Category Archives: New York

THE HARLEM WINE SCENE – IT’S CHANGING

We stayed at Daughter #1’s Harlem apartment while in town for two weeks to celebrate daughter #2’s graduation, so I thought I would explore the rapidly changing wine and restaurant scene south of 135th Street. The past few years have seen a number of new restaurants and wine shops open here. Many are worth a visit.

The NYTimes recently did an article on Harlem’s French Renaissance (LINK) – and we ate at four of the restaurants featured there. Also, there are some good wine shops which are bringing a greater appreciation for wine to the area.

Harlem is changing, and relatively fast. Real estate prices in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are driving younger people here to more affordable housing. With that influx come two things – the dilution of the African-American Harlem culture and the rise of gentrification. The newer restaurants reflect these two things, and the area is not without some tension as a result. But crime is down, there are more shopping and dining options, properties are being renovated, and there is some good in that. This transition period between what Harlem was and what it is becoming, is a time for pioneers to try new things. And the restaurant and wine scenes are full of pioneers.

WINE SHOPS

I visited three wine shops during my stay. There are others, and my apologies for not finding and exploring them all. As readers of this blog know, I am an advocate of local wine shops and using the expertise of the staff in selecting wines to purchase. These shops have that expertise, if not great depth of selection from any region. If you want greater depth, the amazing shops of lower Manhattan are not that far away.

BTL (LINK) at 311 W 127th Street, has a connection with Maison Harlem bar and restaurant across the street. Run by French expats, both establishments offer French wines (and others). BTL is offering value-priced wines for the most part, and has a few New York wines in stock along with selections from the Old and New Worlds. I purchased a nice Gigondas red and a New York Finger Lakes Chardonnay here.

The Winery (LINK) at 257 W 116th Street has a few hundred bottles in stock (and a sister store in Tokyo). There is a temperature controlled case with high-end wines – the best selection of this level of wine that I saw, and cubbies with a bottle displayed upright and others laying down behind it – each with a good description of the wine displayed. There are wines from the old world and the new, decent selections of each in a variety of price ranges. Weekly wine tastings are a good way for locals to learn about less well-known wines stocked here or to expand their palates a bit. Eric White, the manager, brings a wealth of knowledge about his wines and the wine world in general – and selects the wines for the weekend tastings with care. I was very impressed with this shop, and found a couple of very nice Italian wines to take home.

Harlem Vintage (LINK) on Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 121st Street has been in business for over 7 years. Owner and former Wall Street exec Eric Woods stocks a variety of interesting wines – some I knew and many I did not, from the Old and New Worlds. We had a good conversation and Eric shows a good knowledge of the wines he stocks and the wine world in general. Like the other shops, there is a good variety of countries and regions to choose from, but little depth from any of them, which likely reflects a good assessment of the wine-purchasing public in the area at this point.

RESTAURANTS/WINE BARS

Expect high mark-ups on bottles and glasses of wine in Harlem – meaning it’s like most of Manhattan. Using my Delectable App (LINK), I found markups as high as 400% to be common. Corkage fees run to $35 and higher.

Barawine (LINK) at 120th Street and Malcom X Blvd (Lenox Ave) is a gem. Beautifully designed, with a small wine bar, common table, and a few smaller tables in front, and a larger dining room in the back. The wine list is more than adequate, the staff knowledgeable and efficient, and the experience there was very positive. We were there for brunch, and the menu is French with a few twists. Food is very good.

Vinateria (LINK) is at 119th and Frederick Douglass Blvd (8th Ave). Again, nice design – exposed brick and dark woods. A Eurocentric wine list of moderate size with some wine specials listed on a blackboard. There is a bar on the side of the front space in the L-shaped dining room. The food was very good, the staff knowledgeable, the wine mark-ups pretty high. We had dinner here with daughter #1 and her husband. It was very enjoyable.

Chez Lucienne (LINK) north of 125th St on Malcom X Blvd., Chez Lucienne pre-dates the more famous Red Rooster next door. The space looks older, with white tile walls and a small bar on the side of the long room; white table cloths. This place has some age and wears it well. The wine list is short, with some decent selections, leaning toward French with a few New World selections. The menu is more toward classic French dishes (coq au vin) which are done well. The staff is friendly and efficient. I inquired about corkage fees here and was told it was $35 per bottle.

Maison Harlem (LINK) at 127th and St. Nicholas is part bar part restaurant. The front of the space is a large fully-stocked bar; the back has about a dozen tables and shares space with the kitchen. Décor is old rustic wood. On one visit, a while ago, there was a jazz trio playing in the restaurant space. This visit, for lunch, was less crowded. Owned by two French expats and linked to BTL across the street, Maison Harlem offers well-prepared food, a moderate wine list, and a great casual atmosphere.

This is just a taste of what is available in Harlem now, as far as the wine scene goes. I am sure, that with continued increases in real estate prices in the area due to demand, that the old Harlem will continue to disappear and something new will emerge. This is a good time to visit, as the transition is still relatively early in its process. Manhattan is one of the world’s great cities, and Harlem is an essential element of what it has been and is becoming.

Copyright 2017 – Jim Lockard

4 DAYS IN NEW YORK – WINE AND FOOD

Dorianne and I went to visit our daughter, Grace, who attends CAP21 (LINK), a musical theater conservatory in Manhattan. During our four night stay, we sampled a few restaurants and had some wine experiences, including setting Grace up with a starter case of wine. The restaurants we chose were generally under the radar – not the high-end, but places that interested us and fit our budget. They were generally reasonably priced, actually a bargain, for New York City, but a couple would be considered expensive in other places. Wine was of course on our minds in making our selections. Here is a brief overview of our experiences.

We arrived on Saturday and went to see Grace’s end of the year performance at CAP 21 in the Village. I had made reservations for the three of us and her boyfriend, Kyle, at ŌTTŌ, Mario Batali’s Enoteca and Pizzeria (LINK) on 5th Avenue near Washington Square Park. It was a “meet the parents” dinner, so we wanted something special. While not really expensive, ŌTTŌ is a great experience and has the largest list of Italian Wines that I have ever seen – well over three hundred choices. The three of us arrived before Kyle and we had a glass of wine in the Enoteca in front. We were poured tastes of any by-the-glass wines we wanted before we chose by a very knowledgeable barman. The food was very good in this noisy bustling place. We were seated next to a group of 36 (at two long tables), so that may have affected the noise level. Our wine was a 2011 Soleado Nero d’Avila from Sicily; very tasty – spicy and full-bodied. The service was excellent. I would definitely return.

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Grace and Kyle Holding Up Pretty Well at the Meet the Parents Dinner.

On Sunday, Dorianne was at a workshop at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, so after Grace’s Sunday performance, we took the subway over to Park Slope and met her at Cafe Dada (LINK), a funky wine bar with Hungarian ownership. We had dinner reservations later on a few blocks away. Cafe Dada features a number of wines, several from Hungary, so we had a 2014 Peter Benedek Cserszegi Fűszeres, a crisp and refreshing white, with some appetizers. Cserszegi Fűszeres is the varietal (LINK), which was dry with hints of fruit and minerality. It was a bit unusual, but very refreshing.

Then it was on to dinner at Rose Water (LINK), on Union Avenue nearby. Our party of 6 included some friends who live in BrooklynRose Water is a tiny little place with a small kitchen just off the entryway. They offer a seasonal menu of locally sourced foods and everything was delicious. The wine list is one of those that is carefully chosen due to minimal storage space – but with a nice selection of wines that fit the menu well. We opted for a 2015 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare Rosé, since people were getting a variety of dishes. It was a perfect choice (and there were five other rosés on the list). If you are in or near Park Slope, make arrangements to eat at Rose Water.

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On Monday, we met Grace when classes ended and headed over to Union Square Wines and Spirits (LINK), from the top-ten list of New York Wine Shops in the Village Voice (LINK). As readers of this blog may know, we took Grace to France to taste wines when she graduated from high school. The idea was to educate her palate so that she was not tempted by the cheap, crappy stuff at college parties. It largely worked, and she gets wine as well as any 22-year-old I know. So a mixed case of mid-level wines was selected at this excellent wine shop, she opened an account, and the wine was delivered two days later. I will blog about the idea of a “starter case” and the contents of this one in a future post.

Monday’s dinner was just the three of us and we chose Maison Harlem (LINK), just a couple of blocks from Grace’s apartment. The Harlem food scene is really taking off, and this place is near the front of that procession. A funky, laid-back place with definite French accents (including the owners, Samuel Thiam and Romain Bonnans and some of the staff). The food is excellent and the vibe is very friendly. There is a bar in the front that gets very lively, and the dining room in the back with live music on this night – a very competent jazzy trio. The wine list is short but interesting. We had a wonderful meal. The owners were sitting at the next table, so it was a nice experience interacting with them (like one of them showing me his smart phone with my minutes-old Tweet about the place). They also own a wine shop across the street.

Except for one thing. Our server brought the wrong wine. I have been on a bit of a Cahors Malbec kick for a few weeks, and they had one on the menu. I ordered it, pointing to the listing as I did so. The wine was brought, but not shown to me, and when given a taste, it tasted very good and looked like a Cahorsdark and inky. But when the bottle was put on the table (I was not shown the label first), it had an all black label, which seemed strange. When I examined it, it was an Argentinian Malbec. By this time the server had gone and the wine tasted fine. When told about it later, he apologized and offered to change the wine, but we decided to keep the wine we were served. Otherwise a great experience; and I could have asked to see the label (but I should not have to).

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Mid-Century Decor with Wine Bottles at Amelie Wine Bar

Our final wine-related meal was Tuesday’s lunch. We went to the Amelie Wine Bar (LINK) on West 8th Street, literally a block from ŌTTŌ closing the circle as it were. This little gem of a place offers really tasty food and an eclectic wine list in a mid-Century modern decor. It is very lively at night, there were only a few people there at lunch. There are dozens of wines by the glass, mostly French, but many others as well. We all opted for French wines. The servers are knowledgeable (here, too, most have French accents), and the food was exceptional. I opted for the burger and it was the best I have had in years. There is also a San Francisco branch of Amelie Wine Bar.

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Bread, Wine, and Goat Cheese rolled in Pistachio Nuts 
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Dorianne and Grace happy at Amelie Wine Bar
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How Our Check Came at Amelie Wine Bar

We closed our visit with a Broadway Show – School of Rock on Tuesday evening, and jsut snacked before the theater. As always, New York is an amazing place with a dazzlingly large array of possibilities. We chose well, I think, and I know that we missed so much.

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C’est la Vie!

As always, your comments are welcomed. And, if you would follow this blog and share it with others, I would be most appreciative. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JimLockardWine.

Copyright 2016 – Jim Lockard