One of Chicago’s culinary stars is opening a new restaurant — and this time, she’s taking center stage. Alpana, the Gold Coast spot from sommelier and former Check, Please! host Alpana Singh, opens this month, and it showcases both the type of food she wants to eat and the types of women she admires.
This isn’t Singh’s first restaurant — she’s previously run two Chicago places, Boarding House and Seven Lions, and one Evanston restaurant, Terra and Vine — and she’s taking everything she learned from those experiences and putting it together at Alpana. Part of that means she’s made the choice to not have a chef. “In the past, when I’ve worked with a chef, you hire them, they have their artistic vision … and you feel like you have to do what they want,” says Singh. “I’ve been studying food for 20 years, and I love cooking.” That doesn’t mean you’re going to see Singh in the kitchen on the line — she has no illusions about her ability to put out plates — but she’s creating and refining the entire menu herself. The food will have strong influences from Mediterranean and Asian flavors that match Singh’s preferences.
She started designing the menu for Alpana, in part, with her audience. “I live in this neighborhood; I understand how people eat. People eat out a lot in this area. They’re not afraid to ask for things how they want them.” For Singh, that meant a menu with a lot of flexibility to accommodate dietary preferences, as well as dishes that were healthy enough to eat regularly. “A lot of my friends have their doctor on speed dial,” Singh laughs. That means, for example, salmon served in a light broth made from sherry vinegar, kombu, and mushrooms. “I’m calling it a sweet and sour jus infused with umami.” It’s a dish with tons of flavor, but that is dairy and gluten-free, and definitely not heavy.
In addition to taking inspiration from the neighborhood, Singh had another big source of ideas: the wine. “Wine was my muse,” she says. “I worked backward: What are big flavors that would pair with the wines I wanted to serve?” So, a particular pinot gris from New Zealand that Singh loves is paired with burrata served with honey-roasted pears and onion mostarda. Her goal at Alpana is to expose diners to interesting new wines they may not have encountered before, which has meant a ton of training for her staff. “80-percent of the servers and bartenders have an interest in pursuing a career in wine; I have a duty and obligation to make sure the wine program is stoking their interest.” She is also counting on her reputation among Chicago diners to make them a little bit more open to experimentation. “I’ve built up a lot of trust over the years — whatever I pour by the glass, there will be thought put into it.”
Alpana’s corner location (a former Lyfe Kitchen) will be dripping with “wild, feminine energy,” Singh says. She was inspired by the biblical figure of Lilith who, depending on who you ask, is either “a baby eating monster or a strong feminist icon,” says Singh. She’s imitated the traditional wall of celebrity photos, but here, it’s comprised entirely of portraits of strong women that she admires.
The restaurant will open later this month for dinner service, with the goal of offering lunch and brunch seven days a week once everything is rolling smoothly. The number one message Singh wants diners to hear is that Alpana is going to be reliable, consistent, and comfortable. “The lesson I’ve learned now, running my fourth restaurant, is you aren’t going to teach the people how to eat,” she says. “They already know what they want — they want good service and a good atmosphere.”