As I walked down the block toward 12th street in downtown LA on Sunday night, I was convinced that I was in the wrong place. There was no way Corkbar, a new upscale wine bar specializing in California vintages, could be located in the depressing stretch of concrete that appeared to boast only $10+ parking lots and high-rise lofts.
"Where are all the people?" I wondered, clutching my pearl Hobo bag tightly, as my imagination conjured up the mugging scenes from Ghost, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Friends." If I had any hope that LA's downtown was experiencing a renaissance, my first impression of this particular area seemed to kill it. Or at least it did until I stepped inside Corkbar.
With the large windows providing a full view of both 12th Street and Grand Avenue, the restaurant/bar can do little to hide its somewhat precarious setting. In fact, the somewhat stark, wood-paneled space seems to mirror the bleak stretch of city outside. It's not cozy. It's not particularly romantic. And aside from the shelves of wine bottles that tower over the bar, it's unapologetically minimalist in its decor.
It's a bold statement. By making the wine the focal point of the room, the message is as crystal clear as the long-stemmed wine glasses glistening from the tops of the dozen or so tables -- it's all about the wine here. Of course, like many wine aficionados, connoisseurs and week night sippers know, the experience of drinking wine is only enhanced when consumed in tandem with really great food. It's why champagne is served with strawberries, why many wine shops also specialize in cheese, and why many great restaurants pair the dishes in their tasting menus with specific wines. Corkbar gets this and has devoted a fine degree of attention to creating a farmer's market fresh menu that is as good as, if not better than, the wine that accompanies it.
On Sunday night, I had the privilege of joining a group of serious winos (aka a motley crew of Yelpers with a penchant for the grape) for a special wine and food pairing that allowed us to taste five different California wines with five items from their menu. The experience was memorable not only because of the superb execution of the plates that truly were proper partners with each pour of wine, but also because of the impeccable service. Despite the often negative connotations that accompany the "Yelper" label, our party of approximately 25 was treated with the respect that I imagine LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold receives when he barrels his delightfully over-the-top personality into a restaurant. The servers didn't dumb down the wines or talk above us. They didn't wax on like aspiring actors practicing a soliloquy. And they didn't attempt to cajole us into straying off the $30 prix-fixe menu for additional dishes or glasses of wine.
Instead, they proved that wine bars do not have to walk hand and hand with an air of pretension. Nor do they have to walk hand and hand with inadequate menus of greasy "bar" food. Over the course of our three hour staycation in the dining room, we were lulled into a foggy state of food + wine oblivion through the restaurant's gussied up plates of comfort food.
To start, we received a 2008 Brander Sauvignon Blanc paired with a green olive tapenade, quickly followed by a 2007 Au Bon Climate Pinot Noir paired with a kalamata and goat cheese tapenade. While I typically have an immediate gag-like response whenever my tongue comes into contact with an olive that is not in oil form, when I married the flavor of the tapenade to the wine, I was left with a surprisingly satisfying sensation. I especially enjoyed the former green olive tapenade that was brightened up by a judicious blanket of lemon zest.
The 2006 Keenan Chardonnay paired with shrimp risotto was presented next. I cringed when our absurdly attractive waiter announced we would be enjoying the luxurious dish with a Chardonnay, my least favorite varietal of wine, but the Keenan had a crispness that countered any hint of oakiness. For once in my unsuccessful history of tasting and hating Chardonnays, I didn't feel as though I was drinking wine from a barrel. I was further impressed by the finely executed risotto that was finished with a bold flash of parsley-infused olive oil, and prepared to the appropriate level of doneness. (Ie. the individual rice kernels were not cooked into a state of porridge-like mush.)
Following the risotto was one of the most anticipated dishes of the night -- the mac and cheese. The item has become as redundant on LA menus as San Pellegrino, and as such, needs to be truly exquisite to be memorable. Corkbar's version, a sensuous orgy of fontina, cheddar, asiago and roasted pasilla chiles is right on par with the mac and cheese bar that has been set by restaurants like Nook and Taste. The heat from the chiles juxtaposed against the pungent bite of blended cheese is a flavor memory that I won't soon relegate to the graveyard section of my brain. This is no Must Love Dogs or plate of Toast's French toast. Paired with a 2006 Ethan Sangiovese/Syrah, the mac and cheese was a hit with all parties at my table. So much so that we joked about getting an extra vat for the table. Well, they joked. I was fairly serious.
For our last pairing of the night, we received a 2005 Richard Partridge Cabernet Sauvignon with 6-hour braised short ribs served over cheesy polenta. This sort of combination reeks of big, bold indulgent flavors, but Corkbar's execution was surprisingly restrained enough to not leave me feeling as though I'd swallowed a load of bricks. Lightened up with the prudent addition of fresh parsley, the tender ribs were not cloyingly rich, and made for a fine companion with the full-bodied Cab.
While the tasting menu was meant to conclude with the shortribs, I and the other sweet-toothed individuals at my table could not resist placing two orders for the banana bread pudding with caramelized bananas, spiced hazelnuts and brown butter creme fraiche. The moist pudding, crunchy nuts and pool of creme fraiche presented our tongues with a myriad of decadent textures. It wasn't just good, it was amazingly good. Good in the way that makes dessert at Corkbar an experience that should not be missed because one is trying to fit into their skinny jeans. This dish is worth the extra time on the treadmill, and certainly worth the reasonable $7 price tag.
As I walked down Grand Avenue toward my car on Sunday evening, I couldn't help but think how my perception of the downtown landscape had changed since traversing the same strip three hours earlier. While I was still giving my Hobo clutch a death grip and called my mom immediately after I left my friends, my experience at Corkbar filled me with a sense that life, and by extension, my life, are full of unpredictable possibilities. Great food that does not involve a deep fryer can come out of the kitchen at a bar. Great establishments can take root in somewhat dodgy areas. And great things can happen to girls who take a walk outside their cushy West Hollywood comfort zones.