At Giant, a Carefully Curated Nod to the New Casual

What makes Josh Perlman’s wine list one of the country’s most exciting, in 10 bottles.

Committing to a single bottle of wine comes with an opportunity cost. When you decide on one bottle, you’ve given up the chance to drink all the others. It’s different from the opportunity cost of choosing what to eat, because maybe you can get chicken and your friend can order the pork chop you really wanted. Wine is more finite.

Usually this is no biggie, in that wine lists do their own kind of editing; even with a talented wine buyer at work, a set of 50 wines really comes down in the end to three or four you want to drink. Or so went my thesis, which broke down mightily when I picked up the list at Giant, the Logan Square restaurant run by chefs Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader, and managing partner Josh Perlman, who runs the beverage program. Together they’re a supergroup of Chicago dining; Vincent helped propel Chicago’s farm-to-table ethos with his cooking at Lula Café and Nightwood, and Perlman made his bones with the beverage program at Paul Kahan’s avec.

Perlman’s minor superpower is that he’s managed to created a wine program that’s wonderfully eclectic without suffering from mission creep. Rarely do you encounter a wine list that feels so in sync with its restaurant—and that’s saying something, given Vincent’s menu, which is perhaps best summed up as “wanderlust-y.” There’s standout tonnato next to short ribs and sticky rice, all marked by a heartiness that feels very Midwestern, down to baby back ribs and biscuits. Asia isn’t overlooked, what with nori butter for scallops. And he’s also a pasta fiend; his tagliatelle with king crab and chili butter somehow put David Chang and Joël Robuchon in my brain at the same time. (That’s a compliment, by the way.)

This, however, is a lot of ground for a wine list to accommodate, and Giant’s is relatively modest: a little over 110 bottles across three pages, without an ounce of fat. It’s right-sized for a 46-seat storefront, and it reinforces the lesson that a wine director’s most valuable skill isn’t dazzlement, but editing. And Perlman is a damn good editor. Each time I thought I had settled on what to drink, I stopped myself, unwilling to pay the opportunity cost of that choice, craving so many other choices.

Perlman pulls this off by following a very smart rule: He rarely duplicates the same type of wine. The list features only four chardonnays from Burgundy, for instance. They’re expensive—the most expensive section of the list, in fact. That could be cause for frustration, except that you’ll be rewarded if you tweak your strategy just a touch, and opt for Burgundian aligoté instead. There’s one each from Emmanuel Rouget and Benoit Ente, two of the region’s top talents. That itself should telegraph a lesson: that brute force isn’t a winning strategy in 2018. Even ambitious restaurants can no longer afford deep verticals of important wines.

When there is repetition on Perlman’s list, it’s usually from a rogues’ gallery of the desirous: Dominique Belluard in the Savoie, Jolie-Laide from California.

All this represents a very particular type of accessibility—one that doesn’t truck with snobs, and one I chalk up in part to Perlman’s journeyman’s history in restaurants, dating to his early days at a Macaroni Grill near Minneapolis. Eventually he landed at Kahan’s sister restaurants avec and Blackbird—two bright stars in Chicago’s dining firmament. Both had admirable wine programs, but they were, if not stodgy, relatively conservative. When a fire briefly closed avec, Perlman took shifts at Webster’s Wine Bar, an epicenter for the local avant-garde, and got an immersion in offbeat, naturalist wines. So hatched his idea for a wine program that would be, in his words, “the polar opposite of avec.”

The selections, plus a correct-but-chill approach to service, fall squarely into what I’ve called the New Casual approach. But Giant’s geography is important. Chicago has more than proven its ability to cultivate a sophisticated wine culture, but it matters that this new approach has a strong beachhead in the middle of the country, in a city where steakhouse glee lives on.

And Perlman has finessed some handy bits of diplomacy. Naturalist fans will find favorites in the mix; not just Clos Saron or Gabrio Bini, but also wines like Autour de L’Anne’s Wonder Womanne, which if it cropped up in New York would be gone faster than you could trigger a Justice League signal. At the same time, there are some hearty wines for guests who might have come from a bit farther than Wicker Park, like a Woodward Canyon cabernet that’s offered on the list without comment. Giant is also committed to German wine—not just riesling but pinot noir and sylvaner—at a time when it’s not exactly fashionable. And being able to turn to Burgundy for both Vini Viti Vinci and Camille Giroud is like mixing Rachel Comey and Yves Saint Laurent. (Again, that’s a compliment.)

If there’s a knock, it’s that prices can occasionally feel stiff, almost on a coolness gradient—in that you pay a slight premium for less exciting choices. But there’s a whole lot of value in the $50 to $70 realm. That further underscores how Perlman is pulling off a balancing act that places him not only in front of a strong pack in Chicago, but also would make Giant’s wine program stand out in any city, from coast to coast.

Giant Restaurant Chicago

Bubbles!

Marnes Blanches reviens-y Pet-Nat 2016 | $65
The very first wine on the list telegraphs that you’re in for a wild ride. Géraud and Pauline Fromont are Jura rising stars, even if their Marnes Blanches wines are shy of the hype that attends, say, their neighbor Jean-François Ganevat. You might know their cremant or other wines, but you probably haven’t seen reviens-y, their pet-nat.

The Oddball

Stefan Vetter Franken Sylvaner 2015 | $63
Vetter’s standout sylvaner—the key grape of the Franken region—is just the sort of white wine that should help people to relax outside their comfort zone. There’s a lot of this offbeat German intrigue on the list, including the unexpectedly fashionable elbling from Mosel producer Hild and Theo Minges’ perennially delightful scheurebe, which has the fragrance and fruitiness that most people really think they want from riesling.

The Failsafe

A.J. Adam im Pfarrgarten Feinherb Riesling 2015 | $13/$56
Germany, right? It’s not just that Andreas Adam is one of the brightest lights in the Mosel. It’s that this is the style of riesling that makes converts; just a bit off-dry, frothy in its flavors and intense from old-vine concentration. All restaurants should have a wine like this by the glass.

The B-Side Hit(s)

Emmanuel Rouget Bourgogne Aligoté 2015 | $65 + Benoit Ente Bourgogne Aligoté 2016 | $70
An either/or, as there are no losers here. Aligoté is the newly valued second white grape of Burgundy. Rouget is the nephew of the legendary Henri Jayer, as close as Burgundy gets to royalty. Ente is Puligny-Montrachet’s great emerging talent, with a special penchant for aligoté. These wines aren’t just compelling and in minuscule supply; they also represent modern Burgundy’s quiet commitment to democratization.

Rosé All Day

Peyrassol #Lou Côtes de Provence Rosé 2017 | $12/$48
Peyrassol is as stalwart as it gets in Provençal rosé—delicious but maybe stodgy. Except this is their new cinsault-based effort, complete with hashtag to invoke modernity in a super French way.

Orange Crush

Paolo Bea Lapideus Umbria Bianco 2014 | $130
Next time anyone tells me orange wine is tragically hip, I’m telling them the tale of Giampiero Bea, whose wines were the must-have in skin maceration not long ago. (If you don’t know Coenobium, you don’t know.) Nothing changed, except that orange became the new black, and Bea crested too early. So props to Perlman for not only keeping the faith but choosing little-known Lapideus, from an old parcel of trebbiano spoletino. It’s more subtle than Bea’s intense Santa Chiara or Arboreus, and a reminder that fashion is an endless cycle.

Dark Horse

Enderle & Moll Liaison Baden Pinot Noir 2015 | $85
Today’s diners are plagued by a pinot noir fetish—it has become a default for “red wine,” especially for the less confident. But here’s a handy solution: This is a conversion bottle—meant to draw in those who think they’ll curl up and die without red Burgundy. From a duo that makes some of Germany’s most compelling pinots, it’s a perfect intro to the under-sung Baden region.

The Next-Gen

Forlorn Hope Calaveras County Trousseau | $70
Perhaps trousseau has become almost a punchline of the New California, but dollars to donuts you haven’t had Matthew Rorick’s version, from young vines on his estate vineyard in remote Calaveras County. This is Cali Trousseau 2.0, and wonderfully nuanced.

Natty By Nature

La Grapperie 2016 L’Enchanteresse Côteaux du Loir 2016 | $88
Grapperie’s Renaud Guettier works in the less-known northern Loire, not far from Jasnières, an insider’s choice in Natural Land. We can have a reasonable debate about whether the heady red grape pineau d’aunis is worth nearly ninety bucks a bottle, but there’s no disputing Guettier is a master with it.

Go Big

Bollinger La Côte Aux Enfants Coteaux Champenois 2013 | $285
Côteaux Champenois-Champagne’s red wine, usually from pinot noir-isn’t exactly a runaway hit, especially when it’s as expensive as good Burgundy. And if you want to drink some CC, there are more affordable examples. So why bother? Because it’s fucking Bollinger. Maybe their Champagnes are less fashionable than they once were, but this is grand cru pinot noir from a tiny parcel in Aÿ, a historic bottle that’s rarely seen.

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