It’s always a bit strange to go back to a restaurant for a second visit after a considerable amount of time has passed.
“Will I still like it?” I wonder. “Will it be as good as I remember it to be?”
Then I’ll start doubting if it was ever all that good in the first place – that maybe it was “good” to my former dining self, but won’t necessarily be “good” to my current dining self, because clearly I am a much, much more mature eater than I was a year and a half ago when I still hadn’t eaten a cheeseburger.
Even so, I felt a trickle of sneaking suspicion when I approached Corkbar at 12th and Grand Avenue in Downtown LA last Wednesday night. I’d raved about the California wine country inspired wine bar after my first visit in April 2009 that took place only a month after it had opened for business.
The experience had been a memorable one – and not just because it encouraged me to view Downtown LA as a classier, trendier and more destination-worthy locale than I’d previously thought. The service was warm and sincere, the wines were impeccably paired with the thoughtful Farmer’s market-inspired menu selections, and the banana bread pudding with caramelized bananas had left me speechless.
Walking into Corkbar on Wednesday night for a special media dinner, I was startled by how familiar it felt to me even after a year and seven months. The positive memories of the great time I’d had before instantly put me at ease in the sparsely decorated space that appears designed to showcase – above all else – the bar’s impressive selection of California wines.
There’s no pretension circulating in the air – no sense that I’d be “once-overed” if I walked in wearing a t-shirt and an old pair of ripped jeans. It’s a friendly spot – most likely due to the vision of co-owners Caleb Wines and John McGonigle who started the bar with the intention of re-creating the casual and approachable California wine tasting experience. With over 120 California wines available by the bottle, 80 of which can be ordered by the glass, they seem to have achieved at least part of this mission. I am pleased with both of my selections that evening - the CEP Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley ($13), and the 2008 JC Cellars "Impostor," a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Tempranillo, Carignan, Grenache and Viognier ($17).
But wine isn’t the whole story. Executive Chef Albert Aviles, who previously worked under Carolynn Spence at Bar Marmont, has brought a sly and purposeful hand to the one-page menu of seasonal eats. There’s the typical bar fare, of course – a nicely-crusted Mac & Cheese ($10) that bites back with the prescient application of roasted pasilla chiles; Gougères ($7) that pack a potent punch of cheddar cheese flavor, but dissolve on the tongue without provocation; and an impressive Pork Slider on a pretzel bun that’s served with an assertive pickle relish and tangy mustard dressing. The dishes are comforting and familiar in conception, but refined in their execution.
Aviles extends that thoughtful hand to the rest of the dishes on the menu as well. Briny Curried Mussels ($17) are astutely paired with a delicate coconut curry broth in a dish that sings with well-balanced salty and sweet flavors. A Root Vegetable Salad with arugula, dandelion greens, cress, roasted root vegetables, shallots, a red wine-thyme vinaigrette and balsamic drizzle ($14) is similarly uplifted by the natural collusion of its ingredients, though is a touch overdressed. In comparison, the special iceberg Wedge Salad with a spicy blue cheese dressing, crumbled bacon and roasted tomatoes ($10) is less successful as a cohesive unit - perhaps because of the nature of the salad as a deconstructed plate.
For the mains, I was particularly impressed by the special for the evening – supple slices of pork tenderloin served over cabbage pickled in apple cider vinegar, and a silky pomme puree. It was hard to divert my fork in the direction of the other dishes we’d ordered for the table, but they were -- for the most part -- no less compelling to my tongue. While the Hangar Steak with red wine a mushroom risotto ($20) was sadly cooked past its prime, the Root Bear Braised Short Ribs with fennel and cheesy polenta ($16) is a solid selection for meat-eaters. The Seared Sea Scallops served with parsnip puree, spinach sautéed with bacon, and brown butter ($24) is similarly well-executed, though I did find myself wishing for a crustier sear on the five meaty scallops. All the mains are indulgent plates, but they don’t seem unnecessarily so. Aviles isn’t doing short ribs simply to do short ribs, nor is he adding bacon to something just because it’s bacon. He’s doing it because these choices make sense in the context of the restaurant (big red wines sour when paired with short ribs), or in, the case of the scallops, within the context of the dish.
No where is this more evident than with the special “Breakfast” bread pudding dessert that’s composed of cinnamon roll brioche bread topped with crème fraiche, caramel sauce, and bits of well-rendered bacon. While I was initially disappointed the banana bread pudding wouldn’t be making an appearance that evening, I was immediately silenced upon tasting Aviles’ playful pudding. It’s everything I want in a dessert – salty and sweet, warm with the appropriate cold juxtaposition from the crème fraiche, and immensely comforting.
It’s an apropos representation of the entire Corkbar experience. Everything about the classy wine bar is similarly comforting – just like it was when I first visited it in April 2009. It won’t be another year and seven months before I go back. And next time, I'll walk in confident that it will be even better than I remembered.
403 West 12th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Special Event Alert: Every Tuesday, Chef Aviles tests an appetizer-sized portion of a new, market-driven dish not available on the regular menu, for only $2. “Test Kitchen Tuesdays” begin at 5:30 pm. Limit one per guest, while ingredients last.