Some people are inherently cool. Their coolness can radiate from their style, intelligence, attitude, or knowledge base. However, cool-girl Mandy Sparacino draws her charisma from each of these attributes. As the Beverage Director and Sommelier at The Esquire Champagne Room, Sparacino spends her days in the Gold Coast on the third floor of Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in a dazzlingly opulent space. Relatively new to the Chicago bar scene, The Esquire Champagne Room took its interior design inspiration from a champagne bottle, complete with bubbles on the ceiling.
While the sophisticated space may seem intimidating to some, with its sleek half circle bar, pink and grey velvet chairs, chartreuse bar stools, chevron parquet flooring, tufted leather couches and baby grand piano, it’s the unpretentious attitude of the wait staff that makes you want to take your chair, flip through the food menu and select your bubbly from an extensive list that includes more than 50 champagne and sparkling selections or thumb through the extensive wine list that boasts over 1,700 labels.
When I first met Sparacino, she had just returned from a trip to Argentina where she was learning about different red wine varietals local to the region. As our conversation progressed, her passion for wine, most notably champagne, became apparent.
Champagne is an extremely versatile beverage. It pairs with more than one may think. You can take Champagne from the beginning of a meal to the very end. Dry-aged Ribeye and a 1990 Bollinger RD are gorgeous together.
This is tricky because unlike most other wine regions, the “stars” in Champagne are more the houses and the cuvees than the winemaker per se. This is not a region dominated by celebrity winemakers. Champagne houses typically have a team of winemakers so yes, there are many female winemakers in Champagne, but there are probably less than a third in the entire region. There are not many female chef de caves (head winemakers) in Champagne, however Caroline Latrive has been the Chef de Caves of Ayala for the last 5 years. We feature the Ayala by the glass at the Esquire Champagne Room. Additionally, Sandrine Logette-Jardin is part of Champagne Duval Leroy, which we also carry by the bottle. Other houses such as Dom Perignon, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot all have women on their winemaking teams, which we have at the Esquire Champagne Room as well.
I was a floor sommelier for Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House here in Chicago for about 2 years. Don Adams, our General Manager, approached me with the opportunity to take on the full program in the Esquire Champagne Room when the opening was confirmed. I was ecstatic of course, and couldn’t be more appreciative of the new role. I learn so much every day regarding running a luxury program like the one at the Esquire Champagne Room.
My advice would be to not use it as a crutch. I work very hard in my role and it has nothing to do with being a certain gender. There are a lot of things that define me but at the end of the day, all I want is to have done my job well. That said, I have a very supportive group of female sommeliers that I learn from, work with and study with. I would recommend finding a group of Sommeliers that one finds inspiring, and learn from them. Mine happen to be women because well, Chicago has a pretty amazing female sommelier community and I am constantly learning from each one of them.
This is something that will be different for everyone, but for me, I like to always have a sparkling, a Riesling, a Chardonnay, a Gamay and of course one of my favorites, a Chenin Blanc. Bubbles are important to me. I drink them with everything.
My favorite pairing for sparkling are the nights at home where I’m munching on salty chips or popcorn, and binge-watching anything. One bubbly I typically have on hand is the Domaine André et Mireille Tissot Crémant du Jura. It has good acid, is rich, round and a little salty itself. Think bruised golden delicious apples and sea salt.
For Riesling, I keep both an Alsacian and a German Riesling. I like to keep a few bottles of these on hand, because most of the BYOs I go to tend to be of Asian flare, and German Riesling pairs really well with that. The producer I reach for a lot is Balthasar Ress, which is lively and has lovely apricot and white blossom notes.
Chablis is one of my favorite regions for Chardonnay. The William Fevre Chablis pairs great with just about any seafood dish.
Bright Gamay is a versatile light-bodied red that is a cousin of Pinot Noir. Domaine Lapierre, Morgon have aromas of red and black cherry, ripe stone fruit and purple flowers. Along with Riesling, it’s another favorite for BYOBs as it pairs with almost anything, including some seafood.
One of the Chenin’s I typically have at my house is the Baumard Savennieres. They display beautiful golden orchard fruit, quince and grey smoke. Chenin pairs well with turkey, pork chops and smoked salmon.
In addition to the vivacious bar program, The Esquire Champagne Room boasts a stately food menu. Chef Javier Fuentes proves you can’t have too much of a good thing.
Joanna Stayton would be proud. At Esquire, three types of caviar are served: Classic American White Sturgeon, Galilee Prime Osetra and Royal Belgium Osetra. The white sturgeon caviar is buttery and bright while the Galilee Prime Osetra is firmer and nuttier. The pièces de résistance is the Royal Belgium Osetra. Produced by the eggs of Russian sturgeon, its earthy notes sing. And just in case you have a Mrs. Stayton in your life – the pearls are all of adequate size and burst at precisely the right moment.
Wash down the caviar with a glass of MAN Family Wines Methode Cap Classique. Contrary to what the label would have you believe, the winery is named after three women: Marie, Anette and Nicky. The owners took the first letter of each of their wives’ initials to create the brand. This particular sparkling wine is refreshing, zesty and has fruit forward aromas, most notably apple.
The Scallop Crudo will shock and amaze you. Raw scallops are thinly sliced and layered with overlapping paper-thin radishes. They are garnished with pickled shallots and something that looks like fish eggs. This is where the amazing part comes in – they aren’t fish eggs at all. The gorgeous little pearls sitting on top of the crudo are the insides of finger limes. Native to Australia, finger limes come in a variety of colors and are tangy in flavor. It’s the “caviar” of the produce department. Enjoy this dish with the 2015 Vouvray La Dilettante Chenin Blanc. The acidity of the wine pairs well with the delicately prepared scallops.
Who knew smoked salmon could be show stopping? Served inside of a smoke filled cloche, Gaufrette Potato Chips (aka the best chips in the world) are topped with a generous dollop of caper cream cheese, raw smoked salmon, red and green onions and dill. The craveability of its rich smokiness sets it apart. Pop the bubbly and pair it with the elegant Ayala Brut Majeur – it’s available by the glass.
The Lamb Lollipops are satisfying but not awkward to eat in an opulent setting. Gone in a few small bites, the lollipops are topped with eggplant caviar, a light Romesco sauce, a splash of pesto and micro greens. The flavors are bold and best washed down with Concerto Reggiano Lambrusco – a sparkling red wine from the Reggio Emilia province of Italy.
The Esquire Champagne Room provides patrons with an intimate backdrop to enjoy life’s little luxuries. After all, everyone deserves the chance to indulge and what better way to do it than with excellent service, enticing bites and a little champagne?
The Esquire Champagne Room | 58 East Oak Street, Chicago, IL 60611 | (312) 846-6575 | www.esquirechampagneroom.com