Some new restaurants are shameless flirts, bold and brassy like Mae West. They entice us with big-name chefs, cutting-edge cuisine and designer spaces that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars but whose sex appeal is invaluable. Others a rare few, really have the quiet, smoky confidence of Marlene Dietrich. They don't bother with a PR blitz. They figure those who recognize true beauty will find them sooner rather than later.
Most new restaurants, however, stumble around like Joan Cusack, a little wobbly in their heels, trying to make up in charm what they lack in grace, hoping a well-timed joke or flip of the hair will attract the right attention.
I don't think about flirting, as a concept, very often, but it was on my mind as I ate dinner at Pomme Café & Wine Bar. It was the end of the opening night of the Clayton Art Fair, and from my seat near the front window I watched the departing crowd. Now and then someone, a scout for a couple or small group, would stop at Pomme Café, look at the menu posted on the window, peer inside, hesitate, look more closely at the menu and then either call the rest of the group over or walk away.
I can understand both decisions. Pomme Café is a bit of a tease. It isn't a restaurant; it doesn't claim to be one. (That would be its namesake, Pomme, two doors down North Central Avenue.) But if you want a glass of wine and a quick bite, or if you've come for lunch, the lengthy list of salads, sandwiches and tartines (open-face sandwiches) might attract you. A salad with duck confit, dried cherries and chilled slices of baked apple, a tartine of prosciutto and roasted red peppers, sandwiches with thick-sliced brisket and caramelized onions or thin-sliced ham and melted Gruyère it suggests a certain sophistication in the kitchen. Nothing heart-fluttering, but it's a reasonable approximation of an authentic French café, unpretentious but satisfying.
The sandwiches were very good. The tartine of prosciutto and roasted red pepper was served with a mild aioli on lightly toasted bread. The aioli contributed more texture than flavor; it could have used a boost to contrast the mellow sweetness of the prosciutto and the peppers. Still, it was a luscious treat, more like an oversize canapé than a sandwich. I wasn't sure about the brisket sandwich when I ordered it (brisket is probably my least-favorite cut of beef, so often overdone), but the meat was tender and juicy and the onions had been perfectly caramelized, sweet and earthy; a biting whole-grain mustard pulled it all together.
The salad of duck confit should have been terrific, but the duck (served off the bone) had been overcooked. That was one of a few graceless moments during my visits. Roasted turkey soup was sour and burnt-tasting, as though it had spent too long bubbling in the kitchen. House-made potato chips were served at room temperature, which highlighted their greasiness.
Those missteps aside, Pomme Café's café offerings succeed. But if you've come in search of a few small but elegant dishes that might complement or enhance a glass (or bottle) of wine, the menu might disappoint you. The list of "small plates" contains no descriptions. There's "Shrimp," there's "Ribs," there's "Cheese Plate." More often than not, the plates themselves are just as blunt.
"Shrimp" was four boiled shrimp, shelled and chilled, served with a lamentably conventional cocktail sauce. The cheese plate was solid but unexciting: a sliver of Brie, a few thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano and a deeply funky blue. The hummus on the hummus plate was lighter than normal almost fluffy and a little bland.
"Ribs" were, well, ribs. After eating all five of 'em, I couldn't tell you whether they were beef or pork ribs. It doesn't matter. The meat had the unappetizing grayish hue that comes from overcooking, and the barbecue sauce served on the side tasted like ketchup.
The "Pâtés and Terrines" plate featured a chicken-liver mousse, a country pork pâté and pork rillettes. All were very good, but the rillettes was the highlight a sort of spreadable bacon that paired well on crostini with the blue cheese. The pork pâté was mild and pleasant, not unlike a good breakfast sausage; the chicken-liver mousse was contrastingly rich, like dark-meat chicken only darker, chickenier.
As I congratulated myself for finding a way to fit "chickenier" into a review, my girlfriend interrupted my reverie by putting it more succinctly: "It's pretty awesome that there's a place where you can order pork pâté this late at night."
Which brings me back to the notion of flirting. Pomme Café is a beautiful, cozy space, with dark woods and dim (but not too dim) lighting, but it doesn't yet offer much beyond superficial attraction. It doesn't encourage that give-and-take between an exquisitely turned-out wine bar and a clientele passionate about drinking wine. For example, with the dozen or so of the list's 70 selections that are available by the glass, you can choose between a six-ounce pour or three-ounce tasting. The three-ounce option is a nice touch and would be especially welcome in the case of the several bottles on the list priced above $50 but none of those is available by the glass.
The larger problem is the list itself. It's not so much the virtual France/California monopoly, nor the fact that the list is heavy on the crowd-pleasing varietals chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. (And props to whoever thought to include the Billecart-Salmon rosé, a romance-infused Champagne choice if ever there was one and flirtatiously priced at a retail-like $80.) But the list is just that a list, with no descriptions other than price, region of origin and varietal.
Over the past five years, my girlfriend and I have spent a lot of time in small, quiet, well-designed wine bars. We're drawn to places like that (it's one of the things we found we had in common, after the initial flirtation). We've learned about what makes them successful the careful attention of an intelligent, articulate, funny staff, for one. And we learned about wine, such as the fact that appreciating it has less to do with price or 100-point scores than the intimacy it can create the desire to linger over a bottle, and to return.