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3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro

2265 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach

Ed Moore's Third Corner started as a seafood restaurant across the street from his venerable Thee Bungalow, but for some reason, the neighborhood never warmed to it. After closing, Moore started storing wines there, and it became a wine club and shop. But Moore wanted more from the space, which is why it's now a wine store, bar, and bistro — not to mention community hangout and social center. Selling wine is still the crux of the business, but the food and the loosey-goosey atmosphere make the winetasting fun. "You shouldn't rate this like a restaurant," my partner told me on the way home. "It's too informal — how do you rate having a good time with your friends?" I decided he was right.

Here's how it works: You wander around and choose the wine(s) you want, then take them to a table if you want to sit down for a bite. But dinnertime, when the place starts to fill, it's more like "I'll grab a table -- you go get wine." The space here is a two-room street-level wine "cellar" with a kitchen in the back and a handful of tables among the racks; only 22 nibblers can be seated at once. After you've secured a table, wine-shoppers will be roaming around you, looking for their own bottles. If the inside tables are full, there are four more out on a heated patio, plus, in the cozy lounge, couches and cocktail tables by the fireplace. Or you can belly up to the bar. The best strategy is to go at an odd hour, either earlier or later than the peak hours of 6:30--8:30 p.m.

The larger room features red wines, the smaller is filled with whites, most selling for just 20 percent over wholesale. Reserve bottles are in a closetlike room behind the bar and include interesting choices from Burgundy, the Rhône, and California boutique wineries at considerably lower cost than I expected. While you won't find the big-ticket classified Bordeaux that you can order at Thee Bungalow, I did spot a Puligny Montrachet and a Helen Turley at prices even an ink-stained wretch of the press could handle for a special occasion.

The staff will open your bottles for a $5 corkage fee. After 11 p.m., when many staffers drop in from other restaurants to relax after their dinner shifts, corkage is free. Given the crowding at prime time, late evening is the hippest hour to pop in.

Our group, which included Dave, Marty, and the Lynnester, nominated Dave to be our roving sommelier, while the rest of us chewed over the menu. Dave returned with a Beaujolais in one hand and a Macon-Villages in the other (both under $20), which the bartender whisked off to chill for 15 minutes. My partner, faithful to the brew, chose Belgium's mellow Chimay, which was passed around with approving nods as an ale that wine lovers could love.

Longtime chef Juan Flores oversees the kitchen at both Thee Bungalow and the Third Corner, with separate staffs at each. Here, the appetizer menu tilts toward simple French bistro noshes, including many that are easy on the kitchen: plates of olives, pâtés, smoked meats, smoked salmon, artisan cheeses, and salads. Most of these dishes fill full-size dinner plates, which make for easy sharing. The ambiance is so casual, feel free to pass plates around the table and, after the first round, call out, "Who wants seconds on the salmon?" or "Let me taste that salad again."

What all the salads have in common is their wine-friendliness -- the dressings are mild, so the vinegar doesn't overwhelm the flavors of its less acidic bottled cousins. Our table's favorite starter was a goat-cheese salad, sporting large puffs of Laura Chenel's creamy chèvre with roasted pine nuts and mixed greens in a pomegranate vinaigrette -- a recipe held over from the old Third Corner. A close second was the still-evolving pâté plate, which features a rich poultry-liver mousse made across the street at Thee Bungalow, plus two coarser-textured country pâtés -- which are about to be replaced by pork and duck rillettes ("the best pâté that Juan makes," says Ed Moore) and a venison or goose terrine, both from the big-sister restaurant. The platter includes the standard Gallic array of toasted baguette slices, capers, cornichons, and a blob of mustard. Moore's own favorite appetizer (which we didn't try) pairs marinated house-smoked duck breast with a watercress salad and blue cheese -- especially good, Moore says, with a big red Côte du Rhône.

A smoked salmon salad offers pretty good Scottish lox with chopped eggs, capers, and pickled onion. Given the Francophile context, I'd have fancied a daub of crème fraîche to moisten the fish. A "classic" Caesar salad isn't exactly classic (what restaurant dares use raw egg yolks?), but we enjoyed the whole leaves of Romaine heart (the classic lettuce, at least!) and zingy white anchovies with shaved Parmesan cheese in a suave dressing. The charcuterie (smoked meats) assortment, served on a wooden plank, is another dish that's still evolving but typically includes three meats from Spain (that evening they were herb-coated salami, Spanish prosciutto, and, uh, mystery meat) hidden under a heap of field greens dressed in a tarragon-mustard vinaigrette so flavorful that Lynne couldn't let go of the dish once it made its second-round landing in front of her.

Entrées are equally easygoing -- they're either quickly fixed today, or braised yesterday, probably across the street. There's nothing haute cuisine, for instance, about short ribs in red wine sauce. They taste like great French home-cooking prepared at leisure and come with homey mashed potatoes and an Asian-style vegetable mixture (served with all main courses) of julienned carrots and zukes, dressed in sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil.

A duck confit entrée centers on a small leg/thigh piece, fatless and tender. The side of Louisiana-style red beans and rice comes as a shock in the Frenchy context. We all sat up, wide awake, when those sparky Cajun flavors hit. On the other hand, made-to-order dishes (like baked mussels, baked fish, and grilled pork tenderloin) still need work --although we did like sopping up Thai-style mussel sauce with baguette slices. These may be better next week, it's early times yet.

The servers are young and as bubbly as newly bottled champagne; their style is the opposite of "hovering," close to self-service. If you want something, you go to the bar and ask for it or wave at a server -- any server. This is informal verging on disorganized, but once you figure out how to handle it, it works.

The list of sweets is brief and basic, with crème brulée, chocolate Marquis (a fudgy chocolate torte), fresh berries with fruit sorbets (misnomered gelato on the menu). The one semi-ambitious dessert is a "Napoleon" featuring Chenel goat cheese sandwiched between huge cookies, chewy and nutty like granola, and slicked on top with lavender honey -- a flavor that magically links the cheese with the pastry. If you've still got some wine left (or want to try another glass or bottle), it's a perfect opportunity to return to the top of the menu and enjoy the artisanal cheese assortment. The wine's the thing here. Don't be bashful -- there's plenty more in the racks, begging for a good home. With the holidays coming, now's a good time to stock your cellar, and have some fun doing it.

ABOUT THE THIRD CORNER

The bistro is still very new, but owner Ed Moore has long experience in the food and wine business, and he's keeping a close eye on his latest progeny. "I was there last night until about 5:30, left at 6:30, and I went back again about 10:30," he says. "Long days, about 100 hours a week. I want to make sure that this one works better than the last one did. I built the original Third Corner to be the restaurant I personally would have wanted to dine in. We tried and tried, but sometimes you strike out...The first week [at the new bistro] I did better business than I ever did at the Third Corner when it was a seafood restaurant.

"I want this place to be a retail wine shop first and foremost. Good, bad, or indifferent, I don't want a review as a restaurant. Tomorrow, a great big blow-up gorilla is going up on the roof with a 'Grand Opening' sign, and that's all you need in Ocean Beach. I have only 22 seats. People can sit on the patio if they don't want to wait; we have heaters out there. I'm tired of the San Diego mentality that says, 'Oh, it's too cold out there,' yet they'll go to Paris and sit on the Champs-Elysées paying eight bucks for an espresso when it's 35 degrees out and say it's marvelous. This is the best place to come from the standpoint of having a bottle of wine with your food. I made the menu low-labor and wine-friendly. But we're still working out all the little bugs..."

Moore was born in France to American parents, was raised in Morocco, and came with his mother to Southern California in his teens. "My parents loved to eat, loved good food," he says, and that set him on the road to cooking professionally. He learned first on the job and then went to cooking school in France. The first restaurant he owned was Café 11, still running in Hillcrest under different owners. He bought Thee Bungalow around 1987 and converted it from a "Continental" restaurant to a French menu, eventually handing over the day-to-day cooking to current chef Juan Flores, who also oversees the bistro menu at Third Corner. Few people realize that Moore also owns Nick's at the Beach in P.B. and recently bought Quiigs, which he's converting into an O.B. branch of Nick's. Now, with four restaurants to mind, two teenagers and a 20-year-old, he cooks only occasionally, even at home, leaving that task to his wife, Marla.

Seven or eight years ago, Moore started the annual Chef's Celebration event, which assembles groups of top local chefs to cook dinners at restaurants around town, with the proceeds going to fund professional training for young cooks. (The much-expanded event is currently run by Terra's Jeff Rossman.)

At Third Corner, he's suspended the Wine Club that he ran from Thee Bungalow. Instead, he displays a wall of "featured wines" that once would have been his wine club picks. "I have tasted every bottle here. For every bottle I stock, I have rejected 10 to 12 wines. My philosophy is, 'If it sells for $10, I want it to taste like a $20 bottle. If it sells for $40 and tastes like a $20 bottle, I'm not gonna sell it -- and there's a lot of wine out there, especially in California, in that category. Proportionally, we don't sell that much California. We have a ton of products from South America, from Spain, from Italy. Some of our customers are status oriented and only want big-name bottles, but the preponderance are what I'd call the 'bottle a day' customer. They are looking for something that they can come home to after the day, have a glass before dinner, a glass during dinner, maybe another glass after that if they've had a hard day. They can come here and browse, we can maybe educate them a little, and they'll come back the next time to find a case at a price they want to pay. They come here, they eat, they try a couple of bottles of wine, and walk out with another dozen and they're happy. It's like eating at a winery. There's a certain charm about being seated among all these racks of wine."

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