What possesses someone to transform a cellar--a cool, dark room dug out of the earth to preserve wine--into a glittering vitrine? Take Charlie Palmer, who was one of the first to do so, with Aureole Vegas' glassed-in wine tower, from which catsuit-clad women hang from ropes to retrieve the bottles. As much as showmanship, such elaborate displays come from a desire to make wine the centerpiece, the crucial element, of dining.
Now Palmer has company in New Jersey. The Pluckemin Inn, which opened in April in the horse country town of Bedminster, has a three-story-tall showcase cellar, minus any "wine angels." The building, though newly constructed, resembles an old country inn with its dark wood and stone fireplaces. One wall even mimics the soft curves of barrel staves. The tower runs up through the warm, intimate dining rooms--including a private room in the real cellar--putting many of the restaurant's 15,000 bottles on view.
Chef Matthew Levin, most recently executive chef at Moonlight Restaurant in New Hope, Pa., draws attention with his inventive cooking. A recent appetizer plate of four dishes included periwinkles with trumpet mushrooms and sorrel and a kobe steak larded with anchovies.
But the real star is the omnipresent wine. Sommelier Brian Hider had great resources to draw on, namely the commitment, passion and deep pockets of owners Carl and Gloria LaGrassa. Hider has assembled a list of 1,060 wines, 100 of which are set apart as special values. The list, though, is well-priced at every level to pull diners in. There isn't great depth yet, but there is a broad range of offerings, covering the major regions of Europe and the United States, plus Australia and a handful of other New World countries, with both proven wineries and also some obscure producers.
There are a few old bottles of note: the LaGrassas landed some of Doris Duke's cellar, which was auctioned off in 2004, so you can try the 1929 Château d'Yquem--for $10,930. And Burgundy fanatics can test their knowledge with this question: What lieudit was folded into La Tâche in 1932?
The answer (Les Gaudichot) can be found on the inn's bottles from the 1929 vintage.
359 Route 202/206 and Pluckemin Way
Telephone: (908) 658-9292
Fax: (908) 658-9991
Web site: www.pluckemininn.com
Hours: Dinner, Monday to Saturday
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$19; entrées, $24-$50