Winegasm (31-86 37th St., Astoria)
While the culinary arts have been at the foundation of my family for generations, I cannot claim that I come from a long line of drinkers. We don't even have a shunned drunken uncle we discuss in hushed whispers or a notoriously boozing cousin. My grandma claims she has never tasted a drop of alcohol, and we have no reason to doubt her. The woman is over 90 years old and could still smoke me in a 50 meter dash. One of my uncles is famous for his motto, "lips that touch wine never touch mine." Although my mother is a little more daring, and has been known to enjoy a glass or two of vino, she notoriously prefers it either in a red Solo cup with a few ice cubes or from a box... a party in a bag, as my brother affectionately calls it.
When he and I finally decided we wanted to witness our parents drunk for the first time, we had to secretly spike the chocolate fondue at Christmas with the only-God-knows-how-old bottle of amaretto that had been fermenting in the "liquor cabinet" (a stash of maybe three randomly gifted bottles of liquor stored alongside the pots and pans). The resulting affect on our mom was slightly slurred speech and an abnormally long mini-concert of piano duets with her best friend while wearing cardboard Victorian cherub masks from the Christmas tree. Apparently, the worst my parents get with alcohol is an accidental repeat of "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" or a slightly-botched lyric to "Frosty the Snowman."
Probably only near the Bible belt could someone truly develop an extensive background in cooking, yet harbor little to no affinity for wines whatsoever. Elsewhere in the world, the two seem to me somewhat symbiotic. But even at our Baptist church, communion consisted of crackers and tiny plastic shot glasses of Welch's grape juice. So my first experience with wine (other than an occasional run-in with a bottle of Strawberry Hill, flavored apple wine by Boone's Farm) didn't come until much later in life when I began serving tables and attending wine classes as a part of the training. My brain nearly exploded when I learned there were other vineyards besides just Ernest & Julio Gallo or Franzia.
Needless to say, I have since learned a significant deal more on my own, though this knowledge is no where near as second nature to me as my culinary understandings. I sometimes feel like the drunken branch of my family tree, simply because I've actually been to a few vineyards, and attended a fair amount of tastings. So when I found out that Astoria had a wine bar that offered not only a thoughtful and broad array of wines accompanied by delicious small plates of food, but also an actual wine school on Sundays, I jumped at the invitation to check it out.
Though we did not sign up for a wine class, my roommate and I sat down at the bar on a Wednesday early evening, where we were met by one of the owner's brothers, who also tends bar at Winegasm. We were asked what drink we might like to try while waiting for the tasting to begin. We perused the impressively diversified wine list, as well as the cocktail menu.
Because I didn't want to saturate my palate with anything that might taint the flights that had been planned for us, we chose to start with a simple white sangria and a glass of rose tempranillo (a Spanish grape typically used in the production of riojas). The sangria, much to my surprise and pleasure, had been prepared two days in advance, as it should be, allowing the fruit to absorb the spirits, and the spirits to infuse with the natural citrus and sugars. Winegasm's version, using triple sec, as well as peach and orange rums, was simply delicious and disappeared embarrassingly quickly. For the amateur wine drinker or someone who simply wants a tropical escape from the heat, I highly recommend this fantastic concoction. The tempranillo grapes also lent themselves to a delightfully substantial rose, darker and more full-bodied than most blush wines.
The room at Winegasm is rustic, romantic, and offers a high communal table spanning its length for large groups of friends, as well as more intimately tucked private tables for those who seek escape from the crowds. Everything about the decor made us feel simultaneously relaxed and welcome. Perfectly suitable for any occasion and any size of group.
The first small plate we sampled were roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese ($6). The peppers were remarkably tender and tangy, and the goat cheese silky and buttery. Even during this very first dish, we noticed that the cook here uses truffle oil throughout much of the menu the way any other chef might dash salt or pepper for seasoning. It was decadent, delicious, and a perfect way to commence the tasting. This was paired with a crisp and citrusy glass of Argentine Torrontes ($8) that really cut the richness of the cheese, and allowed the piquant flavors of the roasted peppers to shine. I would most definitely repeat this combination again.
Next, we enjoyed the truffle crostini, loaded with wild mushrooms, asparagus, fontina cheese, and again truffle oil. This disappeared almost as quickly as the sangria had in the beginning, and for $6, it would be hard to find a more delicious and affordable tapas on their menu. It was balanced perfectly with a slightly buttery, yet crisp pinot grigio.
Next came a dish about which I have read several rave reviews, the smoked bacon wrapped prunes ($5). While the savory and sweet elements were a perfect pairing, the room around us was getting busier, and we began to notice a slight change in the atmosphere. The bartender, now busy, accidentally poured us another glass of the Torrontes (a repeat of the first round) as he began to come somewhat unraveled in the slight influx of customers.
The cook, who miraculously does acrobatic sautee on just a couple of hot plates in a makeshift kitchen, was now juggling a few more orders, and unable to focus completely on each dish individually. The texture of the bacon was a little too similar to the warm, soft-centered prunes, and began to mush perhaps a little too much in our mouths and stick a wee bit too vigorously to our teeth (you can still see bubbles of bacon fat in the photo above).
It was at this point that the owner, with whom I had been scheduled the initial tasting, actually arrived, and swooped in to save the near miss, presenting a platter of tallegio, white cheddar, and sheep's milk cheese, garnished with raisin toast, dried apricots, and pine nuts.
He quickly removed the Torrontes as if he had been witnessing everything from a remote video monitor, smiled, and introduced himself, while placing us yet another platter of shaved speck, soppressata, and smoked duck.
With the arrival of Dean, who acts as both co-owner and sommelier, came a burst of energy and enthusiasm, and reason alone to make Winegasm a regular destination. As he served the remaining courses, he paired each with the perfect glass of wine, explaining the history of each vineyard, the significance of the region, along with anecdotes of how he came to fall in love with each selection.
Wine bars are increasingly a dime a dozen, and sometimes not altogether the friendliest of venues. Dean offered a refreshing balance of an obvious knowledge and contagious enthusiasm for wines, but none of the snobbery or affectation I so often receive from self-proclaimed connoisseurs. He is both charismatic, friendly, gracious, and enthusiastic to share his understandings of wine with you.
While it may have been a little hearty and robust for a warm spring evening, this prime roast cassoulet in provencal gravy with vegetables and mashed potatoes tasted like Christmas in June. If you come with an appetite that surpasses the need for mere tapas, I could not more wholeheartedly recommend this dish ($12). This was paired with a lavish flight of three robust glasses of blended varietals (pictured at the top of the post), a definite highlight of the evening.
Unfortunately, by the time the scallops on a garlic polenta pancake arrived, the room was bustling at its peak for the evening. Though the scallops were fresh, and most generously stacked with wild mushrooms, they were sadly somewhat overcooked and a little dry. When I return (and I most definitely will), I will watch the temperature of the room and the orders being submitted, and perhaps reorder this earlier on when I know the cook has ample time to do it justice. Again, the scallops were large and fresh... just drained of some of their natural flavors, and perhaps over-blanketed with garlic and butter. We did agree, however, the pairing with a glass of Lugana was simply perfect... an Italian white wine, slightly oaky, and nutty.
For dessert, we were treated to a delicious glass of Dolce Stilnovo, a surprisingly light, sweet dessert red, with decadent swirls of berries.
And how can you go wrong with a molten chocolate cake with a dollop of vanilla ice cream?
I still need to return a few more times, perhaps sample the truffle mac 'n cheese, and perhaps the red sangria. But I can already tell you that Winegasm is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine, whether novice or expert. The list has been carefully crafted by a team of owners who share an obvious passion for wine, as well as great service.
If you can finagle a seat at the bar with either Dean or Laris, I can't imagine a more enjoyable or informative evening. Wine classes are offered in small groups (more info on the website link above) and would undoubtedly equate to a perfect Sunday afternoon with friends. If the room is busy, I might stick to a cheese and meat plate (they were delicious) with a wine flight (all affordably priced by the glass). If the pace is somewhat calmer, definitely enjoy a sample of the kitchen-prepared dishes.