June 26, 2005
There’s nothing new about the concept behind Winebar. The name says it all, and as such—a wine bar, New York City, circa 2005—you can expect wine—by the glass, bottle, and possibly quartino—and small plates crafted from seasonal ingredients inspired by the country of the wine featured: Spain for Bar Jamon, Italy for In Vino and Bar Veloce, etc. The concept is a no brainer, but if executed properly, it can still make a statement despite its copycat genre.
I was not expecting much from Winebar, which opened quietly across the way from Mermaid Inn a few weeks ago. But I left feeling the need and the desire to return—and often.
The restaurant was actually conceptualized (and is owned) by Matthew Kenney. He is good friends with the guy who owned Ovo (where Winebar is now located), and he took over the lease from when his pal closed Ovo to move back to Lebanon and develop real estate. Apparently civil unrest and Presidential assassinations give you rock bottom prices on land. Good to know. Anyway, Kenney has a great sensibility for creating inviting spaces, and he has designed a warm, yet sleek urban tavern with a wood-burning oven, and long dark wood drinking counters that make the place fell like a larger Bar Jamon. But since he is all about raw food now, he has been leaving the food to chef Sean Olnowich, who has worked at places like Olives and Rocco’s a la Playa in Sag Harbor, and who has a great knack for seasoning. While his menu is simple, its soul is complex—every dish has depth of flavor, of texture, and contrasting tones that create a wide zone of pleasure in your mouth. Fun stuff people.
Let’s begin with the crostini with assorted dips ($8). Nothing to write home about here you might think. I certainly was not expecting much other than something to fill my tummy while Stacey and I pondered the wine list. We chose a fabulous white wine from Greece—the Malgousia, Gerovassiliou Eponomi (2004), a crisp, bright slightly tart white that reminded me of something from the Loire. (Julio, the front of the house manager is a sweetheart and is quite adept at helping you choose a wine that is right for your price point, palate, and mood.) The crostini are extraordinary. Who knew spreads on bread could be so damn good? The bread is all Amy’s, first of all, which is a great thing. As such it is soft, dense, and chewy, not hard, crusty and dangerous. Sean makes a fennel spread that packs a nice creamy spiciness but also a little sweetness that he spreads on Amy’s fennel raisin bread, he turns out a fresh twist on white bean hummus with a slight Asian kick, touched with sesame oil and sprinkled with black sesame seeds, and brings the essence of the artichoke to life in a fluffy puree set on a circle of soft whole wheat baguette. These were flawless.
So was his heirloom tomato salad ($10), more of a celebration of tomatoes than a salad actually. He piles sliced cherry, teardrop, and beefsteak heirlooms (mostly raw, but some oven-roasted to candied sweetness) of all colors—purple, green, orange, yellow, pink—on top of two big heels of sourdough bread. The tomatoes are tossed with ribbons of basil, a fragrant pour of olive oil, and some nice sea salt. They rest there, all glossy and gorgeous, with all of their sweet juices drip down into the bread, which means that after you eat off all the tomatoes—a delicious exercise I cannot wait to repeat—you get to bite into that oil-and-tomato-juice soaked bread. Heaven people.
Stacey was all over the yellowtail crudo ($13), a stunning plate of yellowtail—sliced more like sashimi than carpaccio—that was topped with tart and juicy segments of blood orange, dusted with spicy pepper and citrus zest and drizzled with a citrus oil. Again, here Sean hits all the right spots in your mouth, making sure all your tastebuds are in play. Love that! His crispy mushroom flatbread pizza was also a knockout, a long rectangular platform of crisp but chewy dough, smoky and a bit black at the edges, bubbling with fontina val d’asota cheese, chanterelle mushrooms, and a tiny amount of truffle oil (the right amount). The only thing that bothered me about the pizza was that he only has one on the menu—add more please! These are fierce.
His menu includes about 15 other small plates that lean more towards entrée-styled dishes that I didn’t get to try but that sound appealing—braised monkfish with cracked olives, stewed tomatoes, capers and Yukon gold potatoes ($15), roasted quail with cippollini onions, fingerling potato hash, ratatouille, and morel jus ($14), and crispy duck confit over beluga lentils, with lardons, Sicilian pistachios and pistachio oil ($14). Unfortunately the menu has a few misses. The Carabineros ($15), Spanish red shrimp, over a fricassee of cauliflower with red chile oil, mint, and tomatoes, was good in some ways—that cauliflower situation was great—exquisitely cooked and snazzed up with the chile oil and cooling mint, but the shrimp are strange. Their heads are huge, and their bodies stick out of their heads like little skinny pinky fingers, and they just look really odd, and don’t invite a hearty appetite. And his side of white asparagus, morel and fiddlehead ferns ($8) was so surprising because it had no flavor at all. The morels tasted soggy, the ferns were greasy and the asparagus were just blah. This was quite odd, because everything else was so perfectly seasoned.
Since the place is called Winebar, there is obviously, well, wine. It is a nice concise and moderately priced list here that deserves attention and exploration. The list covers the wide world of the Mediterranean from Greece to France, Italy, and Spain. The wines are unique, well-chosen, and reasonably priced, and you feel like you can either learn something new or stick to an old favorite, and it offers just enough choices so the list feels approachable and not overwhelming. I feel like sometimes it is intimidating to go to wine bars where the lists are volumes long.
I like Winebar. It’s a place that is familiar enough to make you feel cozy and comfortable, but fresh enough to throw a surprise your way and remind you that sometimes little sparks of wonder can be found in the most unexpected places.
Winebar is located at 65 Second Avenue (b/w3rd and 4th Streets), 212-777-1608.