By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
When the woman in the little black dress spit a mouthful of Champagne at her date, everyone in Citrus Champagne and Vodka Lounge tensed up. Was she now going to slap him across the face? Throw her glass across the room? Shoot him and drop the gun on her way out?
He wasn't going to wait to find out. "It's a ring, it's a ring," he yelled, and she held the glass up to the light to inspect it. "Oh, my God, oh, my God," she said, alternately laughing and crying, "I thought it was a bug." She calmed down enough to answer "Yes" to the big question, and they fished the ring out of the glass. Then they slurped down the rest of its contents to the cries of "Go, go!" from nearby diners.
There are few luxuries in life more accessible than Champagne. It's there for the wedding toast, the new baby, the promotion, the housewarming gift. Bottles of bubbly are broken across ships and uncorked with tomahawks; anniversaries and retirements are made all the more sweet when a sparkling glass is raised in observance. And, of course, the question can be popped while the ring sits at the bottom of the glass.
Smoked salmon with potato cake: $9
Golden corn soup: $6
Baby lobster with potato gnocchi: $8
Lobster risotto: $19
Pan-roasted walleye: $18
Yellowfin tuna: $18
Brick-roasted chicken: $16
Molten-center chocolate cake: $8
Mascarpone sorbet: $7
Black-tea-and-cinnamon crème brûlée: $6
But more and more people are discovering that Champagne isn't just for special occasions. Bubbly's increasing availability in a wide range of prices means we can start thinking of Champagne as the other white drink when it's time for dinner. It goes well with most foods -- you can drink it as an aperitif, with the meal and then with dessert -- and comes in a variety of flavors. And there's no denying that even the most mundane experiences suddenly seem special the second the cork pops and the first fizzy splash hits the flute. You don't even have to wait for it to breathe.
We're talking, of course, about real Champagne with a capital "C," the beverage invented by Benedictine monk Dom Perignon. In order to be called Champagne, the wines must be made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay grapes grown in the Marne, Aube, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne or Haute-Marne départements, and the entire arduous process of turning the wines into Champagne via méthode champenoise -- which involves a lot of pressing, racking and blending -- has to take place in the Champagne region as well. The stuff made in the United States, while sometimes fabulous, is technically not Champagne but sparkling wine.
Citrus offers both Champagne and sparkling wine, and the restaurant is as bubbly and refreshing as the beverage it celebrates. The four-month-old eatery and lounge occupies an odd but interesting Union Station space that had been A Bar, Larry Walker's and Flat Pennies. Owner Francois Safieddine (he also owns Blue 67 and used to run the Purple Martini, Cosmo Lounge and Fettoush with his brother, Phillipe, who retained ownership) dealt with the high ceilings by hanging light fixtures that look like enormous orange corn husks; he addressed the room's awkward shape by putting a bar and tasting lounge in the front and about a dozen tables for serious dining, including a handful of very groovy, very cozy booths, in the back. Hanging here and there on the industrial-style walls are photos of blindfolded women smoking cigarettes with their breasts exposed. I don't know what it all means, but it has an undeniable appeal.
The bar is particularly intriguing, a great grazing area that's usually filled with beautiful people. The preening cocktail waitresses wear little black dresses that make them blend right in with the clientele; the servers wear black shirts, black pants and black aprons, with their choice of orange or lime-green ties. Despite what would seem a high potential for pretension, though, on our visits the staffers were friendly, efficient and reasonably knowledgeable about food and drink. (Server Haidee Chayman deserves special mention for being so charming we almost hated to leave.)
The Champagne roster was a joint effort of general manager Chad Smith and chef Sheamus Feeley, and while it is one of the more extensive in town -- over forty regular-sized bottles, four splits and four magnums -- it's also one of the costliest. For instance, a bottle of Bruno Paillard's non-vintage Brut Rose retails for about $43; at Citrus, it's $90. The Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label costs $33 at a wine store; here it's $85. You can get Iron Horse's Russian Cuvee for about $20 around town -- unless you're at Citrus, where you'll need to fork over $55. And that's the cheapest bottle they've got, baby. Granted, eateries make their money from booze, but a 300 percent markup on this stuff is pretty rough, and as one local wine merchant points out, "Restaurants usually get better wholesale prices than I do." (Citrus's vodka by-the-bottle list seems equally overpriced.)
What makes the Champagne prices easier to swallow is the reasonably priced menu that Feeley created to go with the bubbly. "That was the fun part," he says. "I love Champagne, and I really worked hard at coming up with dishes that would complement it." Although he's just 24, Feeley has spent the better part of his life learning about food, starting as a youngster in kitchens run by his father, a French-trained chef. "Legitimately working -- that wasn't until I was fourteen," Feeley adds. "And I started at the bottom, cleaning toilets and prepping -- although not at the same time, of course." By the time he was out of college, where he studied journalism, he'd realized that he was only putting off the inevitable. "Being a chef," he says, "is in my blood."