By Emily Van Zandt, RedEye
August 16, 2012
116 N. Green St. 312-243-1199
Rating: 4 (out of four) Already hot
Let it be known that I debated digging up a tiara to wear to RM Champagne Salon. When photos of the uber-gilded West Loop lounge first popped up, it seemed incredibly fussy—and I assumed the clientele and staff would be the same way. And the intimidating name didn't help: RM stands for Recoltant-Manipulant, a phrase that indicates a grower champagne, or a champagne that is made at the same estate that owns the vineyards where the grapes are grown, rather than being shipped off to become bubbly. But when I stopped by during the opening week, I was pleasantly surprised: Despite the tufted couches and shiny platters of raw seafood, the vibe wasn't at all holier-than-thou. If you go in with a few simple rules in mind, RM could quickly become a go-to for a relaxed weekend celebration.
Snag a reservation. No one likes walking up to a host stand only to find out there are no available tables for two hours. Especially when nearly every restaurant and bar within walking distance will be just as crowded. So before you make the trek through the alley off Green Street and into this much-hyped bar, go ahead and make a res.
Or don't. The bar is actually surprisingly roomy, and since patio tables are first come, first served, it's not a total waste to try and walk in—especially on a weeknight or early weekend evening. And really, what's cooler than the "Managed to snag a table ..." name-drop tweet?
Bring some lady friends. If you've ever spent time in Anthropologie, you have a good idea of the decor at RM. Textured wallpaper, oversized gilded mirrors, a fireplace filled with candles. Frills on frills on frills. It's nothing you haven't seen before (see: Maude's Liquor Bar, The Drawing Room), and when combined with a bubbles-focused drinks menu and a dessert cart, the space takes on a not-so-subtle feminine feel. It's not that a group of dudes would be unwelcome, but expect lots of tables to be devoted to girls' nights out.
Use the help. At some point in the evening, you'll see a man. A mustached young gent wandering table-to-table, chatting and opening bottles, occasionally with a saber. His name is Jason Wagner and he's there to help. Unlike the stereotypical sommelier who you may be too intimidated to call over to your table, Wagner is hands-on in a way that makes you feel like you're chatting with an old college pal. He'll ask what you like to drink, maybe what you're planning to eat and make a few suggestions. When chatting with me and my friend, he didn't work the hard sell. We didn't look like high rollers, and he didn't try to push expensive bottles. Instead, he pointed to a few options that he was particularly jazzed about under $50. When we hesitated to pull the trigger, he simply said he'd have a bottle ready if we chose to go that way later in the evening. We did.
Bring a friend who can toss around adjectives. While Wagner is there to help regardless of your wine knowledge, it doesn't hurt to have someone in the group that can speak the same language—or at least fake it. My descriptions of vino border on toddler speak, but my friend's vocabulary was a bit more impressive. A chardonnay? Typically too buttery for her taste. But a chablis would take care of that? Well, by all means, we'll try it. Pro tip: Try not to giggle as your more-cultured friend swirls and sips to approve the selection.
Think bottles. Wine by the glass is a great way to taste a vintage that you might otherwise not be able to afford, but with glasses ranging anywhere from $9 to $34, splitting a bottle can be cheaper with a group. Take a deep breath when you see $1,500 magnum bottles of champagne on the menu. Keep looking. Ask Wagner for a bottle within your budget—say, less than $50. There are plenty of French, Spanish and Italian sparkling wine options for $45, $40, even $30. Still too much? There's a 40-ounce bottle of Miller High Life on the menu for $10. Order with confidence.
Don't be afraid to go small. Every bite I tried was outstanding, but the small, light plates are meant to enhance the drinks, not completely fill you up. Better to eat dinner beforehand and snack while you sip, or grab something more substantial post-party. Small groups will have a good time sharing the plateau de mer ($36) which features a spread of six oysters, two lobster deviled eggs and two shareable servings of salmon tartare along with rock shrimp ceviche and other treats. "Tasting portions" of dishes such as the oeuf de caille ravioli (quail egg ravioli with chanterelles, $3 for two)—savory pillows stuffed with salty, creamy egg offset by the tangy mushrooms—are fairly priced for their size, but it'd take multiple orders to make a meal. Other options include cheese plates ($18 for three cheeses) and dessert spreads including house-made marshmallows and macarons ($9 for 6). The food's worth trying, don't get me wrong, but you won't be looked down on for not building a full spread.
Know what you're getting into. The atmosphere and staff are welcoming, but don't get too comfortable. This is still a champagne salon in the West Loop, and if you're not careful, the check at the end of the night could hit you pretty hard. Make sure your friends have a game plan going in about splitting the bill and whether you'll be sharing bottles or just sticking to champagne cocktails and macarons before heading elsewhere. Wine bars are a dangerous place for big groups who have already had a round or two, so you might want to leave that friend—you know, the one who's prone to tipsily ordering another bottle and then disappearing when the bill comes—at home.
Reviewers visit restaurants anonymously and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyedrinks
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