If there’s a better place to be on a frigid winter night than in front of a fireplace at The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark Street in Albany with an excellent meal and a glass of wine, I don’t know it.
The basement warren of brick-walled, low-ceiling rooms sprawls between two buildings, encompassing several tiny dining rooms and a bar. Three gas fireplaces were blazing. It was toasty, and we loved it.
The design of the water glasses and carafe echo the beads in the candle holder on the tables, all sparkly from the fire. We were surrounded by a melange of textures: old brick, hefty ceiling timbers, cool concrete floor, wrought iron fixtures, roughly woven tasseled curtains.
In such intimate dining rooms you can’t help but hear conversation at the other tables and I’m sure our neighbors were unaware how much we enjoyed their conversation.
The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark
WHERE: 200 Lark St., Albany, 463-2281, winebaronlark.com
WHEN: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $107.57 with tax and tip
MORE INFO: No reservations. Credit cards Visa, Master Card, American Express, Discover. Parking on street.
There are just enough entrees. That night the sampling included roasted lamb shank, duck breast, chicken cassoulet and hanger steak, most priced in the low $20 range. The soup of the day was $9, and a field green salad $12.
Starters included crab cake ($14) and grilled Korean short ribs with house-made kimchee ($14).
There’s a wine menu with selections by the glass and bottle, and a mixed drinks menu as well.
The vegetable antipasto ($13) is a healthful, tasty selection of heirloom vegetables, including fat garlic wedges, leek loops, petite carrots, gherkins, all tangy and lightly pickled, with a scoop of dense and creamy chèvre, and toasted pecans. Some parts worked better than others — the green beans were pickled just enough, the carrots not quite.
Mary started with escargot ($9), which she praised for being “Not too heavy on garlic,” and dredged the grilled baguette through the buttery sauce. There was enough baguette for some of my chèvre.
The Wine Bar makes a terrific hanger steak ($24), exceptionally tender, a little fatty throughout, and perfectly cooked. It’s an odd piece, flavorful and reasonably priced but not always done as well as this.
The outside thin layer was cooked well, the rest medium rare but not raw. Like a flatiron or flank steak, it is grainy, with a beefy, more livery taste than the sweeter sirloin or filet.
It was accompanied by small, deep-fried chunks of peeled potato tossed with salt and black pepper, slender buttery haricots vert, and a tidy pile of chopped cooked beets. The meal’s components were balanced and complementary.
Mary’s seared duck breast ($21) was cooked medium, topped with lingonberry sauce and served with toasted quinoa and hot, buttery sliced squash.
Toasting kicked up the flavor of the quinoa and while the duck was tasty, Mary was disappointed that the skin wasn’t crispy. But overall the dish got raves, and Mary thought it was reasonably priced.
A few desserts are made in-house, like the flourless chocolate cake ($8), which is not a big serving but which Mary said had enough flavor to satisfy two. They get points for smart plating, with the ghost silhouette of a fork formed by dusting the plate with cocoa.
I ordered the halva Napoleon ($8). The layers of buttery phyllo were baked and stacked with generous helpings of sweetened whipped cream with some halva, or sesame paste, mixed in, which could stand on its own as dessert.
There was lots of nutty stuff that tasted a bit like toasted walnuts. The pear could have been riper but it was an outstanding dessert: light, but plenty for two or more.
The service was quiet, thorough and unobtrusive. Our cutlery was cleared and changed and water glasses kept full. All our food came out piping hot, or cold, as appropriate.
The tab for this remarkable meal was $107.57 with tax and tip.