Irving Park’s new market and bar brings the goods to a formerly dining-deprived enclave
By Mike Sula
“This my body,” said Jesus, breaking the matzo and passing it around to the apostles before uncorking the Jerusalem red. “This is my blood.” And so was born the miracle of transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into the flesh of Christ (and the indoctrination of centuries of confused Christian children in the practice of church-sanctioned cannibalism.)
Naming your wine bar with such eucharistic implications could, among a certain flock, seem blasphemous, but so far Opus Dei has failed to notice Jennifer Wisniewski and Lisa Fosler Kelly’s Bread & Wine, housed in a former laundromat (RIP the Washing Well) in the once dining-deprived Independence Park enclave of Old Irving. But the neighborhood is flocking to it. Just last September I was admiring the strategy of chef Javier Perez, who located his midscale MexItalian Al Dente in this neighborhood previously served only by Smoque, Shokran, and Sabatino’s.
The name of the newcomer seems a little less presumptuous when you consider that all but the last are BYOBs, and the neighborhood, full of handsome single-family homes, really is thirsting for some decent wine and snacks and simple meals to go with it. It’s not like they’re claiming to be bigger than Jesus; just offering some essentials where they couldn’t be had before.
To that end, Wisniewski, a front-of-the- house vet from Cafe Absinthe, Green Dolphin Street, and Naha, and Kelly, an attorney and recent Kendall grad, added a small retail market in the southwest corner of the space, where house-made nut mixes and cookies and other locally made comestibles (Intelligentsia, Red Hen, Pasta Puttana) share limited shelf space with bottles from their mostly New World, small-production-dominated wine list. In the dining room bordered by two long bars, one fronting the open kitchen, those wines are printed front and back on two unwieldy, difficult-to-follow pages. It’s easy to lose your place among the sparklings, reds, and whites (simply numbering the pages would help), most ranging in the $20s and $30s but still priced with the 100 percent-plus markups that characterize wine lists in most restaurants.
Nearly two dozen of these are available by the glass (most under $10), which makes it easy to work through a selection of chef Curtis Gamble’s house-made charcuterie: a nicely fatty, snappy pig-face pancetta, salty tasso, slices of ruby red duck breast prosciutto, or a generous jar of creamy chicken liver paté. All of these make attractive arrangements, with an adequate balance of sweet and pickled accents (say, date jam or fennel-orange marmalade, mustard, cornichons). But like the selection of mostly local cheeses, they don’t seem to be kept at the proper temperature before serving: a layer of cold, rock-hard schmaltz requires a chisel to break through to the paté, and I caught my pal warming up some manchego-style sheep’s milk cheese in his palms before eating it.
Other typical wine-friendly bites—olives, nuts, stuff on toast like creme fraiche-slathered Wisconsin smoked trout hidden in a pile of fresh greenery—enable a supplementary snacking situation to the drinks (which include a few cocktails, beers, spirits). Apart from these Gamble makes a few conspicuous nods toward international inclusiveness: there’s a banh mi smeared with the aforementioned paté and country ham, a pair of chorizo tacos with cactus salad, and a sop to gluten-averse vegans in pumpkin-seed-coated tofu and refried lentils.
But as a Pittsburgh transplant, Gamble should know his pierogi, and the dough of his duck confit-stuffed dumplings is dry, thick, and cakey. One of the two I was served (there were supposed to be three) was nearly burnt, making a pool of cool creme fraiche a necessary lubricant rather than a complementary condiment.
I liked his larger plates better in general, for their less self-consciously clever simplicity. A whey-poached chicken breast is a crispy-skinned, juicy muscle that hides a stewy bath of leg confit, roasted carrots, and soft truffled dumplings. Ruddy tangles of fettuccine are tossed with gobs of goat cheese, sweet stewed pumpkin, and oyster mushrooms. And even a few things that gave me a vague sense of unease were somehow pulled off well. I watched nervously as two thick slices of lamb meat loaf sizzled endlessly on the grill, seemingly forgotten, and when they arrived they looked like slabs of broken asphalt planted atop white yogurt-braised greens, dabs of brick red harissa the only color on the plate. But they were delicious, the soft meat loosely forming the texture of veggie burger with a surprisingly deep-flavored lambiness. A mix of beef and chorizo makes a firm yet moist burger, the sausage fattening the mineral dryness of the cow, while sweet onion jam and half-melted sharp cheddar are secured by a pillowy pretzel roll.
Besides a trio of desserts including sweet potato doughnuts, chocolate bread pudding, and a pair of supermoist triangles of rosemary-olive oil cake with tart lemon curd, a special of cool creamy panna cotta infused with popcorn and shellacked with caramel was something I’d return for.
That the food prices are generally more attractive than the wines’ might make that a likelihood too—there’s nothing over $17, and much of it is under or around $10, reinforcing that the body of the operation is ancillary to its blood.