Exclusively Napa Wine Bar and Emporium brings Napa and hard-to-find wines, a relaxed urban atmosphere and the simple, fresh flavors of tapas to downtown Crystal Lake.
Exclusively Napa: Napa in the Heart of Crystal Lake
It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday. The neighborhood around Raue Center For The Arts is quiet. Only the lights of the center’s marquee, blinking like a thousand dancing fireflies, show any sign of life. Something seems amiss in the quiet. Listen a little harder. Take another look around. You’re likely to hear it before you see it. Nightlife: laughter, music, the clink of glasses.
The sounds come from downtown Crystal Lake’s newest hot spot: Exclusively Napa Wine Bar and Emporium. Inconspicuously tucked between Williams Street storefronts, it quietly opened about four months ago and has since created an underground buzz that is whispered between McHenry County’s food cognoscenti.
Great Wine Selection
Dr. Dennis Kellar, owner of Exclusively Napa, is the person responsible for all of the talk. He said he opened the unique bar/restaurant for purely selfish reasons: “I just wanted to find a place that served good wines.” Kellar wanted to bring a “quaint little place” to the area, “something similar to what you would find in downtown Chicago.”
“I went to every wine bar in Chicago and took notes,” he said, so he could bring to his new venture all of the best things he found in the city. He even took note of the bad habits, choosing not to charge a corkage fee that can range from $10 to $30 in most wine bars. “You should be able to buy a bottle of wine, drink half of it and take the rest home” without an extra fee, Kellar said.
The wine selection is a source of pride. Specializing in hard-to-get selections from boutique wineries in Napa Valley, France, South Africa and Italy, Exclusively Napa also works hard to take the mystery out of wine. Servers are trained to make wine recommendations based on a diner’s choice of meal. It also promotes adventurism by offering a rotating list of wines by the glass, giving budding or experienced oenophiles the opportunity to try new wines.
Exclusively Napa has a close, friendly and warm feel, ideal for special evenings, ladies nights out or family gatherings.
Long and narrow, you are surrounded by more than 3,200 bottles of wine as you enter. A mural of a Napa Valley farm field on the space’s back wall sets a serene tone, giving you permission to exhale the day’s stresses.
Whimsical paintings of a more laid-back lifestyle from local artist Kate Tully adorn the walls, inviting you to drink in the relaxing atmosphere even more deeply. Past the oak and granite bar, you’ll find rotating exhibits of works by local artists.
Simple, Satisfying Food
Although wine is the prima donna at Exclusively Napa, its food has received much kudos. Executive Chef Mike Watson oversees the kitchen. He’s a tall man with short shorn hair that says more Marine sergeant than chef. His easy smile and calm eyes hide the white-hot heart of a purist.
His kitchen is small, dorm room small, about 200 square feet small. It is free of large walk-in refrigerators, freezers or storage spaces. There is nowhere for food to hide or get old. Everything gets used. Promptly — at the height of its flavor. Watson’s dedication to fresh is fanatical. Bread and produce arrive six days a week, meats are delivered from Kalck’s Butcher Shop down the street and his heirloom tomatoes come from a farm in Crystal Lake. “I use the freshest produce I can,” he said. “I try to stay as sustainable as possible and buy from McHenry County.”
He has to. His entire style of cooking depends on it. And it is what his diners have come to expect from him. “All my guys are simplistic chefs,” Watson said. “We believe in simplicity. We want you to enjoy all of the natural tastes.”
His push for purity even extends to condiments. He and his sous chefs make their own stone-ground mustard that is flavored with locally sourced honey. Salad dressings are made from scratch. The only oils used in the kitchen are extra virgin olive oil and olive pomace oil “because they don’t mask the taste of anything,” Watson said.
“I would rather run out of our daily specials than sit on it and have to push it” to diners the next day, he explained. And he does run out. Often. If it were any other way, it would mean compromising his principles.
Because of his dependence on seasonal produce, he said his menu has to change with the weather. At the time this article goes to print, he will serve small asparagus because he can’t get larger pieces. As he gets closer to winter, he’ll have to start serving white asparagus.
He’s also just as passionate about portion sizes. Watson said he wants his diners walking away feeling satisfied, not bursting at the seams.
The wines follow the menu. “We take out the lighter summer wines and replace them with the newer heavier wines for winter,” Watson said.
What started as a kitchen serving 12 appetizers has now grown to 31 unique dishes. Watson and his team create two lunch and dinner specials and three to five desserts each day. He said the most popular dishes are olive tapenade, Stags’ Leap flatbreads and seared ahi tuna.
Watson likes to say that “we’re a wine bar that became a restaurant.”
Ask him why he does what he does and he’ll look down at the ground, smile and say, “because we take something from a raw state and make it pleasant to your palate and senses.” Push him some more and you’ll get the real reason: “because we can make you forget about your day for a little bit. That makes us happy.”
That’s his heart talking. That’s the reason for his easy smile.
When you go:
Where: 35 N. Williams St. in
downtown Crystal Lake
When: Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m.;
kitchen closes at 11 p.m.
Attire: Crystal Lake casual
For more: 815-479-0770,