The wine selection at most Chinese restaurants is small and pro forma: a preponderance of whites, with an off-dry Riesling here, a sauvignon blanc there, and a saturated red like pinot noir as backup for the heavier beef or pork dishes. But what if a restaurant started out with a deep cellar featuring bottles with more personality and age — a wine list that might do a French restaurant proud — and then threw Chinese food into the mix?
Newcomer to Dimes Square, Tolo is that place. Ron Yan of the nearby wine bar, Parcelle, is the chef who serves a spate of spicy foods with a selection of dazzling pours that makes for an entertaining night indeed. Located at 28 Canal Street just west of Essex, the restaurant occupies the space that was once the brilliant and perhaps excessively cheap Ming’s Caffe. Darkness prevails inside, despite a few flickering candles and light fixtures right out of the ’60s.
Inside the open kitchen anchors one corner like a stage in a theater, where Yan, who grew up in Hong Kong and Plano, Texas, presides. The kitchen setup makes a nice diversion for a restaurant rapidly turning into a date spot; the view of Dimes Square through beaded curtains on a recent rainy evening was especially romantic.
As befits the new generation of wine bars like Claud with brief menus of ambitious food, there are only 11 starters and five main courses, while offering six wines by the glass ($15 to $25), along with access via a QRL code to the vast wine list at Parcelle. It brims with over 400 bottles, including Champagnes, Burgundies, and Barolos, topping out at around $2500, though there are lots of choices in the $80 range. Choose a bottle with the advice of a sommelier, though the by-the-glass selection includes a skin-contact orange, a dry riesling, and a white Burgundy chosen for their compatibility with the food.
The challenge of what wine goes with french fries is a perennial one, and here, with fries sprinkled with nori and served in a paper sack, it turns out that a 2009 Ribeiro blanco from northwestern Spain is the answer. Though this wine may have been at its prime 10 years earlier, it held up admirably to the salty fries, as well as a raw tuna appetizer ($15) dressed in soy sauce with a trace of sweetness and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
The standout of the wine program, for me, was a pair of wild cards that you should ask about, the two-per-evening special pours listed as such on the menu. On the first visit, the special pours were $15 each, which seemed low, but by my second visit, the special pour prices had been adjusted upward to around $20. [Editor’s note: The special wines by the glass is a mainstay of the drink menu. “They’re having a lot of fun pairing rare, unexpected wines of value with Ron’s food,” a spokesperson confirms. ]
One evening a special pour was a 2007 red Chinon from the Loire Valley, which had faded to a ghostly pink with a slightly murky cast and funky edge to the bouquet, but it went well with the raw oysters soaked in chile oil (three for $9), adding a note of earthiness to a spicy oceanic dish. It was also a great foil to the garlicky, slippery cucumber and wood ear appetizer ($8) that followed.
Another night it was a red Hermitage from the northern Rhone Valley with a lot of oak and perhaps the perfect amount of age. The sturdy red did battle with a classic Sichuan shredded chicken starter in which the usual chile oil was replaced with chopped red chiles and a dash of Sichuan peppercorns. In fact, the central question of the wine program at Tolo might be, What will drink well with the peppercorn’s tingly taste?
The wine highlight on a second visit was a Barolo from 1970 — an outstanding year — but from a vineyard (Fratelli Adriano) of which little trace exists. The pour still retained some berry notes that went especially well with a sweet-and-sour black bass filet ($30).
A wine like this you sip carefully to savor every drop, and we carried it over into the seared scallops ($25), which arrived in a dashi-and-garlic puree, where the faded red vintage seemed perfectly at home. We resisted the urge to order another glass, out of a sense of sharing the bottle with others in the restaurant, marveling that even an obscure bottle of Barolo of uncertain commercial value made a surprisingly great pairing with some adventuresome Chinese food.