The Wine Bar and Bistro: An Albany OasisJune 8, 2011
Sometimes you just need an escape from the reality of your surroundings; a vacation without leaving your town. At the Wine Bar and Bistro onLark Street, you can do just that. For a couple of hours, you will feel like a guest in a different environment; and to top it off, you’ll have some very delicious food.
Stepping down below street level through the entrance, we immediately felt like we were walking into a real wine cellar; the brick walls, the soft lighting and dark floors, and of course the countless wine bottles behind glass doors and on wrought iron shelves. Tables were scattered around the nooks and crannies of the space, and the cool breeze from the air conditioner also added to the effect. But then we stepped out the back door into the patio area, which was a stark contrast to the indoor section. Vine-covered walls, a stone floor and strands of tiny lights overhead were a very welcoming sight; and with the towering buildings surrounding the patio, it evoked a feeling of being in a Manhattan eatery, rather than smack in the middle of Albany.
The restaurant was fairly crowded for a Tuesday evening (they do not accept reservations), but there was still an intimate aura about it. One would expect a place called The Wine Bar and Bistro to have an extensive wine list, and one would be correct. Offering many wines by the glass and a plethora by the bottle, it took a while to narrow down our choices. I asked our server to recommend a glass; she proceeded to ask me numerous questions about my personal preferences for wine (body, sweetness, spices, etc.) and was able to suggest a couple. She was exceptionally knowledgeable about the wines, but far from being snooty about it. And the one I ended up selecting, an Argentinean Malbec, was very good. Wines by the glass ranged from $7-$12, and bottles went all the way up into the hundreds of dollars, plus one that was available for the low price of $2200. So we only got two of those (just kidding). But if you prefer beer over wine, don’t let the restaurant’s name fool you – their beer selection, while not extensive, is of high quality. They feature several craft beers (local or otherwise) on draught, plus several more available in bottles, including a few 20-22 oz. offerings. Best of all, most of the beer is only $5!
The Wine Bar and Bistro’s menu consists of chilled plates, small plates, and large plates. The cuisine is mainly American and Continental; the cold plates consist of salads and antipasto platters, including a frisee, apple and blue cheese salad; a vegetable antipasto; and a charcuterie plate featuring various meats and cheeses. We started with the Caesar salad, which featured three small towers of Romaine hearts topped with a roasted garlic crouton, parmesan crisps, and anchovies. It was a unique presentation for this dish; I would describe it as a “reconstructed” Caesar, and it was delicious. The dressing had a pink tinge to it; our server informed me the recipe was a secret but that the color came from Kalamata olives. It was so tasty that we sopped it up with the fresh baked bread.
Some of the interesting items on the small plates menu that we did not try include a roasted vegetable and cheese tart; prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with goat cheese; and caul fat wrapped scallops with a peanut puree. We began here with the maple syrup lacquered pork belly, and saying this dish was great would be a gross understatement. For starters, the amount of pork belly we received was extremely generous, leading us to be slightly apprehensive, thinking that perhaps Executive Chef Jason Baker had sacrificed quality for quantity. This was far from the case. The pork was beyond tender; it fell apart at the slightest pressure from our forks, and simply melted in our mouths. The maple lacquer was sweet but not overly so, and the dish was topped with a sunny side up egg. The perfectly cooked yolk ran over the pork belly like hot fudge sliding down vanilla ice cream. It was a beautiful dish. We then tried the butternut squash ravioli; it was served in a sage and brown butter sauce, and sprinkled with pancetta crisps. The sauce was a touch too oily, and some of the pancetta pieces were overcooked and tough, but the pasta pillows were cooked to al dente perfection, and the filling was smoother than velvet. It was very tasty. We then had the calamari “risotto”; the quotations refer to the fact that there is no rice in the dish. The calamari is finely diced to resemble risotto, and served in a thyme-infused broth. I think Chef Baker may have gotten a little too playful with this dish – I would have preferred larger chunks of calamari. The tiny pieces didn’t allow for that nice bite of squid. But he was very clever with the broth – thyme has a slight lemony flavor to it, and lemon is of course a perfect match with seafood, so the combination of the calamari and the broth was bright and delicious.
Our bellies were getting full, but we did want to try one of the large plate offerings, which include salmon in an herbed pesto; fried rack of lamb; and braised veal cheeks. We were craving red meat, so we opted for the grilled rib eye. It was served in two pieces – the fattier outer layer was removed and served beneath the center piece of the cut. It was topped with diced Tasso ham, potato gnocchi, and a black garlic demi-glace. It was advertised as being served with braised carrots and cipollini onions, but it only came with one of each. We had ordered the steak to be cooked medium, and it was closer to medium-well, but that didn’t prevent it from being a good dish. The meat was very juicy and tender, and the demi-glace had a little kick to it that worked well. The gnocchi were a little rubbery, but the ham was a nice touch.
With just enough room for dessert, we skipped some intriguing items like the Grand Marnier custard with roasted almonds in a chocolate shell; blueberry cheesecake; and a “babarone,” a French toast of sorts with a citrus salad. Instead we tried the maple crème brulee and the flourless chocolate cake. Some of the desserts are homemade, and others are from local bakeries, including the chocolate cake; rich and decadent, it was nicely complimented by slices of orange and candied orange rind. The maple crème brulee is homemade, and it is exceptional. The crust on top was of perfect thickness, and gave way to the most light and delicious custard I’ve ever had with this dessert. The maple was subtle and not too sweet – I have no idea how the chef got the custard to be so less dense and rich than what’s usually found in crème brulee, but it was fantastic; a perfect cap to a great meal.
Prices of the chilled and small plates range from around $9-$18, and the large plates go for $17-$26; some of the large plates can be ordered as small plates. It’s certainly not a cheap night out, but what the Wine Bar and Bistro offers is a romantic getaway or a fun time for a small group with high quality food and drink, great atmosphere, and a very friendly and knowledgeable staff . And it’s nice to be able to have that without leaving town.
The Mouse House Kitchen gives the Wine Bar and Bistro 4.5 out of 5 stars!