Finally, a Guide to the Wine Guide

Lisa Nakamura makes a poetic science out of wine pairings at Bin Vivant.

There is an enormous amount of data to absorb on your first visit to Bin Vivant, the four-month-old wine bar/restaurant at Kirkland's Woodmark Hotel. That's nothing new. Most restaurants that can afford a full-time sommelier prove it by handing you something that looks like your high-school yearbook, only you can't pronounce any of your classmates' names and have the sneaking suspicion you've never met any of them.I've long been convinced restaurants would sell even more wine if they hired sommeliers with library-science degrees to organize their cellar lists into helpful guides. And Bin Vivant has such a system! It just takes a half-hour to figure it out.Start with the menu, a single column of small plates and entrées, each item followed by one of eight descriptive phrases, such as "Drop Red Gorgeous," "Bright Lights," or "Smoke and Spice." Across the fold, each of those phrases is followed by a list of three wines, and each wine comes with two numbers. Distracted by the desire to gawk at the moneyed drinkers around you, some of whom are actually well dressed, it may take a few minutes to dawn on you that you are supposed to pair the menu item to a wine category, then pick one of the three glasses. It's a useful system for people who don't know that a Pomerol is a "Formidable Red" that would go well with a steak.Once you've started mulling over which of the "Not Quite Sweet" wines to order with your scallops (a German riesling, an Alsatian pinot gris, or a Clos de Breuil), the waitress will swoop in, highlighted hair set to glimmer, and deliver a two-minute orientation confirming that you're doing everything right. Those two numbers next to the wines? They refer to the price of 3- and 6-ounce pours, she adds, and there's even a 1-ounce pour available if you just want a single slurp. (The 3-ounce glasses range in price from $4 to $14; larger glasses average $13 but can sell for much higher.)That's relatively straightforward, you think, wondering why more restaurants don't do the same. Then your server mentions that Bin Vivant sommelier Dawn Smith, a Canlis veteran, has put together a list totaling 80 wines by the glass, and you remember there's a 3-pound tome on the table you haven't touched.Considering the rapidity with which wines go bad, 80 wines by the glass is a ridiculous number—unless you invest in some serious technology. And behind Bin Vivant's bar, rows of bottles are displayed in a computerized wine-dispensing system called the Enomatic. The exorbitantly priced machine can pour out precise amounts and preserve the remaining contents of the bottle. The only thing that suffers is the drama of service: As the restaurant fills up, the bartender becomes a button pusher, picking up printouts, sticking glasses under spouts, removing empties, and feeding tubes from the machine into freshly uncorked wines.You'll find all 80 Enomatically dispensed glasses, along with the full library of wines offered by the bottle, in the Trapper-Keeper version of the wine list, all of them divided into the same categories as the menu.Each time I ate at Bin Vivant it took me a while to cross-reference and compare lists; I sent the waiter away five or six times before I was ready to order. But the effort paid off in solid, interesting wine pairings. A Châteauneuf du Pape (under the category "Earthy Goodness") echoed the pitch and spice of the Moroccan lamb sausage, which came with mini-pitas and ramekins of cucumber-flecked yogurt and spiced tomatoes for us to construct doll-like pita pockets with. The Clos du Breuil ("Not Quite Sweet"), a Loire chenin blanc, captured both the zing of the dressing on my Bibb lettuce salad as well as the anise tones of the tarragon leaves scattered atop.At Bin Vivant, chef Lisa Nakamura has scaled back the cultural careening and overly intricate food that put me off her previous venture, the now-closed Qube in Belltown, and has settled on a more comfortable bistro style.But she hasn't lost her taste for the finer things—which is why small plates average $14 and large plates $28. She sautés juicy sea scallops in pork fat, then serves them with chunks of roasted carrot and carrot juice emulsified with butter (I ate that one with a minerally-sweet German riesling). The bacon-fat trick worked a similar magic on roasted cauliflower, which accompanied duck confit, the skin crackly and the meat long-cooked, its richness cut by the jangly sweetness of parsnips (it all paired beautifully with a meaty Burgundy). And the "Cinderella Story" venison—so pink, so tender—which came with dried cherries and nubbly spaetzle (egg noodles) golden with pumpkin puree and fall spices, fit both the Châteauneuf du Pape and the blue-black Cuillin Hills "Dungeon" syrah our waitress suggested.As at Qube, however, I encountered some freshness problems: When a bowl of mussels steamed with shallots and chablis arrived promptly after we ordered them, the bivalves were cold and tough, as if the order had been made for someone else by mistake and then passed off to us. I had to send the mussels back, and the replacements were fine but too rushed to be properly seasoned. And a trio of sliders were filled with beef brisket saturated with a complex, almost chocolaty barbecue sauce, but the cooks couldn't toast away the staleness of unpleasantly hard buns. These are errors that shouldn't be happening at this price point.Nakamura's menu frequently references wine—a braising sauce here, a poaching liquid there—without being gimmicky; and in fact the best end to a meal is to continue the pairings by ordering one of the cheese plates, each selection tailored to your choice of red, white, or dessert wine. The tasteful oenophilia applies to the decor: The ceiling is covered in a wooden grid that could serve as a bottle rack if upended, as well as in barrel-shaped arches; the tables and napkins are the color of an aged Bordeaux; and several of the walls double as dramatically lit wine cases, the bottles inside as much design motif as stock. The waiters' uniforms match the trim, brown for brown. There's a glassed-in private room at the back that can be hidden from the main dining room by curtains, should Microsoft's executive team decide to pop in for a magnum of Betz cabernet.Given the choice of dining at a table or the bar, I'd opt for a more comfortable table. However, the night Weekly drinks columnist Maggie Dutton and I couldn't score a proper seat, we had a chance to solicit even more precise food-pairing advice from the bartender. After our first course, he passed our wine lists on to others. So we asked his recommendation for the lamb on its way."I think Châteauneuf du Pape would be great, because it has both grenache and syrah in it," he answered. "Or a Washington syrah."Maggie countered by asking for something lighter and spicier; the bartender looked vaguely over the bottles in the Enomatic and repeated his first recommendations. After a polite standoff that lasted a couple of minutes, finally she gave in. Of course the French wine he picked out turned out to be a great choice. But when I signed the check, I realized why both pros were digging in their heels: The wine cost $9 per 3-ounce pour. And that was the cheap one. The marvelous Burgundy he recommended for my duck? $14. "He's very good at upselling," Maggie murmured, not unimpressed. I said a little thanks to Bacchus for my expense account, and resolved the next time I came to Bin Vivant to stick with the system.Price Check

 Bibb lettuce salad $9

 Scallops $19

 Lamb sausage $14

 Duck confit $28

 Venison $32

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow