Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Total Wine Bar

Total Wine Bar
74 5th Avenue - Map
Corner of St. Mark's Place
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 783-5166
Wine Bar

To salvage what was left from an almost mediocre dinner at Al Di Lá, my friend and I decided to go to Total Wine Bar. Having patronized this establishment only once before, I was all too eager to go, fondly remembering our last excursion to this hidden Park Slope gem.

By no means large, this modest and homey wine bar is particularly inviting. As soon as you walk in, you see a bar situated at the far end of the room, centered against the wall, with a back, swinging door into their kitchen. Along the right-side wall is a long couch that comes to an "L" shape against the front window, with cube tables for patrons to sit at. Each cubed table is decorated with a lit votive candle, and the room is kept at an intimate level of brightness.

My friend an I immediately made our way to sit at the bar, and asked for their red-wine list. Their selection, while not long, was nicely varied, and I found it hard to make a decision. I decided to first have a glass of their South African Red, heralding a smoky and intense description, I felt that to compensate for the crap I drank at Al Di Lá, I needed something intense. I was not disappointed. As soon as I took a whiff of the musky smokiness, I was immediately transported to my visit in Stellenbosch, South Africa's prominent wine country. I was not mistaken in my assessment, as the wine was indeed from Stellenbosch (well, it COULD have been from Paarl!). I was surprised to hear that it was a blend of 26% Pinotage and 74% Merlot. The Pinotage, being the minority percentage, did an excellent job of permeating throughout the wine, and the almost harshly intense smokiness really helped to buffet the floral and fruitiness of the locally grown Merlot grapes. I tried my friend's Organic Pinot Noir, a considerably lighter wine compared to what I was drinking, and I was overwhelmed by the distinct flavor of papaya! It was such a pleasant surprise, refreshing even! That I almost ordered a glass. Beth, the woman who was serving us the wine, suggested I try something else before I order that Organic Pinot Noir.

She poured me taste of the thin, red liquid, and allowed me to experience it. I immediately swished it around in the wine glass, and took a strong and deep breath in. My eyes widened and I was particularly amused at the strong aroma of Lychee! YES LYCHEE! I couldn't wait to get a taste! I took a moutful in, swished it around, and sucked in some air, and the Lychee flavor simply refused to be ignored. I swallowed, and then, an evervescent whisper of strawberry tickled my senses. Needless to say, I ordered a glass. This particlar wine was the Dom. Curot, Sancerre 2003 (a French Pinot Noir).

To accompany the cheese, I had ordered a slice of their Fourgerous, a french cow's milk cheese, essentially a Brie, with distinct grassy flavors, and served with a fern frond. It was creamy, rich in texture, yet light in taste, with an almost dry tannic quality that I would normally associate with wine. The rind wasn't overwhelmingly thick or coarse (which in my opinion is truly a mark of a good cheese), and I couldn't get enough of it.

I've found, that as the evening progressed, the Pinot I was drinking had settled, and evolved into a completely different wine. While the Lychee remained as a subtle undertone, the strawberry, and other distinguishable berry flavors grew in strength, and took over the flavor of the wine. I was not disappointed, and rather invited the evolution of the wine.

What also made this particular experience notable was the crowd. It was friendly, and local. The owner Adam (? I think that was his name...sorry...I was drinking), and Beth were SO friendly, and were striking up conversations with EVERYONE! I simply loved it! Am I going back? ABSOLUTELY! Would I recommend this to anyone? I think the answer is self-evident!

Al Di Lá

Al Di Lá
247 5th Avenue - Map
Corner of Carroll Street
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 636-8888
Italian Venetian (Northern Italy)

Don't let the Italian cuisine fool you - you won't see tomato sauces and lasagnas here! This restaurant is Northern Italian cuisine. After having read impressive reviews, and having heard only praise about this restaurant, I've finally had an opportunity to go. And there enlies the problem. Too much hype, leads to a potentially disastrous restaurant experience, and unfortunately, this one was not a good one.

While I wouldn't call it a disastrous evening, it was just plain whatever. Let's start at the beginning. Upon entering the rather small restaurant, I had to pass a pair of dark navy, velvet drapes (which was wierd considering we're in the height of summer). My friend and I only waited a few minutes before the hostess attended to us and escorted us to the table. The decor was very strange, the walls were bedecked with a seemingly antiquated, floral wall paper with a cream background. The ceilings were certainly not high enough to accomodate the low-hanging, frosted glass chandelier, which were surounded by exposed oven vents - not a touch I preferred. The walls were adorned with various pieces of artwork and photography, that neither contributed nor removed from the total ambiance - which in my book is really not a good thing. An overall feeling of a blase attitude regarding the decor was distinctly felt.

My friend an I ordered their ricotta, sage, and swisschard gnocchi. While the texture and color were interesting, the taste lacked a boldness that I've come to expect of anything with sage. The swisschard, along with the ricotta created a somewhat bland flavor, and only mildly reminiscent of sage. The accompanying butter sauce was negligible in both flavor and quantity with which to coat the gnocchi. I expected more....umph....it was just...ok.

I had ordered their braised rabbit dish, which was accompanied with a polenta and olives. This being the first time I've ever consumed rabbit, I was hoping for a new and interesting experience. I was sadly mistaken. Being that this is the only frame of reference I have for rabbit - it is just some glorified chicken dish. I am willing to concede that there may be a redeeming rabbit dish out there somewhere, so I will not completely remove it from my list of foods to try again, but right now, it's not favorable. Again, I expected something more interesting or exotic, and to just taste "chicken" in both texture and taste, I was somewhat disappointed. I feel that it just wasn't prepared in the ideal way...I don't know, being that I have no experience with rabbit before this, but I've heard that southern fried rabbit is quite tasty, so I can only assume that this was not the way to go.

My friend ordered thier hangar steak dish, and he too was unimpressed. Being an amateur steak connoisseur, he felt the cut of meat was just an inappropriate choice for the kind of restuarant Al Di Lá purports to be. He said that while the accompanying sauce was very delicious, the cut of meat simply did not do the rest of the dish justice. He said it was somewhat "stringy" and would have preferred a NY Strip, or Rib Eye. I can't say I disagree.

Probably the greatest disappointment was the wine that the waiter recommended I have with the rabbit dish. He suggested I order the Masseo, an Umbrian blended wine, of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese (2003 from Podore Vaglie). The wine started out full-bodied and syrupy, neither distinctly cab or merlot. It had a nice sweet floral nose and flavor, which was quickly accompanied with a mild dryness. However, as the evening progressed, and I allowed the wine to incorporate some oxygen, it failed to hold up. The wine simply lost its robustness, and fell flat immediately at every sip. I couldn't finish the glass - which I almost NEVER do. I found this to be particularly disappointing as I had a lot of faith in Italian wines. This by no means has sullied Italian wines for me at all, but they do get one demerit point for this particular blend. Shame, really.

While this review is far from a glowing one, I still would rate this as a 6/7 on a scale of 1 to 10 with a 10 being Blue Ribbon (review to come). Mind you, this scale is strictly for Brooklyn restuarants, as I feel it's a little unfair to compare Brooklyn restaurants with those in the city that cater to a very different crowd (especially a Park Slope restaurant). I feel that for a restaurant that proclaims itself to be one of the only Venetian (not just Northern Italian) restaurants in New York City, it lacked the umph and gusto I would expect of such a rarity. Frankly, the cuisine resembled a local ethnic restuarant that caters to the locals of similar ethnic background, than a novelty restaurant.

I have nothing to complain, really, of the service. While the wait staff weren't particularly attentive, once we were seated, it did not take long for the waiter to approach us and orate the day's specials, and he did try to answer any questions he could. I don't want to make any excuses, but the restaurant was pretty full (considering it was a late Monday evening - 9:30pm) and the wait was not long at all, but it did lack a certain level of personability.

Unfortunately, this restaurant was nondescript at best, just plain...eh. I hear that Al Di Lá Wine Bar around the corner is supposed to be a smidgen better, with a much better wine selection, and the same food menu. Maybe one day I'll go, but for now, I'll keep to something that's been known to be a little better.