People fall in love with Charleston, S.C. The charm, the history, the favorable climate, the hospitality and the hot restaurant scene all add up to a terrifically alluring package.
The 1990s were good to this small but cosmopolitan city whose reputation for gentility is legendary. Restaurants proliferated, as a generation of young chefs propelled "Low Country" coastal Southern cuisine into the national consciousness.
It's beginning to look as if the new century in Charleston will be good for wine. Already home to numerous Wine Spectator Award of Excellence—winning wine lists, Charleston can now boast of a growing number of serious wine bars. The two most notable -- McCrady's Wine Bar and Vintage Restaurant & Wine Bar -- are within a few blocks of each other, right downtown. Both are magnets for the city's sophisticated young wine drinkers.
McCrady's Wine Bar is the more beckoning -- and luxuriously romantic -- of the two. Accessed from the tourist thoroughfare of East Bay Street entrance, it shares space with McCrady's restaurant, which holds Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence for its wine list. Designed by the same firm that created New York's Gramercy Tavern, the wine bar is a study in exposed brick, subdued bronze lighting and warm wood. Brooding, enigmatic paintings of nude figures line the walls. The seating, low stools and benches, is simple without being severe; the bar itself is tucked discreetly in the rear, against a glass wine-storage cabinet. Remixes of French pop trickle from the sound system.
Every wine from sommelier Craig Donofrio's 855-label wine list at the restaurant is also available at the bar, as are 31 wines by the glass, ranging from a $6 sommelier's weekly selection to a $15 Drappier Brut Nature Champagne NV. Options include a Domaine du Vieux Lazaret White Châteauneuf du Pape 2000 ($12) and Saintsbury Pinot Noir Garnet 2001 ($10).
Executive chef Michael Kramer has put together a menu of small plates to accompany Donofrio's wine selections. An Asian-inflected "fish and chips" is really yellowfin tuna tartare with taro chips, dressed with soy and wasabi. Snackers who prefer something more exclusive can opt for the tasting of osetra caviar ($60), washed down with the Bollinger Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV ($13). A chef's cheese selection provides a tasting of either five artisanal samples ($12) or a flight of everything on hand ($20).
A short walk away down North Market Street is Vintage Restaurant & Wine Bar, which hints at a more rambunctious, after-hours vibe -- even though it does a fair business before the sun sets. Understated abstract squares in scrubby green and scoured red hang from the walls downstairs, next to '40s-style desk lamps that have been cleverly inverted to form wall sconces. The long bar is backed by hundreds of bottles. Upstairs is additional seating for about 50; outdoors, there's a deck and a garden landscaped with banana trees.
Owner and wine director Kevin Kelley has put together an Award of Excellence—winning wine list that covers plenty of territory, and that supplies superb matching opportunities for executive chef Thomas Clayton's understated, yet robust Provençal-style cuisine.
Clayton's fine cooking progresses from the simplicity of grilled asparagus with black forest ham, roasted red peppers and Parmesan ($9) to the lusty richness of monkfish and veal cheeks with mushroom gnocchi, Swiss chard and foie gras emulsion ($24). In proper bistro fashion, you can also get a hanger steak, with gorgonzola potatoes and an assortment of mustards ($25).
Refreshingly, there's nary a Low Country standby anywhere in sight on this menu: no grits, no tasso gravy, not even a nod to rice (though seafood is abundant). Despite its location, Vintage is aiming for more than tourist traffic.
If you need help with wine pairings, the staff will quiz you on your preferences and make intelligent suggestions. Seventy-one wines by the glass, culled from the 450-label main list, are broken down into easily grasped categories, such as "Bordeaux-inspired varietals" and "spicy, floral whites." Options include a Patricia Green Pinot Noir Temperance Hill 2000 from Oregon ($11), a ZD Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1999 ($13) and Pazo San Mauro Albariño Rias Baixas 2001 ($9). Unusually for Charleston -- where wine is taken seriously but stemware sometimes isn't -- everything is poured into Riedel glasses.
Kelley, who has lived in town for 17 years, maintains that he opened Vintage "out of frustration."
"I couldn't get anything unique -- no unique bottlings," he said. He concedes that so far, customer response has been up and down. But he reports plenty of success with the monthly tasting dinners, and on the night I dropped by, the bartender was turning away Valentine's Day reservations in droves.
McCrady's Wine Bar
155 E. Bay St.
Tel: (843) 577-0025
Vintage Restaurant & Wine Bar
14 N. Market Street
Tel: (843) 577-0090