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Making Taste
By B.A. Nilsson

The Wine Bar
417 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 584-8777. Serving Tue-Sat 4-11. AE, D, MC, V. .
Cuisine: eclectic American
Entrée price range: $$18 (Thai chicken soup) to $22 (rack of lamb).
Ambience: snazzy
Clientele: upscale oenophiles

The Wine Bar redefines dining in a manner unique to the area, breaking the ritual of appetizer-entrée-dessert into something less formal and more rarefied. Sure, you can put together a fairly typical meal, but the alternative is a tonic, allowing you to sample flavor sensations in unusual contexts and combinations.

Here’s how it works. You have a choice, upon entering the sleek, darkly appointed space, of sitting at one of the variously sized, variously placed tables, or grabbing a stool at the bar. Some of the table spaces are more like a living room, or at least a smaller version of the living room you’d see in a Noel Coward play.

You can drink, sip, slurp, tope, or observe whatever custom characterizes your imbibing, and you can accompany it with as much or as little food as you desire. But you’d be crazy not to pursue the food.

The Wine Bar opened four years ago, brainchild of certified sommelier Melissa Evans. Not long thereafter, she installed the wickedly talented Mark Graham as chef, and hasn’t looked back.

An impressive of list of wine by the glass or bottle can be your guide, but avail yourself of the advice of the nearest server, who can help devise a tasting path you might not otherwise have devised.

Wine can’t truly be enjoyed without food, and the seven items on the appetizer portion of the list will complement a wide variety of libation. For a mere three bucks you can get a “warm nut medley,” in which rosemary and thyme are roasted into almonds, cashews and pecans; $6 gets you an exotic salad with caramelized pear and a walnut-balsamic vinaigrette. For a dollar more, there’s a Caesar salad variant with a poached garlic dressing and a quail egg.

The rest of the apps are more in line with mealtime. Diver scallops ($9), for instance, presents a trio of plump ones surrounded by white beans, carrots and baby Brussels sprouts. Prosciutto adds the salt and a depth of flavor.

I don’t know which was the more compelling feature of the lobster appetizer ($12): the lobster itself, a healthy (albeit buttery) chunk of meat, or the butternut-squash ravioli served alongside. I’m not a big fan of emulsions, which can end up looking unpleasantly spitlike, but the pistachio flavored emulsion did add a needed nuttiness.

Five entrées are available in two sizes, so you can gauge portions according to your appetite. A handsome cut of ahi ($11 or $21) gets a coating of tangy spices before it’s seared, keeping the inside raw. This has become a standard gourmet approach to this fish, and it’s a good one, especially with the accompaniment of smoked salmon, scallion cake and fresh greens drizzled with wasabi oil.

Thai chicken soup ($9 or $18) emerges in an infusion pot, and is poured tableside over a bowl filled with a toothsome mix of mushrooms, bok choy and chicken chunks. The flavor of lemongrass combines well with all those other flavors. It paired nicely with a reasonably priced glass of Concannon Chardonnay ($6).

Rack of lamb ($12 or $22) is one of those entrées that invites pairing with the heartier red wines, and the Rock Rabbit Syrah, a California wine, was a good choice, bringing out the buttery flavors of the meat. It’s served with zucchini and potatoes, but that hardly does justice to those items, which are also given hearty flavors to stand up to the meat.

Another of those emulsions—this one of carrot—accompanied the black cod ($9 and $18), which is grilled just to the point of still-fleshy doneness and served with a purée of celery root and a leek fondue, a range of mushy textures that serve the fish flesh well.

Then there’s hangar steak ($9 and $18), a newly popular cut that goes well with the caramelized onions served on top; grilled portobello mushroom slices and horseradish-enhanced mashed potatoes are the sides. This one I effectively paired with a Domaine Pierredon combo of syrah, grenache and mourvedre ($6).

Cheese is another serious Wine Bar feature. Four single-cheese plates ($6-$7) match the chosen variety with appropriate flavors; thus, the creamy goat’s-milk explorateur has a side of roasted almonds drizzled with honey, and plenty of croutons to serve as cheese-to-face vehicles. Cashel blue comes from Ireland, with a luscious acidity and, to balance, a dab of maple-apple butter. Combining both on a crouton and following it with a sip of René Mure Gewurtztraminer was a heavenly series of flavors.

Service couldn’t have been more prompt and discreet. There’s the unique sense that the servers actually enjoy their jobs and are happy to interact.

Dinner tended to elongate. What began as merely appetizers grew to include dinner; dinner-only soon gave way to let’s-have-dessert. And that’s another significant avenue. The sweets are $6 apiece, and range from a simple plate of truffles, cookies and a financier cake to warm blueberry pudding in a fancy chocolate shell. The chocolate cake says everything that needs to be said about chocolate, and even bananas get their turn in a strudel served with pistachio ice cream. A meal here easily runs into something of an investment, but the sense of well-being thus produced is priceless.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


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