By Jennifer Meier
Special to the Daily Press
ROSE AVE Hanging out at Venice Beach Wines is like hanging out at a party in someone’s backyard. The mood is relaxed and friendly and it’s likely you’ll eventually end up socializing with the people next to you. It’s hard not to introduce yourself when you’re sitting (if you’re lucky) or standing so close to someone that your elbows are rubbing. If you’re adverse to crowds, then plan to drop by in the afternoon or early evening, as Venice Beach Wines has become a popular destination most nights of the week.
The retail side of Venice Beach Wines and the open kitchen operate out of a space not much bigger than a large walk-in closet. The wine bar is out front on a small patio, where wine boxes are used as tables for those lucky enough to find a seat on a bench. This is the type of wine bar you can go to straight from the beach or dressed up in a skirt and heels. You can sip a $16 glass of The Prisoner, a red blend with a cult-like following, or an $8 glass of simple California Pinot Grigio.
Eight whites and eight reds are typically offered and rounded out with a small selection of sparkling wines and roses. The wine menu includes straightforward descriptions to help guide you, such as “creamy and rich,” “herbaceous and earthy” and “dry and crisp.” If none of the wines by the glass are tempting, you can buy a bottle from the small retail shop and drink it in the wine bar for a $15 corkage fee, which is no more and often less than most restaurants mark up wine. A well-rounded beer and cider selection is also available and either will pair just as well, if not better, with the food as a glass of wine.
The food, broken into categories on the menu like “nibbles,” “smallish plates,” and “melty cheese hot pots” is ideal for sharing. The portions are large enough to accommodate this and are often quite rich — at the end of the night you’ll be glad you shared a decadent blend of melted teleme, fontina and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses with white truffle oil rather than eating it all yourself.
Hummus may sound like a lighter choice, but at Venice Beach Wines a generous mound of hummus with mint pesto, cherry tomatoes and toasted pine nuts ends up being quite filling. It is served with plenty of toasted bread slices to scoop up the hummus and has a rich flavor without being too garlicky. The smoked whitefish crostini is a smallish plate that will satisfy anyone who is a fan of whitefish salad. The creamy whitefish spread on top of toasted bread is simple, but very flavorful.
Salads on a recent night ranged from a classic Greek dressed up with the addition of fennel, pickled onions and radish, to a grilled peach with goat cheese, speck, arugula and walnuts. An heirloom melon and tomato salad with basil and prosciutto rounded out the selection and was a surprisingly perfect blend of flavors. The tomatoes were sweet enough to pair nicely with the melon and both provided a tasty contrast to the thin slices of salty prosciutto.
If you’re not in the mood to share, pressed sandwiches such as buffalo meatloaf with grilled onions, bacon and buttermilk blue cheese or a veggie burger with fontina cheese, almond romesco sauce, artichoke spread, arugula and shaved fennel make a hearty meal. Although you’re at a wine bar these sandwiches, as well as a tempting curry lamb sandwich with mint, manchego cheese, tomatoes and onions are exactly the type of menu items better suited to a cold beer than a glass of wine. There are just too many flavors competing on the plate to make wine pairing an easy task.
The safest bet if you want your wine to be elevated by what you’re eating is to order from the lengthy cheese and charcuterie menu. Both the cheese and charcuterie are served with various spreads (like a killer mustard), fruits, toasted nuts and bread. The cheese list is interesting but not too daring and balances more pungent cheeses like epoisses with crowd pleasers like Humboldt Fog and aged gouda. Each cheese is listed with a helpful description so there is no need to be intimidated when making a selection. Cheese can be ordered alone or with an excellent selection of charcuterie. Dry chorizo, salami and prosciutto are familiar choices on the menu and are all very good. If you haven’t tried bresaola, beef with a delicate flavor, or lomo, spiced pork tenderloin, both are air-cured meats worth adding to your order. Speck, jamon serrano and a housemade duck rillet round out the charcuterie selection.
For a small bite or a full meal, for a leisurely glass of wine in the afternoon or a bottle with friends on a Friday night, Venice Beach Wines is a neighborhood wine bar worth seeking out. If you’ve outgrown the bars on nearby Main Street or Abbot Kinney but don’t want to leave the neighborhood, Venice Beach Wines is the perfect solution.
Jennifer Meier is a culinary school graduate who has worked for restaurants and wine and cheese shops throughout Los Angeles. You can visit her Web site at busygirlscookbook.wordpress.com.
If You Go:
529 Rose Ave., Venice 90291
Sun-Thurs 11:30 a.m. —11 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. —12 a.m.
Sandwiches $7 — $10
Smallish Plates $8
Melty Cheese Hot Pots $9
Sweet Stuff $6