An Unpretentious Wine Bar, More Aggressive Than Genteel

In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies , a gossip columnist takes vengeance on his readers “with sultan-esque caprice” by telling them of inaccessible eating houses that he claims are the center of fashion. As a result, the Bright Young Things of London are led to temperance dance halls in Bloomsbury, to cafés where they are greeted by puzzled workers in flat hats drinking tea, and even to the buffet in the Sloane Square tube station.

I thought of this the other night as I had dinner at Rhône. Rhône is a restaurant that opened recently in the meat-packing district, once a remote part of town that is now, of course, the very cutting edge of fashion. So it wasn’t surprising that the lighting in the dining room looked like the work of some guy with a shaved head and an earring. A naked strip bulb strung against a sheet of metal directly above the table made our group look haggard and green about the gills, as though we’d just come off the red-eye after a night of heavy drinking. Raucous Latin music reverberated off the concrete floor, the bare-brick walls and the ceiling. The room was dominated by an immense dark-walnut bar, framed with zinc and hung with a row of naked light bulbs under a skylight. Next to it was a lounge area with elegant, sleek pale-green armchairs, and upstairs in the back was a small balcony dining room.

Although it may look like a trendy new club, Rhône is, in fact, a serious wine bar (and a serious restaurant to boot). It may not exactly be a genteel setting for wine buffs to sniff and swirl, hold glasses up to the light, and talk about structure and sediment. But no wine buff could fail to be impressed by the selection of wines from the Rhône Valley on the list here. There are over 150 bottles and 30 wines by the glass, and the prices are extremely reasonable. From the north come the famous rich, full-bodied wines, appellations such as Côte-Rotie (16 bottles), Hermitage (11 reds, five whites) and Cornas (eight bottles). Condrieu, of which there are 13 listed, is one of the few whites that gain body and bouquet with age (and has what oenophile Robert Parker describes as “an unbelievably decadent, opulent finish”). Excellent red and white wines are made under the appellations Crozes-Hermitage (eight reds, four whites) and St.-Joseph, of which there are 12 reds and four whites on the list. From the south comes Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which, when I first started going on dates, was what guys ordered to impress; they’d have a ball here with over 33 reds to choose from, starting at $38, and five whites. Côtes-du-Rhône runs from $6 to $9 a glass and Gigondas, $9. Tavel, perhaps France’s best rosé, costs $35 a bottle. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, one of the great sweet dessert wines, comes from the southern Rhône Valley, but there is only one on the list at $42 a bottle, and it comes by the glass at $6.

Our friendly, easygoing waiter obligingly turned down the lights and music when we asked and brought glasses of 1997 St.-Joseph, a fruity white wine from Chapoutier ($8), to the table. He set down a green olive oil that had a pleasant bite to it and a sliced baguette with a thick crunchy crust. We ordered a plate of charcuterie: silky pieces of cured ham and pungent dried sausage with pickles that went perfectly with the wine.

Rhône’s menu is short and simple, with dishes obviously conceived to be complemented by the wines. Payson Dennis was formerly the sous chef at Gramercy Tavern, and some of his counterbalancings of tastes and textures are thrilling. His lobster salad is certainly daring, made with smoked bacon, Yukon Gold potatoes and haricots verts. He tops it with slivers of truffle. Amazingly, these flavors don’t cancel each other out but pull together and really work. A pork belly salad comes with artichokes with mint (a trifle underseasoned), white asparagus with thyme, favas, radishes and dandelions. The bitter greens are a perfect foil for the richness of the pork belly. Foie gras torchon is made with buttery chunks served with duck pastrami and a pleasantly tart rhubarb chutney. But goose and pork rillettes are a bit dry and need toast to go with them.

The kitchen must still be settling down (although the restaurant has been open for more than six weeks), since the potato crust that comes on the sea bass was way undercooked. The bass is served with oxtail ragout and caramelized salsify–a surf ‘n’ turf idea that I’m seeing on quite a few menus around town these days–and its rich dark sauce makes an interesting contrast with the delicate flavor of the fish. Similarly, grilled halibut with bean salad is matched with ham hocks in a red wine vinaigrette. This dish is delicious (and for anyone who still believes you should only drink white wine with fish, it will be a revelation). Mr. Dennis makes a great fish stew that includes snapper, squid and shrimp, all very fresh and perfectly cooked in a subtle yet complex broth. It comes with a creamy saffron rouille and croutons, and it made me wish I was sitting in a hut on a beach. But I was already looking out on a great view. Rhône has enormous glass doors that open onto the street, and the scene outside was like an Edward Hopper painting, with a golden sunset breaking on the windows of a low, red warehouse building (the only jarring note being the extremely expensive, understated antique-furniture store that had moved into one corner of it).

Mr. Dennis coaxes great flavor from his ingredients, and it’s hard to imagine eating any of his dishes without a glass of wine. Lamb shank, melting off the bone, has a dark, deep mahogany sauce that calls out for a glass of a big, spicy Hermitage. The grilled sirloin comes with a delicious ratatouille potato pie (and what could be nicer with this than a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône?). The poussin is moist and juicy and tastes smoky from the grill (so smoky that I thought the chef must have a smoker back in the kitchen). It made a terrific summery dish, with baby leeks, truffled potato salad and greens.

There are only two desserts on the menu: a very good chunky peach upside-down cake (a better choice than the special of the day, an insipid concoction of peaches marinated in wine) and a great lemon tart. Dessert is, for me at least, the opportunity to have one of my favorite sweet wines, Beaumes de Venise.

Rhône has delicious food and wonderful wines. I can imagine going there for a late-night drink at the bar. But when we left, none of us was aching to go back soon. We found the aggressive design of the place irksome. One thing Rhône doesn’t have, thank God, is a shred of the pomposity associated with wine. There’s nothing hoity-toity about it. But on the other hand, who wants to eat in a place that is about as comfortable as a construction site?

Rhône

* *

63 Gansevoort Street

(Between Greenwich and Washington streets)

367-8440

Dress: Casual

Wine list: Well priced, devoted to wine of the Rhône Valley

Noise level: High

Credit cards: All major cards

Price range: Main courses $24 to $26

Hours: Dinner only, 6 p.m. To 12 a.m.; Bar from 5 p.m. To 4 a.m.

Closed Sunday

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor

An Unpretentious Wine Bar, More Aggressive Than Genteel