By now, nearly a decade after they started to appear in profusion, most of us have a fixed idea of what a wine bar is: Italian, or sometimes French, wines. A large selection of by-the-glass choices. A menu that consists mainly of charcuterie and cheeses, plus the occasional small dish. Food prepared in a comically small kitchenette at the side of the bar, usually by the same person that pours your wine. A cramped space made to seem smaller with too much furniture. A dark, romantic ambiance, maybe with candles.
So imagine our surprise when a friend and I paid a first visit to The Camlin on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. It’s one of a new collection of eating and drinking establishments that seem aimed toward residents of the high-rise apartment buildings that have sprouted on the East River shoreline. To begin with, the premises is contrarily spacious, occupying a corner storefront with giant picture windows that look toward the waterfront. The bar itself occupies one side of the square room, with tables opposite, and a slightly raised corral with another collection of tables, divided into two quadrants. The illumination is bright, both from the streetlights that stream through windows and an assortment of fashion-forward light fixtures, including ones above the bar that appear to be taped-up lampshades. "This looks like a dormitory lunchroom," I observed, to which my friend replied, "I like it a lot."
The place is a sophomore project of Mandy Oser and Amorette Casaus, the team behind the Hell’s Kitchen wine bar, Ardesia. The wine selection favors domestic wine-producing regions, some relatively obscure; there are over 100 bottles, and the price by the glass is relatively low — decent selections can be had for $7 to $10, and tastes are almost joyfully furnished. My favorite glass of several tried was a Heinrich Zweigelt ($10), that had the saturation necessary to stand up to the Broadbent country ham from Kentucky, and Sofia goat cheese from Indiana (each $6), the latter of which came well-aged and prettily veined with crushed charcoal. There are plenty of single-grape, aromatic whites, too. There’s a Cote du Roussillon that, at $7 for a generous pour, is quite a bargain.
The food is more ambitious than that of most wine bars. Find on the menu a selection of raw oysters, small plates, salads, large plates, and even desserts. The deviled eggs (three halves, $7) depend mainly on smoked paprika for flavor and leave you wondering, what did they do with the other half-egg? Cheese croquettes are a better choice, two served warm stuffed with chorizo or cheese. Though the chopped salad comes predictably deconstructed and bearing kale, something I hoped I’d never see in a salad again, here it works. The salad, which also contains craisins and roasted butternut squash, was utterly delicious on a winter’s evening.
We tried two of the larger plates, which are not in the usual province of wine bar food. The house-cured pastrami ($14) was coarse-grained and nicely rimmed with fat, though the underlying sauerkraut was too dank and sweet. Sauerkraut should be light and bouncy. Grilled bread was provided with the entrée. The "bourbon braised quail lasagna" ($16) was less satisfactory. It appeared in a round crock and not only was the serving small, the dish was dry and tasted reheated. Besides, what good is a small game bird in lasagna?
But overall, the wine list was a large plus, the charcuterie and cheese above average, and so were the small dishes, making us excited to try the lamb skewers and the pretzel nuggets with beer cheese in the future. The impression remains that big plates are overreaching for a wine bar. 175 Kent Ave., (718) 384-4100.