Events at City Winery Chicago just keep getting better and better as this freshman entry to Chicago’s performance/dining scene settles into its space and dreams up creative ways to pair music with food. Case in point: City Winery’s regular Klezmer Brunch kicks it up a notch for Hanukkah with performances by Balkano on December 9 and Chicago Klezmer Ensemble on December 16 (the first and last days of Hanukkah) and an expanded menu that includes a build-your-own latke bar — and not to worry, you won’t have to fry the latkes yourself, just garnish them as you see fit.
City Winery’s weekly Klezmer Brunch — the Jewish equivalent of Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues — is offered year-round and showcases the musical style born from the intermarriage of Eastern European Jewish music and jazz. The brunch regularly features Chicago Klezmer Ensemble (Jan. 6) and Maxwell Street Klezmer Band (Dec. 30 and Jan. 20), mixing it up with groups like Jutta & the Hi-Dukes (Dec. 23) and Listen Up! (Jan. 27).
Chicago’s Balkano (rhymes with volcano) calls itself “Balkan jazz with a klezmer twist,” blending traditional klezmer with “the energy of Bulgarian wedding music and the melodies of Turkish Gypsy music.” Led by Bryan Pardo on clarinet, the instrument that embodies klezmer, the group includes trumpeter James Davis, singer Diana Lawrence, Ari Seder on guitar, Patrick Mulcahy on bass and percussionist Jim Barclay. All are accomplished Chicago musicians with the versatility to perform the variety of styles their other gigs demand.
For their Hanukkah performance, Balkano included not only the soulful Sephardic-inflected tunes at the heart of their repertoire but also some classic holiday favorites and newer compositions, like Pardo’s “Chewbacca Wookie.” As much as klezmer fans enjoy hearing the old favorites, it’s refreshing to listen to Balkano’s more nuanced take on the genre.
And to paraphrase an old advertising slogan, you don’t have to be Jewish to love klezmer or to enjoy City Winery’s Klezmer Brunch. In fact, you don’t have to like music at all — as sad as it is to contemplate that — because the price of admission includes topnotch food and drink that should satisfy all. Lots of family groups attend, with children’s tickets half price.
For the two Hanukkah brunches, City Winery has added seasonal treats, like the aforementioned build-you-own-latke-bar and sufganiyot, the fried-in-oil jelly doughnuts also associated with the holiday. On top of the already plentiful fare offered for the Sunday brunches — bagels with house-cured salmon, challah French toast, a scramble station and lots more — and you can walk away from the buffet with one groaning plate or pace yourself and return for more. The $30 admission covers not only the performance and brunch and dessert buffets but also beverages, including bottomless Bloody Marys and mimosas.
City Winery pays attention to ingredients and preparation: the mushroom-and-cheese scrambled eggs I ordered arrived at my table chock-full of oyster mushrooms and beautifully garnished, eggs that had gone to college. Everything was fresh and tasty, and the latkes were done right — although it would be every Jewish grandmother’s prerogative to dispute that assessment before taking just one more.
Hanukkah Klezmer Brunch Buffet
Balkano on Dec. 9; Chicago Klezmer Ensemble on Dec. 16
$30 adults; $15 for children 12 and under; call (312) 733-9463 or visit www.citywinery.com/chicago
Doors open at 10 a.m., with live music starting at 10:30 and continuing to 1 p.m.
City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago
Color photos: Leanne Star