Wine Bar Adds To Hampden Scene

Restaurant Review

13.5% Is More Of A Cafe, Offering Salads, Panini And Small Plates For Under $10

August 16, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,

When Wayne Laing was planning to open a wine bar in Hampden, he wanted it to be more of a cafe than some wine bars are. It was an ambitious undertaking, given that the kitchen equipment of the new 13.5% Wine Bar consists of a panini grill, two convection ovens and a slicer.

Wine and beer are still more important here than food, of course. Laing is the former owner of the nearby Wine Underground, and his new space on The Avenue is a retail shop as well as a place to get a glass of vino. All the wines on the 20-foot-high retail wall include an $8 corkage fee. If you buy a bottle to take away, the fee is deducted from the price. It seems a roundabout way of doing things, but I sort of get why, if your primary focus is on the people who drink it there. The international list includes more than 30 wines by the glass and 200 by the bottle.

From the moment it opened, 13.5% has been a hit. When we went, the place was packed, and people were waiting outside for tables. We sat instead at the bar to wait, which gave me a chance to see the fancy equipment that keeps opened bottles of wine fresh. It looks like a refrigerated case for 12 bottles; pumped-in inert gas keeps the wine from oxidizing. The bottles that receive this special handling, the bartender told us, were the ones that were most expensive by the glass. The open bottles of cheaper wines are gone before the evening ends.

Few of the wines by the glass are expensive, however. There is a California chardonnay for $16 and an Italian red for $22, but there are also $5 glasses and many in the $7 range.

It's the food I found expensive. Maybe not for Harbor East, but for Hampden.

I like the way everything - salads, appetizers, panini and small plates - is kept under $10. The ingredients are high quality and the presentation is beautiful. But be warned: The serving sizes are small.

The antipasto plate, for instance, is a lovely arrangement of prosciutto and such, with a bit of cheese, some olives, a grilled red pepper and so on. But there's no bread, so you order some of the excellent grilled bread to eat with it. (It comes with a fine balsamic vinegar, olive oil and Parmesan cheese to dip it in.) Pretty soon, you're talking real money.

When the kitchen isn't slammed as it was this weeknight, you might have better luck than we did with the small plates. The Il Casanova, half a game hen roasted with a little honey, was overcooked, which made it dry. The asparagus spears covered with a bit of melted brie were a little wrinkled themselves.

The Napoleon's Napoleon was tiny but had the potential to be a fabulous vegetarian dish. Don't fail to notice, however, the mention of sriracha mashed potatoes on the menu, as the person who ordered it did. At least I'm assuming they were what made the dish too fiery to eat without weeping. The potatoes are layered with eggplant, red peppers, zucchini and pasta, and decorated with zigs and zags of pretty sauces. Lovely to look at, hard to eat if heavy spicing gets to you.

The six small plates are the dishes that are most interesting to me on the menu, but when the place is crowded, it might be best to stick to the panini, which are very good if not large.

The kitchen has a variety of good cheeses to work with for the Grilled Cheese of the Moment (or, for that matter, the cheese plate); but whatever the cooks decide to use - this night it was asiago and mozzarella - the cheese will probably be hot, meltingly delicious and best showcased between slices of rustic Italian bread.

Crotonese cheese, assertive enough to stand up to slices of grilled tenderloin and cipollini onions, rounds out another fine panino (this time on ciabatta). Both come with white and sweet potatoes roasted with rosemary.

The best part of ending a meal at 13.5% is the French press coffee, but there were two desserts the night we were there. One was a warm brownie with a chocolate mascarpone mousse (made inhouse) on top. The mousse would have been lovely on its own, but it overwhelmed the fine brownie from nearby Puffs & Pastries.

"They ought to just throw some vanilla ice cream on that puppy and call it a day," my daughter said. I had to agree.

The other dessert was a jewel-like round of cheesecake with a thin layer of raspberry topping. I thought it was fabulous.

Speaking of fabulous, I was impressed by how attentive the bartender and our waitress were in spite of the crush. No, it wasn't formal service; but the food and drink came quickly, water glasses were filled without asking, questions were answered without any sense of haste, and so on.

The looks of the place are great, too. The storefront (it was formerly the Craig Flinner art gallery) has been completely renovated so it now has a cool 1960s vibe that fits right into the Hampden scene. The color scheme is built around the striking orange Italian bar stools.

There are exposed pipes, a handsome flagstone wall, pressed-tin ceiling - you probably see where I'm going with this. When 13.5% is packed, the noise levels are unbearable. If that doesn't bother you, you'll love the atmosphere.

This is a great little place, or will be when things calm down and it's not the newest hot spot in town. When I go back to the 13.5% Wine Bar it will probably be to drink wine, and maybe to have the cheese plate or antipasto, rather than for a meal.

Still, I'd like to give those small plates another try when the kitchen isn't quite so busy.

13.5% Wine Bar

ADDRESS: 1117 W. 36th St., Hampden

CONTACT: 410-889-1064,

HOURS: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and supper.

PRICES: Panini: $7.95-$9.95, small plates: $7.95-$9.95

FOOD: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

SERVICE: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

ATMOSPHERE: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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