Anthony Tahlier
Alpana Singh in The Cellar private dining room in the basement of the historic building.
magnify Click image to view more.

The Executive Somm

Jeffery Lindenmuth - September 2013

This wine pro is as involved in her restaurant’s kitchen as she is in the cellar.

As a twenty-something sommelier at Chicago’s Everest, she dazzled diners with rare vintages and crystal stemware, but the charismatic Alpana Singh al­ways knew she had even more to bring to the table. Now, with The Boarding House, Singh is the latest wine pro to deliver a globetrotting enophile’s perspective to a restaurant as owner (see The Wine’s the Thing and Juice Couture), lending a Master Sommelier’s palate, and two decades of wine experience, to every facet of the stylish eatery in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

With a chandelier of more than 9,000 wine glasses, The Boarding House leaves little doubt regarding its aspirations as a wine destination, but speaking with Singh, the elements that distinguish it as a sommelier-driven restaurant are far subtler. “Sommeliers have one foot in the dining room and one in the kitchen. We also have a wanderlust of traveling, so it’s about bringing all those elements together,” says Singh. “It’s about taking the origin of the dish, then putting the food and wine together in a meaningful way, tied with the elements of great service. As a sommelier, I’m interested in a more seamless transition from kitchen to dining room.”

Part of forging that transition means being hands-on in the kitchen. After some initial stumbles, Singh now teams with chef de cuisine Bjorn Rasmussen, trolling the Mediterranean for regional inspiration, then reinterpreting dishes of Italy, Spain, and Southern France, using Midwestern ingredients to proffer meals with a powerful affinity for wine. “Upon opening, the wines were somewhat obliterated by the heaviness of the traditional French-style dishes. We did some soul searching and ended up taking it on a more Mediterranean slant. I think the elements of acidity and freshness really pair better with wine,” says Singh.

Starting with more than 100 dishes, Singh tasted them all with the culinary staff, adjusting their weights and textures to maximize wine friendliness, before arriving at two menus. With its 35 seat marble bar, communal tables, and lounge seating, the first floor is a wine bar writ large, offering a light menu of pizzas and small plates. The third floor dining room, with seating for 90, plus 20 on the mezzanine, offers a concise menu of great breadth, where just eight entrées are able to indulge wines across the 450 bottle list, spanning vegetarian, shellfish, chicken, pork, and steak. (The second floor houses the main kitchen and private dining in The Ward Room; The Cellar is the private event space in the basement.)

Rasmussen says he is always cognizant, and never resentful, that wine takes the lead at The Boarding House: “The food is not a starting point. This is a wine-driven establishment. That simply gives me a clear direction. It’s still my menu, and Alpana gives me total freedom. I aim to create understated food that is still amazing.” Singh exercises the occasional veto, like a dish of olive oil–poached Atlantic cod over brandade with braised artichokes, piquillo peppers, and chopped niçoise olives. “Artichokes are a favorite ingredient of mine, but they can be metallic and astrin­gent with wines,” says Rasmussen. “Alpana spotted that right away, and we were getting similar feedback from the dining room. So that dish is gone, and the restaurant is better for it.”

Whether tableside or collaborating in the kitchen, Singh is about trusting her sommelier instincts. “What I’ve learned is to be more forceful, to have a firm hand in menu development. As sommeliers, we love cooking just as much as wine, and I think that surprises a lot of people,” says Singh. “When I’m tasting the food, I look for balance, texture, and visual appeal. Sommeliers tend to be perfectionists.”

That bent for perfection is apparent throughout The Board­ing House space—an historic 1872 building that seduced Singh and her collaborators, John Ward and Matt Fisher, formerly of Tallulah and Eve, inspiring them to take the leap into a partnership. A thoughtful renovation with an eye to historical integrity by architect and designer Jeremiah Johnson from Chicago Building Design revealed the building’s beauty, while adding nods to wine throughout, like a “wine elevator” designed to ferry wine between floors. Nearly 4,000 wine bottles are hung from the ceiling of the dynamic dining room. The candlelit “wine station,” a focal point with a function, houses the bottles of wine served by the glass, giving the servers direct access for their tableside presentations, as well as ice buckets, glassware, decanters and other accoutrements of service.

The freewheeling wine list defies traditional organization, with sections that group wines by region, grape, country, creative monikors like “Sauvignon Blanc-Esque,” and even specific importers like Ted Diamantis. The list succeeds on its manageable size, surprising selections, and fun-loving spirit, sprinkled with quotes that span Ernest Hemingway to Dumb & Dumber, with an outright gutbuster from Singh’s mother, whom she is known to imitate with adoration, “Alpana, it is wonderful that you have decided to become a sommelier. So tell me, what part of the body does a sommelier doctor specialize in?”

The idea to specialize in wine first occurred to Singh while she was working as a server at Montrio Bistro in Monterey, California, during college. “I really feel the restaurant business is magic, and I started thinking about ways I could stay in the industry and pursue my love of travel. Then, I saw the wine list, as it combined history with travel and my love of food. I took to it like a textbook and became voracious for wine,” she recalls. At The Boarding House, Singh says staff training and inspiring others to make a career of wine is more than good business. It’s her way to pay it forward.

The list excels at guiding diners toward adventurous selec­tions, especially with the lead section, “Our Top Wines for the Moment,” a catch-all that recently included Maison Rijkaert from Côtes du Jura, red and white wines from Lebanon’s famous Chateau Musar, Aiken Pinot Noir from Sonoma Valley, and four wines from Valtellina’s Arpepe. “The Musar was not getting any love, so I put it in this section. It’s simply wines that I am excited about at the moment. The moment could be summer, or it could be Saturday,” she says.

Unlike many wine destinations, wine-by-the-glass choices at The Boarding House are modest—20 selections of eight white, two sparkling, and 10 red—with an aim to “keep it clean and always changing.” The strategy seems to be working: wine sales are running neck-in-neck with food sales, with the average bottle price above $50 and around $200,000 in wine sales per month.

The list also gives prime real estate to a page of apéritifs, in­cluding Aperol spritz, Kir Royale, chilled Sherry, and pastis. It’s part of Singh’s mission to bring the food and wine cultured personality she projects on television, as the host of the Emmy Award–winning restaurant review show, Check, Please! to life. “People are aware that I’ve visited many wine regions and many restaurants, so the expectation from the customer is very high. I’m the first to say I’ve had an advantageous life, so I have no excuse to not deliver those experiences. I don’t have the luxury of giving any less,” she says. When Singh falls in love with White Port and Tonic in Portugal, the sweet bitter bubbles cleansing the palate of potato chips, you can expect the pairing to appear on the menu soon.

A recent opening quote on the wine list comes from Larry David’s quirky character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Everybody brings wine. I bring bread.” With The Boarding House, and a dining experience inspired by a life immersed in wine, Singh is a sommelier who aims to bring it all.