Making Peace with the Joneses 

Taste doesn't try to compete with its Gourmet Ghetto neighbors. It's happy just the way it is.

Me? I'd be terrified. But with whiskers and round specs and wisps of orangey-gray hair not quite contained by a black Ché beret, chef Richard Chapman lolls around the open kitchen in midafternoon like a man too self-possessed to be scared. In a few hours, Chapman will be able to turn his head to watch the couples on the sidewalk: men in suit jackets, a lady in a shiny paisley shawl, and a guy who's tucked his stripy French-cuff shirt into the kind of jeans they don't stock at Target, trying to make the early seating at Chez Panisse.

The newly tricked-out Taste — still essentially a wine bar featuring the Enomatic mechanized wine-dispensing system — has the experienced and apparently imperturbable Chapman, a couple of owner-managers whose expertise stretches from front- to back-of-the-house, and a pimped-out paint-swatch makeover that's done away with the original's ant-farm clutter. You'd think it all would add up to full tables and plenty of media buzz. But even now, four months after the purple and orange and lime-green paints have dried, Taste still seems to be hustling for attention.

On this block, one the most hallowed chunks of restaurant real estate in the entire world, you don't just serve up Buffalo wings and expect a line out the door. That is, unless you're banking on building a rep as the anti-epiphany place. That's my hunch about what Olivier Said is all about. Said, who grew up in Paris — a city that practically invented the culinary epiphany — is one of two new owner-managers here, and a guy who seems to be saying merde to the very idea of impeccability.

In 1998, Said was co-owner and opening manager at César, the California tapas place sandwiched between Taste and Chez Panisse. In 2003, he coauthored the César cookbook. There's a copy on display at Taste, which I interpret as an act of throwing down, a reminder of Said's claim to the famous stretch of sidewalk out front. Except this time, he seems to be putting his money on Buffalo-wing casual. "No headaches, no pretension," he explained when I asked him to describe post-makeover Taste. Just bar food, he implied with a tone so breezy I swear I could hear him shrugging. Nothing more than little bites to go with Greg Estes' remarkably well-priced wine list, with most selections under $30.

Rip into Richard Chapman's Buffalo wings and you've fallen down the rabbit hole of no pretension. Actually, they're called Rochester hot wings, and Chapman says the recipe comes from Taste's other owner-manager: Chef MikeC. is from Rochester, New York, and actually got the recipe from the guy who forged the grail of Buffalo wingdom deep in that murky place where recipes and urban myths first breathe life. Whatever the provenance of this bar food among giants, it was delicious: luscious white muscle-lets clinging to bone under an orange-red candy glaze of sugary purity that resisted slouching off into cloying. They steered way clear of the showboatin' blast of Tabasco that has sunk many a plate of wings. The accompanying blue-cheese dip was a very painterly gray-green, the result of Gorgonzola spun to paste in the Cuisinart.

I should explain that both Said and Chef MikeC. (that's really his name) are owner-instructors at Kitchen on Fire, the upstairs cooking school at Epicurious Garden. Getting the keys to Taste has created a certain fluidity between upstairs and down, a circulating font of ideas and recipes, even classes — the school's calendar promises a few sessions featuring recipes from Taste.

One recipe that seeped down from above is the "Caesar Chavez" salad, a bowl of romaine squares in a pale, pinkish dressing and studded with pieces of cheese twists where croutons would normally be. They're literally a would-be-witty twist on the inevitable, but the bowl I tasted was only would-be successful. The menu description promised a "fire-roasted chile pepper dressing," but the version that showed up at my table lacked even a flicker. The dressing was mild to the point of bland, the lettuce was damp from washing, and the twists lacked the definitive scouring texture of the classic crouton.

Maybe it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the witty sendup. When Chapman is on his own, the kitchen really does seem to be on fire. A mini minted lamb burger with feta aioli was a mini triumph. The soft patty was both weedy and aromatic, the barnyard pungency of lamb punched up with the saline tang of cheese, plus it was the perfect medium-rare. At medium-rare, the grilled Kansas City strip steak had a toothy elasticity, with the concentrated bloody taste you find in underdone hanger steak. Its chimichurri sauce tasted green and tangy, both qualities that make beef seem extra beefy.

Pan cubanos often taste merely hammy, but the Cuban sandwich here balanced the cured with a heavy dose of the roasted: a thick shingle of frankly meaty baked pork loin on a splayed, griddle-toasted baguette section — the perfect bread for this kind of griddled sammy. An egg roll filled with a surf-and-turf trifecta of shrimp, chicken, and Chinese sausage struck a solo satisfying note, the yeasty, cured-pork richness of the sausage delicately muted by the other meats. You could easily miss the subtlety amid the bar-food plainness of its outer form, not to mention that it was a dish predicated on being an adjunct to a glass of wine.

If Taste manages to stick, it'll be for just such a sense of focus. It's a place that carries the confidence of what it is — a place to try a few inexpensive wines while nibbling on food that doesn't even pretend to strut. When I asked Richard Chapman the source of the beef for an organic burger that's a permanent fixture on his specials board, he admitted he sometimes shops at Costco. Talk about differentiating yourself from Alice. The burger was delicious, by the way. And you don't have to worry about any of that pesky revelation stuff.


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