Belgian cuisine is often caught in the crosshairs between the stick-to-the-ribs style and huge portions of German cooking and the world-renowned, incomparable French styles. This has led to an aspect of obscurity. Yeah, imagine that: Obscurity being illuminated in this space!
But just as Belgium was periodically absorbed, overtaken and used as a thoroughfare by German and French armies in the previous century, things are different now. The country is the center for diplomacy in the European Union.
And yet, some traditions live on, despite Belgium’s modern role as the EU’s host. There’s a historic phrase that captures both the auf deine and the joyeux de vivre of the Belgians: “Work like the Germans; live like the French.” The blending of these two precepts has a decidedly strong influence on Leopold, a mega-popular and modern Belgian restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Beer as a no-nonsense, culinary touchstone? Ja! Artful braises and decadent terrines? The French nod their approval. Wines that push the envelope? Yep!
More to the point: Josh Kaplan, Leopold’s assistant general manager, certainly has the epicurean background and expertise to command the program for almost any restaurant. To wit, it is fortunate that such a culinary/cultural mingling has someone such as Kaplan at the helm: Star Chefs has recognized him as a “Rising Star Sommelier.”
Better yet, the softly well-spoken Kaplan – whose father is acclaimed restaurant critic Sherman Kaplan – prefers things more low key. His passion for fine food and wine is instantly made plain – but not with flailing hands or burning eyes. And while a serious student of fine cuisine and wine, he is not aloof or pedantic. He’ll talk about music, wine shops, “the little guy,” and Chicago restaurants with warmth and familiarity.
Value Wine Chicago had a chance to chat with the jeans-and-Doc-Martens-clad sommelier for a discussion about haute casual, Leopold’s bold take on Belgian cooking and how value wine traverses this experience:
Value Wine Chicago: You have both a personal history and a pedigree in Chicago’s restaurant and wine culture. What made you choose Leopold, a new restaurant, after stints at James Beard Award-winning restaurants, plus all your personal accolades?
Josh Kaplan: I really wanted to get into something more casual. That’s something that really suits me personally. Not just attire, but in the approach. That doesn’t mean to not appreciate or love great wine and food. But, as I’ve gotten older, I just don’t like the suit-and-tie aspect of fine dining as much as I used to. I learned so much in the [formal] setting, but now it’s time to take that knowledge and apply it to a different context.
VWC: What’s your philosophy, then, in crafting this particular wine list? How does it pair with Belgian cuisine, which is often obscured by that of its European neighbors?
JK: First of all, this beverage program is collaborative – our owner, Christy Agee, actually selected the wines for our list. Christy’s philosophy and mine are pretty much the same: Look for organic, biodynamic wines. And our culinary and beverage philosophy run parallel. We emphasized French and German wines initially, but as the list has evolved, some New World wines have been added. But, we still plan to emphasize the Old World overall.
VWC: Mussels (Moules) & Pommes Frites is a staple Belgian dish. What would you pair with that?
JK: We do two preparations. One that’s a little different features pork cheeks and leeks. It’s steamed in beer, but not all that brothy; just a lot of cheeks and leeks. A wine I would pair with this is a newer discovery of mine from the Loire: Saint Pourcain Tressallier. As Sauvignon Blanc is to grapefruit, this is more along the lines of lime. It’s bright, and really crisp and lean.
VWC: Tell me your two favorite wines, a white and a red, priced at less than $15 at retail.
JK: For a white, I like the 2009 Qupe Marsanne (from Santa Barbara County) – it’s really light and crisp – which is not the usual profile for a Marsanne. I’d pair it with our braised endive, which has garlic cream and gouda cheese. The bright acid of the wine and orange peel aspects will cut through the richness of the dish. For a red, I recommend the 2007 Château Ollieux Romanis, Corbieres Classique’, Carignan-Syrah-Grenache from the Languedoc. This would be ideal with our steak tartare. We make our tartare from dry-aged Strip Steak, with a medium dice. The Corbieres is a midweight, fruity red with just enough richness, but not overpowering – a nice Southern Rhône red.