Wine bars are about as trendy as those four-button jackets that keep popping up on every guy who still has to wear a suit. Sometimes they're attached to a retail wine store, sometimes they're a small component of a larger restaurant, sometimes they stand alone, hoping to make it as a destination point for tweedy oenophiles, many of whom wear four-button jackets. Friends who've recently traveled to Europe tell me that wine bars are now more popular in Paris than cafés and bistros (you know, the ones that were so trendy over here back in the '90s).
I love wine bars. I love the lazy, watch-the-day-slip-away feeling of sitting at a café table and sipping wine, people-watching and catching up on weeks' worth of newspapers and New Yorkers (and wondering why I subscribe to two dailies). I love how a wine bar breeds procrastination. I've been remodeling our kitchen (OK, my brother-in-law is doing most of it), so I know a bit about procrastination. Sasha's Wine Bar and Market can do that to you. Especially now, amid the mild days and the cool evenings. Sasha's is best enjoyed on a pleasant afternoon when you've sneaked out of work early to relish the end of the day from a small table just outside the wall of glass doors that opens onto DeMun Avenue. Then again, that same spot is just as comfortable at twilight, when the transition from day to evening shades Concordia Park across the street in gorgeous hues. Time actually slows in this idyllic setting.
That's what happens when you spend time in wine bars: You start waxing poetic about stuff you never used to pay attention to.
None of this is meant to slight the more practical aspects of Sasha's space. The wine bar occupies a long, narrow room -- it was once a dance studio -- lined with deli cases and wall-to-wall custom-made wooden wine racks. The place has a loftlike feel, quasi-industrial yet comfy, with exposed brick walls and ductwork, an ample complement of glass blocks and halogen lighting and a humble but stylish plywood floor. (The stenciled end panels of wooden wine crates nailed to the ceiling over the bar is a look that just might be replicated in my kitchen.)
If Sasha's feels like a family-run tavern somewhere in the French countryside, that's because owner Alan Richman, who moved from bottling root beer to uncorking wine after selling his Fitz's restaurant and bottling plant, wanted it that way. Sasha's, named after Richman's young daughter, is awash in relatives: Richman's sister, Joi, is a manager and is responsible for the rustic mosaics that tile the bar and tabletops; brother-in-law Jim manages the kitchen; and Richman's father, Eddie, a long-time restaurateur himself, pitches in on a part-time basis.
With more than 60 bottles offered at prices ranging from $18 to $221, the wine selection can be daunting. If you're fortunate, your server will be as well-versed in wine as ours was. When we asked what reds he suggested, he actually asked us what we liked -- a crucial but rare quality in a sommelier. Everything we tried -- a big, burly Produttori del Barbaresco ($11.50 a glass); a jammy, soft-edged Marietta Old Vine Red ($7.51); and a deep, rich Titus zinfandel ($10.95) -- paired well with a ramekin of creamy house-made mousse pâté and the "Alpine Peaks" cheese plate, which included a slice each of fontina, raclette and Appenzeller. All the wines on Sasha's list are available by the glass ($5.45-$22) as well as by the ounce-and-a-half taste ($1.50-$7).
We eyed the selection of caviars, but the price tags -- ranging from $35 an ounce for American to $110 for the prized beluga prime -- were a sufficient deterrent. We felt far more at home with the chopped salad ($5.95 for a small plate, $8.95 for a large one), a potpourri of chopped Boston lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, raisins, pistachios and white cheddar, tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a bit of maple sugar. Seeing as how we didn't order the caviar, adding lump crabmeat for an extra $4.95 seemed downright decadent.
Vodka-marinated "Cosmopolitan Salmon," cured in-house, also sounded good. Like the several other smoked-fish offerings, the salmon is served with capers, diced red onions and rounds of toasted French bread. For this plate, a Cosmo-tinted sweet-and-sour sauce also comes on the side. The salmon tasted fresh and light, though it was a bit milder than we expected and lacked any vodka bite. No matter; it was an apt foil for a refreshing glass of Signano vernaccia, a dry Tuscan white made from the vernaccia grape. Abetted by a cup of rich onion soup, the salmon plate made for a perfect midafternoon repast -- certainly better than the Pop-Tarts and Chinese takeout I've been subsisting on since the never-ending kitchen project commenced.
Crêpes figure prominently on Sasha's menu. A savory crêpe of prosciutto and fontina was puffy and delicious, with a nice balance of salty creaminess oozing out the sides. On the sweet end of the spectrum, the strawberry crêpe with crème fraîche made a better dessert than either the crème brûlée (too runny and tortelike) or the carrot cake (dry and crumbly, too much like cornbread).
As if to make a point, Sasha's serves no Anheuser-Busch beer products. A well-crafted list consisting of fifteen bottles takes in everything from St. Louis' own O'Fallon and Schlafly breweries to some hefty Eurobeers to five selections from Quebec's Unibroue brewery. And there's Woodpecker cider for good measure. Unibroue's La Fin du Monde went well with Eddie's "Homemade Brisket" sandwich, a superbly tender, thin-sliced brisket served au jus on French bread with a side of a deceptively simple potato salad kicked up with scallions and a blue-cheese dressing. Weighing in at 9 percent alcohol, La Fin du Monde is aptly named -- despite its fresh, light flavor, it can do some fast damage.
Open since February, Sasha's has some kinks yet to be worked out. Service can be slow at times; at one point we practically had to trip our waiter to gain the privilege of ordering another course. And although the wine list is dizzyingly comprehensive, when a server can't tell you whether a particular bottle is a red or a white, it's time for a pop quiz or a course correction. Still, procrastination and an attack of spring fever are good enough reasons to lose yourself in a wine bar -- especially one with a fully functioning kitchen.