How does one begin to encapsulate the multi-decade career of Alpana Singh, the sommelier-turned-TV host-turned-restaurateur? You could focus on her two turns as host of the Emmy-winning WTTW show Check, Please!—or the multiple restaurants she’s opened—but wine might be the most salient talking point. At 21, Singh passed the Court of Master Sommeliers’ advanced certification test; two years later, she was hired as sommelier at Everest; three years after that, she became the youngest woman ever to achieve the rank of master sommelier, a test with a pass rate hovering somewhere around 5 percent. (Admirably, Singh elected to renounce her master sommelier title in 2020 following numerous sexual assault allegations within the organization.)
So it was no surprise earlier this year when Singh debuted her latest project, Alpana, as a wine-focused concept in the Gold Coast, and a new capstone in her career. Located in a former LYFE Kitchen space made glamorous with hanging plants and sleek lighting, Alpana bills the selections on its dinner menu as “wine-inspired cuisine,” designed to accentuate the taste-broadening world of pairings. “When developing recipes, I use the same techniques to analyze a dish as I would a glass of wine,” Singh writes on the restaurant’s website. “Our ultimate goal is to provide our guests with a menu that has been carefully crafted to highlight and accentuate the flavors [of] wine.”
If wine remains your primary consideration, Alpana is an unimpeachable success. Look no further than the restaurant’s formidable wine list, a leather-bound tome threaded with quotes, pairing tips and approachable tasting notes that I suspect would be equally enjoyable to wine geeks and neophytes alike. Singh’s write-ups have a personable tilt and shimmer with evocative, sensuous language—a 2016 Savennières, for instance, tastes of “button mushrooms, beeswax and honey,” while a 2020 California chardonnay is “laced with pear and caramel accents”—without ever feeling too inside-baseball. Alpana’s servers are skillful with recommendations, but I found the written reference point invaluable (and pretty fun to read, too).
Then there’s the wine-inspired cuisine itself. Alpana’s palate-driven philosophy lends a slightly all-over-the-place quality to the dinner menu, bouncing from elote corn to French onion soup to a double cheeseburger alongside more buttoned-up options like squid ink campanelle and steak au poivre. Some diners might appreciate Alpana’s commitment to variety; I might’ve, too, if the food weren’t so frequently lackluster. During a recent visit, a lemony tagliatelle dish, which came studded with morsels of broccolini and fried garlic, offered acidic punch but swam in a thin, overly-salted sauce, and the Faroe Island salmon, though crispy-skinned and tender, sat on a bed of vegetables stewed in sickeningly sweet agrodolce jus. You can see Singh’s flavor ethos reflected in each selection—a bright pop of citrus here, a bit of tangy sweetness there—and yet the execution falls short, especially for a restaurant with Gold Coast price points. Could a pairing swoop in to save the day? I sipped my glass of pinot noir and hoped for a palate awakening, but no such revelation arrived.
That’s not to say you won’t uncover moments of clarity throughout your meal, especially among the menu’s lighter fare. Special attention should be paid to the salad offerings, like an arugula salad topped with seasonal fruit (in this case, thin slices of peach) and feta among a rumbling crunch of marcona almonds. And though it’s paired with flat, lifeless pita, I was similarly pleased by the zippy dolmades and beet labneh served in a mezze platter. Both dishes came alive when matched with a glass of Sancerre, a testament to the power of a good pairing. Still, most Chicago restaurants in Alpana’s price range (between $200-$250 for a two-person dinner, including tip) will offer, at minimum, a serviceable selection of wine—and in many instances, better food to enjoy it with. Consider saving your visit to Alpana for when you’re feeling thirsty.
The vibe: Bustling yet upscale, with an enclosed outdoor patio for dining throughout winter.
The food: Designed to mirror the complex flavor profile offered by a good bottle of wine, Alpana’s menu assembles a wide-ranging selection of dishes spanning starters, salads, pasta and entrees. Don’t skip out on the excellent salads, which you can order split into two bowls for sharing.
The drink: Cocktails and beer are available, but you’re here for the wine. Choose your own pairing adventure for each course among a lengthy by-the-glass selection—servers are happy to help in this endeavor—or pore over Singh’s expertly curated wine list to find bottles organized by style, region and beyond (like staff picks, or unusual selections under “The Road Less Traveled”).
Time Out tip: Walk-in spots at the bar offer an ideal opportunity to explore the wine list and by-the-glass pours without committing to a dinner reservation, though you’re also free to order from the full menu.