By Ken Schechet
(Note: Since this article first appeared, New York wine bars have increased in both quality and quantity. Several them now have Michelin stars, including Rebelle in the Bowery and Casa Mono, mentioned below. The establishments mentioned are still operating, and they were the trailblazers)
Wine bars have long been a staple of Italian cities, where they are known as enotecas. They are a place to drink a variety of local wines and snack on small plates of local food. They are also places where people socialize, not unlike a British pub in concept. Wine bars have become common in many of the large cities of Europe. American wine bars got their start in California wine country and, as Americans have become more of a wine drinking people, they have spread quickly to other regions. Recently, the scene in New York has exploded, and I devoted two days to a wine bar crawl.
Many New York wine bars are associated with a restaurant or a wine shop or both. This gives them access to a large number of wines and to a variety of food. You can have anything from a light snack to a substantial dinner. In many cases you can purchase any of the wines next door at their retail store. The standalone wine bars I saw were all small. That is probably an economic decision. I suspect that to survive they need to keep the rent down, so a kitchen isn’t an option. They have a small convection oven at most and serve rather simple, but good, small plates such as cold cuts, cheeses, olives, sandwiches, and small pizzas. They don’t have as many wines, but they have some really interesting ones. Their size promotes conversation between tables or among people at the bar. My suspicion is that these small ones are more like the original enotecas then the larger ones which are almost wine oriented restaurants. Both have their advantages.
This postage stamp sized establishment in Gramercy Park has two long wooden tables with stools and might fit 20 – 25 close friends. It is really a tapas bar featuring Spanish hams (aged 14 months or 18 months), lots of Spanish cheeses, marinated sepia and calamari, chorizo, tortilla Catalina, quail, oxtail and sardines among other offerings. It is moderately priced and very casual. You are welcome to have a snack or a meal.
Bar Jamon is next door to a restaurant called Casa Mono and they are really one entity. Bar Jamon would have been the bar in the restaurant if they had room, so customers come for the bar itself or to wait for a table at the restaurant. On any given day there are about 25 wines by the glass offered including whites, roses, reds, cavas and sherries ranging in price from $7 to $27. The list changes often. You could quibble with the number of wines on offer but then you have to look at Casa Mono’s wine list to really understand this project. Over 400 wines, all Spanish, from every corner of the country. If you want to try a wine from the Canary Islands this is probably the only place in the city you can find one.
Casa Mono is Mario Batali’s foray into Catalan cuisine and, believe it or not, is moderately priced. Don’t expect to find familiar Spanish dishes here. The menu reflects Batali’s well known fondness for offal and features dishes such as Cock’s Combs with Cepas ($13), Tripe with Chickpeas and Morcilla ($12), Sweetbreads with Fennel ($16). There are also dishes made with duck, guinea hen, pork loin, skirt steak and lamb ribs, so don’t panic. It looks like a great restaurant with a wine list that will blow your mind.
This wine bar in the Flatiron district is attached to a restaurant, I Trulli, and across the street from a wine store, Vino, all operated by the same people. This was one of the first Italian wine bars in the city and the first to do flights of Italian wines. The wines, and the flights, represent every area of Italy and all price levels, but the emphasis here is clearly on Southern Italy, particularly Puglia. They claim to be the only wine bar that has a Sicilian wine flight. Sicilian wines have become hot in New York. I tried the Puglia flight for $12.25. It was three generous pours. A Salice Salentino Reserva was a smooth, wonderful wine that was almost Bordeaux-like in its structure. A Primitivo Di Manduria was a gentle wine with a hint of sweetness, nothing like a California Zinfandel, although you could tell it was from the same grape. A Castel Del Monte Riserva was not impressive. I was with a friend and we asked the waiter to choose a cheese platter to go with these wines. We got a Capra Valtellina, a creamy tangy goat’s milk cheese from Lombardia; a Podda Classico, a firm, nutty, crumbly mixed milk cheese from Sardegna; and a Ubriaco del Piave, a sweet cow’s milk cheese bathed in the must of cabernet, merlot and raboso grapes from the Veneto. Every one of them was fabulous. (New York seems to have become the cheese capital of the world and wine bars are a great place to sample them.)
We then ordered dinner. The menu here is meant to be wine friendly. I had simple pasta with small tomatoes and mozzarella. My friend had a seafood stew. Both were excellent. In addition to the Enoteca menu, most of the restaurant menu is also available. We, of course, ordered flights of wines to go with our meals. Mine was a white wine flight for $15 consisting of a still Prosecco from the Veneto, an Inzolia from Sicily and an Orvieto Classico. I never heard of a still Prosecco or an Inzolia but I guess that’s what wine bars are all about. And if you like them, you can buy them across the street.
This is a handsome, quiet place with a beautiful marble bar and marble topped tables. It features a very well trained and attentive staff. They can explain anything about the wines, the cheeses, and the food. They will be glad to make recommendations and do anything to make your stay pleasant. Enoteca I Trulli has been nominated for the James Beard award for outstanding wine service 5 years in a row without winning, making it the Susan Lucci of wine bars. But with 40 wines by the glass and a dozen flights you can’t go wrong here.
We then walked across town to Chelsea and tried to get into Bar Veloce. No way. It was packed. This bar was recommended to me by another wine bar when they realized what I was trying to write about. I can tell you it’s a standalone wine bar, smaller than the others I had been to. It’s very elegant, actually cool looking, with a great display of wine bottles against the wall behind the long bar. There are also small tables the length of the place. Somehow, for a place of that size it was very quiet. There are about 75 wines on offer, all Italian, mostly under $9 a glass. There is no kitchen but antipasto, cheeses, bruschetta and panini are on the menu. This is one to come back to next time.
This upscale wine bar, right in Rockefeller Center across the street from the skating rink, is open for both lunch and dinner. It is next door to Morrell and Company, the retail outlet, although both the store and the wine bar stand on their own. This is Time Out New York’s pick for best wine bar in the city and tends to be the benchmark by which others are judged. It is a serious tasting center. It is not large but has seating on two levels indoors and has outdoor seating when the weather is good. Having a glass of wine outside in the middle of Rockefeller Center is a wonderful experience.
There is a real attempt here to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable coming in to experiment with wine and have fun. They are one of several places I visited who feel they are in both the entertainment business and the education business. There are 150 wines by the glass and a few thousand by the bottle on offer. They also have quite a few high end wines in half bottles. If you don’t like a glass of wine they will take it back. It’s OK not to like something. The staff speaks fluent wine. They are highly trained in varietals, in pairing food and wine, and in reading the customer’s desire to try something new, but Morrell makes a real attempt to hire people who are passionate about wine in the first place.
The lunch menu here is risottos, pastas, steak, fish and salads. There are a large number of appetizers at both lunch and dinner that could be made into a meal such as tuna carpaccio, oysters, onion tart, charcuterie, artisanal cheeses and terrine of foie gras. Prices are in the $12 to $15 range. Dinner entrees include a lot of fish, roasted tenderloin, duck and lamb and are between $20 and $25. Many menu items incorporate wine in their preparation so are fairly easy to match with a glass of wine. The resident wine geeks are always on hand to assist if needed.
Wines by the glass range from $7 for a simple white to $58 for a Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Frederic Magnien Burgundy. In addition to many reds and whites there are 8 roses and 22 dessert wines on the list giving customers a chance to sample some very rare and expensive wines from all over the world. Management checks all wines by the glass for freshness before they are served. The regular by-the-bottle wine list is comprehensive and prices range from $25 on up. There is also a reserve list which is a virtual wine museum. These are bottles that are not usually available to the general public and include things like Dom Perignon from ’62, ‘64’,69, and ’82, BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve 1958, Bryant Family and Harlan Estate. You can do a vertical of Screaming Eagle from 1992 to 1996 or Opus One from 1979 to 1994, if you’re inclined you can take out a second mortgage and have a unique experience.
I think someone plucked a bistro out of Paris, flew it across the Atlantic and dropped it on East 51st Street. The people are French, the décor is French, the menu is French, the music is French, and the wines are French. Hopefully the service isn’t French but it probably is. More than 200 wines, 100 by the glass, from every area of France are offered. Wines by the glass range from $6 to $16. You can also create your own flights of 5 wines for $20 or 9 wines for $35. Open bottles are pumped with a Vacu-Vin every night because the management thinks that gas storage systems effect the taste of the wine. There is a large price range on the bottle list which is done on purpose. There are some good values on the list, and wines at the high end seem to have a low markup to encourage people to try them. There are many good wines in the $30 to $35 range.
The food is every French bistro dish you’ve ever heard of plus a raw bar. Prices are between $15 and $25, which is reasonable for New York. Le Bateau Ivre is open from 8 AM until 4 AM. It is a fairly small restaurant with about 15 tables and reservations can easily fill it at night, so be warned. Tip of the month: They have a free wine tasting every weekday between 6 and 6:30, and they open a good bottle. Obviously they hope you will stay for a bite and if you have any sense you will. This place is adorable and the next time I’m in New York and need a Franco-fix I’m heading straight for it.
Uva, which means “grape” in Italian, is Time Out New York’s Reader’s Choice for Best Wine Bar in New York. It’s not hard to figure out why. It is just down the street from Lusardi’s Restaurant but I did not realize until I got there that Uva is run by the Lusardi family. I’ve been a customer of Lusardi’s, and their branch in Larchmont, NY for years and that I think it’s one of the very best Northern Italian restaurants in New York. A wine bar run by the Lusardi’s for me is an exciting proposition.
I spoke with Mauro Lusardi who runs the restaurant. He opened Uva, which is run by his son Massimo, because he feels that wine has become much more popular in recent years. People want to learn about it. Young people think it’s cool to know about wine and talk about it. He thinks they get their money’s worth from wine and are not afraid to try new things. He wants them to come to Uva and leave knowing one or two things they didn’t know when they walked in. The place is stocked with wine for every palate and every budget. You would think the wines would be all Italian but only about 60% are. The Lusardis truly love wine and appreciate good wine from anywhere. For example, Mauro features Malbecs from Argentina in the restaurant during the winter months.
Massimo is in his twenties, is a dead ringer for John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and has made Uva very successful. It’s a rustic, dimly lit bar and restaurant with electric candles and chandeliers everywhere. It gets crowded and lively at night. However, there is also a beautiful garden in the back with space heaters which is very quiet. There is also a great looking wine cellar downstairs where dinner is served, but is often rented out for parties and business events. If I was still doing business in New York I would have my next function down there.
Uva and Lusardi’s share an executive chef but each has its own kitchen and staff. The menu and the wine list change with the seasons. Uva’s food is Italian and ranges from cheese platters and antipasto to Polenta Tartufata, Gnocchi, Radicchio Crepes and Grilled Prawns. Always look for specials. There’s a good chance that they will be excellent. Lusardi’s is known for its desserts and Uva has access to them. The Limoncello Mousse or the Pear Gelato with Almond Pudding are to die for. The kitchen is open until 2 AM.
There are over 200 bottles on the wine list, about 40 wines by the glass, all well described on the list. Many are uncommon Italian wines. They confirmed that Sicilian wines are getting popular and there are several Sicilian Cabs on the list. Again, look for specials. When I was there one of the specials was an Ortrugo, a wine that most people in Italy never heard of. It’s from the Emilia-Romagna area and is an aperitif somewhat like Prosecco, but much lighter, fruiter, and totally refreshing. It’s a perfect summer wine and I doubt you’ll find it anywhere else. And speaking of unusual wines from Emilia-Romagna, you have to try wine in a bowl. In that part of Italy some very rich, dark, intense wines are produced. The people like to appreciate them by serving them in a white porcelain bowl, sort of a large teacup without the handle, so they can see the color contrast and the legs from the wine. The bowl is also easier for older people to negotiate. I tried a Bonardo, although two other wines from the region are served this way. To lift the bowl you put your thumb into it. A red stained thumb was historically a mark of pride in that part of Italy because it showed that you were wealthy enough to go to the Enoteca and order a bowl of wine. Where else but a great wine bar do you learn things like this?
125 East 17th Street; 212-253-2773; barjamonnyc.com
Enoteca I Trulli
122 E 27th Street; 212-481-7372; itrulli.com
176 7th Avenue; 212-629-5300; winebarveloce.com
Le Bateau Ivre
251 East 51st. St.; 212-583-0579; lebateuaivrenyc.com
175 2nd Avenue; 212-260-3200
Morrell Wine Bar and Café
One Rockefeller Plaza; 212-262-7700; morellwinebar.com
Le Bateau Ivre
230 E 51st Street; 212-583-0579; lebateauivrenyc.com
1486 Second Avenue; 212-472-4552; uvanyc.com
Do you have a favorite New York wine bar that's not mentioned here? Share your insights with the community!