Wine bars have proliferated across the city since 2000 or so, according to my notes, often focusing on Italian wines accompanied by plates of prosciutto and cheese, and maybe a bruschetta or two: dishes that can be prepped without a kitchen. This has been part of restaurateurs’ emphasis on alcohol over food; as a result, wine bars have pulled in a laid-back and discerning clientele that has veered toward sipping more than grazing.
The scene is changing: Not long ago, some wine bars began featuring French vintages and natural products, and for a season, orange wine was king. This refocusing opened up our vistas where the grape was concerned, and food also gained importance too, so that Gallic fare has come to dominate what might be called premium wine bars.
Telegraphing this new emphasis, wine bars adopted French themes. Named after a ritzy Riviera resort, St. Tropez appeared late in 2017 on a shady block of the West Village. It peddled glasses of red and white Bordeaux, and also offered bistro basics like frisee salad with hefty lardons, and shrimp in tarragon aioli. Meanwhile, nearby, Vingt Sur Vingt sold French wines by the glass in a tiny space beside a pizzeria, but eventually expanded to larger digs and established multiple branches.
These presaged the French wine bar wave that washes over us now, and three new places illustrate this trend. In the heart of (so-called) Dimes Square, Le Dive – which describes itself as a natural wine bar in the tabac tradition – is anything but a dive. The corner storefront has spawned a lively street scene, though the interior is tiny, with round pedestal tables, little lampshade chandeliers, and a general feeling of being in Paris. With bottles in the $50 to $70 range and glasses around $15, half the wines are from France, and the balance is from Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
The menu presents what amount to bistro appetizers as sustenance. The artichoke ($16) is a giant specimen, steamed so the leaves are easily extracted and dipped in garlic aioli. The fries ($8) – profuse, lightly browned, and crisp – are a paragon of their type. When we added a charcuterie plate ($17) a friend and I felt stuffed – or as stuffed as one ought to feel at a wine bar. With a substantial pour of sparkling white burgundy and another of Chateau Lestignac Semillon from the Rhone Valley (an orange wine that really tastes like oranges), our repast came to around $100 including tax and tip.
The most ambitious of these new French wine bars is Claud. Hidden downstairs in a commercial strip on 10th Street in the East Village, the food is so good it nearly overshadows the wine. How can we be sure it’s a wine bar? Well, for a serious restaurant the menu is short, running to just 14 dishes, with the majority small plates. Glasses of wine, half of them French, are in the $13 to $32 range and change periodically, boasting a cellar of up to 1000 bottles. A companion and I hit the place in what might be termed its “breezy autumn” phase, in which German and Austrian whites were featured.
As at Le Dive, by-the-glass wines often seem picked for their festive nature. “At Roca” is a pink sparkler from Spain, in which the bubbles dispel any sweetness; we also had a Chenin blanc from the Loire Valley that was fruity and dry, with elusive flavors that put a smile on our faces. But, wine aside, what blew us away was the food. First, three round fritters rolled in ($13), full of snails and salsa verde. Utterly delicious.
Then on to a small brown flatbread crammed with anchovies, caramelized onions, and Comte cheese, tasting delightfully like French onion soup in pizza form. The steak tartare arrived next, spread evenly on the plate like fresh red concrete, a mixture of the ubiquitous Jimmy Nardello peppers adding pungency. Perhaps best of all was a pair of diminutive, herb-sprinkled razor clams ($18). The raw flesh was dense and sweet with no bitterness.
From a brief list of four entrees that included a steelhead trout with clams, swordfish cooked like a steak, and a thick pork chop, who could avoid picking “chicken with foie drippings” ($37)? It was a half-pullet cut into bite-size segments as if it were just a larger small plate. The brown drippings formed a pond, and if ever there were a time to call for the restaurant’s sourdough bread, this would be it. The pieces could easily be eaten with the fingers while drinking a glass of wine.
Teetering on the fence that forms a flimsy barrier between “restaurant” and “wine bar,” Chambers replaced Racines in Tribeca earlier this year, partly keeping the team that had run that Parisian wine bar previously. The food at Chambers is more subtle in its Frenchness than its predecessor. While the unctuous squishiness of sweetbreads and sauerkraut ($20) seemed very Alsatian, a wet succotash of peaches and corn looked more like modern American farm-to-table – until you tasted the very French leek and tarragon cream sauce.
Sometimes strongly flavored food makes a nice contrast to the wine’s subtlety and that was the case with a cold mackerel salad – its skin-on swatches twinkling in the amply lit and plain interior of Chambers. These three small plates led to a shared entrée of sliced lamb ($35) that rode atop a heap of beans and baby artichokes. Small bites between sips of wine were the way to fully enjoy this rich main course.
The wine list of Chambers is a maze of contrasting styles, from tradition-bound to those in a skin-contact-, natural-, or organic vein. Refreshingly, there are by-the-glass wines at low prices, including a $9 Domaine Laguerre Cotes du Roussillon white blend with an underplayed flinty taste. It carried us right into dessert, which was a peach upside-down cake served with a lightly flavored Chartreuse — the liqueur, not the color — ice cream: proving to us that even the desserts here taste better with sips of French wine.