Meet The Rock Star Somm Taking The Reins At Top Restaurant Sixteen

By John Lenart in Food on Aug 11, 2015 1:35PM

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Photo via Sixteen

Every so often a series of events occur that I like to call the Somm Shuffle. It happens when, what seems like spontaneously, three or four sommeliers around town all take new gigs. A Somm Shuffle happened a few months back. Many of these moves were justifiably highly publicized. However, when one of the highest profile somm gigs in town got filled it was done quietly, with dexterity and finesse. The position was filled by someone you may not have heard of, but Chicago food and wine enthusiasts will soon know his name.

Parag Lalit took over the Sommelier position at Sixteen in May, after the departure of Dan Pilkey. Arguably, the sommelier position at Sixteen has been one of the most high-profile around. Prior to Pilkey the position was held by Spiaggia's rock star somm Rachael Lowe. Now comes Lalit.

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Sommelier Parag Lalit, photo via Sixteen
Born in India, Lalit's family moved to France during his teen years, where he studied restaurant management. After moving to Canada, he became interested in wine while working under Canada's most recent master sommelier, Elyse Lambert. Before working as a full time sommelier, he says, “I wanted to get a professional certification and that's when I got involved with The Court of Master Sommeliers.” Lalit currently holds an Advanced Sommelier certification and is working toward his Master Sommelier certification.

One of the main reasons he moved to Chicago after hopping the globe is because, “I can focus on my M.S. by indulging in higher-end service and also practicing some dexterity at the table. I can do this because Chicago is really driving the culinary forefront of this country,” says Lalit.

Unlike most Somms these days, Lalit doesn't carry a secondary title, like Assistant Manager, Beverage Director, or something of the sort. This allows him to solely focus on the wine program.

On the subject of working for a two Michelin star restaurant, Lalit says, “One knows the environment will be challenging. We have a very diverse, demanding clientele, we change our menu on a three month basis, with very contemporary cuisine. What Chef Lents does is pure magic and he automatically expects you to be at par in what he's doing. So there's a lot of experimenting involved of what we want to sell in terms of wine.”

At Sixteen, guests have two choices when it comes to wine pairings. The first, called “Cru”, is the basic pairing at $125. The second, called “Clos”, is $750. Wait? What? $750 for wine pairings?

"The focus in the Clos pairing is to make sure that it's rare, it's unique wines that collectors will really appreciate and wines that are hard to put their hands on,” says Lalit.

“When people come to Sixteen they know there's a certain level, and they're not disappointed because we have some of the wines, for example we are pouring Meursault Charmes (premier Cru) by Domaine des Comtes Lafon 1999, 1999 Robert Arnoux (Vosne Romanee 1er Cru Les Maiziers), and the 1955 Château Pichon Baron Longueville (Pauillac, 2ème Cru classe, Bordeaux). So we have some wines that get collectors and sommeliers excited.”

When asked how many $750 wine pairings they sell, Lalit responds, “Five to eight per week generally. But we also have guests ask for hybrid pairings from the Cru and Clos pairings, which cost mid-range, but seven out of ten indulge in the Cru paring.”

Each of these wines are poured using Coravin. If you haven't heard of this, it's a simple device that allows sommeliers to pour a wine by the glass without removing the cork. A hollow needle is inserted through the cork and into the bottle. This needle siphons out the wine leaving the cork intact. The air space left by the removed wine would typically destroy the remaining wine. Coravin replaces this air space with argon gas. Argon is inert and acts to preserve the wine.

I asked what he's doing to put his stamp on wine service at Sixteen. “It's a wonderful wine list to play with. But down the line I want to develop Champagne, aged Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. These are the three areas I want to develop, Burgundy more so than anything else. I want people to look at this wine list and recognize it as a benchmark of Burgundy,” says Lalit. “And the idea is, down the line, to pour older vintage Champagne by the glass.”

How long will it take to make this move? “I've already started this, but it's a work in progress,” says Lalit.

If you don't want to indulge in an entire pairing and would simply like wine by the glass, rare wines are poured also using Coravin.

“We have the Sine Qua Non Dark Blossom, we have Sassicaia by the glass, and we have Clarendon Hills Astralis by the glass," Lalit said. "So there's quite a bit of variety,”

Of course, wine service at Sixteen isn't simply about paring and by-the-glass offerings. The current cellar boasts about 450 different selections. Should guests opt for a bottle, they may have the opportunity to be presented with a very theatrical bottle-opening technique. As far as I am aware, Sixteen is one of the few, if not the only, restaurant in Chicago that does tonging. What's tonging, you ask?

Tonging, according to Lalit, “Started with the wines of port.” Because port is aged for so long, and because the sugar content is quite high, corks tended to stick and break during extraction.

"So what you do is bypass the cork by heating a pair of tongs over a blow torch. Once the tongs have been heated you apply them to the bottle just beneath the cork and leave it there for approximately a minute, and by using a contrast in temperature applied by a cold brush, a cold feather, that has been dipped in ice cold water, you rub that against the part of the bottle that had been kept in contact with the heat and that contrast in temperature breaks the glass in a straight line,” Lalit said

After the cut top of the bottle is removed, wine is carefully decanted through a strainer to assure no glass is in the wine. Finally, the cut portions of the bottle have wax applied and the guest is given the bottle.

"It's quite dramatic and people like it,” Lalit said.

With all the theater and expensive wines, it might be easy to be intimidated by wine service at Sixteen, but Lalit couldn't be more approachable and friendly. He loves all wine, regardless of price.

"I'm just as passionate and love to talk about a wine that's $30 as much as a wine that's $3,000.”

So next time you're up for a two Michelin star meal and find yourself at Sixteen, ask for Parag Lalit and your wine experience will be guided with finesse and class and will likely exceed your expectation.