Whether or not you go to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it is coming to you this week with jam-packed bars and booked restaurants across town. The ringing till is always a welcome sound for our economy, but we need our sanity-saving strategies to survive the competition. Mine is to find places the Jazz Fest crowds haven't, which is why the year-round appeals of Vine & Dine really shine now.
Vine & Dine is a wine shop-turned-cafe in Algiers Point. It's just across the river from the French Quarter, but it might as well be over the rainbow for those toeing our dining scene's beaten path. Sharing an entrance with a barbershop and a resident cat, this is a wine destination with the laid-back ambience of a neighborhood watering hole, a place without any pretense.
The format will be familiar to fans of Bacchanal, that Bywater hotspot, though Vine & Dine is far less hip and much cheaper (also, there's no live music here). Diners pick a wine from retail racks and are served at tables or along the tiny bar. There are about 100 wine choices, including some respectable bottles for less than $20.
The boss here is Vanessa Thurber. She was a stockbroker in her native Arkansas until 9/11 upended her priorities and put her in a U-Haul to see what life in New Orleans was all about. By 2008, she and her husband Stephen were living in Algiers Point, and they decided to start a retail wine shop for their mostly residential neighborhood. Noticing their neighbors' penchant to linger at the counter, they soon added a wine bar and dine-in menu.
That menu reads like a cocktail party catering list, and socially it functions in much the same way. With its cheese platters, pate, dips, salads and charcuterie, Vine & Dine is more about noshing and sharing than conventional restaurant dining. This food is simple and usually very good. The Brie and crab au gratin is a rich, creamy casserole so liquid it's best eaten with a spoon. Shrimp remoulade is piquant and plump. The sausage plate features a mix of four links and looks like something a friend just pulled off the backyard grill. Large slabs of crusty focaccia are like small pizzas, topped with shrimp and artichokes and sheets of parmigiano reggiano or a bubbling crust of mozzarella and mushrooms over flank steak.
You've probably seen most of the selections for cheese platters and antipasti at the supermarket, but the presentations are attractive and very generous. At what other wine bar do you see people packing up cartons of leftovers like they just threw in the towel at Mandina's? That happens frequently here.
The Canal Street ferry is the best way to get to Vine & Dine and/or Algiers Point. It departs every 30 minutes, and you can see the ferry landing from Vine & Dine's door. That means missing the boat can easily justify another round.