Before I sit down to compose a restaurant review, I contact restaurant owners and chefs to conduct pre-print interviews. I begin each call with inquiries about name selection, concept development, location choice, sourcing methods and cooking styles. The one question that stumps many (and it’s not a trick): “What’s your target market?”
Surprisingly (and seemingly problematic), I often interview folks with new restaurants who don’t have a firm handle on their intended audience beyond “eaters.” Not so with Vine & Tap. To the contrary, Ian Mendelsohn, owner of this new Buckhead wine bar, knows whom he wants in his restaurant and how to get them in the door. Are you an urban professional who enjoys travel? Do you have a penchant for exploration? Bingo. You’re the target market.
Vine & Tap, located in the Lenox Village shopping complex, sits a peaceful distance (just over a mile) from the hubbub surrounding Lenox Square mall. With a relaxing outdoor patio and a neutral decor, save the spidery webbing of drop lighting wires, the restaurant has broad appeal.
But it’s you travelers or explorers who will most value this spot. Inspired by Barcelona Wine Bar’s success with selling nontraditional varietals, Mendelsohn put together such a list that will satisfy your itch to travel beyond the Loire Valley and Piedmont to places like the Basque region of Spain with the 2013 Uriondo Bizkaiko Txakolina ($8 glass/$34 bottle) or Lebanon with the 2009 Chateau Musar Hochar Pere Et Fils ($51).
At Vine & Tap, wine is king. The kitchen has been entrusted to craft simple, gently flavored dishes to serve as a neutral backdrop for the varied varietals. While most of the dishes do a serviceable job of doing just that, some need a boost to bring them to the level of the beverage program.
Mendelsohn brings an impressive background to the bar. A graduate of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), he served as sommelier at Windows on the World and ran the wine department at Christie’s Auction House. He came to Atlanta to oversee the wine program at the St. Regis Buckhead.
Mendelsohn has developed many wine lists for restaurant openings, often with an unlimited budget. Now, at Vine & Tap, the first location he can call his own, his focus has shifted to giving customers the most bang for their bottles. Here, you’ll find four wines on tap, 25-30 by the glass and another 100 plus available by the bottle. Selections range from $8-$14 by the glass, and bottles top out at $150. And for those who don’t geek out on wine, the restaurant offers a nice mix of high-quality craft beers.
The menu arranges wine selections in progression from light-to-full body, but you’ll find no tasting notes, flights or suggested food-and-wine pairings. According to Mendelsohn, the intentional omission was to prevent the perception of arrogance traditionally associated with the wine world. Point taken. I’d argue, however, that pairings and tasting notes only make the wines more accessible.
In lieu of those tasting notes, Vine & Tap does offer 3-ounce Coravin-extracted tasting pours of each of its wines by the bottle. Sample a Fiano di Avellino or a Grüner Veltliner.
Vine & Tap recently hired new chef Nona Sivley because of her willingness to develop relationships with farmers and other local purveyors. Current offerings take advantage of Atlanta’s two artisan charcuterie houses, Pine Street Market and Spotted Trotter, and allow you to build boards of chorizo, guanciale and serrano ham with cheeses from local dairies like Many Fold Farm and Sweetgrass Dairy (3 for $16, 5 for $23).
Neutral small plates and snacks dominate the menu, perfect to accompany your exploration. Start with a glass of bubbles like the crisp Vouvray Brut ($13) and a platter of Blue Point ($2.50) or Kumamoto ($3) oysters balanced on a sparkling bed of salt. Fill your belly with the spreadably smooth house ricotta ($3) on salty full-slice croutons and the milky burrata ($10) adorned with micro-thin slips of serrano pepper.
The goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms ($12), fried in a light tempura batter, make a nice bite, as do the meaty confit artichokes served with the bright Meyer lemon aioli crunchy with salt crystals and glints of bottarga ($6).
As you’re ready to progress down the list of fuller-bodied beverages and heartier fare, sample the lettuce wraps ($9.50), one of the best standalone dishes here. You could almost make a meal of the three delicate endive leaves heavy with jus-saturated short ribs and topped with crushed peanuts.
You’ll move into entree territory with the mussels steeped in a heady broth of Wrecking Bar ESB and flavored with cubes of soppressata ($12). Consider the crabcake ($17.50), more domed bounty of delicately sweet lump crab than cake. Or, go for the chicken, one of the best entrees. The pan-roasted airline chicken breast ($15) scented with lemon partners with a playful textural mixture of farro, Marcona almonds and red grape halves.
After dinner or small plates, you’ll also want to travel through the sherry, Madeira and port offerings, like the 2009 Taylor Vintage Port ($26/glass). Or, for a lighter version, you could sample one of the cocktails diluted with ice like the cobbler ($6), which is made with Manzanilla sherry and ruby port. These pair nicely with the simple chocolate boudini ($7), a bowl of ganache-textured chocolate peppered with sea salt.
Unfortunately, my summer travel plans don’t include an overseas tour. At least I can country-hop via my palate at Vine & Tap.