hungary overlook tables made of American hardwood. The bar spent its former life as a sideboard in Asia.
And the food and wine? There’s the emphasis on locally sourced products, but an international influence throughout: Farm-to-table meets Wagyu; California red wines share cellar space with whites from Washington and Michigan.
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner sat down with Benjamin’s General Manager, Mike Brockob recently, wanting to see how a symphony can be produced from such varied interludes:
Chicago Budget Wine Examiner: Tell me about the philosophy behind Benjamin and its menu. What’s the niche you’ve tried to develop here?
Mike Brockob: We’re certainly bringing the city into the suburbs. Our décor is meant to have more of an urban feel, not just of a Chicago restaurant, but of New York, too – with the long, narrow room. Our menu offers fresh ingredients from the most local sources possible – a farm-to-fork philosophy. And it makes sense. It’s good for local farmers, it’s good for our customers, and it’s good for us – a win-win for all involved. We’ve been to some of the farms, and seen the animals that we will turn around and prepare for our guests. We’re not trying to be a stuffy, white tablecloth place. We embrace the rustic. We serve high-end product – such as Wagyu sirloin. At most formal places or high-end steak houses, that would be a $90 cut of meat… we sold it for $40. The animal was actually sourced from Kansas City, MO. But, it was actually Kobe from Japan. It was sent out because of all of the earthquake problems in the country, and the situation in Japan wasn’t suitable for the animal to return. So, we had the sirloin for such a great value.
CBWE: The weak economy just keeps enduring, and wine consumer behavior has been profoundly affected. How have you accounted for that when selecting wines for your list?
MB: Even though people are being more careful, that doesn’t justify my going mainstream. I like bringing in wines from smaller houses and wineries. These producers can provide better value because the properties are paid for; they don’t have a loan. They can drop their bottle prices and provide it to the restaurateur at a great deal. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people in this business, and still work with a lot of those same [purveyors], and obtain some of the same deals as in years past. Wine purchasing habits have been affected by the economy, but people are still embracing wine as a beverage and happily drinking it. It’s nice to see that people in America are embracing the wine culture more and more.
CBWE: Any obscure varietals or regions capture your attention lately? There are Michigan and Washington wines on your list…What do the guests think?
MB: People are exploring for new wines. If anything good has come out of the bad economy, it’s that people are ready and willing to try different wines. Everyone is looking for the next good deal. And, it’s great to be able to carry a Cinsault or an obscure Spanish wine. Everyone is looking to Spain for great deals. Our Michigan white, Fishtown White, goes with our local theme. People often think of Michigan wines as fruity and sweet, but that’s not the case with this wine. Michigan produces some really great product right now, and I want to showcase that. People who are age 30-50 are the ones willing to explore the most, too. Now, you need the Chimney Rock Cab and wines like it to serve to the Highland Park or Lake Forest guests – people who aren’t going to be taken with the Cinsault or Grenache Blancs. Hey, Chimney Rock makes a beautiful wine, too.
CBWE: In your own words, what’s the difference between value wine, and wine that’s simply inexpensive.
MB: A value wine is something very special for the money. It’s something you’re proud to share with friends. A good wine is made very well – almost painstakingly by the producer. You want that type of quality, and you don’t want it to be mass produced. Anybody can make lots of [bulk juice] and keep it inexpensive. That’s not crafted wine, or true to the practice.
CBWE: Any specials or promotions? If so, what?
MB: We offer five selections of very high-end wines that we pour by the glass for $20 per glass. This promotion is available any night. We have Brunellos and Super Tuscans, some beautiful Santa Barbara Pinot Noir – the kind of stuff you just don’t find by the glass. Sometimes, people just don’t want the whole bottle, and I understand that.
CBWE: Please suggest your favorite wines – both a white and a red – that cost less than $18 at retail. What’s your favorite dish to pair with each wine?
MB: For a white wine, I really enjoy Star Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. It starts off with a lot of white peach, then more traditional citrus flavors – lemon with a hint of grapefruit. It’s varietally sound, and very balanced. I would pair it with our Grouper Papilotte, which is accented with fennel and herbs. This wine really complements the herb seasonings.
Yamhill’s 2008 Pinot Noir would be my choice for a red wine. It’s an Oregon Pinot, from the Willamette Valley, and it’s really versatile. It’s the winery’s 25th anniversary vintage. Personally, I think it goes with our eclectic beef bone marrow, which has a bacon and onion jam, a parsely salad and a baguette. There’s a lot of earthy tones, plus mushroom and forest floor notes.