Despite being one of the most cutting-edge, urbane and diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, Wicker Park has always been distinctly ethnic. Yes, a Hollywood film featured John Cusack running a neighborhood record store, and the Rolling Stones played an “unannounced” gig at the Double Door. But, there are the more hardscrabble aspects of Wicker Park’s legacy that are uniquely Chicago, and they provide a glimpse of the American immigrant experience, too.
The area was once predominantly German, and has also been inhabited by a significant population of Czechs and Poles. A vibrant Puerto Rican culture made itself known in the middle of the 20th century. The Polish community might have contributed the most enduring imprint of the European groups. For years, the Polish-owned Busy Bee (now closed) was a fixture of the neighborhood – a simple, convivial diner under the Damen “L” stop.
Yet it was the Busy Bee that was (indirectly) a springboard for the eclectic LOKaL Restaurant. One of LOKaL’s co-owners, Polish-born Gosia Pieniazek, was a hostess at the Busy Bee. But her experiences in both places – and in African Zambia – provided an appreciation of international culture.
And, although LOKaL features an all-European wine list, the experience there pays homage to aspects both global and local. To wit, one item on its menu stands out as a culinary microcosm of this: Potato pierogi, bourbon date sauce, with shallot, tomato.
Another co-owner – and Pieniazek’s husband – Artur Wnorowski, has made a name in the music industry. His selection of music adds a most colorful touch to LOKaL, as do his selections for the aforementioned wine list. Recently, Value Wine Chicago sat down with Mr. Wnorowski – along with LOKaL’s enthusiastic wine purveyor, Dan Fullick, to discuss the wine list, industry trends and the value sector.
Value Wine Chicago: What is the philosophy behind building the wine list at LOKaL? Was the plan for LOKaL’s identity to be associated with wine?
Artur Wnorowski: We wanted to reach out to regions that are not immediately accessible to a lot of people. Our goal was to not only be unique, but to be strictly European as well.
Dan Fullick: There’s quite a bit of value in lesser-known Italian varietals, particularly from southern Italy and Sicily, and from specific places like Campania, Abruzzo and Puglia.
VWC: Is the decision to go solely with European wines meant to maintain a consistency with your European theme and menu here at LOKaL?
AW: Yes, and in addition to the Italian wines from lesser-known areas, we bring in Austrian wines and Hungarian wines – which are not often found on most wine lists, either.
VWC: There is a trend among wine consumers to try new things, while also being turned off by exclusivity. What went into the development of the by-the-glass list – which really emphasizes the different… the obscure?
AW: We went strictly by how they tasted, and by how they would go with many different items, because our menu is a progressive one. It’s always changing and developing. Our list is large and varied, but manageable, so we can pick and choose based on the entrees being added. We’re adaptable.
DF: Some people get too married to a specific wine or varietal, or how it’s supposed to be paired with a specific dish. Then, when the white truffles aren’t available next week, what do you do? So, you have to have wines that do two things. First, they need to be really obvious off the cork. The guest sits down, has a glass of wine, and doesn’t know what they’re going to order from the menu yet. So, the wine needs to be really good in the glass. Secondly, the wine needs to be flexible enough to go with the direction of the chef, and with specific entrees, which at LOKaL, are being added to the ever-changing menu.
AW: We do Monday tastings, because the changes to the menu always occur on Mondays. And, we also do seasonal menus, so our fall menu is really coming together. Yet, it will go through minor changes every Monday.
VWC: What specific wines have recently made an impression on you and your customers?
AW: We have done very well with the Prosecco on our list, the Terre Gale NV. It’s something that’s still off the beaten path, and European, too. It’s a gorgeous glass of sparkling wine.
VWC: What would you recommend as an ideal pairing for those on a budget – both a white and red wine – that can be purchased for $15 or less at retail?
AW: For a white, I’d recommend the Oro De Castilla Verdelho, with our seared scallops, flavored with leeks and pineapple.
For a red, I like the Terravecchia Primitivo, with our N.Y. Strip steak. And our customers really enjoy this wine, too — not just me.