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One good wine bar leads to another

Wednesday, Mar 14 2007
One nice thing about sitting at a wine bar: As the juice goes down, people open up and start chatting with each other. Well, OK, whether that's nice depends on who's sitting next to you, and how much of a head start they've had — but it's definitely a good way to hear about new wine bars, like these four.

VinoRosso is easily the smallest of the bunch: A little storefront holds a tiny kitchen, eight small tables, and maybe 20 customers max. Service is friendly, informal, and fairly slow. All but the priciest of the 60-plus wines on the mostly Italian list are available by the glass, priced from $6.50 to $23; bottles are priced at three times the glass price, so at five glasses per bottle that's about 40 percent cheaper. One drawback: The reds are stored in a floor-to-ceiling rack along one side of the room, which has no air conditioning or cross-ventilation, so after a warm day they can be warmer than they ought to be.

The food also has an Italian accent and matches well with the wines. A five-cheese plate, one of the most generous and reasonably priced in town, included ripe Robiola, herb-encrusted soft Piemontese cow-goat blend, firm Sardinian sheep with black and white truffles, first-quality Reggiano-Parmesan, and well-aged, mellow Gorgonzola. A mixed salumi plate was generously layered with speck (smoked prosciutto), deep-flavored bresaola (raw beef, salted air-cured, much like prosciutto), and two salamis, spicy and tart. An assortment of three warm crostini (aka bruschetta) were a mixed bag: Those topped with red pepper paste and with anchovy paste were good, but it's not the best time of year for tomatoes. The other hot dishes change daily: A tomatoey, cheesy rigatoni gratin hit the spot with a big Brunello.

Yield is a little bigger but just as laid-back. The main room has a pretty bar with a few stools, but the bulk of the space feels unfinished — four or five coffee tables, a sprinkling of low seats that might have been pulled out of minivans, and an inordinate number of small round ottomans providing the bulk of the seating. The more elegant side room features high tables, stools, and a small sculpture with a flickering blue gas flame. Service was attentive and efficient despite there often being just one very overworked waiter.

The list is devoted entirely to environmentally friendly wines, and codes on the list indicate three levels of greenness from "sustainable" to "biodynamic" — see for details. Luckily, the traditional practices followed and often required by law in many European wine regions, and embraced by many progressive New World winemakers, mean that there are plenty of excellent wines among the 50 on the list. Glasses cost from $6 to $14, and bottles are about 3 1/2 times the glass price (30 percent cheaper). The most expensive wines are sold by the bottle only and cost up to $72.

Hot salty toasted almonds dressed up with rosemary and a few grains of coarse sugar were very nice with cold white wines. Pitted olives are marinated with orange peel and fennel seeds for a more wine-friendly flavor. A three-cheese plate included soft Pierre-Robert, firm Manchego, and creamy Bleu d'Auvergne, all in perfect condition and close to room temperature. The best dish was a small pizza with tomato-red wine sauce, artichokes, fontina, and rosemary with a surprisingly earthy flavor.

The owners of French-focused Amelie spent months tricking out the interior with red lacquered panels dotted with glowing red wine bottles, wooden wine shelves reaching up to the high ceilings, and an arty chandelier of white globe lamps. Up front, a loungey seating area features five sets of cool-looking but eventually uncomfortable vintage theater seats. Next there's a bar with around 10 stools, and in the back a low-ceilinged dining room. The room can be hot and stuffy unless you're sitting near the windows at the front — where you may get a steady stream of smoke from people stepping out for cigarette breaks. Service is charming on quiet evenings, but on jam-packed weekends it's every man for himself.

The wine list covers most wine regions of France, with nods to the rest of the world, but the selection needs work. While at the other three bars almost everything we tasted was delicious, at Amelie we didn't enjoy any of the half-dozen wines we tried enough to want to drink them again. At least they're reasonably priced, $4 to $15 a glass.

A salad of Dungeness crab, mache, radicchio, blood orange, and mango with avocado purée and a cumin-mint vinaigrette sounds overcomplicated but goes surprisingly well with white wine. The flatbread is a paper-thin lavash-type bread topped with savory braised oxtail, watercress, and black truffle oil. Raviole du Royans, the specialty of the house, are miniature cheese ravioli, about half-inch squares, gratinéed with cheese, chanterelle mushrooms, and truffle oil: a perfect foil for a hearty red wine.

District may be the biggest and most ambitious wine bar in the city. A radical makeover of the former House of Stools, it features beautiful exposed rafters and brickwork, high ceilings, lots of windows, and a huge U-shaped bar surrounded on three sides by a mix of low tables with couches and high tables with stools. The huge space can handle a big crowd without feeling claustrophobic, but some Friday nights there's a line down the block and nightclub-style security enforcing the fire code.

The eclectic list of 30-odd wines is organized into three-wine groups such as "Aromatic Whites" (California riesling, Austrian gruner veltliner, Alsatian muscat) and "Pinot Lovers Unite" (pinot noirs from Italy, Oregon, and Germany). Half-glass taste flights of these groups cost $14 to $20, single glasses are $7 to $16 — but the pours look to be four ounces rather than the usual five. Bottles are four times the glass price, plus there's a reserve list of mostly over-$100 splurges.

Chili-roasted mixed nuts didn't have much heat, but the helping was generous. Arancini (deep-fried rice balls) filled with mozzarella and herbs were tasty but could have been a bit crisper. Same goes for the goat cheese and pesto pizzetta. The best dish was a bowl of briny mussels in a Pernod and cream sauce topped with a big heap of spicy sausage and some grilled toast — this would be great with almost any wine, white or red.

Rumor has it that another half-dozen wine bars are getting ready to open, so we may need another update before the year is out. In the meantime, cheers!

About The Author

Robert Lauriston

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