Alpana Singh was originally going to call her new restaurant, scheduled to open in early spring in River North, Tallulah. But the name didn’t feel right to her. She asked her friends for advice. They suggested she write down everything she wanted the spirit of the restaurant to be. When she was finished, she realized, “That’s me on a page.” So she decided to name it after herself: Alpana.
This is the fourth restaurant from the sommelier and former Check, Please! host after the Boarding House and Seven Lions, now both closed, and Terra & Vine in Evanston. It’s self-financed, so she’s not beholden to investors, and since she resigned her master sommelier title in 2020 to protest sexual abuse and assault allegations within the Court of Master Sommeliers, she’s no longer limited by the demands of the Court. She’s taking an active role in every aspect of Alpana, from the construction and design — she and Matt Fisher co-own the firm AMT Hospitality and built not only Singh’s own restaurants but also several others, including Kasama and Tzuco — to designing the dishes that appear on the menu and, of course, the wine.
“Things are so different from when I opened the Boarding House 10 years ago,” she says. “I’m amazed by the difference in attitude. Ten years ago, a publication around town put out an article questioning a sommelier opening a restaurant. Now because of the pandemic and other changes, there’s so much more openness and willingness to accept other stories.” As someone who grew up with immigrant parents and an uncommon name, Singh finds it gratifying that people will finally learn how to pronounce her name correctly.
Traditionally, sommeliers aren’t supposed to go in a restaurant kitchen at all, but as Singh points out, sommeliers taste things for a living and have a highly-developed sense of texture, balance, and flavor. During the pandemic, when Terra & Vine was temporarily closed, she started spending more time in her own kitchen and developing new recipes, which she shared on her blog.
For Alpana, she had a definite sense of how she wanted the food to taste: “I’m looking for umami, texture, acidity, pops of sweetness, so eventually when you have it with a glass of wine, it hits and sparks in a lot of ways.” She wanted it to reflect her life and taste memory. Juan Chavez, a chef who’s worked with her for the past 10 years, helped her execute that vision. The dishes include appetizers, pastas, and entrees, such as roast chicken with aji verde and pan-seared sea bass with a bouillabaisse reduction.
Singh has a definite vision for the wine list as well. She’s planning a list of about 75 bottles, “depending on how excited I get,” and she wants to highlight producers who are working to address climate change, using grapes that are grown at higher altitudes and use less water. “Wine is a liquid record-keeper of changing weather patterns,” she says. “[Climate change] is so overwhelming to me, it’s too big a problem. But there’s something about being able to internalize how it affects little things like our wine. It speaks of hope. There are tangible changes that can be made to get ourselves out of this.”
The restaurant itself, which will take over the former LYFE Kitchen, will be large: 4,000 square feet, with 90 seats in the dining room and 15 more at the bar, plus another 90 on the heated patio outside. The design, she says, “is built around the idea of wild feminine energy. There’s a Garden of Eden energy, except Eve wouldn’t have to leave.” The room will be bathed in golden light, an ivy trellis will hang overhead (ceiling installations are something of a Singh hallmark), and the walls will be covered with jungle print wallpaper and framed photos of women who have inspired Singh — Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Sophia Loren — and a single man, Keanu Reeves, who Singh, a fan since seventh grade, jokingly calls “the patron male saint of restaurants.”
In order to counteract the toxic effects of the Court of Master Sommeliers and the many other transgressions that were brought to light in the restaurant industry by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, Singh envisions working at Alpana as akin to being part of a training program. She proudly notes that every single one of the servers who opened the Boarding House currently run restaurants or wine programs or work in the wine business, and she wants that line of success to continue with the new crop of servers she’s hiring.
“I want to prepare for the next generation of wine,” she says. “I’m responsible for my own quadrant of the world. And this one has got my name on it, so my service better be good.”
Alpana, 831 N. State Street, scheduled to open in early spring.