Ernesto's Wine Bar is a homage to author Ernest Hemingway. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a restaurant concept, but the author means a lot to Ernesto's owners. And the motif certainly is an improvement over the generic "tapas" bar.
Ernesto's opened late last year in Benton Park. It is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and soon, with spring, there will be the shadows of the leaves. The sound system plays a mix of 1980s and 1990s pop. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music.
Pictures of Hemingway hang on the walls. I have stood in the room in Ketchum, Idaho, where he took his own life, and it was very sad, but here you see him as a virile younger man, and you remember the great author that he was.
The menu is not Spanish, but there are nods to Spain. You can order a small serving of Spanish chorizo. It is sliced thin and salty and spicy. You want to eat it with dos cervezas and see the crowds gather along the dusty streets of Pamplona to watch the bulls run and scatter the dust in the haze. But you are not in Pamplona, you are in Benton Park, and you will see nothing more exotic than a man stumbling in after a St. Patrick's Day parade wearing an oversize green leprechaun's hat.
The chorizo is imported, but executive chef Cassandra Vires makes her own duck rillettes. She serves these in a small glass crock with a hinged lid. The presentation is very rustic, and the rillettes deliver simple, earthy pleasure. The meat has been cooked and then cooled in its own fat so that it is like pâté. You can spread it on one of the many pieces of bread that the kitchen will give you or you can eat it directly from the knife. If you do this, other patrons might look at you funny, but if you truly love rillettes, then you are maybe not so concerned with how these people look at you.
You will spread many things on bread at Ernesto's. There is hummus, which is rich and lightly sweet with the flavor of roasted garlic and a hint of citrus juice. There is also baked Brie. I do not see the point of doctoring a cheese as elementally satisfying as Brie, but the kitchen does not distract too much from the cheese. It adds only a little sweetness from brown sugar and brandy.
For a more substantial meal, there are panini, including a grilled-cheese version flavored with white and black truffles. The "housemade" meatballs are not so substantial. Each is roughly the size of a marble, and you taste the spicy tomato sauce in which they are served more than you taste the meat itself. Naturally the kitchen sprinkles some Parmigiano-Reggiano over the meatballs. There is also a balsamic reduction, which I think is meant to add a tannic note but only further obscures the flavor of the meat.
Much better are the shrimp with rouille. The shrimp are plump and cooked to exactly the correct point. This might not seem like such a big deal, but when you eat as many tired, tough shrimp as I do, you learn to appreciate that a properly cooked shrimp is a very good thing. The rouille sauce is lovely, a perfect balance of olive oil, garlic, roasted red pepper and saffron. A very subtle spiciness yields to a complex flavor that complements but does not obscure the briny, sweet shrimp.
You are at a wine bar, so of course you will want to order wine. The wine list, which is curated by general manager and sommelier Jim Read, is not as lengthy as what you'll find at some wine bars, but it offers a fair representation of varietals and regions. The wines are grouped by body. This is very useful for the casual wine drinker, though the connoisseur might find it simplistic. The price of a bottle of wine ranges from $26 to as much as $150. Most fall between $30 and $50. The by-the-glass selection ranges from $6 for the pedestrian house red and white (Heron chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, respectively) to $12 for a good Côtes du Rhône. Read will be very happy to help guide your wine selection. I advise only that you stay away from those labels that you have seen at retail outlets: Heron, Wishing Tree, Castle Rock. If you are going to take the trouble to visit a wine bar, you should open your palate to wines that are not available at the supermarket.
A clean, well-lighted café like Ernesto's is a very different thing. It is a place to relax and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and maybe to expand your tastes in wine. Those inexpensive, quaffable wines have their place. And if you find yourself drawn only to these wines, do not worry. After all, it is probably only palate fatigue. Many must have it.