Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: Terroir Wine Bar


Terroir is the perfect wine bar, and for that, there’s no need for another rave review. One Yelp reviewer said it was the reason she moved to New York. I don’t think she was exaggerating. Nearly everyone who has ever been there loves it, and those who don’t seem to be seeking a night out—not a wine bar.

Rather than gush about its ingenious list or impeccable service, let me try to simply describe what it is.

There are two locations: one in the East Village on 12th Street, and one in Tribecca. The neighborhoods are different, the spaces are different, but the menus and service are pretty close.

At either location, Terroir is crowded. Read what I’m saying: It’s not that it “can get crowded” or “sometimes is crowded.” It’s crowded.

Try squeezing into the East Village spot on a Friday or Saturday evening. I dare you.

I went to the Tribecca location early one night soon after it opened and got jostled around for 20 minutes before spying a man about to sign his credit card slip and pouncing on his table… while he and his date were still sitting at it. The entire 90 minutes my date and I had our rears parked in those seats, we were ogled like god-damned movie stars

On more than one occasion, I took a look at the East Village spot, saw backsides and shoulders pressed against the windows like a cramped fishbowl, and kept walking.

But this place is so good that I continued to try different combinations of times and days until I figured out when the place has down time.

A Quiet Time for Terroir
On a Monday evening visit to the East Village location this month at 8:30, I couldn’t believe that I had my choice of seats in a place that’s usually such a tight squeeze! The bar area seats only about 10 people, and a long table that fills most of the rest of the room seats about 20.

But by 9:15, when I swiveled my head around, a small cluster of newcomers was once again blocking the doorway while vying for empty chairs.

The following week, I returned again, this time at a little past 5:00 p.m. for happy hour. The place was practically dead. Score! During happy hour, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, a small selection of wines go for $6 a glass, and one glass of sherry is free. At their full price, most wines by the glass range from about $9 to $14, so $6 is a steal. The only grimace I made on the happy hour visit was when I picked up my glass of red and recoiled at how cold it was. I wonder if the staff pulls the bottles out of the fridge at 5 p.m. sharp.

Exploration
Terroir is about exploration.

On one of my visits, a young couple nearby contemplated the four or five mostly empty wine glasses before them as they scribbled a few thoughts in a notebook. Other couples jammed their noses deep into half-filled glasses and huffed with great oenophilia. Terroir is one of those wine bars where these serious drinker sit side-by-side with two girls having a glass of Malbec because it’s the thing on the menu they felt comfortable pronouncing. Those who want to explore Terroir deeply should have no problem returning again and again to make their way through the list of wines by the glass, and perhaps eventually, move on to some of the special bottles one the menu.

What the wine bar calls a menu (available in all its glory online) is pages and pages of scrapbooking, set in page protectors and clipped into a three-ring binder. It reminds me of the Donny Boon book Been Doon So Long, which if you’ve never seen it, ask around the next time you’re in a book store with an ample food and wine section; it’s a smorgasbord of vignettes, essays, songs, cartoons, and poems that are at times only tenuously related to wine to at all. Similarly, Terroir’s menu includes a full page (see page 29) dedicated to spoofing the lyrics of Justin Timberlake: “Red Wine in a Box.”

Service
The outstanding service at Terroir feels like it comes so easy. The people who work there clearly love what they do. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes two male servers behind the bar swirling their glasses and twirling on their toes to the music, and sniffing and slurping and high-fiving all night long. The lone woman at work that night, wearing a chef’s jacket and sober face, and pulling kitchen orders, lacked their joie de vivre as she smacked down plated paninis, but her lackluster attitude was only that way in comparison.

Waitstaff are at ease. They should be. They know their stuff. They describe wines, and then come back with a little taste. They pour generously. They don’t linger too long. They notice when a glass is empty. It’s impeccable.

Food
Some of my favorite Italian foods are dishes that are made with only three or four ingredients. Add anything more, be it as simple as olives or parsley, and it’s ruined. The beauty is finding only three things that can stand up to one another in flavor, texture, temperature, while also complementing each other. A panini with grilled raddichio, roasted red peppers, and smoked mozzarella ($11) hit the mark. A dish of roasted beets with orange segments and hazelnuts couldn’t have been simpler. It’s easy to order a little food that does not distract from the wine but is substantial enough to counter the alcohol.

On the other hand, it’s equally easy to dive into veal meatballs or a greasy snack from “fried” section of the menu and pair it with glass of something not for the faint of heart.

My only real hope for Terroir is that the happy hour stays relatively unnoticed so I now when I can find a place to sit and sip.


Terroir
Tribeca: 24 Harrison Street, New York, NY
East Village: 413 E. 12th St., New York, NY

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