This is really an extension of a thread dating from a couple of days back on "immigrant drinking establishments". I thought I would start a new thread so that this is not buried down below.
We spotted and talked about Baby O's (on 5726 N. Western, about 2 blocks south of Peterson) as far back as the period of scouting for the Western-a-thon. I was on that block that afternoon (after going by Mom's Filipino Bake Shop for the polvorones) when I was caught, first by the persistent rain and later by that freak snowstorm. While running by this bar, I caught sight of a tiny printed wine list taped to the window that listed quite a number of Dalmatian/Croatian crus. I wasn't able to stop and explore a bit more at that point. In retrospect, a Dalmatian wine tasting at this bar would have been a cool last stop on the Western-a-thon!
I vaguely remembered that the previous restaurant on the spot was the Croatian Continental (?) cafe. That bit of memory and the fact that the wine list primarily had wines from coastal Croatia made me "peg" Baby O's as Croatian. In fact, it's a little more confusing than that. At this point, I am not going to start disentangling the complicated ethnic/religious/political bonds that might unite the clientele at this bar. Let me just note that the owner is reportedly a Slovene, the (lady) bartender is a Serb, the man sitting next to me at the bar and chatting with me is Montenegrin and beyond him were two Croats (his friends), one of whom turned out to be some sort of officer for the Croatian Cultural Center on Devon. It might be an fascinating exercise in investigative reporting (a job for a "real" newspaper)to follow the settlement patterns in the city of different groups/with diff loyalties (Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, Christian Macedonians, Muslim Macedonians, Macedonian Albanians, Roma gypsies and so on). A piece like this might explain if there are any reasons why a certain Bosnian restaurant would choose to open around Lawrence/Western (is this an Orthodox Christian hub?) rather than cluster with those in the N. Broadway stretches.
Anyway, when I walked in at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, there were 10 men sitting at the bar (mostly drinking coffee, in the European tradition of sipping espressos at bars). It can be a bit forbidding at first as the bar (rather dark too) is obviously the hang-out for a very specific group and probably never sees any outsiders. In this case, I was also "obviously" not one of them. But at no point did I ever feel any kind of resentment or hostility; although it was a bit hard to communicate with the bartender who spoke very little English. In fact, it was my Montenegrin neighbor who first broke the ice by turning to me to chat about the wine that I had chosen.
And here is my tasting note for that wine:
2000 Plantaze, Vranac, Lake Skadar Region, Montenegro
Dark dense purple; black fruits (mostly cherries) on the nose with a hint of spice and some earthiness; this is a wine obviously meant for easy drinking but it has a good core of fruit, good balance, soft tannins on the finish. The winemaking is definitely forward-looking and does not exhibit some of the faults that plague old "Eastern European" styles (i.e. volatile acidity, heavy-handedness etc). At the same time, it is not generically "international style" and has its own charming character. Delicious!
Vranac (pronounced vra-nyats) is the great grape of Montenegro, although Vranac wines are apparently also made elsewhere, ex in Macedonia. The hillside slopes of the Lake Skadar region are considered among the best terroir for Vranac.
The wine list does not actually list all the producers and vintages but merely the types of wines. This is why I cannot give more details on each of these items below. But here are a few notes on the wines listed (most are $4-5/glass):
*Prosek (pro-shek) this is a passito-type wine from Croatia, i.e. the grapes (Plavac mali, red) are either dried right on the vine for several weeks to concentrate their sugars or dried in rooms (as for various Reciotos + Amarone). Depending on who the maker is, this could be a terrific sweetie. My friend, the Montenegrin, dismissed it as a "lady's wine".
*Peljesac (pel-ye-shak) is a peninsula in Dalmatia (Croatia), a famous winemaking region and apparently also an area of great natural beauty. The grape is the celebrated Plavac Mali (pla-vats mali) which for many years was thought to be identical to Zinfandel. Professor Carole Meredith (then of UCDavis) has since proven (see link below) that Zinfandel is actually the Croatian Crljenak grape and that Plavac Mali descended from Crljenak aka Zinfandel. Mike Grgic of Grgich Hills has been making wines in Peljesac since the early 90s.
These are two of the celebrated vineyard districts or "crus" within Peljesac. Both of these have legal appellation of origin status. The grape is Plavac Mali.
*Dalmatinac This simply refers to Dalmatian wine-Dalmacijavino. Without more information, I cannot tell if it is red or white.
*Zilavka A famous white wine from Bosnia-Hercegovina. The most famous Zilavka is from around the town of Mostar.
*Grasevina This is the same grape as the Austrian Welschriesling. Don't know which region this particular example is from.
(I might be missing a couple of other wines here-Kastelet too perhaps-I was taking notes very quickly.)
There has been quite a bit of interest since the mid/late 90s in the wines of the "new" Eastern European states (and this is a fantastically rich category that includes the winemaking traditions of Georgia etc). After visiting the Wachau (to see the legendary F.X. Pichler, Hirtzberger and other winemakers), I have gone on to see the Hungarian wine regions and to "Moravian" Znojmo. But the person in Chicago who has done the most exploring of Slovenian and Croatian wines is my dear friend Henry Bishop, the sommelier of Spiaggia, who drove down the Dalmatian coast a couple of years ago with his assistant John (whom some of you might know from Cafe Spiaggia; John is second-generation? Croatian-American). They then boarded the ferry (along with their rented car) to cross the Adriatic to Ancona where they had other wine appointments.
The wines of Croatia is by no means a "footnote" category in the world of wine (well, maybe it is, at the moment). The whole of what used to be "Yugoslavia" has long, glorious winemaking histories/traditions, some celebrated as far back as the Middle-ages. It is without a question, a wine region with tremendous potential.
Some additional info:
Baby O's has a full menu, which I wasn't able to examine. There was a sign above the bar saying that they close at 1:15 on weekdays and 2:15 (?) on Fri and Sat.
As I noted on the other post, the "officer" of the Croatian Cultural Center told me that community dinners are available at the center (2845 W. Devon) on Mon and Fri from 6-10:30 p.m. It's all Croats out there, he said, but he welcomed me heartily.
I have been following the Northwestern Slavic Film series and have seen some extraordinary films so far (Paradjanov, Sokurov's Mother and Son, Jan Svankmajer's Faust etc). Last night, I caught Emir Kusturica's surrealist epic "Underground" and was quite shaken by it. It is a very controversial film, with conflicting readings/account of its political significance/stance. But, boy!, was it powerful! It's available on DVD and I recommend it very highly (3 hours long). Emir Kusturica is also associated with the "No Smoking Orchestra", a legendary "gypsy-rock" group that has been "rocking the boat" since the late 70s (early 80s?, I am not sure). I am sure that this group is well-known to the many "world music" fans on this board.