WHERE : 720 Orleans Ave., 523-1927; www.orleansgrapevine.com
WHEN : Dinner nightly
HOW : Credit cards
RESERVATIONS : Accepted
There's something about a wine bar -- a smart, casual place to sample a glass or three with a cheese plate or appetizers -- that works better in a business plan than in practice. New cafes will open from time to time and be touted as wine bars, with thoughtful lists, expensive stemware and staff who can recite Robert Parker tasting notes like sonnets. But return a few months later and, while you might still get some nice wines, chances are the place will be much more like a conventional lounge, seduced by the higher profit margins of beer and liquor.
To keep focused on wine, it turns out to be really helpful to have a hand grenade in your corner. In the case of the Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar & Bistro, that would be the potent, parrot-feather-green cocktail called the hand grenade, served in a hand grenade-shaped souvenir cup, hawked by a guy bobbing around the sidewalk in an inflatable hand-grenade costume and sold from four bars along Bourbon Street all owned by Earl Bernhardt and Pam Fortner.
Bernhardt explains that while they make their money on Bourbon Street, the Grapevine is very much the couple's pet project and the place where they have their fun. Since opening in 2002, it has built up a large wine list for a small place, with about 450 selections available by the bottle, which may well be the largest ratio of bottles to square feet of any restaurant in the city. They serve 75 of them by the glass.
With subdued lighting, a player piano and exposed brick walls, the place exudes the weathered warmth of the building's early 19th-century vintage. There are also fliers at the bar for the owners' other properties, in case anyone wants to wash down a slice of cheesecake or last glass of Gewurztraminer with a hand grenade.
Overall, the food is a little more expensive and a touch more ambitious than the local French bistro standard, while individual dishes range widely between middling and amazing. Chef Eddie Ray King's best dishes draw on a restrained hand with sauces, fine raw ingredients, ample supplies of nice cheese and the will to use it liberally.
The soft-shell crab appetizer falls under the amazing category for all the reasons listed above. The crab itself was small, but simply seasoned and spared the usual battering and frying for a gentle saut that left it tasting like not much more than crab and butter. It was served on top of fresh greens drizzled with an amandine sauce that was somehow light and dressed with crumbles of Belgian feta, a variety that is smoother and less salty than the more familiar Greek cheese.
About as good was the scallop appetizer, which had four fat, flavorful scallops trussed with thick cuts of bacon and seared to a nice crustiness. There was a small salad of wild rice and mushrooms underneath for an earthy foundation, but what really set off the sweet briny goodness and salty savor of the scallop/bacon combination was a light honey reduction sauce. The chipotle crab cakes had a smooth crust, with hardly anything underneath besides the crab, and were set on lightly charred orange slices for a smoky, citrus burst. The sauted calamari was also very good and a nice change of pace from fried squid.
The appetizer of beef medallions in Marsala cream sauce was richer than it was good, and the steamed mussels didn't do much but make me think about how many other places do them better. Still, a few of the better appetizers and a salad -- like the small entre-sized one with slabs of duck breast, mixed greens and an abundant spread of blue cheese -- would make a very happy meal indeed.
The entre list is best where it is simplest. The bouillabaisse had plenty of seafood, but none of it was distinct, and the shrimp were downright bad, gray-looking and skinny. The most hearty selection, a 14-oz. pork chop, was one of the best offerings, cut through with an orange-pepper glaze that registered about two hits on the lip-smacking scale and served with a boar-sausage hash that I would have ordered all on its own were it available as such. The tuna was also somehow hearty, served as a large, thick tenderloin-shaped cut that was rolled in sesame seeds. The rack of lamb was also worthy and artfully presented with the bones interlocking like dueling forks. Side dishes of pineapple and coconut basmati rice or curried couscous were nice, balanced additions.
The dining room tables are a bit of an oddity. They have nice marble tabletops -- some round, some rectangular and bar-height, one really long one to seat eight -- all permanently embedded in the tile floor. If this was done to remedy the annoyance of rocking tables -- a scourge of restaurant dining rooms everywhere -- it certainly did the job, but also gave the place the most rigid floor plan this side of a Burger King.
There are a few tables on the sidewalk, and it's common for people to hit the cigar shop next door and smoke out front with a glass of wine. Also, if you only want drinks and maybe a cheese plate, the patio in back offers seats but no dinner service. Sometimes the best seats are at the horseshoe-shaped bar, where you will find the owners almost every night in the corner having their dinner and occasionally peeking out the door at their Tropical Isle club, just half a block -- but a world of elegance -- away.