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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Food, Wine, Conversation

By B.A. Nilsson

The best basements are like catacombs, and nothing stirs a kid’s hide-and-seek imperative than such a cellar. I allowed myself to be dragged by my parents to the homes of select friends of theirs because my brother and I could spend the time concealing ourselves in tricky belowground recesses. It felt simultaneously dangerous and safe.

So it also is with dating. You want the safety of shared and pleasurable experience, accented by the danger of giving up the essence of oneself to another. I know no way better to achieve that than with a splendid meal.

Chef-owner Kevin Everleth took over the business at 200 Lark St. late last year, reimagining the space that once had been Antica Enoteca. The warren-like labyrinth has small tables in every corner, their burnished wood complementing the stark brick walls. And I do mean small: a trio of tapas plates and a few glasses of wine will cover the surface.

But there’s no need to dive into your dinner all at once. This is about sipping and nibbling, studying the menu throughout the evening to explore your successive culinary whims. My strategy is to start with a small but varied selection of something.

What makes good antipasto good is exuberance: that seemingly incongruous array of ingredients climbs all over each other like kittens to cry out their flavors. You sample the sopressata, letting its husky earthiness fill your mouth, and that inspires a craving for the bitterness of an olive. The sweetness of a roasted red pepper. The crunch of a pistachio.

As presented at the Wine Bar, the antipasto ($12) features a single meat, the abovementioned sopressata. Although it’s nice to contrast that with a pungent sliver of prosciutto or such, I like the intimacy of contrast among the accompaniments. Having been so often dizzied by a symphonic abundance of meats and cheeses, this is like chamber music. Fresh mozzarella is the single cheese; roasted garlic and pepperoncini add some snap, figuratively speaking, and the haricots beans do that job literally.

Like so much that’s delicious, processed meats rely on fat to convey flavor. So it is with duck confit, an ancient style of preservation that cooks and then stores a tasty leg in a bath of duck fat. As served here ($15), it was accompanied by homemade applesauce, an inspired touch, with a drizzle of grape must reduction.

The regular menu items range from $6 to $19, following the tapas philosophy of keeping the plates small, simple and shareable. It also included an arugula salad ($10), an olive mélange ($6), escargot Bourguignon ($7), littleneck clams and andouille sausage ($12), steamed PEI mussels ($9), pan-seared hanger steak ($18) and sesame-encrusted yellowfin tuna ($19).

And there’s a daily specials list, which on one visit featured frog legs Provençal ($9), braised lamb shank with garlic mashed potatoes ($19), sautéed tenderloin tips ($9) and a couple of items we explored in more detail (by having them placed before us in exchange for the appropriate amounts of money).

Fettuccine with pesto cream and grana padano ($12) is, these days, a straightforward enough choice, so what can the Wine Bar offer that’s distinctive? Nothing more than that it’s done really well, without relying on an overabundance of cream or cheese to make its point. It’s one of those safe choices that still offers the kitchen a chance to show off.

Jamaican jerk ribs are ever and always irresistible. At $6, they’re essential. At the Wine Bar, they’re excellent, rich with the flavor of so many spicy aromatics. Cinnamon, allspice, basil and thyme, and just for good measure, a passonfruit purée. Again, a simple presentation, but a sensory-intensive experience, for which a glass of wine is demanded.

The list of the latter fills both sides of an extra-large page, with most selections available by both bottle and glass, the latter ranging from $7 to $13, or up to $16 if you’re sipping fine bubbly. A $7 Prosecco suited me fine to start with, and I didn’t get farther thereafter than the white-wine choices (an Italian blend of viognier, chardonnay and grecanico, for $8, proved a versatile accompaniment).

The list lists wine by the grape, which is my preferred approach, and, like the menu, is shrewdly emphasizing the affordable.

Am I qualified these days to recommend a place as a dating destination? I doubt it. Desirable though I may be, I’ve been out of circulation for a quarter-century, and the lucky woman who grabbed me shows no signs of letting go. So we yielded the attractive outdoor tables to those who more likely to profit from warm breezes and whatever sounds of nature Lark Street enjoy.

Nevertheless, stretching back at a corner inside table, enjoying the warming blend of wine and dinner, we felt once again as if all things were possible and life was a finely tuned Porsche awaiting our command. Can you ask for more from an evening meal?

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Celebrate Bastille Day at Nicole’s Bistro (25 Quackenbush Square, Albany) on Sat, July 12, with a four-course, super-Gallic meal crafted by chef Daniel E. Smith. Among the menu items are vichyssoise, a seafood crêpe gratinée, escargot a l’ancienne and PEI mussels in a garlic and saffron-scented white wine broth. And those are just for starters. Sautéed trout meuniere, grenouilles Provençal, charred sirloin of lamb, grilled NY sirloin with shallot butter—the possibilities are many, and the evening includes jazz and cabaret music with Sonny & Perley. You’ll also meet the new manager, Alysia Morton-Smith, and dynamic bartender Joshua Imler. Dinner is $55, excluding tax and tip, and reservations are necessary; call 465-1111 (nicolesbistro.com). . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).



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