Upon entering the downtown Bottle Rock we were struck by stark modernity. The room is made of cast concrete: bearing walls, interior walls and both cylindrical and square pillars supporting a twelve foot-high ceiling. Straight ahead was a twenty-stool bar, half of which is dedicated to a show kitchen with pristine half-inch plate glass separating bar guests from the white-jacketed culinary staff. The three-inch thick slab of bar top itself, as well as the low cocktail tables in the lounge and the bathroom counters, is made of a material we guessed could be the source of the wine bar’s name. It is a sort of “bottle rock”. This grey-based composite looks as though semi-precious stones are mixed in, such as tiger’s-eye, Lapis Lazuli and malachite but actually, it’s all recycled wine and beer bottles. There are eighteen carefully chosen beer taps featuring several selections not even found at The Yardhouse. All restaurant seating is on high barstools with comfortable crossbars for the feet and upholstered on the seats and backs with an apple green synthetic material both smart and modern. The lumbar support on these stools was just right for us and the ample square tops of the tables provided plenty room for four. The bases of the tables and chairs are made from heavy-gauge, recycled cast aluminum. The cement slab floor has been coated in multiple layers of colored epoxy resin in a slightly darker apple green and appears almost like leatherette wallpaper. The colors and warmth of the room are brought together by a stained alder wood faux ceiling made up of one-by-two slats and by the matching-stained oak shelving around the room in every alcove and along every wall not dedicated to another purpose, exhibiting what is easily downtown’s most impressive display of wines and beers. (We say this on the condition that it is a retail-type display, as Bottle Rock doubles as a retail store; we’re fully aware that there are other great restaurant wine lists in the neighborhood). What is so impressive is that almost all of the wines and beers cannot be found in any nearby retail venue. The selection of Belgian ales in 750ml. bottles is an aficionado’s dream. Finally, the classic contemporary halogen fixtures, many with fins, create lighting that is at once focused and intimate.
Acknowledged without having to declare our Downtownster credentials, we were skillfully ushered into the lounge area where we were poured a sensational Alsatian sparkling rosé. This was Dom. Allimant-Laugner, Crémant, Brut, NV ($36 per bottle). The little, light-filled lounge area has two walls of windows, low, “bottle rock” tables, copper colored banquettes and suede cylindrical stools like slender ottomans. It seats about 25.
Mingling with the assembled guests and representatives of the restaurant we first espied George Skorka – Sommelier/General Manager of Bottle Rock who would be the Master of Ceremonies this evening – mainly because he was in control of the magnum of the Crémant. He has a comportment one could characterize as continental in a complimentary way. He has a full head of wavy, collar-length hair, a neatly trimmed variation of an “iron jaw”-styled beard, distinct eyebrows and masculine features. Wearing a wine-colored, double-breasted suit with a pin-striped shirt and floral tie, Mr. Skorka spoke in a mild Hungarian accent with conviction about the various wine and beer pairings for the five courses presented at the Media Dinner.
The first course was a spectacular variation on sashimi. In a Japanese restaurant this delicious raw fish would be called korudai, here it’s titled “Bruleé Black Sea Bream” and referenced by its Japanese appellation in the description. There was the most delicate stripe of skin left on the slivers of filet which were “torched” adding toasty complexity to the taste of a fish we thought had a flavor profile between amberjack and escolar. Clean, buttery and slightly seawater-flavored fish, toasted skin a perfect compliment, lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, mild house-pickled baby cucumber and daikon, influenced by yuzu this plate was absolutely delicious and gone too soon.
The Alsatian sparkling rosé from the reception was also paired with the sea bream. It had tiny bubbles and a long lasting bubble-stream, two visually discernible benchmarks of premium sparkling wines. The 100% Pinot Noir wine had full body, good acidity and a long finish. The kind of sparkling wine that holds up to a wide range of pairings, from caviar to lighter game dishes. There was also an exceptional beer that paired equally well. It was “Manikin Piss” from Bruxelles, a great Belgian producer of “white ale”. The name comes from the famous fountain statue of the urinating boy. It is a wheat beer similar to Hoegaarden but we thought quite superior in its crispness and forward orange and spice character. It did not call for any type of fruit garnish.
The next course was a “Fresh Fava and Pistachio Falafel”. This elevated to undreamt of culinary heights our expectations for this category of cuisine. The falafel itself was a quenelle-shaped affair of sublime bean and nut flavor, enhanced by a palate of eggplant, black olive oil, fresh baby mint leaves, heirloom cherry tomatoes, the traditional Middle-Eastern seasoning sumac and golden raisins marinated into a transcendent flavor.
The wine paired with this dish was M. Hofer, Grüner Veltliner, 2008 ($30) from Austria. This varietal is known for complimenting difficult flavors such as asparagus and was a perfect choice to tame the complex vegetable and spice tastes in this dish. There was classic white pepper, citrus and peach notes present in the wine.
Between courses the interior designer of Bottle Rock, Ernie Roth, was seated at our end of the “L”-shaped table. This was one of the many possible arrangements of seven of the standard squares of high tables. Mr. Roth explained that the faux ceilings served the triple purpose of beautifying the space, hiding the electrical and other unsightly lines and dampening the sound, especially important in a room of all hard surfaces. He is a professional set designer who is a veteran of more than 1100 television commercials who has expanded into the field of interior design and is responsible for all aspects of this interior.
The third course was a stuffed fresh pasta “pillow” called “Agnolotti”. It was stuffed with a bacon and date mixture and sauced with a white wine cream seasoned with lemon-verbena. This delectable morsel was perfectly accompanied by an excellent Mosel.
A stellar example of German Riesling, the Monchhof, Urzig Wurtzgarten, Auslese 2007 ($60) had honey and apricot notes with an excellent balance of acidity that swept the cream from the palate and bloomed the flavors of the supple pasta and its contents.
Possibly our favorite offering came next: “Pork Belly Risotto”. Made from Violone Nano a small-grained rice from northern Italy that produces a richer more starchy, character than Arborio rice (the most common for risotto). Chef Jared Levy explained at the end of the dinner that this dish had evolved “organically” when a group of culinary staff had a delicious Chinese pork dish and began to explore how they could translate the flavors of it into something along the lines of their restaurant’s cuisine. They ended up with ginger, soy, cilantro, jalapeno and sesame seasonings and pork belly crisped, liquefied and in a chewy strip. The flavors were superbly balanced and the most original departure from traditional risotto dishes we’ve tasted.
For this dish an exceptional wine was summoned: Kalin Cellars, Sonoma County, Chardonnay, 1994 ($48). One of the Kalin mottos is: “Produce no wine with character less than yourself”. Therefore, they hold their wines for as long as ten years before release. Whites included. This is otherwise unheard of in domestic wine production. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay held “until its time” for real. This fifteen-year old Chardonnay, in the vernacular of our time, “represented”. It had a developed bouquet that could match in complexity all the nuances of the exceptional risotto.
The fifth and final course was “Top Sirloin”. A two-ounce medallion of sirloin on a bed of spring corn and diced epizote, served with a delicious mild chili sauce and a tortilla-infused crème fraîche. The flavor combination was excellent and the dish was best enjoyed by getting all of the components into every bite.
Another pairing from Austria was chosen to show its stuff, Sattler, St. Laurent, from the Burgenland region, 2006 ($36). St. Laurent is a grape most notable for its expressions on Austrian soil and it is related to Pinot Noir. This wine had medium-dark color, wild berry and cherry center with some mint notes and hit the mark as an accompaniment to the steak. A wonderful beer was also supplied to pair with this beef dish. Telegraph, “Stock Porter”, from Santa Barbara. It is a smooth, malty, full- bodied beer aged for two years in used Zinfandel casks. Perfect with steak. Introduced by Mr, Skorka, as was Chef Levy, the beer steward, Alex Masy provided details of the beer pairings. Mr. Masy is responsible for the beer lover’s paradise at Bottle Rock.
The presentation of these plates is as majestically ornate as anything found downtown, all worthy of coffee table book photography. The dishware itself is beautiful English white porcelain from Steelite in a variety of dramatic shapes that have become common in chic fine-dining in the last several years. The stemware is all Reidel, the most venerated wine glasses commercially available. Bottle Rock has Champagne, Reisling, Bordeaux and Burgundy shapes on hand. (The only drawback is they have a Bottle Rock logo on them – a definite no-no to serious wine tasters). The flatware is opulently hefty stainless steel with an ergonomic feel.
As superb as all the food had been we had one chief complaint: the portions were all “small plates”, as in a tapas bar. In some cases they were smaller. The sea bream, the falafel and the agnolotti could be considered amuse-bouche (a one or two bite portion) in many restaurants. The risotto was comparable to a standard secondi course in an Italian restaurant and the sirloin was an appetizer portion in most places. In other words, it’s as though the menu is an à la carte version of a prix fixe menu (a multi-course “set” menu). We felt we needed two more courses to be full. The quality is there and it’s worth the price but a complete dining experience may be around $50 per person without beverages.
As a bottle shop, all the wines are $15 off the wine list price to go and the beers can’t be found outside of helicopter distance in half an hour. There is also an interesting “Rush Hour Menu” with plates $4 to $9, a great cheese selection and fabulous charcuterie choices.
Bottle Rock Downtown
Open Seven Days from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (until 1a.m. Fri. & Sat.)