Lowertown has officially arrived. When new wine bar Bin held an opening celebration on February 13, Mayor Chris Coleman was in attendance, so even politicians are acknowledging the importance of reviving downtown St. Paul's long-sleepy nightlife scene. Completing the letter "B" trifecta on its block of Sixth Street (following popular neighbors Bulldog and Barrio), Bin is a dimly lit, cozy yet sophisticated hangout with high ceilings, exposed brick, an antique bar, and all used or recycled furniture, including high-top tables made from wine barrels.
Proprietor Rebecca Illingworth, who also owns an advertising agency with branches here and in Chicago, moved back to the Twin Cities about a year ago, settling in Lowertown. (She'd attended part of high school and college here after growing up in Mexico City.) She says that the reception Bin is receiving from neighbors is everything she'd hoped for. "Everyone has been just so gracious, so incredibly inviting. We've had so many people that are just thrilled for us to be there, including businesses. It says a lot about Lowertown and the city of St. Paul in general."
Illingworth had been surprised that there wasn't a true wine bar in the city, and she decided to take on the task herself. "I've always said I opened this place because we needed it," she notes, "and by we I really meant our neighborhood. It was kind of a missing link, because we have burgers and beer at Bulldog, Mexican and tequila at Barrio, and Italian at [Trattoria] da Vinci, so missing was wine and light fare. We're not about full dinners; it's truly about the tasting and the pairing experience."
The Bin premises, a former copy shop, didn't originally have a kitchen, and the one that's been installed is tiny, with just enough room to handle salads, pizzas, and the like. Illingworth loved the space at first sight. She'd been looking around for about a month when she saw the "for lease" sign go up one day while walking her dog. She called right away and signed the lease the next day. "I knew it was perfect," she says. "It's a historical building, and just the character of the brick and the timbers was exactly what I was looking for."
The layout does have some quirks. The back room, which offers space for slightly larger groups along with a couple of intimate two-seat tables, is currently the one customers walk into first, rather than the more impressive bar area overlooking the twinkling lights of Mears Park. This is a consequence of the cold weather. "It's interesting the things you don't think of," Illingworth says. "There wasn't a front door, so I had the front door installed [on the corner of Sixth and Sibley], but because of the nature of the building—I've learned so much about heating and cooling I can't even tell you—it pulls the heat out." It does, dramatically. Sitting near that door, we were hit by an Arctic blast when people exited through it. So for now, customers are using one of the main building entrances, on Sibley, instead. When spring finally comes around, the front door will be utilized and outdoor seating added.
Bin's raison d'être is wine, and the approach is interesting. There are two wine menus, both offering reds and whites. The first features many options available by the glass or tasting portion and, according to Illingworth, it was kept simple on purpose. "I wanted the price points to be moderate, but I also wanted all the bottles to have a very nice score. It was really fun finding a wine list that had reasonable bottles that were scored well, and also wasn't intimidating to the entry-level wine consumer. So if you don't have experience with wine, this is the place to go. I didn't even put a vintage on there, and it was very intentional." Flights are served in stemless glasses nestled in cute wooden crates, with accompanying cards to remind imbibers of what they're sipping. A Bridlewood Chardonnay from Monterey, California, was light and dry with just hints of fruitiness, and was a perfect complement to a spinach salad, while a Chilean Root 1: Carmenere was spicy and tannin-heavy, a nice foil to a selection of cured meats.
Then there's the reserve wine list, available only by the bottle. The list consists of "the next level of sophisticated wines, for the more experienced wine drinker," Illingworth says. It does include vintages, and features bottles such as a 2004 Chateau Vignot St. Emilion Grand Cru from Bordeaux and a 2005 Louis Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Valley.
Within the next month, Illingworth plans to create a third wine list, "for the real aficionado," she says, "and that's where the wine club comes in. Instead of me putting it together and just saying, 'Here's the wine list,' I thought it'd be fun to have everyone—we, the wine club—put it together. I had a couple this weekend that said they'd love that because there are certain vintners they can't get. Well, there's a good chance I can. So this way people can make suggestions and we can have a lot of participation and fun with it." Illingworth notes that patrons can find out how to join by becoming a fan of Bin on Facebook. The club will be kept small, around 50 people at most, and members will be allowed to go down to the cellar to enjoy wine on their own. The addition of the cellar delayed Bin's opening by a month, but Illingworth says it was well worth it. "The downstairs is really cool. We have leather furniture down there and big dining tables. Getting it together was a lot of fun. Decorating is another one of my hobbies."
In addition to the wine program, there's a full bar, a few beers, and the requisite martini list, which includes fruity and chocolaty concoctions as well as the Garden Martini, with Hendrick's Gin, dry vermouth, and cucumber, which sounds like a perfect summer refreshment.
Chef Dave Jebens designed the food menu according to Illingworth's concept of small, very flavorful dishes that could easily be paired with wines. "We've kept all our prices very moderate, so people can order numerous items and enjoy and train their palate to pair themselves," she says. (Wine recommendations are listed with all food items on the menu, so novices can start there.)
Three salads are offered, and since one is a Caesar and one comes with raspberry vinaigrette, it seems odd that there are seven dressings to choose from—but I suppose it's always good to have options. The two I tried, the spinach salad and the romaine house mix, offered similar flavors of soft, pungent cheese, sweet-tart fruit, and salty, crunchy nuts—the first with feta, strawberries, and almonds, the second with bleu cheese, dried cherries, and candied walnuts. Both hit all the right notes.
Among the array of small plates, baguette slices topped with beets and chèvre were a tangy, creamy, chewy treat. A corn-tomato-mint salsa tasted bright and fresh, and the Asian guacamole had a nice gingery kick. Those and other spreads and salsas are served with warm pita triangles.
There are five sandwiches, served panini style on grilled ciabatta and cut into easy-to-share strips. The Midwest, with turkey, cranberry relish, and baby Swiss cheese, was a sweeter than expected yet pleasing combination reminiscent of the best kind of Thanksgiving leftovers. The Mexican is slightly spicy due to diced jalapeño, and salty and hearty with ham, queso fresco, and refried black beans, though the flavors could have been bolder. Favorites were the Cuban, a perfectly rendered version including the traditional ingredients (ham, shredded pork, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard), and the Italian, with sopressata, provolone, roasted red peppers, and pesto—the last component moved a friend to declare it "a little burst of summer." There's also a vegetarian sandwich option: grilled portabella with sweet peppers and onion relish. A flatbread dubbed the Wild Flats, with fontina cheese and wild mushrooms, was tasty but a bit too dry. Other Flats are more substantial, but between the two hot food categories, the sandwiches were more successful, and they actually cost a dollar less than the flatbreads.
A charcuterie board was served with marinated artichokes and a toothpick spearing a cherry tomato, green olive, and salami-and-cheese-stuffed pepperoncini. The meats—a salami, prosciutto, and a sweet chorizo-like sausage—were all good but didn't wow, though the spicy mustard livened things up quite a bit. A cheese board consisted of a sharp aged Asiago, brie with champagne mushrooms, and Camemzola, a combination of Camembert and Gorgonzola.
The small portions (and prices) make it easy to try several items on the varied menu (smoked salmon with dill spread and dates stuffed with bleu cheese and pecans are two of the many other morsels on it). There's even, surprisingly, a children's menu—three options including a PB&J, all served with fresh fruit—so Bin truly is welcoming to a diverse neighborhood crowd. Having just opened, the spot is still working out some kinks: phone problems causing a lack of voicemail, a few minor mistakes on early menus, occasional slowdowns in otherwise friendly and inviting service. So far crowds are flowing in, and it seems that Bin is a great fit for the building and area. The resurgence of downtown St. Paul continues.