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Heart doesn't play by the usual restaurant rules 

Wednesday, Mar 24 2010

A few hours before my visit last week, Heart — which puts the "bar" back in wine bar — tweeted that it was Corey Haim tribute night. A digital projector was screening the late actor in The Lost Boys 10 feet above the heads of the drinkers, and the room vibrated with the music Haim would have been smoking out to then — the Doors, Pink Floyd, Bowie. A dozen men in their early 30s had filled up the tables underneath the screen, though they didn't seem to be License to Drive fans gathering in memoriam. Tacked up on the bar's white gallery wall, large-format photos of naked pregnant women sneered at the grid of bottles pegged up on the other side.

As for my friends and me, well, we'd lurked at the corner of a pectoral-high plank table near the front door, two claimed stools our bulwark against the tides of people washing past, until the woman across from us shut the cellphone she'd been texting on for the past half-hour and stalked off. We moved over quickly, clambering up onto our stools, and sat like proper diners, ready to fill the space with glasses and plates.

First, though, we had to navigate a few eccentricities. On Heart's Web site, owner Jeff Segal, a former journalist in his mid-20s, gleefully calls the place "chaotic" and writes, "Take your notions of a typical wine bar and throw them out the window." And indeed, the setup will put off anyone who expects a wine bar to be a place to sit down with a $120 bottle of Bordeaux, but not a generation of diners who see the quirkiness, the jagged edges, as creative and endearing.

Our server came by and told us she'd be happy to talk about anything on the menu with us as long as we didn't expect her to take our order. Instead, we had to place our first order at the bar, trading a credit card for a number. From there on, she'd deliver plates and take additional orders for food and drink. Water, silverware, and napkins were self-serve. Stranger still, we discovered at the end of the meal that the credit card slip didn't include a tip line; when I queried the server, she explained we didn't have to tip, but if we did it needed to be in cash.

All around us were the bar's signature glassware: half-pint mason jars. On one round, I requested a glass with a stem and received a balloon capable of holding two-thirds of a bottle of wine. I held it gingerly, feeling like I'd just slapped a "DOUCHE" sticker on my forehead. Mason jars it was.

And then there was the list of wines and ciders, most of them from tiny producers, obscure grapes and regions, and "natural" (less industrialized, more idiosyncratic) wineries. Segal described that night's wines by the glass with phrases like "as surprising as Sandra Bullock's Oscar win" (that'd be a French white from Jasnières, $10) or "a rockstar" (that'd be a Sicilian red, the Occhipinti SP68, $14). Words like tannins, boysenberry, French oak — absent. The aim seemed to be to lock out oenophile culture, with all of its alienating language, and invite everyone else into the party.

In short, Heart is more in tune with its neighborhood than a fixie repair shop selling homemade sauerkraut and ballet flats. And Valencia hearts Heart for it. The bar did feel like a party, and a good one. Underneath the Jim Morrison, the roar of conversation was constant and pleasant. And whether I could attribute the mood of the place to the wine drinking, the very unbarlike lighting, or the memory of Corey Haim, the crowd's energy was more reminiscent of First Thursday than Super Bowl Sunday. By the time the first of our snacks arrived, I realized I was having a good time.

But what brought me to Heart was the other half of its unconventional business model. Segal contracted with Douglas Monsalud, the owner of a high-end catering company called LRE (Living Room Events), to prepare the bar's food. Monsalud is better known to the Heart crowd for Kitchenette, the popup he opened last year selling sandwiches — great sandwiches — off the loading dock of LRE's Dogpatch commercial kitchen space.

If the wine list seems timely, the menu is even more so: artisanally produced hams, farmstead cheeses, house salt-cured pickles (if the night's offering is beets, skip them unless you like chewing your floorboards), dishes like tongue sandwiches with short ribs and roasted plantain, with most menu items listing the provenance of at least one of the ingredients. It's modest food with ambitious ingredients, and every dish piqued my interest, especially since the food is prepped in LRE's kitchen and designed to be finished on a minimal kitchen setup — a couple of hot plates, a convection warming oven, and some press grills — not that different from the kind caterers bring to parties served on the lawn.

That first bite of Monsalud's food was everything I hoped for. The goat tacos ($8) were mounded with shreds of meat, fragrant with chiles but not searingly hot, and then topped with goat cheese, onions, and cilantro — all the flash and spark of a proper taco, all the succulence of a long-braised daube. A fillet of oolong tea–smoked black cod ($9) was surrounded by cress leaves and finely shaved slices of citrus fruits and cucumber. I picked at the salad separately in order to concentrate on the delicate, floral tea smoke, which tasted as if the fish had been waved over an incense brazier for a few minutes. The "coeurs [hearts] lite" ($8) turned out to be a straightforwardly composed and dressed salad of hearts of escarole, palm, and artichokes.

But the onsite kitchen sometimes ruined a great idea. A double-baked cheddar soufflé ($8) didn't survive the reheating, collapsing in lumpy curds, and the pork blade steak ($12) was a travesty. Given the accompaniments — silky smoked onions, cresta di gallo (Italian chrysanthemum greens, with their notes of cucumber, black pepper, and flowers), and a pickled-mustard-seed ranch dressing — it would have been my favorite dish. But the half-inch-thick steak took so long to brown on the hot plate that it turned to leather.

Saturday morning brunch gave Heart a laid-back, almost soigné feel. The music was cranked to the same volume, but the stoner-rock playlist had been ditched in favor of indie dance-pop. Unlike at most bars, the sun did right by Heart's room, amplified by the high white walls, making all the woods and metals look clean and new. Many of the people around us had signed up for the $15 bottomless mimosas ("Made with very good cava," the chalkboard next to the bar advertised), and seemed to be making the most of the deal.

Monsalud's daytime menu was just as inventive as the one at night. There was a lovely slice of scrapple ($7), a cornmeal porridge studded with shreds of duck meat; a grilled sandwich ($7) filled with a piquant blend of cheeses; and a Spanish-style tortilla ($8) the size of a CD, with roasted squash and peppers cooked into the eggs and a paprika-red mayonnaise drizzled overtop. The food confirmed everything I'd concluded about the evening snacks of the week before: that the brain behind the food is a good one, but it'll take a little tweaking to get the onsite cooking right. We had crepes ($5) so thin we could see the ricotta filling between them, but they were drenched in butter, with not enough sugar and lemon juice to relieve its richness. A bowl of tripe and chorizo stew ($8) with a poached egg could have been fantastic had the cooks adjusted the seasoning before sending it out to the table.

With its look and its vibe, Heart works as a bar. As a wine bar, well ... I wish Segal and Monsalud would devote less energy to change for change's sake and more to bringing out the best in everything they serve. Investing in proper kitchen equipment or one top-notch line cook, for one. Another: writing more traditional tasting notes that would help customers pick out a glass that appeals to them; I found it telling that the only person who chuckled along with Segal's terse "rockstar" description of the SP68 was the (traditional) oenophile among us, who had heard of winemaker Arianna Occhipinti and knew her rep. And if Segal is expecting people to thoroughly enjoy this $14 rockstar red, he should serve it in a proper wineglass, which generations of drinkers have discovered concentrates and illuminates all the aromas you won't catch if you're drinking good wine out of a mason jar filled to the rim.

I'll be back to Heart, probably heeding the call of the goat tacos. But I'll be accompanying them with an $8 jar of wine or a cheap bottle split with a few friends. Rockstar reds should be saved for a VIP lounge.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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