WHEN IT COMES TO DINING OUT ON New Year’s Eve, either you’re a fan or you’re not. I’m a die-hard member of the second group, even though friends have tried to convince me otherwise. (For the record, I feel the same way about brunch, but that’s another story.) So while I have no fond memories of getting dolled up on the last night of the year after securing a coveted dinner reservation, I do miss being at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve—as a server, rather than a customer.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought a few weeks back when I said as much to Belinda Chang, partner and director of wine and service at Maple & Ash, at a media event after a couple glasses of wine. “You should come work with us!” she said. I quickly agreed—did I mention wine was involved?—and that’s how I found myself at the swanky Gold Coast steakhouse at 5pm on December 31st. While I didn’t actually “work”—my service days are best left in the past—I did take Chang up on her offer to observe the goings-on at one of Chicago’s top restaurants on its busiest night of the year.

Belinda Chang

My first tip that deciding to wear sensible shoes was in fact a very sensible thing to do came from the guy checking my coat, who, after I told him I would be following Chang around, wished me good luck. Chang may be a James Beard Award Winning sommelier, but her passion for creating an entertaining environment—for both the customers and her staff—is equal to her passion for the grape. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the declaration on the side of the menu in small print stating, “Consuming wine from large format bottles may increase your chance of having fun” is her handiwork.) In other words, sitting still isn’t her forte.

99 Amaze

“We started planning this months ago,” says Chang when we meet up in the restaurant’s wine room to discuss our agenda for the evening over a glass of Champagne and fist ‘bump’ of caviar. (Note to self: I could get used to this.) But, she’s quick to add, it wasn’t a lot of work beyond the “balloon jungle” currently residing in the restaurant’s bar area. “It’s not much different for us since we didn’t change the menu,” she says. “We didn’t want to rape and pillage our clients,” pricewise.

Foie, toast and jam

In addition to the fire-roasted seafood towers, oysters on the half shell, steaks cooked in the wood-burning hearth and three kinds of caviar already on offer, M&A added a few specials for the evening, including lobster Thermidor—order the bone-in ribeye and they threw it in for free—Perigord black winter truffles and even more Champagne than the restaurant typically offers. “It’s the right thing to do,” says Chang, a bubbles lover herself.

Building tabletop Champagne towers for customers who requested one was also part of the festivities. “I have 3,000 coupes ready to go,” she says. As if on cue, Chang is summoned to create the evening’s first—but definitely not the last—tower. (If you want to watch her in action, check out one of the numerous demonstrations she did pre-NYE, like this one for WCIU).

Graziano prosciutto

 

AFTER WALKING ME THROUGH HER PACES for the evening, Chang hands me off to Mason Marks, one of M&A’s three maitre d’s. “We want to bring back maitre d’ culture,” Chang says as she departs. “It’s our commitment to throwing the best party in town.”

If I thought keeping up with Chang was tough, Marks would prove to be even more challenging. It was almost like a synchronized dance routine as he effortlessly moved around the 160-seat dining room, folding napkins, greeting regulars by name, deftly grabbing dirty dishes and helping servers plate side dishes—which, he says, is a great way to connect with people and get a sense of the table’s vibe. “My job is to walk around the room and make sure customers are having fun,” he says. “We’re a steakhouse, but we want to bump up your experience.”

Part of elevating the experience includes a tableside preparation of bananas foster. “Let’s go have some fun,” says Marks as he grabbed a burner and tray along with the ingredients to make the evening’s first flambéed dessert. Typically, they serve about 10 bananas foster a night, but Marks predicts tonight they’ll do at least 20. Judging from the way the tower of flames captures the attention of the table being served as well as the ones around it, I have no doubts. “It’s like a culinary lap dance,” says Marks as he gathers his gear and heads back to the kitchen.

There’s a slight lull in the restaurant as I head to the bar for my next ‘shift.’ But not before getting a glimpse of Gordon Hardin, another maitre d’, perfectly sabering a bottle of Champagne before pouring it into the coupe tower on the 10-top table.

To further my, um, education, bartender Matt Gaertner thinks I should try one of M&A’s most popular cocktails, Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch, a mix of Glenmorangie 10-year Scotch, David Nicholson 1843 Bourbon, Cocchi di Torino, Grand Marnier and a Laphroaig float. “It’s basically booze on booze on booze,” he says, “but it’s perfectly balanced.” I couldn’t agree more, though Martinis, more often than not ordered dirty, vie with Champagne to top the drink orders tonight. As the lounge area starts to fill up, I relinquish my precious bar real estate to the three bartenders.

As I make my way through the restaurant halfway through the evening, it’s apparent the scene in the dining room is changing: the music’s getting louder, the dresses are getting shorter and the average age is heading younger. (Gold stilettos, fur stoles and short jackets, and dresses accented with chiffon dominate the female fashion trends.) “That looks like trouble,” I joke to Hardin as he walks by with a large tray full of tequila shots.

“That’s what we’re here for!” he says.

For the rest of the evening, I position myself in front of the open kitchen, which offers a great vantage point. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the 14 chefs working in the small but organized space, the fire-breathing wood-fired hearth and the quickness to which the food runners hoist onto their shoulders the heavy trays full of plates of the restaurant’s signature wedge salad, giant Alaskan King Crab legs, grilled Spanish octopus and steaks. Lots and lots of steaks.

It’s while standing there that Sarah Gold walks by with a deflated balloon. “I’m going to go put him down,” deadpans Gold, whose official title is manager but is referred to as Heli. (“We call the manager that has to float above and sometimes dive in the Helicopter,” Chang had explained.) Wine Director Amy Mundwiler stops by to tell me, “A table just told me I looked great on WGN this morning.” It’s not the first time a customer has mistaken her for Chang, but Mundwiler doesn’t mind.

HP

Executive Pastry Chef Aya Fukai, one of the newer additions to the team, holds court near the pastry area of the open kitchen, chatting with customers and servers. Typically, pastry chefs are rarely seen outside their designed areas—more often than not in a far corner of the kitchen—but Fukai, most recently at Sixteen, has quickly adjusted. “We get to be out front and talk with the guests, watch them eating our desserts and see the look on their faces,” she says. “I like that.”

Also front and center is Executive Chef Danny Grant, who’s doing his fair share of handshaking and picture-taking with the regulars. I ask him what he likes about working at Maple & Ash. “There are no rules here,” he says, quickly adding, “Why can’t it be fun?” On this balloon-bedecked New Year’s Eve, fun is in the air at Maple & Ash.

 


Lisa Shames has covered topics ranging from a three-day food expo in Spain and an ingredient that ‘glues’ proteins together to the new breed of butchers for a variety of publications, including Time Out Chicago, Chicago Sun Times and So Good. Currently Dining Editor of CS and Men’s Book magazines, she spends her time exploring Chicago’s restaurant scene in between frequent trips to the gym.


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