Spill the Wine's Pinterest-like perfection
The restaurant business is notoriously risky, shifty, and unpredictable. If you make it a year and don't go bankrupt, you're considered relatively successful. So if you manage to survive for more than half a decade and find critical success, an enthusiastic community, and a steady flow of customers at a downtown location, what would prompt the decision to pick up an entire operation and make a major move? For Katie Greeman of Spill the Wine, it was two things. One was an increasingly contentious relationship with the building manager at their original location (Washington Avenue South and 11th Avenue) over the abrupt change in the rental availability of the loft space above the restaurant. And two, there was the allure of being able to operate with later hours, in a location where customers would most certainly appreciate and take advantage of them. So to Lyn-Lake they went, completely overhauling the space at the corner of Lake Street and Bryant Avenue, a former bike shop, before moving in in April.
Everything about the interior, from the waiting area complete with a ceramic dispenser of fruit water to the bathroom doors inscribed with chalk, feels like walking into a Pinterest board titled "rustic wedding reception," which, incidentally, Spill the Wine is available to host. General Manager Barbara DeVos explained that though the restaurant intends to remain open to the neighborhood as often as possible, they plan to close for private events one or two weekend nights a month. "We've already held a few receptions that were booked at the old space," she says, "and it really looked amazing in here." I can imagine. The airy space is decorated using elements of industrial design, upcycled items, and the familiar charm of a summer cabin. Interspersed throughout are little oenological (a.k.a "the science and study of all aspects of wine and winemaking" except vine-growing and grape-harvesting. Try using it in a sentence today, à la Cher Horowitz) touches like the split-open corks used to present guest checks and the massive wooden wine barrels that appear to be holding up the stainless steel countertop in the bar area, where the full food menu is also served. There are a few sidewalk tables on Bryant right now, but DeVos notes that construction is just starting on a more fully formed patio. "We will be re-doing the parking lot and putting up a pergola out back with room for four more tables." She says if all goes well it should be open before the end of May.
Despite the burst of new energy at the Lyn-Lake location, Spill the Wine remains a rather relaxed experience, due in large part to the "served as it's ready" policy of the kitchen. Plates come out in waves and are meant to be ogled and shared until the next thing arrives. The way the menu is set up reminds me a bit of 112 Eatery. They offer eclectic plates of varying sizes that you can combine to make any kind of meal your little heart desires. In general, they play it a bit safer than 112's menu — it's not as "chefy," but if you visited the original location years ago and think it's going to be the same old bruschetta and tapenade, get ready for a big leap forward. Spill the Wine does an exceptionally good job of mixing highbrow with homey (there's braised lamb neck with wild ramp pesto, but there are also refrigerator pickles served in a personal-size canning jar), resulting in a menu that is approachable but still interesting. It's smartly designed for an area that has a high bar set in terms of quality, variety, and availability but also appreciates a cheese curd. And these cheese curds, let me tell you, are State Fair dairy-building good. They are a little fancier than your average bar curd, dappled with shavings of black truffles and more melty than stringy on the inside, but whatever they're doing in the battering and frying process makes them ethereally light and elicited an actual "whoa" at first bite. They're now my No. 1 curd in town, with Red Cow and Town Hall Tap's brie curds in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, respectively.
But there is so much more than fried cheese on Spill the Wine's menu. Chef Craig Johnson, who trained under beloved local chefs JP Samuelson at D'Amico Cucina and Isaac Becker when he was at Cafe Lurcat, is delivering not-so-small small plates (the scallop dish includes three sizeable mollusks, which is usually categorized as a full-blown entree at most restaurants) using sustainably sourced fish, lots of seasonal ingredients, and just the right level of restraint. A bowl of beautifully browned, pillowy gnocchi with shreds of king crab, fresh oregano, and pecorino cheese was simultaneously rich and light — excellent with the dry but lively Firestone Riesling. The salt cod fritters — a traditional Spanish tapas dish — were crisp, creamy, and full of flavor, a great match for the light and citrusy Famega vinho verde. The signature burger is juicy, nicely textured, and bold with accoutrements of pork belly and cumin aioli. Fries are gorgeously golden, skin-on, and tossed with a little truffle oil for good measure.
Only slightly off-key was the grilled skirt steak, which itself was nicely seasoned and cooked, but the celery root and apple slaw on top was overly vinegary. And although I heartily applaud the choice to go outside the potatoes/puree/pancetta treatment that you see everywhere else, the scallops with already bitter frisee were given an added dimension of bitterness when grilled. Desserts — particularly the lemon ricotta fresh-fried doughnuts and the tropical tres leches with tart passionfruit sauce and lime zest — were solid and, in keeping with the theme here, sized to share. Brunch is served on weekends and is perfectly suited for a lazy Sunday. Start with hangover-friendly fried rice with Chinese sausage and poached egg, move slowly into thin, eggy, baked Finnish pancakes, and conclude your meal with savory and nostalgic cheddar rarebit and scrambled eggs, served over toast with a little summer squash.
For a wine bar, the wine list is not overwhelming. Wines are divided geographically and sold by the glass and bottle, and also curated into smart, complementary (no, not complimentary — you gotta pay) flights. Spill the Wine actually offers about the number of bottles that a lot of non-wine-bar restaurants keep in stock, except the selection here is rotated much more frequently. Servers will certainly share their knowledge, comments, and suggestions if you wish, but if you just know what you like and go for it, don't worry — you're not going to get any snooty lectures or looks. But one of the most unusual aspects of this lovely wine bar is that it's not wine-only. The grape-averse will be happy to know that they can also get a Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale, a Sazerac with 10-herb-infused syrup, or a seasonally appropriate sparkling treat made with Proseco, lemongrass vodka, and St-Germain. For the full experience at a fraction of the cost, I'd especially recommend going on a Monday when the restaurant is criminally quiet and the by-the-glass wines are sold for half-price when you order them by the bottle.
So did they make the right move by relocating? My early opinion is absolutely yes. They'll be more visible and higher-profile in Lyn-Lake, which is a good position when making a second debut, but more important than what the neighborhood will do for them is what they will do for the neighborhood. They're helping to reshape the image of a wine bar, moving away from something stuffy, and possibly creating a whole new generation of oenophiles.
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