Drinkin' & drivin' (metaphorically) 

Location, location, location is the mantra of real-estate mavens
20nine Restaurant & Wine Bar
955 E. Basse in the Quarry Market
798-WINE
4-11pm Sun-Thu;
4-midnight Fri-Sat (Kitchen closes 1 hour earlier)
Credit Cards
Entrées $16-28; wine snacks $7-13
Accessible

Location, location, location is the mantra of real-estate mavens. It’s also the grail of grape growers, and in California there’s no location more lusted over than the Napa Valley. Traversed by Highway 29 (and the parallel Silverado Trail), the valley boasts such wine-world worthies as Raymond, Heitz, Silver Oak, Opus One, Chateau Montelena, and more. 20nine Restaurant and Wine Bar has taken this legendary motorway as its moniker, and the wine end of its operation pays appropriate homage to both Napa and its cohorts in terroir around the globe.

20nine has taken over the old location of Metropolitain in the Quarry — not a bad piece of real estate in its own right — and the transformation could hardly be more dramatic. Where a pastry case once sparkled with petit fours there’s now a backlit bar. The west-facing dining room, often too bright to bear in the past, is now announced by luxe draperies and gilded with a mural of Napa’s star sites. Not surprisingly, the overall feel is much clubbier than before (though if you miss the old café furniture you can find much of it at La Frite in Southtown). Frankly, I love it.

I’m also enamored of the constantly changing tasting flights assembled by owners Troy and Marisa Fulmer, a couple still associated with the Dallas-based Cru chain of wine bars. Baptized Road Trips, these carefully selected trios of wines in two-ounce pours come to your table in a crafty holder that allows the waiter to whisk it away leaving the three glasses perfectly aligned in front of you. (I’m amused by small things, obviously.) You’re also presented with a card of tasting notes, arranged left to right to match the position of the wines, usually calibrated in ascending degrees of complexity. It’s both a learning experience and top-down fun, like a journey on a winding rural road.

A recent trio of pinot gris/grigios managed pit stops in Oregon, Carneros, and Tuscany, gaining momentum as it progressed. A Drive up Highway 29 yielded a grapey pinot meunier from Chandon, a vanilla and spice-laden merlot from Sterling Three Palms, and the chewy-dusty Franciscan Magnificat. Spectacular Sauvignon Blancs spanned the grape’s gamut from grapefruity-grassy to tropical-toasty. Besides possibly picking a wine to carry you through the remainder of the evening, there’s another advantage to the Road Trips: each totals six ounces, while a by-the-glass pour in the larger glassware is five and a half ounces for about the same price. The bottle-pricing philosophy? Keep it low. Torres’s powerful Mas la Plana cabernet, which retails for around $50, is here only $75, for example. How can they do this? “We count on the food to keep us `in the black`”, revealed Marisa. This is surprising for a couple of reasons.

First, conventional wisdom says the bar carries the restaurant. Second, 20nine has a ways to go before it becomes a wine and food destination — not that it isn’t on the right route. (A new fall menu should be out by the time you read this, including such dishes as chicken pot pie.) Of the three Flat Breads From The Brick I’ve sampled, only the apple with blue cheese, arugula, and walnuts met my expectations. The pricey beef-tenderloin version was bullied by its aggressive pesto, and a “wild” mushroom model was tame by any standards. Thinking Tuscan fettunta (a form of bruschetta often spread with chicken-liver paté), I was surprised when 20nine’s rendition came mounded with “exotic” mushrooms, relegating the top-billed livers to garnish status. Yet the taste was good regardless, and the bread paired almost perfectly with a Road Trip of pinots. Duck-confit tamales in a sweetish masa almost triumphed as well; the duck just needed to be a little bolder. Fried oysters could have been fried anything; it was all about the coating — though we loved the tangy slaw the crispy critters were bedded on. And a salad of baby beets with mixed greens and fennel was superb but for one detail: the accompanying balls of goat cheese had been rolled in pedal-to-the-metal quantities of cayenne or equal, seriously exceeding the spicy speed limit.

Rhône wines are one of the few potholes in the wine list; we’re assured it will be filled. We’d wanted one to accompany a brace of Big Fork dishes. Now, it’s true that I had been recognized by Troy, but I can’t imagine he wouldn’t give anyone the same quality of advice; his recommendation of a 2002 Green & Red Sobrante Zinfandel blend was spot-on with the pistachio-crusted lamb chops and natural beef short ribs. The ribs in particular returned the favor, the braising in pinot noir lending an earthy quality to the meat’s melting fattiness. (I’m not sure they need to be served with equally unctuous mac and cheese, however.) The lamb chops were another story. OK on their own, they were detoured by a stridently vinegary “glaze” of clumpy fig and balsamic. This one needs a little repaving.

The end of the road one night was represented by a shared glass of Ramos Pinto 20-year tawny port served with a tiny ramekin of crumbled blue cheese, and the combination of nutty with earthy was sensational. A brioche-light bread pudding with a brownie component also sent us out with a smile, suggesting that a Testa-Rosa trip up 20nine might soon be possible — and not just because all sparkling wines are half-price on Thursdays.

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