It’s a new era for New York wine bars that are more sophisticated (and often, more expensive) than the ones from even a decade ago.
Today’s offer ambitious food in places like Claud and Chambers, where the cooking is so good it threatens to overshadow the wines. Characteristic of these new places is a menu heavy with appetizers, an emphasis on French gastronomy, and local and seasonal ingredients. No hamburgers or nachos, but plenty of creative salads, seafood, and minimally accompanied meat entrees. Claud’s escargot fritters and chicken with foie gras drippings are examples of this new menu frontier.
Six weeks ago Justine’s appeared at 518 Hudson Street, near 10th in the West Village. It has an edge when it comes to wine: Restaurateur Justine Rosenthal is the daughter of distinguished wine importer Neal Rosenthal — and that is reflected in a 45-bottle selection of traditional French wines, evenly divided between white and red. Some flaunt their age, with a fair number of bottles in the $40 to $60 range. The by-the-glass list included nine this particular night, and I got the ball rolling with a 2017 Grand Cru Kaefferkopf Riesling from Maurice Schoech ($20). Its subtle citric fruitiness was like finding crystals in the middle of a geode.
The dining room is dark and clubby, with a bar that runs along one wall dominating the room. It’s hard to imagine it was until recently a Starbucks, now with the delicate clink of wine glasses replacing the sizzle of steaming milk. A banquette runs along the opposite wall under sconces that provide light just sufficient to judge the color of the wine. Seats across from the banquette are plush enough you could doze off, quite a contrast to many wine bars, where hard stools and chairs with metal backs are the rule. When you order a glass of wine, this joint wants you to really enjoy it.
I sat at a table in the front window and sipped my glass of wine (my companion went for an $18 Bourgogne aligoté, a white varietal) as dishes began to arrive via chef Jeanne Jordan, who previously worked at Mas Farmhouse. The oft-novel food quickly established a dialectic with the wines. If you are accustomed to eating green tomatoes breaded and fried, the taste of tomatoes rendered as a raw carpaccio ($24) will be surprising, earthy and firm rather than squishy and tart. The thin slices soaked in oil resisted our attempts to get them from plate to mouth, to comic effect.
Another dish, a thick dip of smoked crab and whitefish ($30) was easier to eat with a rice cracker scoop. And while it sounds like something you might get on a bagel at a deli, it arrived more nuanced and dressed up with flowers that delivered bitter explosions of flavor. Rarely is bitterness so welcome – in the case of a wine bar, it is a boon, teasing out the sweetness of the grapes.
Marinated squid ($27) with lime leaf, epazote, and ’nduja was the only disappointment among the dishes we tried; the taste went off in too many directions and the squid was frankly slimy. Who can resist asparagus at the height of the season? Here, it came with curry leaf and cashews that had been ground to the consistency of…’nduja.
The best dish of the evening, and one we oohed and aahed over, was a pair of softshell crabs ($55) smothered in a yellow sauce tasting of lemongrass and accented with mustard greens, making the dish taste positively Thai. And there was that hint of bitterness again from the greens.
No, we didn’t like everything on the menu at Justine’s, but we enjoyed being challenged, both gastronomically and intellectually. Indeed, this is food for thoughtful people, and a contrast to the forthrightly soothing menus at many restaurants. The interplay of wine and food is always front and center here.
We enjoyed two of the three desserts offered, the best of which was an avocado mousse ($16) swarming with basil seeds like little eyes and flavored with pandan leaf — one of the few hints on the menu that the chef grew up in the Philippines. After dessert, we were tempted to linger, so we split a glass of 2012 Sancerre Rouge from Lucien Crochet ($35), from a region more famous for its whites than reds. It proved perfect for sipping, dry as a just-ironed shirt, with toned-down tannins but still-vibrant acidity.