One evening at Bascule Wine Bar, after happily working our way to the bottom of a dish piled with cheesy polenta and braised wild boar, my tablemates and I discovered a Twinkie-size cheesecloth-wrapped lump that had been camouflaged among the shredded meat. Though it appeared to be some variety of medical waste, we quickly realized it was the spice sachet employed in the braise. No big deal, we told our mortified server. That sort of gaffe can occur frequently enough in the young life of a new restaurant.
Or, for instance, a server might neglect to mention the charge for sparkling water. Or it might smell of mop water at the table next to the door leading to the basement prep kitchen. Those things happened during my visits too, but they don’t diminish my suspicion that sommeliers Jason Prah and Scott Harney—formerly of Acadia and Eno, respectively—are building something special at this snug Taylor Street spot.
The partners took over the space once inhabited by the short-lived Urban Union and inherited its wine-tap system, which is currently pouring five domestics by the glass: two whites, a rosé, and two reds, all chosen to pair reasonably with as wide a range of foods as possible. Further, there’s an impressively diverse and affordable list of bottles that spans the globe, with only three breaching the $100 mark and most hovering around half that. The requisite cocktail list, which features drinks inspired by wine-growing regions, is small but interesting. I’m not sure how Fernet, Hitachino Nest beer, and black peppercorns call up Bordeaux, but together they’re delicious.
That should cover anything you’d want to drink with chef Michael Burkauskas’s modest but wide-ranging menu. For his part, Burkauskas, formerly of the Gibsons Restaurant Group, has inherited Urban Union’s wood-burning oven, and is putting it to work roasting everything from whole sardines to chicken to baguettes to squash.
His menu features things you’ve likely seen dozens and dozens of times at new restaurants over the last few years. There are burgers and flatbreads, charcuterie and cured salmon, kale salad and bone marrow. But for a former corporate-steak-house chef, Burkauskas has a surprisingly subtle and inventive way of bringing these tired cliches to life. He’s curing ribbons of salmon in citrus hops and accenting them with umami-amping cubes of soy gelee that make the fish pop. He tosses Manila clams and chorizo with thin strands of seaweed that bathe in a thick, buttery brew—fun to spool on a fork like pasta once you’ve finish with the mollusks. (There’s seaweed in the Pernod-spiked mussels too.) The intense flavor of whole sardines drizzled with a sharp parsley vinaigrette is reined in by a bed of earthy black French lentils. Slabs of ruby-red tuna are crusted with coriander before searing and are plated around a chickpea-studded bouillabaisse vinaigrette that makes the fish seem like it swam from Morocco. These dishes are all so winning I’d like to see what would happen if Burkauskas devoted himself entirely to seafood.
But his skills are broader than that. Some very busy brussels sprouts take on wood smoke well and are tossed with roasted squash, pepitas, dried cherries, bacon, and mushrooms. Lamb top round is pounded, breaded, and panfried Milanese-style and mounted with a bracing salad of watermelon, radishes, fennel, and arugula.
It seems about the only time any dish whiffs is when it’s something unusual. A delicate piece of seared foie gras is overwhelmed by a potato-dominant duck hash and its accompanying hollandaise-smothered poached egg. Meanwhile seasonally changing flatbread (please, it’s pizza) can’t support the otherwise tasty surfeit of toppings: confit chorizo, truffled cheese sauce, arugula, eggs, shaved butternut squash, and hen of the woods mushrooms.
There’s a lot less variety among desserts than there is among the dozen dessert wines; the options are limited to buttermilk beignets, fruit cobbler, and a dense, moist olive oil cake with wine-poached grapes.
Bascule is a bit awkwardly laid out, with tables lined up along the wall across from the open kitchen and a small, remote back dining room. But Prah and Harney have done a lot to turn it into an unpretentious environment—spinning Simple Minds, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and Billy Joel on vinyl behind the bar—ideal for digging into that wine list. Shut the basement door and I’ll be back.
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Bascule serves Hitachino Nest beer.