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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Saturday, March 5, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Vine & Dine

Conventional wisdom suggests that

Vine & Dine has everything set up backward.

It took a few visits to Vine & Dine to realize what I found so appealing about the West Bank wine bar/deli/bistro, but once it hit me, I was whisked back to childhood wonderment.

As an adult whose middle age is rapidly receding, I remain fascinated by Russian nesting dolls, or at least the childhood variations on them. One kid version starts with a plastic egg that, once opened, reveals a smaller plastic egg that, when opened, reveals a still smaller plastic egg, a process that keeps repeating itself until the last egg is opened, revealing a plastic chicken. If I recall, there was another variation, wherein barrels replaced the eggs and a plastic monkey took the place of the chicken.

Perhaps those are quirky analogies, but should you traverse the seven consecutive components of the former pooch grooming palace, from the cheerlessly humdrum entrance to the ingeniously converted dog run secreted away at the other end, you too may find the proper words with which to describe Vine & Dine equally elusive. To wit:

1. The front entrance and foyer should be enough to scare off anyone who doesn’t know what waits inside, or at the very least consider opting for a visit to the Dry Dock Café & Bar next door. I won’t mince words. The building’s facade is downright ugly. From the Algiers ferry terminal about 100 yards up the hill, the generic brick building with its neon “OPEN” sign in a too-small window looks like it should house a bail bondsman instead of a bistro. There’s a roofline sign identifying the business, but it looks more like an afterthought or possibly an ad for someone else. The foyer is shared with the landlord’s barbershop, a place that could never be considered a “salon” or even a “style shop” by anyone other than Moe Howard of the Three Stooges. After such an inauspicious first impression…

2. …you walk through the foyer’s French doors and enter the prep room and takeout counter of the deli part of the operation. While it’s certainly clean enough, and you’re likely to be greeted by Vanessa, the cheerful co-owner who runs the food operation, the first time I went in, I kept thinking I had entered the wrong business through the back door.

3. Turning left, you come to a series of small, consecutive rooms, the first of which holds a refrigerated case featuring two shelves of cheeses and a small array of chilled craft and imported beers. Next to the case is a baker’s rack with a modest selection of crackers and the room-temp beer that wouldn’t fit in the chiller. On another wall is a table with about six types of sparkling wine for sale. It is an underwhelming start, but things begin looking up as you…

4. …enter the next room, where you discover two longer walls of white wines, offering roughly forty to fifty varietals and blends, very few of which cost more than thirty dollars per bottle while most cost considerably less. No one will ever confuse the inventory with that of a major wine and spirits retailer, an impression confirmed when…

5. …you reach the next room, which is devoted exclusively to reds and a small section of ports. But it is here where Vine & Dine starts transforming itself into something more interesting than a nondescript deli and understocked wine store. In the center of the room are two small bistro tables available for customers to enjoy their wine purchases. The only time anyone sits there, however, is when the next room is crowded, because…

6. … the innermost room is a postage stamp of a wine bar that seems better suited to an off-the-main-highway village in the south of France, maybe Spain or Portugal. There’s no chattering television and rarely any music of any sort. There are four tables in the softly lit, tangerine-colored room, and a microbar with five stools in the back corner. Glasses clink. Lovers whisper. A table full of longstanding friends erupts in laughter. It is an essentially unadorned room where one might be unsurprised to find a latter day Hemingway regaling a pair of unconvinced women with rollicking yarns that none of them believe. Almost unnoticed is a barred security door leading to…

7. …Vine & Dine’s outdoor inner sanctum, a three-table, enclosed terrace where a skyful of stars glitters through an arbor’s open crossbeams and the din of the city yields to the chirping of crickets and cicadas, interrupted only by the bellow of a passing ship’s horn a scant 200 yards away on the river. Low wattage bulbs glow from beneath the rough-hewn arbor beams, but terrace’s true sources of light seem to emanate from both tabletop candles and the shimmering galaxies under heaven’s vault. There are few more civilized yet casual places in the city for a glass of Cabernet, a wedge of Camembert, a nibble of prosciutto or a moonlit tryst.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Vine & Dine has everything set up backward, from its uninviting facade to its embracing jewel box of a terrace. Perhaps, but I can’t tell you how eagerly I look forward to my earliest return.

You see, despite it architectural eccentricities, Vine & Dine is ultimately a romantic hideaway retaining both the energy and charm of a work in progress. Although the place has now been open a couple of years, youthful owners Vanessa and Stephen Thurber still radiate the how-can-we-please-you attitude they doubtlessly possessed on the day they first unlocked the door. But in a legendary restaurant market as ferociously competitive as metropolitan New Orleans, making a go of it requires more than the working capital to survive lean times and the optimism that fatter times lie just ahead. It requires savvy and these two entrepreneurs seem to possess it in spades.

While their inventory of wines is short, the selections themselves are long on quality and prudently priced, demonstrating a degree of noteworthy sophistication in knowledge of both their offerings and the marketing realities of their location. Carryout sandwich and retail wine sales are doubtlessly helped by its location a stone’s skip from the Canal Street to Algiers ferry, but Vine & Dine’s bedrock business appears to come predominantly from within walking distance. The historic district of Algiers Point may be a picturesque hotbed of architectural restoration that houses a substantial number of young professionals and their families, but at heart and checkbook, it’s a middle class neighborhood.

Many of the wines are available by the glass in the wine bar and on the terrace, but full bottles may be purchased at the regular retail price with a five-dollar per bottle corkage fee instead of the traditional 210% restaurant tariff. From five until seven on weekday evenings, a “bottomless” glass of either Chardonnay or Merlot is available for ten dollars. Also, for beer aficionados, there are assorted brands from mainly boutique domestic and some better-known international breweries.

The selection of approximately two dozen cheeses is purchased from The St. James Cheese Company, the fashionable Uptown retailer with roots stemming directly from Paxton & Whitfield, London’s oldest cheese merchant (since 1797). Like the wine selections, this list may appear limited in length but is shrewd in breadth.

If there is a caveat, and I can only think of one, it is that on occasion I have been in the small wine bar when several groups of ladies gathered after work and the decibel level of ear-piercing laughter kept increasing at a rate commensurate with their accelerating consumption. While such occasions are rare, they nonetheless do occur, and irascible curmudgeons like me should consider themselves duly warned.

That said, I still can think of few places I would rather be than hidden away with The Sensible One beneath the arbor beams of Vine & Dine, pencil-thin panatela in hand, watching a shooting star and waiting with a glass of tawny port as a wedge of chilled Stilton inches its way toward room temperature. Even Omar Khayyam’s thousand-year-old Rubáiyát can use an updated stanza every century or two.

Vine & Dine

Wine Bar & Bistro

141 Delaronde Street, Algiers Point

(Approximately .6 miles on foot, plus a half-mile ride by free ferry

from the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.

Wine Bar & Bistro open Monday through Saturday, 5 pm – 9 pm

Retail Store open Monday through Friday, 3 pm – 9 pm,

Saturday, Noon – 9 pm

Telephone: (504) 361-1402

Website: www.vine-dine.com

Photo courtesy vine-dine.com

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