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Chicago Has Its City of Light at RM Champagne Salon

RM Champagne Salon in Chicago

Guests at the newly opened RM Champagne Salon in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. Credit: Terra Brockman

Some great things are worth waiting for, like aged cheeses, fine wines and true love. Now add to that list Chicago’s just-opened RM Champagne Salon.

Scheduled to open last February, the folks behind RM, the Element Collective, persevered through months of build-out and wrangling with city officials. The result is a magical place where the above-mentioned cheeses, wines, champagne and romance meet in subdued yet sophisticated splendor. All through the evening I spent there this week I kept wondering, “Am I in Chicago or Paris?”

Believe me, I know how ridiculous that sounds. Who would ever confuse Carl Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling City of the Big Shoulders” with the ethereal, educated, romantic “City of Light?” But somehow, RM has done just that with a combination of elegant design, Midwestern modesty, knowledgeable staff who are wine geeks not wine snobs, stellar savory plates by executive chef Jared Van Camp, dangerous sweets such as petits fours and macaroons by pastry chef Nate Meads, and a highly curated wine list by sommelier Jason Wagner.

With no signage or on-street entrance (part of the city’s permitting issues that held things up), you can enter RM Champagne Salon at 116 N. Green Street in the hot West Loop neighborhood only via one of Chicago’s ubiquitous alleyways, which are generally dirty, stinky places for deliveries of merchandise and pickups of garbage.

But as soon as you turn into this particular alleyway, you begin to feel like Dorothy, although you are not in Chicago, not Kansas, that you are not anymore. Lighting at foot level and overhead draws you down the alley, which opens onto an uneven granite cobblestone patio with Moroccan lanterns overhead. You can sit there in the patio, or proceed up the expansive staircase to an upper-level patio, the perfect perch for people-watching. Or you can let yourself be drawn straight into RM Champagne Salon itself, a world of soft candlelight, white linen tablecloths, sparkling cut glass, and yes, champagne; RM Champagne, to be precise.

Vineyard to bottle

RM stands for récoltant-manipulant, which is basically “farm-to-table,” or more precisely “vineyard-to-bottle,” Champagne. Everything from the growing and harvesting of the grapes to the fermenting and bottling of the Champagne happens in the same place, generally on smaller vineyards that have been owned by the same family for generations. These small-batch, single-source Champagnes are commonly known as “grower Champagnes,” and have the same appeal as heirloom tomatoes and farmstead cheeses. They are all delicious examples of time-honored traditions, reflecting the soil and climate of a particular place, and resulting in high-quality artisanal products that give consumers the tastes and connections they crave.

Those specifics are what guide Wagner in all the selections on RM’s 200-plus wine list, 90% of which you probably won’t recognize. But that’s why you’re going to RM — to put your taste buds and tummy in Wagner’s very capable hands, and to experience extraordinary artisanal wines reflecting the terroir of a particular place and the work of a passionate craftsman. While you can certainly spend $1,500 for a rare magnum, or $45 a glass for something special, you can also get excellent reds and whites for $8 a glass, with no extra charge for the elegant ambiance.
Wagner himself embodies the contrasting “approachable artisanal” elements of the wine list. He is both relaxed and humble, and knowledgeable and well-spoken, with an impressive résumé that includes work as sommelier at A Voce and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

Wagner left New York for Chicago when his wife was accepted into the prestigious doctoral program in cognitive neurosciences at Northwestern University. Not long after moving, he asked “the Chrisses” (Chris Freeman and Chris Dexter, partners in the Element Collective) to put the word out he was looking for a job. Soon enough, they snagged Wagner for their own project, which turned out to be a perfect pairing.

Sexy in Chicago

For example, Van Camp’s menus for RM Champagne Salon, Nellcôte and Old Town Social in Chicago — as well as Quality Social in San Diego — celebrate local artisanal producers of fruits, vegetables, meats and grains. And, Wagner’s wine list honors the artisanal grape-growing and wine-making of grower Champagnes.

Wagner assured me that although RM will take reservations, half of the 150 patio seats will always be kept open for walk-ins. And so RM promises to be both a place to bask in sexy, sophisticated elegance on special “City of Light” nights, as well as a place to just relax on ordinary nights in the “City of the Big Shoulders.”

Guests at the newly opened RM Champagne Salon in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. Credit: Terra Brockman

Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.