City Winery (1200 W. Randolph St.) has built a solid reputation as a winemaker and host of great concerts in the West Loop over the last six years. Its food, though, has always served more as an accompaniment to the space and the music rather than a main draw. That’s hopefully about to change, as the restaurant has just brought in Mark Mendez as its new executive chef.
Mendez, whom many Chicago diners likely know from the late Vera (or from his time running the kitchen at Carnivale) laid low for a little while after Vera closed last year. He spent some time cooking at Arbor, but now he's ready to jump back into the hot seat at City Winery.
“I knew City Winery was going to be a challenge,” Mendez says, citing the large size of both its venue and its team, but he adds that he’s looking forward to it. On a busy concert night, the restaurant can have as many as 800 covers, so keeping the kitchen running requires a ton of training and organization. Mendez had never visited it during his time at Vera, but he describes it as a place where he'd personally hang out. "I like the idea that the wine is actually made there — there’s someone actually making it that you can talk to," he says.
While I’ve never seen anyone turn up their nose at City Winery’s food, I’ve always found that it lacked focus. It wasn’t bad, just unmemorable. Mendez hopes to change that with a renewed emphasis on sourcing and training. “It’s fun to work in a small place,” he says, “but I get more enjoyment teaching people.”
In a few weeks, Mendez will start bringing some of the dishes for which he’s known to City Winery’s menu. Fans of his might recognize a simple grilled octopus with lemon, parsley, and garbanzo beans. He’s also planning to introduce some flexibility to a menu that has previously been fairly static. “If I can’t change the whole menu all the time, I want to play with things," Mendez says.
Given his experience at the wine-focused Vera, serving food that goes well with the vino made at City Winery seems like something for which Mendez is more than qualified. “When you’re pairing food with wine, we want the wine to be more of the focus than the food,” he says. “You don’t want to have 80 things on a plate. Keep ingredients to a minimum and execute at a higher level.”