1027 University Avenue, Hillcrest
100 Wines looks like it’s going to be OK. The Cohn Restaurant Group has never been afraid to shutter an ailing property — just look at what happened to Kemo Sabe after 15 years — but the CRG appears to be making it work with the long, skinny dining room in Hillcrest on a tough stretch of University Avenue for making anything work. Management installed Miguel Valdez as executive chef a while back, and he’s tickled the menu into its present form, which mostly delights.
According to Barbarella’s quickie on 100 Wines, the flatbreads used to be too cheesy. That’s no longer the case, and 100 Wines does justice to an admittedly ho-hum wine bar staple. The baked artichoke flatbread ($13.50) may be quirkiest. With its dill cream cheese and crispy onion ring toppings, it hints at green bean casseroles and TGI Friday’s style spinach/artichoke dips... except, in a good way!
Crispy cauliflower ($9) is a wonder. Loaded with shaved cheese, larded with ample hunks of pancetta, and drizzled with a port reduction, the cauliflower overcomes its cumbersome plating (a strange combination of wooden board and overflowing crockery) and excels.
So, too, for roasted bone marrow ($8.50). One only wishes there were more succulent meat jelly, soaked in brown butter and cut with briny capers, to spread along the toasted bread.
Freeform ravioli ($13.50) is little more than an excuse to consume vast quantities of buttery sage sauce and toothsome pasta. Much credit to the kitchen for producing an elegant sheet of pasta that’s not at all gummy or overworked. The dish looks diminutive, but its richness makes up for that fact and then some.
The grilled culotte steak — the most expensive menu item at $25.50 — gets topped with a fried egg, laid over succulent mashed potatoes laced with celery root, and surrounded by charred Brussels sprouts. It's a decadent, meat-and-potatoes feast worthy of much less playful surroundings.
Subtlety and a sense of adventure both elude 100 Wines. The menu tends towards fat, salt, and cheese — with admittedly delicious results — but none of the dishes showcase inventiveness or creativity, let alone challenge diners to pause between buttery mouthfuls. It’s no surprise to see a steak (ordered rare) come out of the kitchen a perfect medium-rare. Almost everybody likes steak that way, or will at least accept it, and gravitating towards the norm is a safe thing to do.
The restaurant plays loosey-goosey with many things, and something thoughtful is lost in the process.
“Why not start with an amuse from Chef Miguel?” suggests the menu. Do they mean that the appetizers should be considered amuse-gueules? If so, the word is poorly applied and misleading, especially when no little freebie ever makes its way to the table.
There’s even something outright pandering when the wine menu lists a Chateauneuf-du-Pape as a “Rhone blend.” At what point did it become necessary to list a wine (with a perfectly descriptive AOC) in this redundant fashion? New World wines described as “Rhone blends” are imitation versions of Rhone wines like those produced under the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC. Yes, a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape will be filled with (hopefully) delicious wine made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and other grapes commonly grown in wine country... but calling it a “Rhone blend” is like calling describing Coke in terms of Wal-Mart brand cola, however similar they may be.
This kind of thing is problematic because, while it’s far from tragic, carelessness with certain things is what keeps a good restaurant from being a great one.