Paris was hardly the gay capital we'd imagined, but a city of mediocre Chinese food and tourist-grade beef bourguignon. We were stuck in some distant arrondissement, my boyfriend and I, in a neighborhood where the walls seeped graffiti and the very pavement seemed to bubble up with dog shit, a long, boring Metro ride from the Louvre. We had to get the hell out.
Somebody told us about a decent bistro à vin nearby. A wine bar? In America that means fancy: faux-Tuscan wall treatments, balloon tasting glasses, and an air of smirking sophistication. But when we finally stumbled on the place, there wasn't a sponge-painted wall in sight. Rather it had had the murky feel of an urban tavern, the kind of place that, in the States, would have worn leather dice cups on the bar. Unpretentious, even burly: overturned barrels to stand at, ordinary tumblers, and a no-bullshit young proprietor clad in a T-shirt.
He stocked chewy reds in the barrel from Languedoc. You could fill bottles to take back to your dinky walk-up, or swill carafes on-site. Here, wine seemed some blurring of drink and food, with the force of daily need fierce as the one for bread. We'd found Paris, all right, only it had nothing to do with jostling for a glimpse of some moldering painting.
Here at home, a whole new rash of wine bars has grown to satisfy the current American itch for the far-flung bottle, the Austrian Veltliner and Greek Agioritiko. But does this new, younger, and more casual setting for wine manage to do for American drinkers what tipplers in Europe's wine zone take for granted? That is, that the stuff in their glass should have the easygoing nature of a pint of Sierra at some bar on San Pablo.
San Francisco's new crop of wine bars at least three in the past year alone deal in the quirky import and the hipster pose: guys in sassy message Ts, like, totally digging on the Txacoli. Always eager to doll up and drop cash, Walnut Creekers have embraced the trend as though it were some new designer brand at Nordstrom. But Oakland? The city of keeping it real deserves a wine bar to match its muscle. Which is what made me so hopeful this summer, when Oaktown's quintessential Italian-American pizza and pasta house Zza's Trattoria in Grand Lake opened one of its own.
A red-curtained doorway connects Zza's Enoteca to the bustling restaurant next door. The buffed concrete floor reveals a ghost grid of pried-up tiles the space used to be part of a nearby furniture store, and still retains that storefront flavor. Everything else has gone darkly taupe and handsome, including chunky display shelves you can buy full bottles, 30 percent off the drink-here price with a whiff of Spain. It's vaguely monastic: The darkly varnished plywood banquette, for instance, and communal refectory table.
But on a recent Saturday night, there was nothing particularly monklike or sober about the couples scattered around the dimly lit enoteca. Women who'd dressed up, mostly, picking at small plates or sniffing the wine in their glasses.
And that wine? More than sixty selections, available by the bottle, glass, or two-ounce taste. The priciest champagne barely breaks $100, and two-thirds of the offerings are under $40. Compared to the rest of the wine-producing world, stretching from Australia to South Africa, California barely represents only three whites and four reds.
Despite a focus on the world's lesser-priced wines, the enoteca nevertheless feels like a fancy distillation of what the neighborhood trattoria is all about. "We were trying to make it the exact opposite," says co-owner Regina Passalaqua. That meant bringing in a new chef, Bob Hansen, who deals only with the wine bar and catering. The enoteca's dozen or so offerings stay on their own side of the curtain. The only trickle-through is the thin-crust pizzas, too broadly Eyetalian (i.e., a margherita with grated mozz) to stand up to the elegant wine list or match Hansen's Euro sensibilities.
The chef has spent time in San Francisco kitchens with no lack of style: Sushi Groove South of Market, Americano, and Frisson. Here, Hansen sidelines style to make his dishes work with wine, something that perhaps a more ambitious, ego-driven chef might find hard to do. Indeed, the most appealing thing about the food here is the restrained flavor of Hansen's cooking. The chef stands back and lets the wine do the showboatin'.
But self-effacing doesn't necessarily translate to satisfying. Mostly, Hansen's dishes are good concepts marred by flawed execution, with an overall lack of polish. It makes things frustrating. Even so, things have a fleshy sincerity that calls out to you. Rabbit terrine was chunky and guileless. In cross-section, its big strands of whole muscle were veined with only a dry schmear of forcemeat, dark and tasting of rabbit liver. The meat was infused with the smoky flavor of cured pork, and was stacked atop hunks of cooked fennel. Soft baked figs surrounded it. Wildly ambitious, and not particularly skilled. But I admired its mad energy.
Seared dayboat scallops were almost alarmingly fleshy. Three enormous specimens sat on spoonfuls of green lentils and long-cooked onion. They had the metallic sweetness of really fresh specimens. An overcooked scallop is a miserable thing, but these were underdone to the point of flabby.
A wobbly curd of fat marred otherwise tasty beef short ribs the kitchen should have trimmed better. But the meat was soft and shattery. Quail paella may be the menu's most successful item, and most sophisticated. Rather than being a jumble of elements, the moist, round-grained rice contained only clams and chorizo, with a succulent little bird on top. Unpretentious? Maybe not conceptually, but the effect feels stripped down to near minimum.
Compared with the fancifying impulse of other wine bars, Zza's Enoteca resonates with Grand Lake's thoroughly middle-class vibe. It's a place to snag a reasonably priced glass and a bite that may not blow you away but that feels, I don't know, earthbound, perhaps not least because of its flaws. And what could be more Oakland than that?