Maybe you’d like to unwind with some friends after work over a glass of wine and bowlful of mussels. Perhaps you want to grab a quick bite before – or after – the evening show at The Ark. Or you may simply need to escape an onrushing case of midwinter cabin fever.
Whatever the reason, a good wine bar can scratch the itch. Compared with a brewpub or bar, people expect wine bars to offer a quieter ambience and more sophisticated level of food, along with a selection of interesting wines available by the glass.
But the four downtown Ann Arbor wine bars we visited quickly demonstrated that this generic definition of “wine bar” is infinitely bendable and expandable. Local wine bars range from a complete wine-centric focus to a simple rechristening of a restaurant’s lounge area.
So I decided to head out to the wine bars, and take them on their own terms. What does each one set out to do, and how well does it succeed?
Aside from a picture-window view into the wine cellar, it’s pure misbranding to term The Earle’s latest iteration a “wine bar.” In fact, if you omit the Sherry and Port, the wine bar menu now offers more beers (30) than wines-by-the-glass (23), and more brands of liquor than either.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Longtime Earle majordomo Dennis Webster has turned a neat trick: under the wine bar guise, he’s created a restaurant-within-a-restaurant, offering a moderately priced munchies-and-light-dinner alternative to its more traditional, higher-end French/Italian sibling next door. This is not your father’s Earle – not with wraps and pizza on the menu – but an unfussy spot to grab a post-work or pre-entertainment light bite with a glass or two of something alcoholic on the side.
Somewhat lost in transition is the classic wine bar experience. With just over 20 wines by the glass ($4.75 to $14.50), the selection is merely adequate – especially since the aforementioned $4.75 buys you a glass of the distinctly non-wine barish Beringer White Zinfandel. They should be embarrassed. But during the generously defined Happy Hour, several decent – if uninspired – selections pour in the $6 to $8 range. No tasting flights are available, and servers are unlikely to know much about the wines on offer.
Then again, most Earle wine bar denizens seem less interested in the wines themselves than as accompaniments to conversation and food preparations that begin with a $2.50 bowl of mussels during Happy Hour and wend through a wide menu of appetizers, salads, wraps and pasta, all at under-$20 prices.
On a Monday night, two of us took advantage of the special “Nickel and Dime” menu to order entrees of fresh whitefish and marinated skirt steak, both well seasoned and perfectly cooked. With a shared bowl of mussels appetizer and two glasses of wine apiece, our total tab – tax and tip included – came in at $62.
Several fellow patrons were observed selecting their wines by the bottle, rather than the glass. That’s never a bad idea in a restaurant that boasts “The Book” – Ann Arbor’s largest list of 1,400 different wines, assembled by longtime sommelier Steve Goldberg (no relation). With a list like that, it’s unfortunate that they never elect to pour some interesting rarity by the glass in the wine bar, even if it needs to sell at a price premium.
Of course, a top reason to visit the Earle remains its ambience: the cave-like warren of dimly illuminated underground rooms. The wine bar offers both non-smoking and smoking rooms, with little air interchange between the two.
121 W. Washington St.
20% off wine by the glass and wine bar food menu, 5-8 p.m. weekdays
Steamed mussels $2.50, 5-6:30 p.m. weekdays
$5/$10 menu Monday & Tuesday
eve – THE RESTAURANT
“I didn’t even know that eve had a wine bar,” said a member of the Vinous Posse as we trudged the slush from Main Street toward Kerrytown.
“Shhhh, not so loud,” I hissed. “They only have seven tables and a few chairs at the bar. If word gets around, we’ll never taste wine in this place again.”
So let’s remain suitably understated: eve pours the most appealing selection in town of geek-caliber wines by the glass – or tasting flight – and accompanies them with an array of unique appetizers. This comes packaged with some of the city’s better restaurant service, in a quiet, sophisticated surround that encourages conversation or simple contemplation of the flavors on the table.
Eve Aronoff isn’t just an accomplished chef; she’s also working toward her Master of Wine and personally selects the wine list for her eponymous restaurant. So it’s unsurprising that she would offer an array of “wine lover wines,” as one of our group put it.
Her wine bar offers wines by the glass and appetizers from the restaurant menu, making it heavy on the former but lighter on food selections. You’ll find about 30 reds, whites and bubblies ($6 to $18), many in the mid to upper portions of the range, plus another 15 dessert wines and Ports. Four wine flights ($16 to $20) provide half-glass pours of three wines with a common theme. A half-dozen appetizers ($10 to $26) and several salads round out the offerings.
Well, not quite. Did I mention the wonderfully crusty fresh-baked bread and house-trademark flavored butters, served gratis alongside?
We shared an appetizer of “Inspired Nachos,” assembled from fried wontons, black beans, three cheeses and avocado, alongside glasses of French Sancerre and California Sauvignon Blanc, and a tasting flight of three offbeat California red wines, including a hard-to-find Gary Farrell Pinot Noir. All were flawless. Next time around, I’d think about making eve a late evening destination for a glass of dessert wine or Port.
Fabric ceiling panels and sheer curtains deaden sound in the brick walled room, making it ideal for quiet conversation, although patrons entering or leaving the restaurant through the wine bar occasionally can rile things up. Service is unobtrusive but attentive, from offers to hang your coat to refills of your water glass.
eve – The Restaurant
415 N. 5th Ave. (in Kerrytown)
20% off wines by the glass and a seasonal appetizer, 5-7 p.m. weekdays
MELANGE BISTRO & WINE BAR
Memo to: Melange management
Subject: Experiences that wine writers (and other customers) prefer to avoid:
- The welcoming aroma of stale smoke as you enter the door.
- A hostess who consults her watch and jauntily beams, “It’s still Happy Hour for the next five minutes! If you sit in the wine bar and order right away, glasses of wine are half price.”
- (60 seconds later) A server who announces, “I don’t know about Happy Hour; our computer’s clock is fast” (as all members of the Vinous Posse confirm pre-6 p.m. times on their watches). Followed by the server’s quick return with, “Sorry, but the computer says it’s 6:02 – did you still want those glasses at regular price?”
- An undrinkably oxidized glass of Shiraz that conveys two messages: (1) The bottle has been open for days without benefit of preservation; (2) No one took the 10 seconds required to check it before pouring and serving.
- A server who hasn’t tasted a wine, but gladly informs us, “we sell a lot of it.”
- “Crispy” calamari that isn’t, arriving pre-soggied under a healthy pour of roasted red peppers and sweet and sour sauce.
- Tepidly lukewarm Thai beef rolls that leave you pondering whether they were left to sit on the counter too long after cooking, or were insufficiently reheated from a cold start. But at least the meat was chewy.
If the wine list were extensive or superb, some of the foregoing might be tolerable. But no such luck; just 15 wines by the glass ($7 to $15) – most of them broadly-distributed “off-the-shelf” selections – the poorest range among the four places we visited. The only bright spot: five special “Features” ($8 to $16) offer more interesting wines, especially that $16 glass of 2006 Fisher Vineyard “Unity.”
The use of the term “wine bar” by Melange might just as easily be replaced by the word “lounge” – certainly more fitting to the place’s retro décor. None of our party indicated any great desire for a quick return.
Melange Bistro & Wine Bar
314 S. Main St.
Half-price wine by the glass, 4-6 p.m. weekdays
Vinology wears the look of a wine bar straight from Central Casting – a lovingly respiffied Main Street storefront with brick walls, a high tin ceiling, a massive wood bar running the length of the place, walls adorned with showcases of vine cuttings, rocks and other wine country oddments, lockers for regular patrons and private party rooms downstairs.
It’s the project of Kristin Jonna, scion of southeast Michigan’s first family of wine ventures, whose various relations are responsible for Merchant of Vino, Merchant’s Fine Wines, and Plum Market. Last year, Chef Brandon Johns signed on to beef up the food side of the operation, fresh from a five-year stint as Executive Chef at The Chop House.
With 45 wines by the glass ($8 to $15), three “Big Cabs” ($20 to $26), and seven four-wine tasting flights ($15 to $24), Vinology wins hands-down for the broadest wine bar selection; many are wines you won’t readily find on local shelves. One nice touch: the tasting flights come with numbered glasses, so you can’t mix them up. And the glassware is appropriate to enhance the wines being served.
Service was generally attentive, handled by a highly knowledgeable server who could talk intelligently about nearly every wine on the list. What she didn’t know, she quickly offered to find out.
One eyebrow raiser: the wine list shows no vintage years. A common practice in places where wine is an afterthought, this lets restaurateurs slide seamlessly from one vintage to the next and avoid frequent wine list reprints. But such corner cutting has little excuse in an establishment with a wine focus; a reasonable slice of the clientele presumably cares about vintages and understands that there’s a qualitative difference between 2005 and 2006 Bordeaux.
A couple of gaffes also cost them points. Our table ordered the “When Dirt Tastes Good” wine flight ($19) – a reference to the other-than-fruit flavors present in some wines. Only after we inquired about vintages did our server disclose that they’d substituted a different wine – from another region – for one of those listed in the flight. Had we not asked about vintages, this would have passed unmentioned.
A confit duck leg was tender and moist, if slightly underflavored, and went wonderfully with our “dirty” red wines. Unfortunately, it arrived on a bed of bitter greens that nicely complemented the duck but proved deadly to every wine on the table.
All those hard surfaces also make for significant sound reflection, especially when there’s a crowd in the house. Personal proclivities will determine whether you say the room has “a nice buzz” or perceive it as slightly noisy.
110 S. Main St.
Half-price wine by the glass, 4-6 p.m.
About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, is editor of the MichWine website. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.