Monday, August 15, 2005

Dinner With Pursuit

Last night Mrs. P and I celebrated our 20th anniversary of wedded bliss. Considering that we've now been married for over two decades, it was a low key event. We had exchanged gifts earlier in the week on "the real" day, and then this weekend we went out to dinner with our two daughters. We wanted to include them in our celebration because an anniversary really is about more than marking time. It is a celebration of our union and the life that we have built together. It has been a great twenty years, made all the much better by our kids and they joy the bring to our life.

This isn't about our anniversary though, nor is it about the joys of marriage, or child rearing. Certainly those would be interesting topics, but I'm more interested in dining this afternoon so I thought I'd write a restaurant review. Apologies to those not likely to ever dine in Chicago, but you might enjoy the read anyway. I've always thought dining reviews should contain a narrative, and be more than just the quick hits of who ate what, and whether or not it was any good. Lets see how I do, shall we?

Our choice of restaurants last night was a local spot with two locations in the Chicago area. Bin 36 has been around for a couple of years at this point, and as the name suggests it focuses on wine and food pairings, and has a retail wine shop where you can pick up a bottle or two of something that you've enjoyed at dinner should you be so inclined.

This is a clever marketing approach in that I'm sure it works to provide the desired image that the owners are looking to attain, while simultaneously increasing revenue per square foot. Effectively, Bin 36 is using their image to leverage the sales potential of one of the highest margin items on their menu: wine.

I have no problem with this approach, since establishing a fine dining business is notoriously difficult, and any advantage the owners can use to put their restaurant on strong footing should be considered. Yet I'm also well aware of that unfortunate path some establishments take to raising awareness: The Theme Restaurant.

You've seen these everywhere. From the simple Chuck E. Cheeses to medieval themes all the way up to more upscale chains that thrive on celebrity or worse some sort of "fun" aspect. Island chic, for example. So the question for me going into Bin 36 was this: Is wine a passion, or a gimmick?

Sadly, I came away with the impression that wine was just a means of differentiation. Were it a passion the wait staff would have been more well informed, glassware more differentiated, and attention to detail much better.

This is not to say that Bin 36 is a bad restaurant, because it surely isn't. Instead it is just a very average place, with a decent selection of wine and food that is prepared from ingredients that didn't strike me as being of the highest quality.

Things started out fine for us as we took our seats. The dining room was very attractive with sleek modern finishes and white table cloths. The fact that the staff wore black t-shirts and black jeans was a bit casual for my tastes, but then I'm a snob, and I thought that perhaps Bin 36 was trying to maintain a more approachable image in defiance of those tiresome boors who try to make wine a point of exclusion and class distinction. So bully for Bin 36, encouraging others to take an interest is laudable as long as casualness does not lead to carelessness.

Our waitress provided us with an overview of the night's specials, and left us with a menu, a very large flight list (wines by the glass separated into flights of 4 different wines in a flight), and a bottle list. Although cumbersome, we negotiated our way into the menu first. In general the dishes seemed fairly mundane, and I was not particularly inspired by anything. Helpfully, Bin 36 had provided wine pairing suggestions next to each menu item. Of course, I ignored these and made my own decisions!

I ended up selecting an hierloom tomato salad and a 1/2 roasted chicken for my dinner. Mrs. P selected a duck spring roll appetizer and flank steak entree, while the girls split a tiger shrimp appetizer with PD1 choosing the blue cheese hamburger for her main course and PD2 going with the scallop pasta. For wine, I chose a white burgundy to accompany my first course and Mrs. P a German reisling. We both choose the "sexy reds" flight for our main course.

That is when the wait began. Although we were there on a Sunday night and the restaurant did not seem particularly crowded it took about 10 minutes for our wine to arrive, and another 10 -15 minutes for our first course. This was an issue, because we specifically wanted to enjoy our wine with our food, and the lengthy wait time made this very difficult as it was a slow kind of torture watching our whites slowly rise to room temperature.

Finally, our food arrived and we started in. My heirloom tomato salad was not what I had really hoped for. In ordering heirloom tomatoes, one hopes to sample different kinds of tomatoes to appreciate the spectrum of flavors that can be found in strains that have not had their distinctiveness bread into oblivion. Sadly, I only had one kind of tomato in the salad, cut into about 5 slices and combined with lettuce, a smoky bacon and a very fishy tasting crab. I guess that wouldn't have been a great name though so they went with the misleading heirloom bit.

My white burgundy was decent, a bit too acidic for my tastes, but at it's moderate price point of around $5 for the glass, I wasn't expecting too much. Mrs. P's spring roll was good, but the salad that accompanied it was quite nice combining mango and Asian spices to provide a refreshing counterpoint to the duck in the roll. The reisling, despite the waitress' protestations when we ordered was, in fact, quite sweet yet to Mrs. P's appreciation seemed to work well with the food.

Our "sexy reds" (could they come up with a better name) flight came next so I'll give you an overview of the wines first. The flight included:

2003 Syrah, Hahn Estate: This was by far the weakest wine of the flight. In fact, its nose held an offputting vinegary scent that while not strong, certainly didn't seem right. Once in the mouth, the vinegar was not noticeable, yet the wine itself was undistinguished and held none of the spice and fruit that I've come to expect from a California Syrah. A very disappointing wine.

2003 Carmenere, Reserva, Casa Silva Colchagua Chile: I must say I really enjoy some of the selections coming out of South America and this wine was not exception. A moderate nose, that held some chocolate, it had nice fruit, a taste of the earth and the same chocolate hints once on the palate.

2001 Liano, Umberto Cesari, Emilia Romagna, Italy: The best of the flight, it had a more complex nose, and in the mouth tasted of fruit, black cherry in particular, chocolate and a small tanic bite. I really enjoyed this wine, and is very drinkable right now.

2003 Zinfandel, Easton, Amador County, California: This was a good zin, and held all of the tastes that one expects from a zin. Fruit, spice and medium body.

Once our main courses arrived, we pretty much knew what to expect. Decent food, presented without much sense of care or respect. My chicken, although a bit dry came in a bowl with beans, charred escarole and a little garlicy broth. It was a good dish, but certainly something that a decent home cook could accomplish. Mrs. P's flank steak had decent flavor enhanced by green chilies, yet the meat while cooked to medium rare as ordered was a bit tough. PD2's scallops and pasta where less than we expected since the scallops, like my crab, were plagued by a fishy flavor.

Desert was really more of the same. I choose a trio of sorbets that tasted as if it came out of the foodstore freezer, Mrs. P had a key lime tart that seemed as though the key lime filling had curdled during cooking, and the girls had a very standard creme brulee. Which reminds me, I really have to post something about the tragedy of what is done to creme brulees these days.

All in all I'd say Bin 36 is a C joint with B+ prices. Our dinner, prior to tip was 191.00 American. There are many other places in Chicago that offer better food for the price, and the less than inspiring wine service did not provide a compelling reason to overlook this place's faults.

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