Mike Farwell and Claud Beltran have been itching to create a wine bar -- their way -- for years. Now, with Noir in Pasadena, the wine buff and the chef, respectively, finally have their chance. Instead of working for other people, the two have gotten together with partner Alex Gallegos and opened this vibrant wine bar on North Mentor Street next door to the Ice House comedy club. It's just as inviting as any wine bar inParis, and with better wines and better food than most.
Wine bars, of course, are popping up all over the place. But while many wine bars hardly qualify as such since the wine list is so basic, clueless, or both, Noir is notable for the extraordinary breadth and depth of wines on offer.
Meanwhile, Beltran, whose last chef gig was at Madeleine's Restaurant on Green Street in Pasadena, is turning out some of the best cooking of his career. It's mostly Mediterranean, with the occasional New Orleans accent. And while the menu is limited -- it's a wine bar, after all, and the cheese and dessert programs both could use some polishing, Noir is a happy addition to the neighborhood.
Depending on whether it's a weeknight or a weekend, the vibe at this cozy storefront is either soothingly quiet or wildly energetic. Two rows of white-swathed tables fill the small space with room enough for a four-seater bar at the end. A series of posters from the famed Willi's Wine Bar in Paris gives some color to the deep chocolate walls. Dark bentwood chairs complete the classic wine-bar look. What you can't see when you walk in is a side patio trimmed in ornate black ironwork and a spacious back garden. Combined, they more than double the seating.
On a first or even a 10th visit, you'll want to spend some time with the wine list, keeping in mind that more than 50 wines are poured by the glass. The full list is updated frequently: Sometimes you'll get one so hot off the presses the ink is practically wet.
At last count, the list encompassed more than 600 labels. The choices are what matter, though. And these range far and wide -- and very deep, especially in the Burgundy and Cabernet sections. Farwell is larding the list with bottles from his own cellar and those of friends.
Everybody, no matter how arcane their expertise or enthusiasms, can find something fascinating to drink. And if poring over the 14-page list (there's also a reserve list) is too much to handle, too many choices to negotiate, well, there's Farwell himself, ever-ready to pop out some bottle he hasn't had a chance to put on the list yet -- if he's not sitting at the bar enjoying a glass of something himself.
Prices are very good too, often closer to retail than to typical restaurant prices. But of course, real wine geeks are going to have to bring in their special bottles. As an über wine geek himself, Farwell must know the impulse well and so he's instituted a corkage policy that allows for one free corkage for each bottle purchased.
Compared with the wine list, the menu looks positively puny. It is a wine bar after all, and the dishes are designed to show off the wines without overwhelming or competing with them. I've always enjoyed Beltran's cooking, whether it was at his own place (long gone) or someone else's. But I suspect his food at Noir is closer to what he himself enjoys eating. Much of it is gutsy and direct. And right now, too, he's indulging a fascination with New Orleans.
I love coming in for a bowl of sausage and chicken gumbo, with its deep, funky flavor and a slow burn of heat. Shrimp remoulade is delicious too, served four fat shrimp to an order, like finger food. Maybe a delicate older Burgundy is not advised, but there are certainly plenty of wines that can stand up to the spice, like Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape or a Dutton "Goldfield" Zinfandel.
Barbera and Beaujolais work well with a charcuterie platter. At Noir, it's an easygoing way to eat with a few friends -- a little salami, a little coppa or prosciutto, a glass of Barbera or Tempranillo, before moving on to a serious bottle of wine.
Salads each get a distinctive dressing. Burrata crowned with thinly sliced Bosc pears comes drizzled with a subtle walnut vinaigrette, while frisée and shaved Persian cucumbers are tossed in a blue cheese vinaigrette.
Golf ball-sized crab fritters to dip in either a black pepper aioli or a Carolina mustard sauce are terrific with an Albariño or Rhone white. There are two fish dishes on the menu: blue-nose sea bass with braised sunchokes in a smear of red wine sauce, and black cod with cheese-laced grits and sugar snap peas.
Meats aren't just the same-old, same-old. Even chicken is interesting, roasted and stuffed with a combination of cotija cheese and shiitake mushrooms and served in a lightly smoked tomato sauce. The Farwell burger is embellished with remoulade and pecorino sardo. The chef makes a mean wild boar chile verde too, very loose and fresh, and studded with roasted chayote chunks. Keep an eye out for specials, such as a recent smoked pork tenderloin and a terrific venison chop.
The cheese boards could be less generic, though I do appreciate that the cheeses aren't served too cold. And the desserts, including an oddball version of bananas foster with banana fritters and ice cream, seem almost an afterthought. However, you can certainly order a glass of vintage Port or a Madeira in compensation.
This is a small-plates concept that works. And with tabletop real estate limited, the best strategy is to order your food in flights, just as you would wines.
Farwell, in fact, is crazy about wine flights. You may be too, if that's how you like to drink. I don't so much. I'd rather enjoy a single bottle over the course of an evening, giving the wine time to change and develop in the glass, surprise and delight. A reminder that wine is a living thing.
But if you love to taste and compare, evaluate and note, discuss and debate, Noir's wine flights cover the basics. A trio of Syrahs from California, Australia and France or three Valpolicellas from the Veneto, perhaps? Another option is to construct your own flight from the more than 50 wines by the glass on offer, from a simple glass of Lake County Sauvignon or Italian Pinot Grigio to a Kosta Brown Pinot Noir that goes for $27 a glass.
In fact, Noir makes it easy to custom-tailor your meal to suit your appetite or pace, or, especially the wines. At this bar, the wines drive everything, and Beltran is one of the few chefs who seems to actually consider how his dishes will go with them. Every menu item has a wine suggestion listed. And it's a thoughtful one, making Noir a sort of wine-geek heaven.