SMALL STUFF ON A GRAND SCALE

North Creek's barVino offers dazzling food in a convivial atmosphere

CHERYL CLARK
Section: Unwind,  Page: UW3

Date: Sunday, May 13, 2012

It may seem crazy to drive 90 minutes from Albany for something as casual as tapas, but barVino, in the small ski village of North Creek, makes the trip worth the time and fuel.


As a smiling waitress settled us near the wood stove, several strangers at the bar offered welcome-to-the-party waves. Three hours later, when we reluctantly surrendered our cozy table, my only fear was that barVino is too inexpensive to last, and we'd like to make this pilgrimage repeatedly.


We had a luxurious but not overwhelming repast -- spicy olives, salad, frites, gnocchi, lamb skewers, pork belly, mussels and two desserts -- and the food portion of our bill came to only $64. The menu's 14 small plates, large enough to share but small enough to sample many, range from $5 to $12. Four preparations of Prince Edward Island mussels are $11, and steak frites are $19.


The markup on wine is about as low as it gets in a restaurant short of using wine as a loss leader. The small bar was packed all night with a congenial mix of mature foodies and younger singles, but I'd be surprised if the waiters got one full turn on the tables on a spring Saturday night.


Still, there's not a whiff of desperation about the place. The ingredients are good quality but not particularly expensive, the added value a matter of intense labor and skill. From laudable glassware to terry handcloths in the bathrooms to homemade calico napkins gentled with fabric softener, every aspect of barVino says, "This is our home, and we care." We were impressed by a glimpse into the immaculate kitchen and even the craftsmanship of the ceiling, so fine was the attention to detail.


There were more than 60 interesting beers on offer, about a quarter in cans, a quarter on draft and the rest in bottles, all inexpensively priced, with the alcohol by volume on display. Thirteen were made in New York, and half we'd never had the chance to try before. We sampled Moo Thunder from Garrattsville, southwest of Cooperstown, which was like dessert and coffee in a can. If the wine list hadn't been so seductive, we could have happily tried many more unfamiliar brews. There are 32 wines by the glass, preserved by an enviable Cruvinet-style wine-dispensing system built by the chef.


The wines almost exclusively are from Frederick Wildman, which is not surprising, because Michael Bowers, a builder who came up from Delaware, hatched the idea for barVino with Greg Taylor, Wildman's general manager for upstate wholesale, former owner of Friends Lake Inn in Chestertown and current owner of the nearby Alpine Lodge. Not long after meeting Taylor on the street, Bowers purchased the North Creek Bank building in 2006 as a base to live while working on a construction project. He had intended to renovate and sell the building before returning home, but his other project fell through, and he was left with a vacant building and a growing fondness for North Creek. So he bought the vacant IGA supermarket next door, which now houses barVino. Between 2006 and 2008 he was joined in the business by his wife, Mary Ann, his daughters, Anna and Sarah, his son, chef Luke Bowers, and Luke's buddy since middle school, chef Kevin Gardner. Next door is barVino Cellar, featuring the wine portfolio for retail sale.


Bowers and Gardner were both cooking when we visited, with sure hands, not editing themselves to pander to whatever clientele there might be in a small Adirondack village at the end of a too-warm ski season. There's a joy to that. In a perfect world, if you're good and confident, you'll create your own market. They have a steady sense of what they like. Their execution was flawless, and the food had a beautiful stylistic consistency.


The mussels were extraordinarily plump and tender, every one perfect, with a soothing broth of rich miso, ginger and scallions so delicious we asked for crusty, warm bread (complimentary on request) to sop it up. At first I thought the gnocchi -- the most feathery-light I've ever tasted -- was missing a few grains of salt, but if it had been saltier, I think I might not have wanted the second bite as much. The sherry cream sauce with bacon and almonds was delightful, and the $7 portion was perfect for sampling and sharing.


Kibbeh-like ground lamb on skewers ($8) was tender and well seasoned, served with tangy tzatziki and a fragrant spoonful of lentils with spinach, almonds and raisins. When my husband tasted it, he said, "The lamb -- that's the winner. Well, that and the gnocchi. And the mussels."


We tacked on an order of frites after watching and smelling generous tin buckets of fried potato carried past us. They were crisp and tender, with great flavor from the skins and the peanut oil used in the fryer. The ramekin of smoked paprika aioli was bravely spicy, making the bowl of ketchup, for us, an unnecessary accommodation.


If there had been a salad option without cheese, I might have spent another $9 for a separate cheese plate after the salad, but one dish met both needs. The fresh baby greens were blessed with several varieties of tangy and sharp, from lavender goat cheese, preserved lemon, vinaigrette and radish. It was bold and refreshing.


The pickled onions atop the pork belly were so tart I wanted more to counter the richness of the pig fat and the creamy Savoy cabbage. The belly was trimmed like extra thick bacon before cooking, rather than sliced after, which, to my mind, diminishes the unctuousness that makes pork belly lovers salivate in anticipation. That's a conceptual preference, but the dish was still executed beautifully.


The desserts ($6 each) lived up to the quality of the savory fare. The English trifle in a 6-ounce jelly jar was the kind of ethereal, balanced confection that makes you wake in the night with remembered longing. It was like a strawberry fool with ladyfingers or a tiramisu without coffee. A coconut-pineapple tart would have been perfect if the name hadn't made me expect the acidity of pineapple. As a coconut tart it was dreamy, with a delectable crust and a flaky texture. Coffee was dark and hot with adorable cubical creamers and raw sugar cubes.


Cheryl Clark is a journalist and former restaurant owner from Malta.





barVino


272 Main Street


North Creek


Phone: 251-0199


Web: http://barvino.net


Reservations: Accepted


Credit cards: MC, V, D, AE


Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Extended summer hours.


Parking: Street parking and nearby lots


Handicapped accessible: Steps in front with large clay planters, increasing the awkwardness for bad knees and wheelchairs.


Attire: Casual


Price: $1/2


Food (***1/2): Flawless execution and stylistic consistency. Bold flavors, quality ingredients and nicely sized portions. Inexpensively priced.


Beverage: (***1/2): Energetic, interesting, well-researched wine list from a single distributor with an excellent book. Rock-bottom price structure, 32 choices by glass, ($5 to $16) 87 by the bottle, ($18 to $150.) Super fun list of 60 beers, great prices, not a dog in the bunch.


Service (***): Charming server was not well-versed in wine but made a huge effort to compensate with attentive and friendly service.


Ambience (****): Unpretentious tapas and wine bar with an eye for detail. Lovely little luxuries and homey touches.


Personality: (****): Friendly, homey, romantic, elegant and sophisticated. Strong sense of family pride without hauteur.


Overall rating: ***1/2





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