2-STAR DINING REVIEW

Phil Vettel: Two stars for Boarding House

Former 'Check, Please!' host offers hearty food, good wine

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Workers hand wipe 12,000 wine glasses hanging from the ceiling that had inadvertently gotten dusty during construction at the recently opened Boarding House wine bar in Chicago on December 16, 2012. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

The first thing that catches your eye when entering The Boarding House is the chandelier. Except it's not really a chandelier, but an art installation consisting of 9,000-plus (official count: 9,063) suspended wine glasses.

"One glass for every wine I've ever tasted," says owner Alpana Singh.

Really?

"No," she laughs. "But it's a line I like to use."

Singh has held many titles over the years. Alpana Singh, youngest woman ever to pass the master sommelier exam. Alpana Singh, sommelier at four-star Everest, then wine and spirits director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Alpana Singh, one of 10 people named Food & Wine's sommeliers of the year for 2013.

And of course, Alpana Singh, longtime host of the popular WTTW-Ch. 11 TV show, "Check, Please!" — where she spent the last nine-plus years gently moderating the restaurant opinions of the same sort of food-happy folks she now hopes will pay her a visit.

Because now she's Alpana Singh, restaurateur, having opened The Boarding House in December, once again blazing a trail — female restaurateurs are relatively rare — and inviting the rest of us to catch up.

Taking its inspiration from Chicago's multifaceted boarding houses of the late 19th century — reliable sources of nurturing food, comfortable surroundings and convivial conversation — Boarding House exudes a friendly, relaxed charm on every level, of which there are quite a few. The restaurant occupies an entire building, beginning with the open-seating, street-level lounge, home to that eye-catching wine glass installation and a menu of pizzas, light nibbles and hefty seafood platters. Below is a wine cellar, used for tasting events and the like, and above the lounge is a private-event space.

On the top floor is the bilevel dining room, whose green-accented decor includes another art installation, this time of suspended wine bottles (one for every … oh, never mind), and where you'll find the full menu by Singh and executive chef Christian Gosselin, along with the wine list, a formidable, 500-bottle document predictably chock-full of less-familiar but delightful bottles and remarkably friendly prices.

Indeed, wine is such a huge part of the Boarding House experience that Singh says she's adjusted food recipes for wine friendliness. And she brought aboard an additional sommelier in Dan Pilkey, who wowed my palate as sommelier at the late, lamented Ria. (Pilkey takes his master sommelier exam soon, which means Boarding House might have two MSs under its roof, and how many restaurants can say that?)

For those who visit with hopes of catching a glimpse of Singh, your chances are very good; Singh is very much the face of her restaurant, a near-constant presence in the dining room and lounge, chatting up friends and strangers alike. (I suspect Pilkey's presence and the restaurant's strong wine-training program are tacit acknowledgments of how much face time Singh has to provide her guests.)

Historically, boarding-house meals were served family-style, so it's fitting that the menu's two-star dishes are substantial, hearty creations that encourage, even require, sharing. The Bavarian sausage plate is the must-try appetizer, featuring a soft, light-on-the-tongue sausage of pork, chicken and truffle, supported by braised cabbage with apple, carrots and onions, sweet maple-onion jam and a fried egg. And though it's something of a commitment, to ignore the signature Chicken Three Ways — a $39 entree sized for two — is to miss the point of the restaurant entirely.

The platter consists of two crispy, buttermilk-batter chicken wings, a pair of chicken thighs basquaise (braised in a rich vegetable glaze with sprightly citrus accents) and the poulet de resistance, a chicken breast roulade stuffed with a dense blend of brioche, dried fruit, chicken confit, linguica sausage, boudin blanc and herbs. The breast slices are interspersed with squares of crisp-to-the-point-of-brittle chicken skin, which the menu dubs "chicken bacon."

On the menu, Singh suggests a specific wine match — a Cotes du Rhone, available by the glass ($16) or bottle ($70) — and it's an invitation I guarantee you'll enjoy accepting.

I'm happy to recommend a few other main courses, including thickly sliced duck breast over mascarpone polenta and foie-gras sauce, and red-wine-braised short rib with roasted fingerling potatoes. The venison strip loin with balsamic-laced prunes gets extra zing from a Szechwan peppercorn sauce, and there's sweet parsnip puree beneath the meat and crisp-fried parsnip shards above.

I also like what Gosselin does with salads, particularly his composition of jamon serrano ham with smoked ricotta cheese, braised radicchio and toasted hazelnuts (a week's worth of flavors and textures going on there) and a spin on Caesar salad that adds crunchy kale, white anchovies, pecorino cheese and a red-wine-poached egg. Kale Caesar, indeed.

Desserts, like the best dishes before them, are simple in concept and interesting in execution. What the menu calls lemon cheesecake is actually a wonderfully light sour cream cheesecake with a quarter-inch blanket of lemon mousseline. There's also an oatmeal-sandwich cookie (maple-bourbon caramel filling) half-dipped in chocolate for a black-and-white cookie effect, alongside a ramekin of vanilla ice cream. And there's a gorgeous cream-puff trio with banana cream, pistachio cream and blood-orange cream fillings; together, they look like colorized profiteroles.

Not everything, forgive the pun, singhs. I won't miss the deep-fried cauliflower, a snore that already has been discontinued. Pizza toppings can get a bit too clever, though I sort of liked the "Chicago style" version that included spicy giardiniera (just my luck, that one's gone too, at least until Singh finds a sausage she likes better).

Oversalting hurts a couple of dishes, notably a side dish of Brussels sprouts and bacon (the sprouts too heavily caramelized, as well) that should be a menu highlight. And the chef should cut back on the poutine at some point. A Quebec-area native, Gosselin presented a very good poutine (a cult indulgence up there that begins with a base of french fries, gravy and cheese curds) as an original menu appetizer, then changed it to a smaller-scaled lobster poutine side dish (also very good). But the menu also offers a mashed-potatoes-and-curds side dish and a poutine pizza topped with chicken confit and diced potatoes. That's playing the cheese-curd card at least once too often, I think.

Boarding House, just a few months old, is still finding its way. And though the opening, wintertime menu is solid, I suspect we won't get a true sense of what Gosselin's kitchen can do until spring, when the amount of available fresh product increases exponentially.

For now, there are few experiences more charming than dining here on a bitterly cold Chicago night, knocking back a plate of comfort food with a seriously good wine.

"It's almost too bad," a companion said to me, gazing out the window, "that it isn't snowing."

The Boarding House

720 N. Wells St.; 312-280-0720; boardinghousechicago.com

Tribune rating: Two stars
Open:
Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices:
Entrees $22-$55
Credit cards:
A, DS, M, V
Reservations:
Strongly recommended (open seating in lounge)
Noise:
Conversation-friendly
Other:
Wheelchair accessible; valet parking

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @PhilVettel

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