New York food maven Eli Zabar has added another notch to his belt: A wine bar. Joining his retail outlets, wholesale bakery and other restaurants is Taste, a newly relaunched venue that brings a conscientious wine selection to Manhattan's staid Upper East Side.
Although Zabar's parents founded Zabar's (the landmark market whose name is synonymous with smoked fish) on the Upper West Side, Eli has staked out his own turf across town on the corner of 80th Street and Third Avenue. There, he has established a foodie compound whose boxy, prefab architecture belies the wealth of tasteful goodies within. The centerpiece is Eli's Manhattan, a spacious gourmet market offering everything from fresh flowers to aged cheeses. For the past few years, the adjacent space had housed Eli's Restaurant, which did double duty as a self-service café and a full-service dining spot.
Scott Bieber, the executive chef of Eli's, has been retained at Taste, as has a dinner menu strong on imaginative salads and entrees that wear fresh ingredients on their sleeve (such as farm poussin with autumn vegetable puree and southern greens). What's new is an admirably intelligent focus on wine.
Unlike too many places that fancy themselves "wine bars," Taste has an indisputable claim to that label. Roughly two dozen wines are available by the glass, all but three priced at $10 or less. Adventurously, the by-the-glass list includes Petite Sirah and Viognier, with nary a Merlot in sight.
The bar is loaded with baskets of addictive rough-around-the-edges potato chips and fat, sumptuous olives. An assortment of cheeses is never more than an arm's reach away.
What's more, there is an extensive menu of "small plates" priced between $7 and $15, and each is matched with a recommended wine. Pairings include indulgent Sloppy BBQ sandwiches on brioche and A Mano Primitivo Puglia 2000 (86 points, $5 a glass), root vegetable hash with truffle perfumed fried egg and Bruno Hunold Pinot Gris Alsace 2000 (84, $7 a glass), and "Gregg's Cheese Plate" and Martin Ray Pinot Noir North Coast La Montaña 1999 (86, $11 a glass).
While the wine selection is savvy and the small plates are tasty, the restaurant sometimes comes across as though it was conceived by a group of enterprising real-estate brokers. The ambitiously sized room is safely tasteful, heavy on the mirrors and hard, clean surfaces -- but the end result is the atmosphere of a high-end cafeteria. The smooth jazz soundtrack is just a little too smooth, the black-clad staff a touch overeager, and the fact that the front of the menu matches the pattern of the floor may leave you pining for slightly less-calculated environs.
Upper East Siders seem not to care. While the long bar itself can be rather empty, a graying crowd has latched onto Taste as a dinner spot, filling the dining room with talk of homes in St. Barts, dwindling 401k's, and the difficulties in hiring good help.
Whether or not Taste is to your personal taste, there is much to recommend it. The food and wine are high quality, and in a neighborhood starved not for restaurants but for value and signs of originality, Taste is a welcome arrival. The restaurant also acts as a great advertisement for Eli's Manhattan and W.I.N.E., a new, cozy, but expertly stocked wine store next door. There's a window behind the bar that peeks through to the bottles lining W.I.N.E.'s shelves, so if you taste something you like, you only have to walk about 30 feet to find the bottle for sale. It's cross-pollination at its finest, and one of the calculations that pays dividends at Taste.
Taste Restaurant & Wine Bar
1413 Third Avenue (at 80th Street)
New York, NY 10028
Telephone: (212) 717-9798
Open: Daily, from 6 p.m.
Read our past reports on wine bars: