Review: Melman plays it small with intimate Bar Ramone, but goes big on breadth, quality of wine
The 400 block of North Clark Street is becoming quite the little drinking destination. At 435 North, there’s Three Dots and a Dash, the subterranean Tiki hideaway; at 445 North, the just-opened Bar Sotano features Lanie Bayless’ Mexico-inspired cocktails.
And in between, at 441 North, sits Bar Ramone, a wine bar by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. It’s a cozy, oenophilic playground for partners Ryan Arnold and Richard Hanauer, two Lettuce veterans who have created wine programs for more than a dozen Lettuce properties.
Bar Ramone is the company’s first wine bar, which is surprising when you consider that LEYE founder Rich Melman has been launching concepts since 1971. Perhaps not surprising is that Lettuce isn’t diving headfirst into the wine-bar pool.
Lettuce committed to a very tiny space — a narrow sliver, really, compared with Frontera Grill and Bub City, and about the size of the vestibule of Aba, the Fulton Market restaurant Lettuce opened earlier this year. The 80-seat dining room leaves almost no room for wine storage (thus no investment in collector wines), forcing Arnold and Hanauer to be focused and nimble in their choices; indeed, as Arnold said prior to the opening, “we have only one of” some of the bottles making up Bar Ramone’s 100-label list.
I’ll leave it to my colleague (and Food & Dining deputy editor) Joseph Hernandez to analyze the vino, while I focus on the menu, a collection of Spanish tapas and Basque pintxos created by Lettuce chefs Doug Psaltis and Hisanobu Osaka.
It’s a pretty straightforward mix, and most of the usual suspects are present and accounted for. There are cheese and ham boards, separately and in combination; a few crudo and vegetable dishes; and other plates divided among “classic” and “modern” tapas, as well as fish and meat sub-categories. Prices are modest — most items are less than $10, and nothing rises higher than $19.95 — but those $7 to $13 bites add up in a hurry if you get carried away, which is easy to do.
There aren’t a lot of notable misses, just a few dishes that fall flat. In that undistinguished group, I’d put the beef katsu pintxos (if you deep-fry panko-crusted brisket, why place it over bread?), the bland brandade and muddy-looking tuna tartare left me shrugging, and the bloody-mary shrimp — a nice idea, with curled celery ribbons and tomato sauce — needed more of a kick.
But on the whole, the pluses far outnumber the minuses. Crispy artichoke pieces made for a fine pintxo, stacked precariously (but safely skewered) and topped with a bit of piquillo pepper; and the kitchen re-imagines patatas bravas as long, thick fries, served upright alongside some smoky paprika aioli. Crisp outside and soft as custard within, these fries are addictive.
I was also impressed by the Spanish tortilla, its blackish crust masking an egg-potato interior that had structure without being overly firm, and the tablespoon of hot sauce on the plate added zing. Clam ceviche, a quintet of in-shell littlenecks coddled in yuzu kosho, and well-seared scallops over salsa verde and slivered jalapenos, are dishes I’d reorder every time.
Osaka manages a clever play on angulas a la Bilbaina, a dish of baby eels in garlic, olive oil and peppers. Osaka substitutes Japanese icefish (the wholesale price of baby eels is mind-boggling), also known as noodlefish, and the thin pieces float, ramenlike, in a dashi broth fortified with garlic oil and chile de arbol.
Among the heavier options, duck poutine might offend purists (assuming poutine purists exist), but the mix of crisped confit duck, with hash browns-like potatoes in a Mahon cheese sauce, topped with an espelette-dusted fried egg, is very satisfying. Crisp pork belly, mingling with cauliflower (roasted florets and puree) and Marcona almonds, is a textural delight; coriander-seasoned lamb meatballs, substantial and shareable, benefit from a harissa-enlivened tomato ragu. Even the prosaic-sounding beef tenderloin medallions are impressive, thanks to a delicious anchovy butter melted on top.
Service was fine. My waiter the first visit was clearly nervous, bumping into my porron(a wine pitcher; more on that in Joseph’s piece) without, fortunately, spilling a drop. From that point on, Arnold attended to my table, which meant that service was everything one could hope for. I did notice that he visited many other tables, however.
Bar Ramone doesn’t accept reservations, and it’s already a magnet for the after-work crowd. (The place opens at 4 p.m., which is a genius move.) I showed up on two weeknights, both times before 6:30, and both times got the last available table, the four-top closest to the front door. Apparently it’s the least-desirable table in the room, but I don’t know why; I’d sit here even if I had a choice. The sightlines are good, other tables aren’t too close and it’s a fine people-watching perch.
Ask for Phil’s table. They’ll probably know.
The first time I read Bar Ramone’s big book of a wine list, I laughed out loud.
Underneath the section titled “Other French Reds” was the list’s sole Bordeaux, a 1989 vintage from Chateau Leoville-Poyferre, one of the most storied producers in that world-famous region. Relegated to Other French Reds, at $450 a pop.
It seems Bar Ramone’s Arnold and Hanauer have a sense of humor, and more importantly, a point of view.
As Phil notes, Bar Ramone is a tiny slip of a place, and the wine list reflects that. With no physical space to store cases of wine, the wine list is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it collection of the wine team’s obsessions.
Let’s start with the by-the-glass list, a taut selection of 20 or so wines thoughtfully chosen with food in mind.
Believe me when I say there’s no need to fuss over the “perfect” pairing here — many selections balance acidity with gulpablity, a good sign if you care about matching your food to wine.
For a quaff that can take you from beginning of the meal to the end, you could do worse than Vina Cartin’s Val do Salnes Albarino ($13) from the Rias Baixas region of northwestern Spain. Lively and minerally, this offering is also weightier than some of its lighter-bodied counterparts, a complement to vegetable and fried dishes alike. Or California’s Lieu Dit winery, in the Santa Ynez Valley, here repped by the winery’s chenin blanc, a luscious-yet-fresh alternative to that state’s cliched buttery, over-oaked chardonnay.
This last choice hints a little at the globe-spanning list’s ambitions: To get you out of your comfort zone. Sure, you’ll find cabernet sauvignon represented here, but have you had Oddero’s, from Italy’s Langhe region ($24)? Or what about Austria’s native grape, St. Laurent, produced by one of the country’s top producers, Erich Sattler? This $12 by-the-glass wine is heady with aromas, and on the palate, meaty and herbaceous, a complex surprise for a wine fermented in steel.
As noted, the wine selection is ever-changing. Arnold says that they reprint pages of the menu daily as a result of the physical demands of the space. (The restaurant only orders a handful of bottles of each wine, instead of the usual cases.) If dining with a party, peruse the list, and don’t be afraid to tap team members for their current favorites — their enthusiasm for the wines is apparent, and they know off the top of their heads what is drinking well, what they have on hand and (almost oraclelike) what you may like that evening.
The strongest sections on the list happen to be the classics — Champagne and Burgundy, anyone? Bereche & Fils may not be a household name like Dom Perignon or Cristal, but this producer’s Reflet d’Antan ($115/bottle) is a knockout. “Reflections of the past” in English, this wine is made from the producers’ deep reserves of wine, a blend of pinot noir and meunier with chardonnay, at once nutty and sherrylike but also creamy, with enticing tiny bubbles. You may not be dropping the $995 required to purchase the otherworldly Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, but Domaine Serol’s 2016 Les Blondins, a lush gamay from the Loire Valley’s Cote Roannaise is a value, at $85/bottle.
Well-represented, too, are Italy’s Piedmont and Tuscany regions. Zooming in, you’ll find selections from Barbaresco, Brunello and Chianti — classics in their own right — ranging from $70 to $600, though one hopes that one day the Italian selections will expand to some of the country’s rising regions, like Sicily. Of course, Spain, the United States, Austria and Germany also are represented with thoughtful bottles, with some real values in the $60 range.
“We certainly favor well-educated distributors who are understanding of the program’s vision,” wrote Hanauer in an email. For the uninitiated, distributors and importers are the sommelier’s gatekeeping counterpart: You can’t sell wine (let alone wine you’re into) until you establish a relationship with these quiet movers of the industry. At Bar Ramone, the guys shuffle among names like Tenzing, Heritage and Cream, but also Ventoux Fine Wine, Maverick and Vinifera Assist for older, vintage bottles.
Not yet ready to geek out on vintage and hillside orientation? While team members can certainly hold court, they’ll also point you to the porron offerings. This traditional northern Spanish wine vessel is a decanter that does double duty as a party device. Filled with your choice of txakolina (also seen spelled “txakoli”), the porron is passed around the table as friends pour it from on high into your gaping maw. Priced at $37 to $42, it’s an economical option when you’re channeling your inner tapas-loving Spaniard.
441 N. Clark St.
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner daily
Prices: Small plates $5.95-$19.95
Other: No reservations
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.