Written By: Alpana Singh
52 W. Illinois
As Lettuce Entertain You’s first Chinese restaurant, Ben Pao offers an extensive menu of contemporary Chinese. Ben Pao features cuisines that blend Cantonese, Szechwan, Mongolian and Shanghai styles of cooking in a picturesque setting of soaring pillars and soothing waterfalls.
Like most of us, Chinese takeout was a weekly family menu mainstay. When I was a young child, I always looked forward to Sundays, when my mother took a night off from cooking our usual Indian fare. On these beloved evenings, without fail, we ordered Kung Pao chicken, wonton soup, and fried rice. After moving to Chicago in my twenties, I still carried out this ritual and recited my family’s menu when I ordered my Sunday Cantonese carry-out, until one day when I realized I’d spent a lifetime eating the same dishes every week. Despite the abundance of choices, I never tried anything new. A fear of the unknown kept me from selecting those exotic-sounding items on the menu, which featured ingredients and preparations I never had the opportunity to sample. What if I made a mistake and ended up with something I didn’t like? My desire for the comfortably familiar kept me full, but was also keeping me from discovering new favorites–and, worse, preventing me from exploring the depth and complexity of Asian cuisine. Ever since my culinary epiphany, I’ve made it a rule to try something new each time I sit down in a favorite restaurant, and in doing so I can now say I have an understanding and appreciation for Chinese food and culture that extends far beyond the basics I first discovered at my childhood dinner table.
But what does wonton soup have to do with wine? Well, perhaps you too stick to your favorites when deciding what to pour in your glass, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Pinot Grigio when you visit our restaurants. You may have always wondered about what Gruner Veltliner, Monastrell or Grenache tastes like, but fear ordering something you may not enjoy. Just as in cuisines, while it’s important to have your go-to favorites in wine, it is equally important to set these bottles aside and try something new if you want to expand and refine the depths of your palate. Our restaurants offer a great opportunity to discover new wines without fear, since we offer many unique selections by the glass, in smaller tasting portions, or, for a real taster’s choice, in wine flights, which allow you to sample several themed selections side by side. Just let your server know the wine you enjoy and he or she will happily offer an alternative recommendation. Pinot Grigio fans should try crispy Albarino. Cab lovers will savor meaty Malbec. Chianti die-hards meet Montepulciano. The list goes on and on. They say without risk there is no reward, and that couldn’t be more true when it comes to wine. You can discover new favorite varietals, styles, and wine regions of the world with us, one sip at a time. I guarantee before long you’ll raise high your glasses to toast all that the world of wine has to offer.
Born and raised in Monterey, California, it was only natural that Alpana Singh would develop an interest in wine. As the Director of Wine and Spirits for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., her duties include wine education and training, purchasing and bar program development for the Chicago based restaurant group. She also moonlights as the host of the three time Emmy Award-Winning Restaurant Review Television Show, Check, Please! which airs weekly in Chicago. In 2006, Singh published her first book, Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine, and Having Great Relationships.
Born to Indian parents who moved to California from the Fiji Islands, Singh’s family owned an ethnic grocery store in Monterey where she worked at an early age; a life experience that she credits for her present day work ethic and ease with people of all ages. After high school graduation, Singh attended college by day and waited tables by night. It was during this time that she discovered her love for wine and found that it combined her varied interests of geography, history and food. She achieved her goal of becoming a Master Sommelier by passing the final exam in 2003 at the age of twenty-six. Prior to her position at Lettuce, Alpana served as Sommelier for Chef J. Joho’s Relais Gourmand and Traditions et Qualité restaurant, Everest. During that time, wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., praised her in his publication the Wine Advocate, as “one of the finest young sommeliers in America today.” In 2006, Bon Appetit named Singh “Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year.” She has also been featured in numerous publications including Newsweek, Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times.